1700km through France

 
The detailed diary of the heroics of a Seaforth Highlander who escaped through France following capture at St Valery is serving as inspiration for Giles Nevill - his great-nephew - as he honours the event 80 years on, and supports VWD once again with an epic challenge of cycling the route his Great Uncle took - all 1700Km.

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RONNIE MACKINTOSH-WALKER was born on the 9th April 1898.  He joined his Regiment, The Seaforth Highlanders, at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, aged 18.  By the age of 19, he had been awarded three Military Crosses for exceptional courage and bravery in the face of the enemy – a truly extraordinary and unique achievement. (A Military Cross is one medal down from a Victoria Cross for bravery).
 
He survived WWI.  At the start of WWII, he was captured at St Valery along with the whole of the Highland Division shortly after the evacuation from Dunkirk in June 1940.  However, as they were being marched across northern France to the German POW camps, Uncle Ron escaped near Lille and then cycled the whole way down France to Marseilles before crossing over the Pyrenees into Spain and returning home to Britain and Scotland via Portugal. 
 
In 1944, as a Brigadier, he commanded 227 Highland Brigade on the breakout from the Normandy beaches shortly after D Day.  In some of the fiercest fighting to capture the high ground at Côte 112, he was killed on the 16th July 1944, aged 46, at Baron-sur-Odon; one of the most senior officers to be killed in action in WWII. 
 
He was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Service Order, DSO, for exceptional leadership. 
He is buried in the CWGC at Hottot-Les-Bagues in Normandy.  RIP.

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I started training in January and despite the restrictions of Covid19, I have been able to continue this uninterrupted by 'stretching the lockdown rules a little' - here in France, we were allowed to complete necessary journeys including food shopping, so armed with the necessary attestation form and ID, I completed the all important bread-run each day - a french baguette only lasts a day! Although the boulangerie is just 8 miles away, I stretched this to 40 - 50 miles each day by cycling around the back roads and hills where there was hardly any traffic and always maintaining the necessary social distancing. Indeed I probably passed more tractors than cars and the gendarmerie never stopped me although I passed them a number of times.  Having said that, I am fortunate to live in a very low risk area with just 15 cases recorded in the Ariege and just one death of a 90 year old.
 
In total, so far, I have completed a distance of 3800 miles and climbed 205,000 feet in training - that is the equivalent of cycling from Lands End to John O'Groats 4.33 times and climbing from Evertest Base Camp to the summit of Everest 18 times.
 
I am ready to start the challenge now and I am delighted to say that as a result of further Covid19 lockdown measures being lifted in France, I will now start this on the 13th June 2020.  I will be doing this unaccompanied and unsupported. The aim is to complete approx 80 miles a day over two weeks and will include a detour to visit St Valery (where Uncle Ron was captured), Baron-sur-Odon (where he was killed), Hottot-Les-Bagues (where is buried) and also Arromanches where my Grandfather, Major General Nevill came ashore on D Day before capturing the four huge German gun emplacements at Longues sur Mer whilst commanding the 2nd Devonshire Regiment, for which he was also awarded a DSO.

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Please click on the following link to donate :-  Thank You


As Giles undertakes this epic challenge of following the route of his Great Uncle, he is releasing excepts from the journal written at the time of escape. Below are those excerpts:

First Extract from Uncle Ron's Diary

21st June 1940


Left Bethane for Lille. Thomas (Rennie – Black Watch) and I decided to go at first opportunity

About 10am, fell out at ideal spot, bank with wood on top. Went up bank unnoticed to far side of wood. Chose hiding place except when someone unknown looked in at us from 10m range spent uneventful day. About 10pm decided to start on our travels. Went back to road and found man rather tight who went to get us some food.

Returned with bread and wine and hunchback wife who was terrified. Shooed them off and started. We had no map and no moon but general idea of direction i.e. west. Met La Brassee canal and kept it on our right. Bridge blown up. Walked some way along railway line. Eventually got to Venuelles about 3am and decided to stay the rest of the night and following day in some bushes. Both pretty tired.

22nd June 1940

Woke to find we had chosen popular village resort and had many visitors. 1st Italian brought by his son. He returned at intervals during the day with food and drink. Two young fellows arrived later and brought us a tremendous supper. All very kind. Italian came back about 9pm with Englishman and two sets of civilian clothes for which we gave Frs 200. Englishman said between Boulogne and Calais was useless and so we decided on Le Treport. Thomas said Spain, but I couldn’t bear the thought of it. Set off with civilian clothes in a bundle but having put the shirts on, dumped the rest in a field.

Walked for about 5 hours. Trying to get through the running area which we considered unsafe. Eventually did so and fetched up in a very dark wood west of Barlin.

23rd June 1940

Except for mosquitos slept well, on awakening both went to different sides of the wood to connect with people and try and get food. Very unsuccessful. Farmers wife brought us bread and eggs, and old refugee man with son and daughter visited us at intervals during the day. Two other men also appeared and said they’d bring an Englishman at 8pm. Did so and produced Nordic, a Scotsman. He strongly advised civilian dress and said he’d try and get us bikes and would return 8am next day. Horrible night, poured with rain, saved by Thomas’s 2 waterproof sheets.

Second Extract from Uncle Ron's Diary

24th June 1940


Wordie and pals appeared at 8am with no bikes but two blue suits and shirts. Both a bit on the small side. Thomas had a pair of evening trousers turned up at the end. Both had berets. Gave chaps Frs 200 and our uniform to bury and left my cigarette case and tobacco pouch with Wordie until after the war.

