Biography of Helene (Nell) Gill
French Resistance, WWII
By Daniel Gill
Nell– A Soldier Without Uniform
This is the story of my mother, Hélène ‘Nell’ Gill. As her son, I had a particular interest in recounting Nell’s story. Born in Paris just three months before German troops marched into the French capital on 14 June 1940, I unwittingly became part of her exploits during this tumultuous period. Naturally, as a young child I was totally unaware of what was happening. It was only many years later after we had settled in Australia that I wanted to learn more about this period in our life and in particular, my mother’s role in the French Résistance.
Although Nell’s Australian family knew she had served in the French Résistance and had received numerous awards, we knew little else; she rarely discussed any of her activities during that period. When questioned about it, she was usually dismissive: ‘That was a long time ago’, or, ‘For our safety we were told to forget the details of our missions’.
It was only by chance that after her death in 2011, one of her daughters, Patricia, while researching the family’s Russian history in the early 1800s, found a WW II web-link that referred to her mother. That link led to the discovery of a series of web pages dealing with WW II escape lines, and best of all, access to volumes of now declassified files on rescued airmen and the people who assisted them. I am most grateful for the guidance and information generously given to me by Michael Moores LeBlanc of the 100th Bomb Group Foundation and Keith James publisher of the Conscript Heroes website. The most surprising document was a 69-page report, in diary format, handwritten in English by ‘Nell’ during her military intelligence debriefing after the liberation of France. Cross-referencing the diary with the numerous airmen’s reports and intelligence files gave us an insight into what Nell did during the occupation of France.
This biography is the story of what was discovered. It recounts her experiences as a young mother during the occupation of France by German forces in WW II, and later, describes her activities as a member of the French Résistance. It is a story of bravery, but it also reveals Nell’s fierce determination to clear her name against false accusations, as well as her subsequent battles with military bureaucracy. Eventually, her disillusionment with the economic and political direction of her adopted country after liberation, contributed to her resolve to seek a better future for her and her son.
Nell – the Early Years
On 12 May 1917, in Petrograd (now St Petersburg) amid the first Russian revolution, Elena Feodossieff, aka ‘Nell’, came into the world. Three months after her birth, the large, elegant family home was seized by the provisional government. Sergi, Nell’s father, who had been a member of the Council of Ministers to Tsar Nicholas II prior to his abdication, became most concerned for the safety of his family, so he made arrangements for them to flee Russia. The family left Petrograd in August 1917, on what became a six-year journey until they finally set up home in Paris.
In 1936, 19-year-old Nell took out French citizenship. This meant her Russian name ‘Elena’ became the French equivalent ‘Hélène’, but to family and friends she was still Nell. She later acquired British citizenship by her marriage to an Englishman, James Charles William Gill. Nell and James were married 27 November 1937. Nell was fluent in Russian, French, German and English, and as a proficient secretary she had excellent shorthand skills. She was also blessed with an exceptional memory, as evidenced by her debriefing report, recalling events, dates, names, places and addresses during her time in the Résistance.
On 30 June 1940, two weeks after German occupation of Paris, Ilags (internment camps) were established by the Germany army. These held Allied civilians, including British and American subjects, who were captured in occupied areas. The Germans perceived these people as a potential threat.
Twenty-three-year-old Hélène (Nell) Gill, her four-month-old baby Daniel, and husband James Gill were rounded up and sent to separate camps. British by birth, James was sent to La Grande Caserne, Saint-Denis, and remained there for the duration of the German occupation.
Hélène (Nell) Gill and her son were interned in Besançon. She later reflected that the unpleasant camp experience reinforced her dislike of Nazis. She was released after six weeks by pleading that she needed her mother’s help to look after her infant. The authorities imposed strict conditions on her release. She had to report daily to a gendarmerie (French police station) so the German authorities could always trace her whereabouts, she could not go outdoors after 7:00 pm, and her work permit was revoked.
Because she was a British subject and not allowed to work, she received a loan of about 2,000 francs a month from the British government.
Nell and her son Daniel returned to her mother’s apartment, in the fashionable sixteenth arrondissement of Paris. Like most Parisians, she endured life under German rule.
