I Was There! - I Was Six Months Escaping from France
Called up with the "twenties" in November 1939 and sent to the Western Front in the following spring, Sapper John Garbett had a remarkable series of adventures before reaching England in December 1940. The story he told to Bernard Drew of the "Kentish Times" was at the time exclusive to "The War Illustrated."
With other British soldiers I was taken prisoner at St. Valery-en-Caux on June 12, 1940, and, after marching about 200 kilometres towards Germany, decided I did not like the idea of going any farther. While we were being marched from one camp to another a friend and I took advantage of a chance to escape and ran around the back of a barn, diving into a bed of nettles. This was easily managed as there were about 200 prisoners in the column, and there was a commotion at the back over some food which a French woman was offering. As we were all in a starving condition the boys at the back made a dive for it, regardless of the German guards, who freely used their bayonets. This was when we did the vanishing trick.
After lying in the nettles until the column had passed, we crept into some bushes and I stayed there till nightfall. That night we started off to get to the coast and came upon a deserted house. We went in and changed into French peasant clothes and also had a good meal, as there were plenty of vegetables in the garden. Next day we set out for the coast again and, after four days hard going, during which we lived on chickens and potatoes, which we obtained illegally, we reached the coast near Boulogne. There we were in an extraordinary position, for our bombers were overhead and were "knocking hell" out of the place.
We started searching for a boat, but were spotted by a German sentry who shouted something, and, as we did not like the idea of speaking, to him, we made a run for it. This must have surprised him because although he shot at us he missed and we reached some trees, and again did the disappearing trick.
After this we decided to make for Spain, and away we went. We came right through the big towns and down the main roads, mixing with the Jerries all the time. When we were asked for identity papers at bridges and the entrances to towns, 1 told them we were Belgian refugees looking for work. I had picked up a little French, and as the Jerries Couldnít speak Flemish, we were fortunate and got away with it. Each time we played this trick we were told to report to the local French police and get identity cards. We would have done this, only the French police would have recognized us, and probably have turned us over to Jerry.
During this time we were sometimes helped by French people who gave us money and food, although we often went hungry and had to sleep in woods and ditches. The route we took was Boulogne, Amiens, Beauvais, Gisors, Vernon, Nantes, Chartres, Vendome and Tours. There we discovered about "unoccupied France", so we decided to head for Marseilles instead of Spain. We managed to cross the frontier just outside Tours, and jumped on a train going to Marseilles. When we arrived there we were arrested by the French police, who sent us to an old military prison called Fort St. Jean, where we were interned, but after a few days were allowed to go out to the town by day. We were not allowed outside Marseilles, and it was here I lost my friend, who decided to go to Spain. I wanted to try to stowaway to North Africa on a boat.
I stayed in Marseilles for six weeks, during which time I stowed away twice, but was discovered each time just before the boat sailed, and handed over to the police. After these failures, I decided to follow my friendís example and try to get to Spain. Incidentally, except for the spells I did in prison, I thoroughly enjoyed myself in Marseilles as I made friends with a Corsican family who gave me clothes and money.
After I decided to make for Spain, I eluded the French police and caught an express as it was moving out of the station. After a few adventures I reached the Pyrenees. It took me two days to climb the mountains and get through the frontier guards into Spain. Here I was again arrested, by the Spaniards. I served a month's imprisonment for illegally entering the country, and was then turned over to the British Embassy at Madrid. From there I was sent to Gibraltar, and came home by liner-in a first-class cabin! All this took me about six months and about ten tons of luck to accomplish.
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