They were all a bit jittery and the Gestapo had appeared in Barlin at 6.30 that morning. Set off as civilians, tried not to walk in step. Next village to Barlin saw Bosche ahead of us, apparently searching houses. Retraced our steps for 200m and turned left into a field and found a brook which we had to take off our boots and socks and wade. My left foot very sore from nails running into it. Walked till about 8pm and greatly daring had meal in Estaminet at Averders. Asked if we could sleep in a barn and a farmer’s son, who was having coffee, took us to his father’s farm. Pa and Ma charming, gave us milk and we bedded down in loft with sacks and a tarpaulin.

25th June 1940

After breakfast of milk and eggs walked on. Had lunch in an Estaminet and were advised to make for Bune-Au-Bois. Walked through village with Huns billeted in it.

Arrived Bune-Au-Bois about 8pm and found 2 Cameron Jocks in uniform getting food. Two more in the wood. Gave them some money. Estaminets said they had no food. Outlook a bit black. Asked at a brick house and sent next door, where farmer and wife most kind. Lady from brick house brought in strawberries and we had a good supper and then to bed, what a joy even though I didn’t get much of it, as Thomas either lies on his back with his elbows out or on his side like a question mark.

26th June 1940

After breakfast called an Englishman who looked after war graves, but windy of Bosche. Gave us some chocolate and took us out of the back door. Very hot day. Stayed the night at big farm at Maison Roland. Family of Abbeville refugees staying there. They told us not to go for Abbeville as it was full of Bosche. Their house was blown up. In fact, all the houses in the centre of the town were in ruins. Slept in barn. All the girls of the village came to have a look at us before supper.

Footnote - James Wordie gave an interview to The Scotsman newspaper in April 1945 in which he recounted how he had helped Uncle Ron. What, however he failed to mention in this account was that he charged Uncle Ron 100fr for his ill-fitting suit and beret (which is still in the possession of the Mackintosh-Walker family). Forever the Scotsman ! Wordie was subsequently arrested by the Germans for helping other officers to escape and spent much of the war in a German prison camp only being repatriated back to Britain in September 1944.

Third Extract from Uncle Ron's Diary

27th June 1940


Started off and crossed Somme at Port Reny. Bridges blown but were repaired with wood. No sentries. Houses a good deal knocked about. Lot of refugees returning. Found more or less deserted village but managed to buy 12 eggs and some bread. Stayed night in evacuated house. Boiled eggs for supper. Didn’t know how long to boil them for, tried 3½ minutes and found it about right. Thomas ate a lot of red currants. Shared a bed with 2 rather worse for wear blankets on top of us. Had a good wash in hot water for the first time.

28th June 1940

For the third day running the sun was in the wrong place in the heavens and we set off in the wrong direction. Walked a long a railway line until we saw a Bosche sentry on it, so we cut away left handed over the fields. About 8pm arrived at Tully and had supper with a wheelright on outskirts of the village. He gave us the name of a man at Ault who lived by the gasworks and had been a smuggler between France and Belgium before the war. He said if anyone could get us a boat he could. Looked very promising. Walked on to Marcel where we slept in the barn of an evacuated farm.

29th June 1940

Asked for milk at a farm near Ault and the lady gave us some, but was obviously frightened of Germans. We saw several German cyclist patrols on the roads. Went and lay up in a wood 2km from Ault until 2pm. Saw lots of Huns on the beach. Decided to go and interview the smuggler. Persuaded Thomas, much against his will not to come in Ault, one being less conspicuous than two and walked into Ault. Luckily the gasworks were on our side of town and I had no difficulty in finding the smuggler. He said it was hopeless, there wasn’t a boat on the coast as they had all been sunk by German M.G.s. Said the four big houses on the beach were full of Germans (reported this to the RAF when I got home). Went back very dejectedly to Thomas and passed by 2 Hun cyclists en route who took no notice of me. Decided to try St Malo and Channel Islands, failing that Spain.

Found a nice farm where we were about to spend the night when the Mayor who had seen us going through the village and two of the village elders turned up.

They said that a Cengalese had killed a Bosche that afternoon in the village 1 km away and that the Bosche were starting to search for him and that we ought to move on. This we did, and walked 8km to Burgny where the Mayor gave me an old pair of French army boots and sent the policeman with us to show us an evacuated farm where we could spend the night.

Footnote - love the comment about how long to boil an egg; there speaks someone aged 42 who has lived in the Officers' Mess all his life! Also that he should blame the 'sun for being in the wrong place in the heavens' as an excuse for being 'geographically disorientated'!

Fourth Extract from Uncle Ron's Diary

30th June 1940


Crossed the canal at Gemache, no sentries and not many Huns about, though a troop of cavalry moved out as we were going in. Uninteresting day spent night at Avesmes-Au-Val at a fram where we had our first couverture which kept us lovely and warm. Had lunch at Estaminet of some bread, butter and 6 of 12 eggs we had bought. Just as we finished the Bosche car drew up outside and a Bosche came in. We left so hurriedly we forgot the 6 eggs over and had to go back to get them.

1st July 1940

Another uninteresting day. My French boots were rather uncomfortable and it was very hot. Found nice looking farm for the night. The lady from the farm was very good looking. Small son called Charles, who followed us into our barn when we went to bed and had to be rescued by Mamma. French children seem to stay up very late.

2nd July 1940

Did 30 odd km and arrived at Epinay, 7 km north of the Seine. Very nice youngish couple at the farm where we spent the night with 4 topping little boys. We’d been able to buy some chocolate for 1st time that day, so were popular with the boys.