Nell Joins the Résistance
In 1941, as a sojourn from the overwhelming German presence in Paris, Nell started taking annual summer holidays with Daniel in Nogent-le-Rotrou, 150 kilometres south west of Paris, where she had friends. Before taking the two-hour train journey from Paris, she had to get a permit from the German authorities allowing her to sign in daily at a local gendarmerie.
Two years later, in July 1943, Nell and three-year-old Daniel left Paris for their regular six-week summer holiday in Nogent-le-Rotrou.
On arrival, she was met by local teacher Georges Lemourier, whom she knew from previous holidays. He explained that they had been anxiously awaiting her arrival. Five days earlier, a British airman had parachuted from a stricken Halifax bomber and was given refuge in a nearby farm. The locals wanted to get him out of Nogent as quickly as possible before he was discovered by the Germans. As Nell was fluent in English, the teacher thought she could help the airman; he also asked Nell to contact her husband to ask what could be done. She secretly sent a message to James in the internment camp and eventually received a reply that ‘the package’ would be collected.
In the meantime, one of Nell’s close friends in Nogent-le-Rotrou, Jacqueline Frelat, contacted an SIS agent, who made arrangements to send someone to take the airman, Ivor Sansum, to a small village, Mortrée, en route to an escape line. Jacqueline worked for Sécurité Militaire, the British Intelligence service based in Paris.
The family sheltering Sansum looked after him carefully. He had suffered a sprained ankle and had low morale since he couldn’t speak French and his hosts didn’t speak English. Nell visited him regularly so he had someone to chat with, and his morale quickly improved. A few days later, Carmen, the person sent by the SIS, arrived. Carmen was nervous and explained it was her first mission, and to make matters more difficult she spoke no English.
Nell’s friend Jacqueline, who had assumed responsibility for getting Sansum to an escape line, was concerned for his security and begged Nell to travel with him and Carmen. Nell immediately accepted, but explained she would have to take her son with her. Carmen was relieved when Nell offered to join her.
Next morning, they went to the train station. The airman arrived with the farmer, who had given Sansum his one-and-only Sunday suit to wear for his escape.
Five minutes later, they boarded the crowded train. Carmen took Nell’s child and sat in a carriage, while Sansum and Nell were squashed in a corridor. Two hours later they arrived at Le Mans, where they had to take another train.
The station was crowded with German soldiers and Sansum confidently eased his way through them. They boarded another train to Sées, from where they had to walk ten kilometres to Mortrée. Although Sansum’s foot was very swollen and painful, he walked all the way. They had a rest and a snack in the fields and finally arrived at Mortrée. As Carmen had the instructions and password, she took Sansum to Mr Victor Chevreuil, Mayor of Mortrée, and head of the local Résistance.
They were very well received; Mr Chevreuil explained he had two more airmen hiding in the woods and he was waiting for instructions from Paris so that Sansum and the others could leave together for Barcelona in the neutral territory of Spain. They had tea and Sansum felt relieved and happy to be on his way ‘home’. Exhausted, Carmen, Nell and her son returned to the station. Sansum remained with Mr Chevreuil’s sister, who lived nearby, for two weeks. He later said that he had a wonderful time during his stay.
On the return journey, Nell told Carmen she wanted to become a useful member of the group and was prepared to die for the cause. She urged Carmen to talk about her to the ‘Chief’, explaining that her knowledge of several languages (French, Russian, English, German), could also be useful. Carmen said they were very short of people, owing to the summer holidays and because many had been caught by the Gestapo. Nell and her son left the train at Nogent-le-Rotrou and Carmen continued to Paris.
Nell’s friend Jacqueline was pleased to hear that the journey had been a success and for the next few weeks the holiday in the countryside continued as though nothing had ever happened.
Two weeks later, an excited Jacqueline returned from a meeting with Captain Richard d’Asniere (code name ‘Axel’), her supervisor at the British Intelligence Service (Sécurité Militaire) in Paris. She told Nell that because they had very few people at their disposal, she had been asked to take on a role of conveyor (guide). For her first mission, she was to travel to Mortrée, where Nell and Carmen had been a few weeks earlier, to collect Ivor Sansum and the other two airmen being cared for by the local Résistance, and take them to Lyon for eventual transfer to Barcelona. Because the airmen had no identity papers and Germans were checking documents at the major rail stations, a long and complex route from Mortrée to Lyon had been planned to avoid checkpoints. Nell expressed her concern; she thought it unwise for Jacqueline to go on her first mission with so many airmen to look after.
