Follow by Email

Friday, 12 February 2010

Escaping Wartorn Europe

This post describes three books written between 1940 and 1945 which describes children fleeing through France in the early years of the war. They are: Olive C Dougan, Schoolgirls in Peril (1944); Agnes M. Miall, The Schoolgirl Fugitives (1942); and Nevil Chute, Pied Piper (1942).
Olive Dougan also wrote The Schoolgirl Refugees in 1940. Very scarce. I am still looking.

Dougan tells the story of a school in a Flemish speaking area just before 1939. The Nazis were pressing into Holland and Belgium. The school moves to Brussels and is soon closed down, and the Head arrested. The main character Sally overhears a traitor's plot to allow the Nazi army to invade. Sally is thereafter a marked girl and sent to her fascist uncles in Brittany with her young sister Betty. Their father is a journalist collecting sensitive evidence, a target for the Nazis. There they are abused and miserable. Escape routes exist in the area and all goes well until an airman is helped to escape and his clothes and parachute are found. The sisters have to flee on foot or with local help to Vichy France and towards the Spanish border. A bete noir is Tilda Weil, a German girl with serious Nazi relatives. She boasts of victory, and spies against her school and against a Jewish fellow pupil with links to the resistance. Tilde is emotionally fond of little Betty, and after her new husband is killed by the SS for protesting, she crosses over to help the girls to escape to Spain. The Headmistress is already there. They make it back to England for a grand reunion, after the Americans hand entered the war but before D day. Oh, and the girls are reunited also with their parents.

The detail of anti-Nazi feeling is outstanding - the little things ordinary people will do to undermine the enemy. The Nazis are painted as a powerful elite who rule by fear and repression. Ordinary Germans are decent, especially when they understand the reality of what is going on. This is propaganda; most ordinary Germans did not cross the road to defend victims since their own lives were endangered by doing so.

Then endgame is disappointing. Prolonged struggle happens until the last few chapters, then, all of a rush they make it to Spain, find a boat, and arrive in England. This part is very much a 'happy ever after' epilogue.
Unfortunately my copy was bound without pages 97-112. I will be grateful if anyone can send me photocopies.

Agnes M Miall. The Schoolgirl Fugitives.
Kay, aged 14, and elder cousin Reba, 19, in school in southern France, is faced, as the German army takes over Belgium, to set out on a 360 mile walk to Bordeaux. "Happy go lucky" parents were away working in Canada, not believing that a war was in the offing. French relatives lived in the thick of the fighting, so Bordeaux gave them a chance to find a boat to England. They would have to go alone, unescorted, and travel light, leaving most of their possessions behind. The first leg was in an ambulance: the roads are crowded with refugees, so main roads had to be avoided and slow progress made on back roads. The refugees included children in tatters, with blisters, looking after babies. It was a vast line of mainly women and children. For Kay it was fun, different. They decide to keep off the main roads because German planes were machine gunning the refugees. They are fed at a farm, who lets them have the address of relatives further on. There is a strong theme of French kindness to the English, probably, the book thinks, because they were ashamed of letting their allies down. Unable to board a train (really cattle wagons) they took possession of two bicycles that had to be abandoned by people getting on the train. The train was machine-gunned so they had a narrow escape. Nazi planes machine gunning the trains and main roads become a significant theme, making the girls keep to the side roads. They were encouraged to avoid Bordeaux by what seemed to them later as a fifth columnist, spreading despair around. They almost ran into a German outpost, managing to pick up a German map which helped them. They find little Francoise, separated from her mother; and Kay gets lost. However, within a particularly surly group, Rebe was accused of being a German spy and locked up. Meanwhile Kay had stumbled over a man dressed as a German soldier, which after a nail-biting time turned out to be Eric, an escaping English soldier. They travel together, find Reba again, now imprisoned, and let her out and they all escape from that hateful town. Bordeaux is now closed, so there destination is a port near the Spanish border. Francoise's mother has left a letter indicating where to find her. The French government has meanwhile capitulated to the Germans, so there is no time to lose. On the coast, out swimming, they rescue a woman drowning after an attach of cramp, who Francoise soon identifies, of course, as her mother. Her mother's friends have a yacht and they manage to leave safely.