3rd July 1940

Arrived at La Traite and found ferry the other side. No sign of Bosche. Ferry came back and we had to wait an anxious hour before put off again. Nice looking pub the other side, where we thought we might have lunch and on asking boatman found it was full of Bosche. About 10m from landing stage, to our horror, saw bosche soldier sitting on chair on landing stage, reading a book. Too late to go back so we landed and walked left. Bosche went on reading. Got lost in a wood, but eventually struck main road.

Given lift by 2 Frenchmen in a car, who knew what and who we were. Gave us very useful Michelin map and advised going left of big town in front, they also told us that the Bosche had taken the Channel Islands.

About 8pm came to village which looked alright, but found it occupied by Huns. Retired out of it and circled right till found farm who gave us supper and bedded down in barn. Hun officer had been there 5 minutes before we arrived and his eggshells were still on the table.

Footnote - a couple of days ago, I received a message from some troll on social media complaining about my interview with Emma Barnett on 5Live last Thursday and referring to 'The Jocks' (the name given to Scottish soldiers and a badge which they wear with pride) - said I was bigoted and had a nerve asking people to donate to my "poxy charity bike ride". It occurred to me reading this extract that it was a good job he hasn't seen Uncle Ron's diary as his references to the bosche and huns might be too much for him to cope with !!

Fifth Extract from Uncle Ron's Diary

4th July 1940


Made a poor start as we had to cross big steam and found Huns on the bridge. Went west along stream. Thomas very interested in fish. Found wooden bridge and crossed to nice old village. VG lunch, jelly, fresh bread and butter.

Walked on to St Georges. Decided to have shave in barbers. Thomas done first and I explored. Wandered into bike shop and asked if they had any for sale and to my great surprise they said yes; bought “Maggie” for 450 frs and “Gertie” for 150 frs.. Had tea and set off full of hope, but Maggie broke down outside next village. Hired a small lorry to take us all back to St Georges.

Maggie repaired and we returned to Satherne in lorry. Driver said we could get a room in hotel which we did. Had VG dinner, everyone very friendly, listened to 9 o’clock news in driver’s house. Heard 1st Lord of the Admiralty’s speech saying we had done in the French Navy.

5th July 1940

Started off full of hope on bikes but Gertie went wrong behind about 12.30. Walked 3km and luckily found café and bike shop. Had lunch and Gertie had new wheel and fixed gear, ie no free wheel. Arrived at farm which looked alright for the night, but farmer very sticky. After a certain amount of argument, we bought some milk and were allowed to sleep in the barn.

6th July 1940

Showery day. Got on fairly well till lunch when Gertie went wrong again. Sunday and no shops open. Walked on to St Ouen, and found shop open. Gertie repaired.
Now very late and pouring with rain so we risked a hotel as Georges and Jean Reire, Belgians: no Huns in village.

Footnote - I am interested by the fact that despite escaping from the Germans near Lille, Uncle Ron and Thomas Rennie starting looking for bikes from the time they were with James Wordie in Barlin and yet they walked all the way across to Ault, north of Le Harve and then to the south of the Seine, before buying Maggie and Gertie. It says a lot about their integrity that they didn't 'acquire' two bikes somehow or other during all that time. Instead they walked / hitched some 200 miles in boots which didn't fit - they must have endured appalling blisters as a minimum, but there isn''t a word of complaint in the diary. If I had been in their place, I think I would have acquired bikes somehow, but that probably says more about me! Anyway, getting bikes is a real game changer and despite break downs they make very quick progress south - certainly a lot faster than walking

Sixth Extract from Uncle Ron's Diary

7th July 1940


Another showery day. Biked in fine intervals. Paid farm for bed and met charming farmer from another farm who offered us hospitality. Biked to farm behind his cart. Had marvellous meal and shared a bed in the stable. Very comfortable. During day, biked along main road. Lot of Hun lorries. One screamed at me for being too much in the centre of the road. Hope I meet him after the war. Decided it better to get on quieter road.

8th July 1940

Our big day, as we had to cross Loire. All villages north of river full of Huns. Thought we would cross at Amboise. Had lunch 3 km away in estaminet and just as we’d finished 2 brownshirts walked in and we walked out. Decided Amboise too risky so went 6 km east, but saw no sign of other bridge. Only a boat which looked OK, but on being reconnoitered had a Hun fishing just by it.

Decided to spook at Amboise. Found bridge intact and biked over thinking all was well, when we suddenly came to another bit of the river with broken bridge and 2 boats tied together being used as a ferry. Ferry being used by Huns and civilians.

Sat and watched double trip and Brown shirt our side who appeared to be inspecting people getting in. However as it was neck or nothing we wheeled our bikes down, bought our tickets and went aboard. No one took the slightest notice of us. Disembarked and rode 18 km at full speed to get over the Selle before 8pm. Bridge OK and things looked lovely when, turning a corner just after the bridge, we found a barrier 50m ahead with a sentry on it. A jolly looking young chap, and when they came back they told us that it was the frontier and you had to get a pass to cross.

Went to an estaminet and had a bottle of red wine. Decided to go round.

Biked east along river across two fields and when covered by wood turned south. Maggie punctured front wheel. Came to farm who were prepared to sell us milk but not house us. Very tired and feeling worn out with the strain. Walked 2 km to next village. No sign of accommodation, and Thomas went into an estaminet for food and drink. Very angry so went off by self and connected with schoolmaster and wife. Excellent couple gave us 2 beds, which had housed at various times both French and German soldiers. Gave us supper. Listened to the news and schoolmaster produced wherewithal to mend puncture.