Jacqueline turned up at Nell’s late on the eve of her departure and seemed worried. She told Nell that she didn’t think she could do such a big job on her own, particularly as she spoke little English. Three men were a lot to care for and she was scared. She begged Nell to go with them and to act as an interpreter.
Nell was willing to help her friend and the airmen, but had to overcome numerous difficulties. She had to sign in daily at the local gendarmerie, she only had her British identity papers, and most importantly, she had to take her young son with her.
Nevertheless, she immediately agreed. The airmen needed help. She made arrangements with the gendarmerie, where she had met a friendly young clerk. She told him she was leaving for a few days to visit friends in Le Mans. He was very amicable and told her she had nothing to worry about as he would sign for her if the Germans came to check the books. When he offered to get her false identification documents, however, she became suspicious and declined his offer.
Nell arranged to meet Jacqueline two days later at 4:00 pm in front of the Le Mans station, where the three airmen would be dropped off by car and then the long journey would commence.
On arrival at Le Mans station, Nell was confronted by crowds of German soldiers. She felt Gestapo all around her and sensed they were looking for something or someone; local cafés were also full of Germans. The atmosphere was unbearable.
At last, after a few minutes that seemed like hours, Jacqueline arrived alone. She said the ‘boys’ – Sansum, Freeman and Mankovitch – were in a car with a driver from the Résistance at the rear of the hotel. They had been warned to leave Le Mans immediately because Germans were checking all papers, as a plane had come down over Le Mans a few days earlier and all the airmen had escaped. Nell thought it was madness to remain in Le Mans a minute longer to stick to the original itinerary, so they all crammed in the car and the driver, from Alençon, took them to the next small station on the way to Tours. After a long, seemingly endless journey, they arrived at the next village, Ecommoy, and headed for shelter in the nearby forest. The kind driver refused to abandon them. They had a snack together in the woods, then Jacqueline and the airmen hid among the trees whilst Nell, her son Daniel and the driver spent a restless night in the car waiting for the early train.
At dawn, they cautiously left their shelter for the station in small groups. Nell and Jacqueline bought the tickets for the airmen and all boarded the train to Tours. On arrival, they went to the waiting room to wait for the next train. Airmen were always told to pretend to be asleep, as French people can be very talkative. Thirty minutes later, they were on the train to Vierzon. From there, they transferred to Bourges without incident. At Bourges, they had a fifteen-kilometre walk ahead of them. The guides were worried as it was 8:00 pm – after curfew – and the airmen were tired and suffering from various wounds.
Suddenly they saw a taxi going their way. They ran towards the driver and asked him if he could take them to St. Florent. He apologised, explaining that he had promised to pick up a German officer. Nell pleaded that she had a sick child and they were exhausted. He relented and told them to get in. During the journey, Jacqueline and Nell talked non-stop so the driver could not speak to the airmen, who spoke no French.
Their destination was about 500 metres before the demarcation line, where Germans were checking identity papers; however, the driver lost his way and almost drove them right up to the Germans. They stopped just in time and had a narrow escape. After many more wrong turns, they eventually found the safe house in Saint-Florent- sur-Cher. Exhausted and all looking forward to a good rest, they were met by Marie- Madeleine (Axel’s daughter). After a good wash and dinner, Marie-Madeleine apologised that Germans had taken all the furniture from the house and she could only give them her room to sleep in. It was small with mattresses on the floor. They settled themselves as best they could and were so tired that everyone slept well.
Next morning after breakfast, everyone was ready to leave for Lyon. Nell had no intention of going any further as she had planned to stay with friends nearby before returning to Paris. The airmen and Jacqueline didn’t want her to leave. they felt safe with her and asked her to stay with them until they reached Lyon.
She accepted, knowing they would have to be extra careful as they were all travelling without identification papers. They left the country house at noon, crossed the demarcation line and walked five kilometres to catch a train for Montluçon. The guides always gave each airman a ticket and they handed them over to the station controlleur (ticket collector).
