A Long Road Home From Dunkirk

This is the tale, taken from my new book ‘Just A Forgotten Hero’, of William MacFarlane and James (Jimmie) Goldie. A remarkable pair of pals who arrived back from France two years after the Dunkirk evacuation.

British troops line up on the beach at Dunkirk to await evacuation. Copyright: © IWM NYP 68075

These two were privates from the 7th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders which was part of the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division in June 1940 attached to the French forces defending the Maginot Line. While the rest of the British Expeditionary Force was retreating to Dunkirk the 51st division was held back to defend a line along the river Somme, still attached to the French 10th Army. Their task was to deter and delay any attack on Paris. The Germans turned their attention to the south once the last of the allied forces had been evacuated from Dunkirk.

On the 5th of June they attacked the 51st Division which had to defend a very long line. They suffered heavy losses, especially the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, where the main weight of the German attack fell. On the 6th of June the Germans overran Abbeville and Jimmie and William were among those captured there. What remained of the 154th Brigade was forced to retire to the west. The 152nd and 153rd Brigades, along with the French 9th Corps were also retreating towards Le Havre but were cut off by the German advance. They ended up trapped in Saint-Valery-en-Caux. Evacuation from there was not possible and on the 12th June more than 10,000 men were taken prisoner.

Goldie and McFarlane were both held in Stalag IX-C near Bad Sulza and by September 1941 they were in the outlying camp outside Unterbreizbach and forced to work in the nearby Salt Mines. On the night of the 20/21st March 1942 they made a bold and well planned escape from their prison. They had amassed a quantity of chocolate, biscuits, tinned sardines plus soap, a large quantity of tea, and some cigarettes both for their own use and for bribes or for bartering. They had made rucksacks from salvaged sacking which carried their supplies, but also covered the large ‘KG’ (Kriegsgefangener translates as Prisoner of War) stencilled on the back of their blue prison overalls. They wore these blue work overalls over their battledress. William had made a crowbar in the workshop where he was labouring and forced the lock from a small gate in the compound perimeter. This gate was only used by the women who worked in the kitchen when they left at around 21:00 when two guards entered the compound and unlocked the gate to let the cooks leave. The sentries stayed inside to feed the prisoners returning from the second shift at 22:45 and they then usually left by the main gate. One of the guards should have remained at the gate but almost always went into the warm dining room. By leaving after 22:45 on that Saturday night they should have almost two full days before the absence was noticed, even the forced labourers got the Sunday off!

It took them a full six days to reach the railway goods depot at Gerstungen. By only walking at night, skirting round even small villages and taking a circuitous route they managed to avoid detection. They hid in a rail wagon full of salt which was going to Belgium. Here again their attention to detail served them well. The doors were secured by a thick wire through the hasp which had a soldered seal. They broke the seal and unfastened the wire to get into the wagon. They then opened a large vent, got out of the wagon and replaced the wire, although they could not fix the seal it would have needed close inspection to discover their activities. They then climbed back into the wagon through the open vent.

Although their journey by rail was relatively safe, it was by no means First Class travel. The train would only move for a few hours before being taken off the main line to be left standing for hours at a time, usually in a busy railway siding. The trip to Belgium took a full eight days rather than the two that they had anticipated. Not being able to leave their safe hiding place they soon began to suffer very badly from thirst, to the extent that they could no longer eat the food that they still had.

The train arrived in Hasselt on the 3rd of April and in the early hours of the following morning they finally left their wagon. Walking round the outside of the city they found a small stream and made tea, washed and shaved. They also cleaned their boots. More attention to detail, and again this paid off. They were obliged to walk by day for the next two days as they could find no suitable cover in which to hide. But due to their tidy appearance they managed to continue their journey unhindered. Two days later they arrived in Kessel-Lo. There they asked for water at a house and were sheltered for the night.

Early next morning they were taken by bicycle to Louvain where they were placed in the care of ‘a Belgian Patriotic Organisation’ probably the Witte Brigade of the Belgian Resistance. They were sheltered by Désiré Castermans. After a few weeks they were passed on to the Comète Line when Vincent Brouckmans took them to Thérèse Grandjean in Liège. On the 15th of April they were taken to the home of Arthur De Groeve who sheltered them until the 16th of May when he passed them on to Pierre Depreter. Some time later Andrée Dumont (Nadine) accompanied them to the home of René Coache, and on the 27th of June they were moved once more to Léon Violette’s house in Vincennes where they met up with our William Richard Griffiths and Reginald Collins.

In evening of the 30th of July the pair were split up, Jimmie Goldie stayed on with the Coaches and William MacFarlane was taken by train to Saint-Jean-de-Luz. The Comète Line guides were Dédée De Jongh and Elvire Morelle the other three evaders were William Joseph Norfolk, Peter Wright and Joseph Thomas Pack. Norfolk was an Air Gunner who baled out of a Halifax of 76 Squadron when it was shot down near Grez-Doiceau in the early hours of the morning on the 2nd of June. Wright was the 2nd Pilot of the same Halifax; they were not to meet again for several weeks. Pack from 35 Squadron was the pilot of another Halifax which was shot down just after midnight on 9th of June near Molenbeersel.

As usual at Bayonne they were joined by Elvire Degreef and her daughter Janine. There were no incidents and guided by Dédée and Florentino the party crossed into Spain on the 1st of August, and MacFarlane finally arrived in Gourock on the 26th.

Jimmie Goldie followed after his pal on August the 15th. He met Geoffrey Silva, Arther James Whicher and John Angus McLean at the station in Paris. Silva, an Australian from New South Wales, was the Pilot of a Whitley bomber from No. 24 OTU that was shot down over Ransart, near Charleroi on the 1st of August 1942. Whitcher was the Wireless Operator on the same aircraft and was wounded in the leg as a result of the incident. The pair stayed together throughout their little adventure. McLean, a Canadian from Prince Edward Island, was the Pilot of a Halifax bomber of 405 Squadron which was brought down when on a mission to bomb the Krupps works in Essen on the night of 8/9th of June. The aircraft was hit by flak over the target and badly damaged. Struggling to get home they were intercepted by two Bf110 night fighters and crashed near Bruchem in the Netherlands. They did manage to shoot down one of the attacking German planes. The rest of the crew were taken prisoner within a few hours.

The party was accompanied to Saint-Jean-de-Luz by Jean Frédéric Wittek and guided by Andrée De Jongh and Flonentino. The rest of the border crossing was much the same as MacFarlane’s which is recounted above; but due to his wounded leg Whitcher struggled with the rough terrain over the Pyrenees. For much of the journey he was carried on Goldie’s shoulders with McLean assisting the pair. This party arrived in Gourock on the 9th of September. As a result of their determination and resolve both Goldie and MacFarlane were awarded the Distinguished Service Order.


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