FOOTNOTE - Most of Uncle Ron's diary details the practicalities of their escape - dodging the 'bosche/hun', food, accommodation, a bit about the weather, mechanical issues with bikes etc, and interestingly frequent visits to the barber's for a shave, but there is compratively little about what he is thinking and feeling ..... except when it comes to his relationship with his escape buddy, Thomas Rennie. The first entry suggesing that there might be an issue was on the 25th June (see day 2) - clearly Thomas is not a good bed partner! It could well be that the strain of what they were undertaking as well as a lack of food, sleep and fatigue had the inevitable consequence of creating a certain amount if frisson between them, but as you will read later on, this friction grows and grows as the days go by. From what I understand, Uncle Ron was a very easy-going personality and it would be interesting to know what it was about Thomas Rennie that caused this friction (and perhaps vice versa?) It would also be interesting go know why they chose to escape together, (served together on the staff of the 51st Highlanf Division under General Fortune?), and what their relationship was like afterwards. They both went on to be senior officers and both were killed at the end of WWII. My hence is they tolerated each other professionally afterwards, but not socially.

Seventh Extract from Uncle Ron's Diary

9th July 1940


After breakfast schoolmaster wrote down route to Toulouse. Though we didn’t realise it we were now in unoccupied territory and never saw another Bosche. Made quite good going and got 7 km south of Chateauroux. Asked at farm for milk and bed in granary. Old woman said yes, but a drunken old man turned up, asked us if we were ‘anglais’ and then said we must go, however the old girl said stay. I gave him a cigarette and we had an armistice.

Discovered he was on reserve of Officers and didn’t like the French fleet being sunk.

10th July 1940

Another good run. Spent night at farm. Bit sicky at first but ended up with us having supper with them and discussing the metric system with the old man, 7 km south of Guerville.

11th July 1940

Out best day to date. Got to 50 km north of Tulle. Slept in a barn over some cows. Gertie had a slow puncture all day and eventually went flat the last 2 kms.

12th July 1940

Started before breakfast 8 km nearest village. Had shave in barbers, breakfast and got Gertie mended. Had good lunch in hotel, funeral of sorts outside. Anyway some band played the dead march very badly.

Dined at restaurant 18 km south of Breve. Very good dinner, nice owner who put us in barn across the road where we were joined later by 3 refugees.

FOOTNOTE - from a historical point of view, Uncle Ron mentions in this part of his diary that they are now in unoccupied territory - essentially this meant that he and Thomas Rennie had crossed into Vichy France and for more information on this please click on the following link to Wikipedia about Vichy France

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vichy_France

In essence this represented an agreement between France and Germany that the Germans would not occupy Vichy France, which from a practical point of view meant that Uncle Ron could now move through the newly established State of France with a much reduced threat of capture. This must have represented a huge relief to them, even if they weren't necessarily home and dry.

Since starting this venture, a number of people have asked me about food and accommodation for the escapees. All I know is what I can glean from his diary entries, but the thing that strikes me is how little they appeared to eat - a lot of eggs and milk which isn't much to live off especially when undertaking such a huge physical challenge. Certainly I am eating for at least two people most of the time and I am still hungry with the physical exertion! They seem to eat lunch at estaminets (village restaurants) quite a lot and maybe that was their main meal of the day with whatever they could get from locals for the morning and evening. That however would have had its issues with security and it is interesting how often they had close encounters with Germans in restaurants - who has visions of Allo Allo at this point !!! They must surely have done quite a bit of foraging on the way from the hedgerows and fields - for instance currently the cherry trees are groaning with fruit and the grapes are coming on well although probably a bit tart? Later on their diet improves considerably in line with their finances, more of which later .....

Eighth Extract from Uncle Ron's Diary

13th July 1940


Maggie died with a broken frame on top of hill and so had to walk 8 km downhill. Sickening. Had lunch and small lorry took us and bikes and innumerable other things into Cahors.

Couldn’t get a frame or new bike anywhere and in disgust started off again, when Thomas found a shop on the outskirts with one for sale. Swopped Maggie plus 100frs for George.

Biked on to Caussads where we had our first really good dinner couldn’t find anywhere to sleep and so biked on in the dark and got to a farm where the women gave us permission to sleep in the barn. Both very saddle weary, but in spite of Maggie we’d done over 100km.

14th July 1940

Started before lunch and Gertie again misbehaved. Luckily road flat so towed Thomas into next village. Had shave and breakfast and got Gert repaired. Arrived Toulouse in afternoon.

Found American Consul had gone, no one knew of any British or American residents. Taken round by friendly Belgian looking for American lady who ran refugee home. She was away and Thomas got exhausted so said goodbye and went and had a drink. Tried to get rooms at hotels but failed. Had dinner and eventually went and spent night at refugee place.

Were given six small snacks each. Miserable night. Draught down back of my neck. The police post outside Toulouse stopped a man on a bike 100 yrds in front of us, so we waited for two French girls behind to catch us up and rode on with them.

French police thought that we were courting couples and let us pass without stopping us.

FOOTNOTE - Today's and yesterday's extracts from Uncle Ron's diary relate to the area that I am biking through at present - by anyone's standards (at least mine!) it is pretty challenging stuff and I find it interesting that there is virtually no mention in his diary of the conditions (weather and terrain) through which they biked, even though I appreciate that food and somewhere to stay, and bike repairs would have been their top priority each day. Perhaps the physical requirements of cycling through Central France were of little significance compared with what they had been through before capture and therefore weren't of much consequence to them.