This time the train was overcrowded and they had to squeeze into the first-class corridor and stay there, completely squashed. The most annoying thing was that they were all poorly dressed and obviously not like ‘normal’ first-class travellers. They travelled like this until Montluçon, where they changed trains for Lyon. This last part of the journey was the worst, as they stood for about eight hours. The men were tired, thirsty, hungry, and out of cigarettes.
The train arrived at Lyon at midnight, two hours late. As it was well after curfew they all received a slip of paper authorising them to leave the station. Unfortunately, no one was waiting for them, and they were all alone in the dark outside the station. The only solution was to go back and sleep in the waiting room. It was packed and Jacqueline and the boys slept on the floor. Nell was ordered to go to the Centre d’Accueil, which was reserved for mothers and infants. She put her child on a floor mattress. During the night, she snuck out half a dozen times to check on Jacqueline and the boys. Everyone was okay, but she had no sleep in what seemed an endless night.
Finally dawn came, and they were ready to leave the station in time for the lifting of the curfew at 8:00 am. Jacqueline had twice called the house they were going to and became concerned when no-one answered.
It was pouring with rain outside and the town seemed duller than ever when they left Lyon station. Fortunately, they were able to get a taxi to the prearranged safe house, but it seemed empty and no-one came to the door. Jacqueline and Nell decided the safest option was to leave the airmen in the local church while they searched for Mr Bonnamour, the owner of the house. They were relieved to find him and that he spoke excellent English. He explained he had been expecting them the previous night and apologised that his phone was out of order. He asked Jacqueline to retrieve the airmen from their safe refuge in the church.
On arrival at the house, the airmen were delighted to have reached the end of this part of their journey and to be welcomed with a bath and lunch. Mr Bonnamour told them that he was going to see his ‘chief’ to tell him that they had arrived. He told them they could expect the chief’s visit in the afternoon. At about 3:00 pm, Julien ‘Jules’ Carter arrived with his secretary, Annie. He was head of the now famous ‘Carter escape line’ The basic operation of the line was that airmen were taken by guides to his headquarters in Lyon, usually from Paris, then taken by other guides on the hazardous journey across the Pyrenees to Spain.
Late in the afternoon, Julien questioned Nell and Jacqueline about their journey; he was particularly interested in Nell’s role as she was not officially part of the ‘organisation’. Nell explained she was Jacqueline’s friend and had willingly accompanied her as she wanted to help in any way she could. After the debriefing, Julien Carter left with Annie and the airmen to start the last leg of their long trek to freedom.
Jacqueline and Nell remained in the safe house until the following morning, boarding a Paris-bound train at 9:00 am. It was an uneventful trip until they reached Chalon- sur-Saône. The train stopped and a loudspeaker announced ‘Ten minutes stop – checking of identity papers’. Nell’s heart sank. She had no papers. She gave Daniel to Jacqueline and told her to go to the dining car. Nell slipped off the train and waited until the Germans had checked the whole train, then she reboarded into the dining car, knowing that she’d had another narrow escape.
They reached Paris in the evening. A few minutes after arriving, Nell and Daniel caught another train to Nogent-le-Rotrou. Jacqueline remained in Paris and reported to her chief, Axel.
As the holidays were over, Nell and Daniel then returned to Paris. At Nell’s request, Jacqueline arranged for her to meet with Axel. Two weeks after their return from Lyon, Axel interviewed Nell for four hours. He told her she had been investigated and accepted into ‘the organisation’; conditions and hazards were explained. Nell agreed to the conditions and said she was willing to undertake dangerous tasks. She explained that her sole aim was to help the Allied cause and combat the enemy in every way possible. In her role as a guide, she was to collect airmen from various locations, bring them to safe houses in Paris and then convey them to Lyon, which she had already done in an unofficial capacity with Jacqueline on two occasions.
Although she did not know at the time, Nell was working for the Centurie réseau de reseignements network, the central intelligence network set up by OCM The Organisation civile et militaire (OCM) reporting to BCRA.Bureau central de reseignements et d’action. London-based Gaullist intelligence service. Official records (16P255390) of Ministère d’État chargé de la défense nationale, section Résistance show that Hélène Gill (Nell) was classified as part of FFC (Fighting French Forces) réseau Centurie, from 1 September 1943 until 13 September 1944 .