Nevil Shute, Pied Piper.
Shute, an aircraft engineer and founder/owner of Airspeed, wrote a novel a year throughout the 1930a to 1950s, and his war efforts reflect the anxieties of those days. Pied Piper tells the story of an elderly unpreposessing and unheroic man, Mr Howard, who decides to return to England from the French alps, but finds the trains disrupted and roads clogged. A simple journey takes on nightmare proportions. Moreover, he is persuaded to take two young children with him, Ronnie and Sheila, to relatives in England. This is a book for adults about children, not a story for children. The children are incumbrances, dependants, not young heroes as they would be in stories for children. At Dijon, 10 year old is added, Rose, trying to reach her father in London. Howard comes across as a man doing what he has to in times of trouble, a hero indeed but not heroic, often anxious, obsessed with the safety of his fishing tackle. On the road, Pierre joins them, a 7 year old being stoned by villagers as a German spy. (The French are described as an unpleasant rabble, for the most part). Then comes Willem a little Dutch boy, whose parents are blown to pieces when a Nazi Stuka bombs refugees on the road, the rear gunner laughing as he machine-gunned the hoards of women and children. Nicole joins the group in Chatres, the fiance of his dead son John, then a kitten. They eventually make it to the coast. A 10 year old Polish Jewish boy joins them, Marjan, to keep him from becoming a slave. There is a sticky moment near Brest when Mr Howard is arrested as a spy after a British success, and taken out to be shot (but we readers know from page 1 that he survived). The theme of the book is that the British take care of children even if they are not related, to the utter astonishment of the French and Germans. He is a Pied Piper in reverse, taking a group of children to safety - oh, and he makes them whistles from hazel twigs to represent the piper's pipes. Finally there is Anna, but for the twist at the end of the story that brought Anna into the group you will have to read the book for yourself.

The representations of Germans are mixed - the typical soldier is tired and grey faced. No one laughed light-heartedly. The rear gunner shooting civilians is cock-a-hoop, laughing and excited. The Gestapo officer is brutal, harsh, cynical, not believing that a man would risk his own life for strangers, or that his daughter in America would willingly look after the waifs and strays. His son the tank commander, now dead, was annoyed that the road was clogged with refugees and happily shot at them to clear the road. There is no humanity, no fellow feeling or empathy. They were convinced of their own invincibility, sure they would be in London in six weeks. The representations of the British were that they are strong-minded and eccentric, moral to the point of self-sacrifice, ensuring that others are not implicated even if it was to their disadvantage. The French are self-seeking and short sighted for the most part, willing to stone a small boy as a spy, and to give away a Jewish labourer to the authorities. Helpful acts such as sailing them home had to be paid for, and to serve other selfish interests.

Postscript: in 1940, households in Britain received a government circular on a flimsy piece of thin A5 paper, What to do if the invasion happens. They are told to stay at home and wait for guidance, do not clog the roads so the army cannot get around to fight the enemy. The French example is given: if you become refugees on the road, you will be shot at by Nazi aircraft and tanks.


  1. Hi Stephen
    I have been out of touch with things for a long time working on a job so I have only just read this post. I can send the missing papges of Schoolgirls in Peril. In my copy it is the end of the chapter An Enemy Reappears and the beginning of Weary Days. Just let me know where to send them.

  2. Many thanks. Very grateful. To S. Bigger, Roman Court, Hunts Hill, Blunsdon, Swindon SN26 7BN, UK. Hope all is well and you are thriving, Stephen

  3. Just wondering if you received the pages I sent a while back. If not, I can resend them.

  4. The pages arrived on Saturday - many thanks, I am grateful. How are your studies? Stephen