Something else which there have been lots of questions about is - how come Uncle Ron and Thomas Rennie appeared to have so much money? - spent buying clothes from James Wordie; the bikes, Maggie and Gertie, and later George; as well as quite a lot of food in estaminets and off the locals - eggs etc. The answer is - good question ! One wonders if they were required to bring money as part of their deployment kit for whatever requirements - I doubt very much they would have had access to banks, let alone ATMs (!), so I can only assume they deployed to France with that money, or perhaps, more likely, that this money was their wages which were paid in the field through their Regimental paymaster. With not much to spend their wages on whilst at war in France, and in Uncle Ron's case, he never married and didn't have any dependants who required money to be sent home, they may well have built up quite an amount of cash whilst part of the British Expeditionary Force before capture at St Valery. It was lucky (surprising?) that this was not confiscated by the Germans on capture, but then again searching 9000 troops would have been a huge task. Later, they were given / lent money from officialdom to help them on their way .... for later diary entries.

Nineth Extract from Uncle Ron's Diary

15th July 1940


Got up early and sat in park till coiffeur and breakfast place open. Went to Swiss Consul at 9.30am. Very nice but couldn’t help. Advised Marseille and American Consul. Met Miss Halton Fagge who took us to the police to get Sauf Conduct to Marseilles. Police said they couldn’t do it as foreigners weren’t allowed to travel about. Had lunch with her and tried to send off cable, but found it had to be countersigned by the police. She took it back to her hotel.

Left at 3 pm missed tea, our 1st meal missed, and did 60 km, 7kms from Castres, spent night in byre with cows, nice and warm. Farmer roused us very early by cleaning out cowhouse.

16th July 1940

Did our record run to date. Self 130 km, Thomas 160 km. West wind behind us and road mostly slightly downhill. Dined in hotel 30 km from Montpellier. Thomas refused to move after dinner, so I went on to book a room, which I did at a small town 8 km on, got 2 bedded room. Waited on the road for 1 hour for Thomas. Had arranged if we missed each other to meet next morning at the first hotel in Montpellier.

Had coffee in hotel and a French officer came up and said he was town commandant and would like to see my papers. I explained I was a canteen worker and had lost them and was on my way to Marseilles to get new ones from the American Consul General.

I don’t think he believed me but pretended to and shook hands.

17th July 1940

Got up at 6 am and raced onto Montpellier where I arrived at 7.15. Sat at the 1st restaurant on the right, drinking coffee and waiting for Thomas who turned up at 9.10 having spent the night in a field and been bitten by mosquitoes. He didn’t thank I’d start so early and so had lain in his field until 8 am. Had a lovely west wind behind us and good roads. I did 190 km. Had very good supper at hotel which was also French flying officers mess. After supper heard a motor bike arriving behind us and I said to Thomas “we were being chased by Gendarmie”, and then discovered that we were. They stopped us and we told them the same story about being canteen workers. They said we would have to get papers quickly in Marseilles or we would be locked up.

We then shook hands all round and proceeded on our way. Slept in a quarry 20km from Marseilles. Bit cold and hard but not bad.

FOOTNOTE - Three things stand out for me in this selection of diary entries. Firstly that in nearly 20 days on the run, it wasn't until the 15th July that they missed a meal. What constitutes a meal in Uncle Ron's language isn't clear - does for instance a boiled egg and some milk count as a meal; not in my language, it doesn't (!), but certainly in their circumstances it would be better than nothing. Always though, Uncle Ron puts huge emphasis on recording details of their food.

Secondly on the 16th July, he says that they had their best run yet helped by the road being mostly slightly downhill with a tail wind. Coming from Castres, what he fails to mention is that before that long downhill stretch they have the biggest - longest and highest -climb of the whole escape journey - nearly 5000 ft of climbing in 24 miles rising to an altitude of 3000 ft. On their bikes, this is quite some obstacle to cross and yet, it doesn't get a mention in the diary. Uncle seems to be pretty much immune to physical pressure.

Thirdly, and perhaps most interestingly, Uncle Ron and Thomas are hardly cycling together any more - whether this is because relations have deteriorated to virtual non speaking terms or because one is simply much better at cycling is not clear - I suspect the former.

Tenth Extract from Uncle Ron's Diary

18th July 1940


Had a shave and breakfast on the outskirts of Marseilles and were then stopped by the police cordon. The old, old story came out again and we were allowed to proceed. Cobbles awful, we got tenderer and tenderer. Left George and Gertie in the Splendid garage and bought shirts, ties, socks and trousers. Went and had baths, what a relief, our first for about 6 weeks and donned our new raiment. Went to American Council and were sent on to British Consulate who were working unofficially.

Met Consul General Dolds and Vice Consul Deen. Both charming. They made out our identity cards and passports and gave us £5 each. Took papers to American Consulate for signatures and wrote a note to Consul General asking if he would see us, which he did. Most charming man, very interested in our story and said he would lend us money.

Took room, 2 beds, in Gambelta hotel and had slap up dinner in Cintra restaurant.

19th July 1940

Got our cash from John P Hurley, Frs 10,000. He refused to take even an IOU, but gave us the address of a bank in London to pay it into. Went to Cooks and paid Frs 1000 each for reserving passage on boat from Lisbon as we couldn’t get our Portuguese visas without this, and changed Frs 5,000 in £5 notes.

Had snails for dinner, rather good.