Two days after her return, Axel introduced Nell to Jeanne Huet, who had just been recruited to be a Paris ‘host’, sheltering airmen in her large apartment.
Forty-five-year-old Jeanne Huet used the code name ‘Jeannette’ and was said to be one of the wealthiest women in Paris, as evidenced by her eighteen-room apartment at 48 Avenue du President Wilson. Her American husband, Andre Phillippe Leon Hilaire Huet, ran several businesses and he was of so much value to the Americans that they sent a submarine to take him to America when the Germans invaded France. Whilst in America he was unaware that his wife was harbouring airmen in their Paris home. Jeanette told Axel and Nell that she knew a 21-year-old girl, Paule Vastel – ‘Claude’ – who could also act as a Paris host. Paule was working at the Organisation Civile et Militaire (OCM) Information Service Centurie for a man known as Jean-Pierre Mouline
Axel asked Nell to act as a go-between for Jeannette Huet and a man named Jacques Dupuis. For strict security reasons, Axel didn’t want Jeanette and Dupuis to have direct contact. Nell was then introduced to Jacques Dupuis. He ran an insurance company in Lyon and looked after the Paris end of the escape line for Jules Carter, whom Nell had met in Lyon on her previous mission. She was to work with Jacques, bringing Allied airmen to Paris then taking them to Lyon before the final leg of their journey home. As Nell would need some help, Jacques said he had an ideal person for this work – Madeleine Grador – she was energetic, full of courage and absolutely reliable. A few days later, Dupuis sent Madeleine out of Paris to collect an American airman named Trafford Curry.
Nell’s next meeting was with Jean-Pierre Mouline from the OCM, Information Service Centurie. He told Nell he knew many farmers who were hiding Allied airmen.
Nell knew him only as Jean-Pierre Mouline, but his real name was Jacques Bertin de la Hautière, and he had several other aliases. See The Jules Carter Escape Line.
He would get their addresses so she could bring them to Paris before their departure to Lyon. Jean-Pierre then organised false identification documents, which enabled her to travel all over France. The aliases she was given were Madame Antoine, Hélène Mussard, and Catherine Dupuis, but to her associates she remained Nell.
Jeannette Huet had told Nell that she would like to provide shelter for Allied airmen, so Nell promised her that the first one would stay with her a few days while waiting for Julien’s instructions. One Sunday morning, Nell was having a meeting in Jeannette’s apartment with Axel and Jean-Pierre when Madeleine and airman Trafford Curry arrived. This was the first time Nell had met Madeleine, and she never had the opportunity to see her again.
As Jeannette did not speak English, Nell visited Curry regularly. He had not spoken English for three months and was pleased to be able to chat with someone. Jeannette’s friend, Paule Vastel, came daily to practise her English and dance steps with Curry. After a few weeks, when a pickup arranged by Julien Carter didn’t eventuate, Curry started to get impatient, threatening to leave by himself. Nell decided to take matters into her own hands and asked Jeannette to prepare things so she could take Curry to Lyon. She telephoned Jacques Dupuis and told him about her decision. He agreed.
Taking her son Daniel with her, Nell and Curry left Jeannette’s apartment, boarding the local train to the main station. Curry kept a few steps behind Nell, acting as if he was travelling alone. On the train to Lyon they had to board a first-class carriage as there was no room elsewhere. The carriage was half empty with only three men in it and as planned, Curry sat apart from Nell and her son, keeping silent. He had his own ticket and identity papers, but as they were fake Nell decided it was best not to let the Germans see them. On the journey, she met an English girlfriend who was hiding from the Germans to avoid internment. They spoke the whole night while Curry slept like a child. Nell started to get worried when the train approached Dijon, where documents were usually inspected. When the train stopped at Dijon, the carriage door was suddenly opened, and two German officers entered. They stared at everyone, saying nothing, then as they apparently didn’t find what or whom they were looking for, they closed the door and left. Nell was quite shaken, but Curry slept through it all.