20th July 1940

Spent all morning getting Portuguese visa and met Miss Gold, very nice American girl. Gave her lunch and dinner. Being Saturday afternoon, we couldn’t get our Spanish visas so Thomas went to sleep on his bed and I had another bath and read a Penguin in the park.

21st July 1940

Met Miss G for lunch, she produced a most interesting Russian journalist, who couldn’t get out of France as he’d written articles against Germany, Spain and Italy. We all went out by tram to the sea, slept on the beach, had tea and dined together. Sea water looked very dirty. Thomas ate an octopus for dinner which he pretended to like, but confessed later that he didn’t.

FOOTNOTE - Uncle Ron and Thomas Rennie have now arrived in Marseilles. With Toulouse being the nearest large town to where I live an hour away, it occurred to me from a personal experience point of view, that it must have been hard for them thinking that they could get the necessary safe passage papers from the British Consulate in Toulouse only to discover that it was closed and that they would have to travel a further 250 miles to Marseilles - tomorrow it might be quite psychologically tough for me to get to Toulouse, a town I know well and then have to turn left and head off towards Castres and beyond. (even if at the end if tomorrow I am having a days rest at home before setting off for Marseilles on Saturday morning)

However, in retrospect, I suspect that they dodged a bullet so to speak, by doing this and almost certainly had a more enjoyable final phase to their escape. I suspect if they had stayed in Toulouse, they would have ended up going to a place called St Girons directly south of Toulouse in the foothills of the Pyrenees and crossing over the mountains via the Chemin de Liberty (Freedom Trail). While I have no doubt that Uncle Ron would have completed this without too much trouble,, it is nonetheless a very challenging five day hike. A good read on this subject is Edward Stourton's - A Cruel Crossing. As it is, the tone of Uncle Ron's diary starts to change somewhat, not least because they now have 10,000 FF in their back pockets !

I have tried to do as much research on-line as possible with Uncle Ron's diary particularly relating to the places and people mentioned throughout. By far the best find however related to Consule General John P Hurley. As you will see from his diary, Uncle Ron visited the American Consulate on the 18th and 19th July 1940 where Consulate General John P Hurley was especially kind and generous to him. I have ‘googled’ Consulate General Hurley and was fascinated to find the following article about John P Hurleys career :-

file:///C:/Users/User/Google%20Drive/Giles/John-Patrick-Hurley%20-%20US%20Consulate%20Marseilles%20for%20Uncle%20Ron.pdf

At the end of this document, there is a paragraph in which my Great Uncle is mentioned – it turns out that, as a mark of thanks, he presented John P Hurley and the US Consulate in Marseilles with a solid silver statue of a Highlander which the curator, Mr T J Holland knew nothing about except that it was known to them as Oor John Highlandman and that he took pride of place on the head table for the Burns Supper each year. Otherwise he is housed in a display cabinet. I was pleased to inform that in fact this statue is called Humberstone Mackenzie - the original 'Humberstone' as he is affectionately known is almost 2 ft tall on its plinth and was always on the Officers' Mess dining room table for all meals - all of us who served in the regiment know him and this statue very well. He was Lieutenant-General Francis Humberston Mackenzie, 1st Baron Seaforth, a British politician, soldier, and botanist. He was Chief of the Highland Clan Mackenzie, and raised the 78th Regiment of Foot (who later joined forces with the 72nd Regiment of Foot to form the Seaforth Highlanders, Uncle Ron's Regiment) so rather more significant than Oor John!. This statue is solid silver and is the statue that we used to give our brother officers and their wives on the occasion of their marriage. It is now held at Bacon House in Washington DC, part of DACOR – I attach a photo of the statue which was sent to me by the curator, Mr TJ Holland. I hope to visit Washington one day and maybe get myself invited to their Burns Supper ! Certainly a significant discovery, a very generous present, and it would be interesting to know how this was arranged and how it was delivered to John P Hurley. Having given away the statue he would have received on getting married perhaps explains why he never did get married despite getting engaged three times!!

Incidentally Hotel Gambetta was closed last time I checked, but it would be fun to stay there on my arrival in Marseilles, and if I have got the right Cintra restaurant, it was apparently burnt to the ground in 1973

Eleventh Extract from Uncle Ron's Diary

22nd July 1940


Spent morning getting Spanish visas. Tried to get Sauf Conducts to Perpignan in the afternoon. All went well until we were just about to take them away, when the policeman said “come back for these in 7 days”. Went back to British Consulate and told them. Tilly, who was helping them, said he'd go round and see a friend of his in the Prefecture.

Came back to say he would get the answer at 11 am next day, so we decided to wait and see. Had rather a sell at dinner as we ordered fish and two octopuses were produced. Couldn’t afford to send them back, so had to eat them. Horrible, I thought.

23rd July 1940

Tilly’s friend could do nothing so decided to risk the 6.40 pm train. Bought tickets at 3 pm no difficulty. Came back to the station at 6.15 and pretended not to know each other. Sat in different 3rd class carriages with our heads in the corridor, watching for police to come along, but none came.

Pretty mouldy journey, including a wait from 11 – 3 am at some station. Got to Perpignan at 6 am. Had shave and breakfast and when we asked for the American Consul found there wasn’t one.

Decided to interview the Prefect, M Mousseau, whom Dodds had told us was very pro-British. Delightful man. I told him who we were and that we wanted permission to leave France. He was very sympathetic but said he would have to send the papers to Vichy which would take 7 days. I said we couldn’t wait as long as that and he advised hiring a boat and going to Spain that way.