They arrived at Lyon at 8:00 am, then took the local train to Mr Bonnamour’s, staying with Mr and Mrs Bonnamour for lunch. Julien Carter arrived in the afternoon; he was cheerful and delighted to see Nell again. He told her he would soon be going to Paris to reorganise the network, as Mr Dupuis was too busy with his own insurance company. He was also pleased that the escape line from Lyon was running smoothly; airmen were leaving France regularly. Nell’s team were to bring five airmen to Lyon each week and keep the rest in Paris. They spoke about the work that had been done in Paris. He asked Nell to try to procure winter coats, toothbrushes, etc. for the airmen.
After their meeting, Julien Carter left for Switzerland. Nell, Daniel and Curry remained in Mr Bonnamour’s apartment. Next morning, Mr Bonnamour left with Curry. It was a tearful farewell and Curry was very thankful for all that had been done for him. When she returned to Paris, Jean-Pierre told Nell they had to go to Caen so he could introduce her to the local Résistance people, and to rescue an airman. Jean- Pierre spoke no English, so he needed Nell to interview airmen before they left for Paris, to ensure they were not enemy agents. An increasing number of Germans had infiltrated escape lines, with disastrous results.
Nell made arrangements to leave her son in the care of her mother and a few days later she left for Caen with Jean-Pierre. Shortly after arriving, Jean-Pierre collected a 20- year-old British airman named Skidmore. After a half-hour interview, Nell was satisfied he was genuine. Walking to the station a little later, she noticed that he had a parcel under his arm. She asked him what he was carrying. ‘Only my air force uniform and a few belongings,’ he replied. Nell was shocked and quickly disposed of the incriminating parcel.
On the crowded train carriage, Skidmore sat in front of Nell. He looked relaxed and although he spoke no French, he helped a lady who had asked for assistance with her case. Jean-Pierre, travelling in another carriage, left them at Paris. They went to Jeannette’s apartment so she could take care of him during his stay in Paris. Julien Carter telephoned Jeanette and arranged to meet Nell there. He came a while later and said he would take Skidmore with him to Lyon, as he was going there in a few days. He told them about his plans to re-organise the network, and his intention to visit all apartments where airmen were going to stay. The next day, Julien saw Jacques Dupuis and met some of the Paris operatives, including Madeleine Grador and Marguerite Schmitz. After a few more days in Paris, he left for Lyon with Skidmore.
In early December, Madeleine Grador came to Jeannette with two English airmen, John Harvey and Norman Cufley, and left them with her. Shortly after their arrival, Madeleine brought an American airman, Clifford Hammock, to the apartment. Jeanette now had three airmen in residence, as well as Paule Vastel, who visited so regularly she was almost living there.
The airmen enjoyed complete freedom for the time they were there and often went out. Jeannette invited Nell to meet the boys and to interpret for her. She also asked her to come to the apartment whenever she was going out for the day, as she did not want them to be left alone. Nell felt that Paule’s presence was unnecessary as it was dangerous to have numerous people in the apartment socialising, dancing and having tea parties, even though it boosted the airmen’s morale. You could never rely on neighbours not to report activities to the Gestapo. In the meantime, Nell was making arrangements to go with Jean-Pierre to Evreux in Normandy, to pick up a hidden British Spitfire pilot, Flight Lieutenant Hugh Parry. He had been badly wounded, hovering between life and death for three months. The people he stayed with looked after him very well, but as he was now feeling stronger they thought it was time for him to leave. Jean-Pierre realised he had to go to Evreux with Nell, as he had been warned that Parry was too weak to walk and would need to be carried.
Jean-Pierre told Nell that Paule Vastel had been crying, begging for an opportunity to harbour airmen in her apartment. He was annoyed that she was pressuring him, but he eventually relented. Nell didn’t like the idea either, but had to agree as Jeannette was already looking after three airmen and they were very short of apartments at that time.
Nell left Daniel in the care of her mother and left for Evreux with Jean-Pierre the next day, arriving at noon. Nell waited in a café at the front of the station while Jean-Pierre went for Parry. Two hours later, a car arrived in front of the station, carrying Jean- Pierre, Parry and the farmers who had looked after him. Hugh Parry looked thin, pale and weak. He could barely stand. The train was about to leave, and they found room in a third-class carriage. With tears in her eyes, the farmer’s wife kissed Parry and told Nell, ‘Take good care of my boy, as he has been ever so ill.’ She gave Nell a bill to cover their expenses for Parry’s stay, doctors’ bills, medical supplies, etc. (After the liberation, Nell was disappointed to learn that the bill was never paid.