Caught 6 pm train for Banyules where stayed at quite a good pub and tried to find a man called Reae whose name we had been given in Marseilles, but no one knew him.

Boats were all out of the water and Thomas was most insistent that it would be quite easy to cross the Pyrenees. I thought otherwise as I imagined they must have sentries along the border.

24th July 1940

No diary entry

FOOTNOTE - While there was no threat from the Germans at this stage in their escape, it must have been hugely frustrating for Uncle Ron and Thomas Rennie, having completed such an arduous journey under very difficult and at times, dangerous circumstances, to be confronted with the endless and time consuming bureaucracy (and associated threat of arrest by the police) of the Vichy Government and it officials, especially as allies in the war. You could say - some things haven't changed much in 80 years - the system works, but it is very laborious and everything takes so long!

However, they have now decided to take things into their own hands rather than wait for 'the system' to produce the necessary 'sauf conduit' paperwork (with no certainty that it would), move on and try and find a way of crossing the French Spanish border. This is really their last major obstacle to cross before they are 'on the home run' back to Britain, both physically and bureaucratically.

Twelfth Extract from Uncle Ron's Diary

25th July 1940

Caught 9.30 am train to Cerbere. Stopped by a policeman as we were waiting for our “permission de sortir” to come through from Marseilles and that meanwhile we were staying 3 or 4 days at Cerbere. Walked up road to the French frontier post to have a look see.

The Spanish one was 200x on round the corner. Had lunch at the railway station and took rooms in the hotel and slept till 5 pm. Had a look at the mountains and decided where we could cross.

Met 4 more British officers in the town. They had arrived on bikes with no papers. They had been told that the railway tunnel was unguarded between 8 pm and 9 pm and were going to try it, so we thought we would too. However, when we went to have a look after dinner we found a sentry sitting outside.

They then said they were going to try and pinch a boat so we wished them well and started off for our mountain passage. Beastly thorn bushes all over the mountains. I fell once and had thorns in my hand for days afterwards. Very lucky in finding paths going the right way and also 2 springs where we had a rest and ate chocolate.

Having got over the top by about 1 am we were gaily descending the other side when a dog started to bark. Thought it was a police dog but then heard goat bells and decided it belonged to a farm.

Went down into valley and started to climb the next lot of hills when we saw Port Bon (Spanish frontier town) down the valley. The bay was exactly the same shape as the bay at Cerbere, but there were bright lights shining and so we decided that we were in Spain.

Frightful smell of sage, I shan’t eat sage and onions again without thinking about the Pyrenees.

26th July 1940

Went on Port Bon about 8 am and got hold of Mr Cook’s man. We were absolutely all right as regards papers except that we had nothing on them to show how we had come into Spain. Mr Cook took us to the station where his policeman friend put a stamp on it, then in to the railway official who was rather sticky and said we must see the local dictator.

However luckily Mr Cook knew that he was a Red in the civil war and said that unless he stamped our papers to say we had come by train, he’d report the fact to the authorities. So we pot our papers stamped. Left by train at 3.30 pm and got to Barcelona at 8 pm.

Went to a hotel recommended by Mr Cook and I went straight to bed. Thomas went and had supper. When he came to bed he said that we’d got to report to the police first thing in the morning which rather spoilt my night’s rest.

FOOTNOTE - So nearly there, but just not quite able to relax yet as again there appears to some officialdom making life more complicated than perhaps it need be, thus continuing pressure on Uncle Ron and Thomas Rennie. Having said that, with a few lucky breaks and some good contacts, they continue to make steady progress.

At some stage this summer, I will return to this part of the French Mediterranean coast and complete this final part of the escape through France and over the Pyrenees - it certainly won't be like having to go over the high Pyrenees (Chemin de Liberty for eg), but it would be interesting to see how arduous this route is ..... and whether it is still covered in sage!

Thirteenth Extract from Uncle Ron's Diary

27th July 1940

While we were dressing, we rehearsed our story to get it pat and at 9 am went with the landlord to the police station, but the secretary didn’t turn up till 10 am so we had to sit kicking our heels for over an hour.

However when he appeared he just glanced at us and our passports and said that we could go, so all that worry for nothing. We reported to the Consulate, bought some new clothes as I had torn my trousers in rather a vital place sliding down the Pyrenees.

Caught the train at 8 pm still 3rd class and arrived Madrid at 10 am.

28th July 1940

Had met Mrs J on the train and she stuck to us like a leech. We had very little money but she appeared to have less, as having fed her all day we had to pay her taxi fare back to the hotel when she came to see us of at the station.

Had a bath in the Nacunal hotel, then lunch and a siesta , Went to look at the King’s Palace, had tea and went for a walk. I had a splitting headache and blew up at Thomas and Mrs J and so went back to the hotel and had an aspirin. Thomas went to the Embassy and I picked him up there at 8.15.

Went to the station and had dinner and caught the 10 pm train to Lisbon. 1st class – what a joy.

29th July 1940

Arrived Valencia (de Alcantara) and had to go through the Spanish customs which took hours. Over the border the Portuguese did it on the train, and did it very quickly. We had joined up with two young gunners – John Goschen and Barney Brook-Fox, who were masquerading as 17 and 18 though they were both 22. They had come via Switzerland.

On arrival at Lisbon at 8 pm were very lucky to get two double rooms at Motel Franefort. We sent Barney in to get them as he was the only one respectably dressed. Had a 1st class dinner and then to bed.

30th July 1940

Went shopping and then to the Embassy where we saw the Military Attache, Col Parry Jones, who was most helpful and asked Thomas and self to lunch. Sent wires home.

After lunch, we got £20 each from the Consul.

FOOTNOTE - Most of today's entry is pretty factual as indeed is most of diary relating to actions and places, but there is one line which stands out for me - I had a splitting headache and blew up at Thomas AND Mrs J. It is interesting that Mrs J was also on the receiving end of Uncle Ron's outburst. Uncle Ron and Thomas Rennie have now been on the run together for six weeks during which time they have covered a huge amount of ground physically, had to handle some major set backs, in particular at Ault and at Toulouse resulting in them having to cover enormous extra unexpected distances and then more recently having to put up with the endless frustrations of officialdom and bureaucracy. Mrs J has now arrived on the scene and I suspect that her apparent freeloading off Uncle Ron and Thomas is the final straw in the build up of frustration for him, particularly as they are now so close to the finish line. I suspect that Mrs J probably had little or no interest or understanding in what they had been through during this escape and indeed prior to that on the Maginot Line and the withdrawal to St Valery and eventual capture. She is simply interested in enjoying a good time with a couple of dashing Highland Officers and Gentlemen, ideally at their expense - and in many respects, who can blame her! Sadly for her, from Uncle Ron's point of view, she probably wasn't charming or good looking enough and he was irritated that they were spending so much of their last precious time and money on her - compare this with Miss Gold, 'the charming American girl' in Marseilles.

The next diary entry about Mrs J in tomorrow's e-mail update is even more forthright, and I think it is typical of Uncle Ron that in his diary, he only refers to her as Mrs J and not her full name - ever the gentleman no matter what the circumstances; unless Thomas Rennie has written an escape diary and mentioned Mrs J's name in full, we will never know who she was.

Fourteenth Extract from Uncle Ron's Diary

31st July 1940

Did more shopping in the morning. Mrs J turned up again. Got our leaving visas from the Portuguese. Went out to Estorel after dinner and booked rooms in the Hotel de Parque.

1st August 1940

Went out to Estorel by train. Grand place, very nice hotel. Sat on beach all afternoon. Went to cinema at night and lost 60 escudoes at the tables.

2nd August 1940

I went into Madrid (sic? Lisbon?) in the morning to get our tickets as we were flying next day. Heard that the Government were paying our passage. Went swimming in the afternoon but the sea was very cold. Mrs J turned up again, but luckily couldn’t get into our hotel, so got away with standing her tea. She is a bore that woman.

At 6pm Airways rang up to say we weren’t going on the third as the aeroplane hadn’t left England. Rang up Parry-Jones, who said that we were priority and would go on the 1st plane that arrived.

Went to the casino. Thomas got cheated out of £1 as he had a counter on 35 when it turned up, but was claimed by a fat old woman and while I was trying to get it out of her my own number 15 turned up and I hadn’t backed it.

However did quite well and turned 150 escudos into 520.

3rd August 1940

Went into Lisbon by train, was told we would go tomorrow. Had the tickets altered. After lunch Thomas and I played golf. Lost a quid through taking three putts in the last game.

Went to the casino again, but had very little money and so retired with a 10/- profit.

4th August 1940

We were called at 5 am, got to the aerodrome at 6.30 to find the plane didn’t go till 8.45 am. Had a very comfortable journey but very little food and arrived at airway and house at 6 pm ravenous.

Fatty and Button (sisters) were waiting for me and our journey was at last ended.

FOOTNOTE - To complete Uncle Ron's diary of his extraordinary escape, I can't think of a better extract on which to finish. Uncle Ron and Thomas Rennie are effectively home and dry and able to relax completely, and it doesn't take Uncle Ron long to revert to good living! This extract says so much about Uncle Ron, in these last few days in Lisbon before flying back to Britain. While a great soldier and perhaps an even better Officer ( if that is possible), Uncle Ron was clearly a real 'player' and a man of immense style. There is a real emphasis on good living and living in style given half a chance - after a gruelling war and an equally arduous 6 week escape, Uncle Ron had no hesitation in eating as well as he could and staying in the smartest and most luxurious hotel possible, especially if the British Embassy was paying ! The Hotel de Paques looked very colonial and no doubt extremely comfortable with the added bonus, of course, that only guests were allowed into it, so that they could escape Mrs J - that 'bore of a woman' !!

I love also that there seems to a competitive edge to everything he is involved in, even if it is light hearted - golf and what a brilliant anecdote from the casino where Thomas Rennie was cheated out of his winnings and Uncle Ron missed his number coming up because he was remonstrating with the woman who took Thomas' winnings - what a great scene that would make in any film !

For me, this is the difference between good Officers and really great Officers, and indeed leaders in any walk of life. Just being competent in one's job is one thing but it is not enough; to be a great leader, I believe you have to look the part and have that extra bit of flair and charisma which sets a great leader apart from the rest, and Uncle Ron undoubtedly had those qualities in abundance. To quote a fellow Seaforth Officer -

"There has not been in our time, a Seaforth Highlander more beloved or whose value was more appreciated by all ranks of the Regiment. It was not only his cheerfulness, or his outstanding leadership in peace and war, or his proved gallantry in battle that made so great an impression, but also and above all, it was the feeling of security which the men of the Regiment had in him because they knew he always remembered them and would never let them down He was a happy and most entertaining personality, but behind his apparent light heartedness, there was the soundest and truest of characters full of sympathy and understanding."

Here are some of the wonderful images Giles has taken whilst undertaking this massive challenge - and shows eloquently just how important the french hold dear the sacrifices made on their home soil for the betterment of Europe and her allies.


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