They boarded the very crowded train and as Parry couldn’t stand, Nell asked a young boy to give his seat to a sick man, which he did immediately. They arrived in Paris in the evening and took the local train to Paule Vastel’s apartment building. There, they had a difficult climb to the fifth floor, as Parry was more dead than alive. He was exhausted, cold perspiration flowing down his face and he could barely breathe. On arrival at Paule’s apartment, Nell gave specific instructions on how Parry should be looked after and that he was not to be taken out. Paule did not like taking instructions from Nell and was jealous of Nell’s association with Jean-Pierre, but she volunteered to get her cousin, a doctor, to visit Parry daily.
Next day, Jean-Pierre and Nell arrived with another wounded airman, Luke Felton. Nell sensed Paule’s hostility to her so she decided not to go to her apartment again.
At the end of December, the Paris team received a letter from Julien Carter telling them to be prepared to leave with all the airmen except Parry, who was still very weak but slowly recovering.
The plan was that, in the morning, Madeleine Grador would leave with Robert Griffith and Clifford Hammock; Jeanette would leave with Harvey and Cufley in the evening. They would first go to Lyon and then to Toulouse. Madeleine had already left with her airmen when they received a letter from Julien’s secretary, Annie, asking them to stop sending ‘parcels’ as ‘Julien had had a very dangerous accident and that a few parcels got lost’. This was code meaning Julien and several airmen had been captured.
This left the Paris team with four airmen still under their care: Harvey and Cufley in Jeanette’s apartment, and Parry and Luke with Paule Vastel.
They later learned that Madeleine managed to get the airmen on their journey to safety across the Pyrenees. They were the last airmen to leave through the Jules Carter Escape Line.
On 12 January 1944, Jean-Pierre gave Nell an address and told her that it was an urgent pick-up in Ecouen, where two American airmen, Andrew Hathaway and Sidney Casden, were hiding. She left the next day after asking Jacques Dupuis for a safe house where the boys could stay a few days. He gave her Marguerite Schmitz’s address. She was a 55-year-old divorcée, who had been sheltering evaders since July 1943.
On arrival at the Ecouen address she was met at the gate by Mrs Therese Labadie and her daughter, Marie-Therese, a nurse who did a lot of work for the Résistance. They had tea together, then Marie-Therese and her mother accompanied Nell, Casden and Hathaway to the station. Mrs Labadie refused to accept any money offered by Nell for having looked after the airmen.
They arrived in Paris at 6:00 pm and walked to Mrs Schmitz’s apartment, close to the station. Mrs Schmitz met them and introduced them to two other airmen, Walter Dickerman and another young man, Fred,who told Nell he was Norwegian. Madeleine Schmitz’s one-bedroom apartment was very small, and Nell wondered how she would accommodate the airmen she had just brought in. Mrs Schmitz seemed annoyed at having so many men at one time, so Nell promised she would only leave them for one night and that she would take them to a friend’s place the next morning.
A little later, Marie-Rose Zerling, code name ‘Claudette’, arrived at the apartment. Paul Campinchi, who was responsible for the Paris end of the Shelburne escape line, had recruited her as his ‘assistant’. The 35-year-old was energetic, intelligent, and fluent in English as she had spent a year at Wellesley College in Boston. She had the contacts to provide false identity papers, clothing, etc., and her knowledge of the United States enabled her to screen airmen evading capture. Her main responsibility was to organise ‘safe houses’, and she had recruited Mrs Schmitz.
During their conversation, she asked Nell what she intended to do with the airmen who remained in Paris, as she had learnt that Julien’s organisation (the Jules Carter Escape Line) was no longer active. Nell was frustrated because she felt it could take some time for Julien’s escape line to start again, and they needed to get the boys out quickly.
Claudette said she could take care of all the airmen they had in Paris and provide them with identity papers. Nell mentioned Parry, who could not travel by himself, and Claudette said that they had a very badly wounded airman leaving by car and they would take Parry at the same time. All this seemed a little too convenient, but Nell believed she had found the right person; she had total confidence in Claudette and immediately trusted her. When she told Claudette that someone had to pay expenses incurred by the airmen, she said that she would take care of everything. The only thing Nell had to do was to give her names and locations of the airmen.
Nell explained that she had to get approval from her supervisor, Jacques Dupuis, and that she would give Claudette an answer the following day. When Nell told Jacques about Claudette’s proposal, he was agreeable although sceptical. He initially thought that the best thing was to wait until Julien’s organisation got going again, but as airmen needed to be moved quickly, he told Nell to give Jeanette’s address to Claudette, but not Paule’s for the time being.
Nell came to Mme Schmitz’s the next day to take Hathaway and Casden to another apartment, as Mrs Schmitz had no room. Hathaway didn’t have a jacket, so Nell gave him her husband’s new winter coat that he had left behind when he was interned. She took them to Mr and Mrs Moussat, whom she had met through her friend, Jacqueline Frelat. For their security they asked her not to bring anyone other than the airmen to their apartment and that she must accompany them alone. Nell reassured them that their address would not be given to anyone.
When Nell met Claudette the next day, Claudette asked her for Hathaway and Casden’s address because she had to make arrangements for a British officer to interview them. To keep her agreement with the Moussats, Nell would not reveal their address. Instead, she brought Casden and Hathaway back to Mrs Schmitz’s. Nell also used the opportunity to speak to Fred, the Norwegian who had been at the apartment for some time. He claimed to have been connected with the BBC. He spoke German, Dutch, French, Norwegian and English. and seemed anxious to leave for England. As he spoke French, Mrs Schmitz allowed him to go out frequently to visit local cafés.
As a result of her discussions with Claudette, Nell saw Jeanette and told her that Harvey and Cufley would be leaving in a few days, as she had found an organisation to take care of them. The news was not received well by Jeanette, who told Nell it was none of her business and that Harvey and Cufley would only leave with her and if not, she would house them until the end of the war. Nell was dismayed by Jeannette’s outburst and told her that the objective was to get airmen back to their own countries as quickly as possible. Regardless of Jeanette’s feelings, Claudette later stormed into the apartment and hurriedly took Harvey and Cufley with her, even though they hadn’t finished their lunch.
Nell later discovered that Jeannette Huet and Paule Vastel wrongly believed Claudette belonged to the Gestapo; moreover, they had wanted to keep the airmen with them as long as they could. In the debriefing reports of Vastel and Huet after the liberation, it was apparent that they had formed a close bond and a mutual dislike of Nell, referring to her as ‘la Russe’ – the Russian.
As the war progressed, more airmen were being shot down and forced to parachute from their stricken aircraft into the north of France. As one observer commented, it was ‘raining airmen’. With ever-increasing numbers, the dangerous business of sheltering and helping them escape became all the more difficult. Their capture became a major concern for the Germans, so they started parachuting their own agents, disguised as Allied airmen, to infiltrate the escape lines. As a result, every airman underwent thorough interrogation by an English speaker from the Résistance to verify their bona fides before transfer to an escape line.
Claudette took Harvey and Cufley to be interrogated by Captain Hamilton of the British Intelligence Services. The following day, he questioned airmen Hathaway and Casden, then arranged for guides to take the four airmen by overnight train to St Brieuc and Plouha in Brittany, where they joined fifteen others waiting to be taken off by motor gun boat to Dartmouth in Devon. In the meantime, Nell learnt that Paule had taken Parry to Jeannette’s after the departure of Harvey and Cufley. She no longer wanted to look after him, as he was fussy about food and needed nursing. Luke Felton remained in Paule’s apartment.
Parry enjoyed the generosity of his new hostess; during his eight-day residence in her grand apartment he fondly remembered drinking the finest cognac, smoking expensive cigars and dining on turkey and goose washed down with champagne (all amid severe food rationing). Jeannette clothed him in her son’s tailored suits and silk shirts, which fitted him perfectly. Little did he know his idyllic existence was soon to be cut short.
Nell had now taken on the responsibility of sending the airmen through Claudette’s network, which was using the Shelburne Escape Line. Since Julien’s arrest, Nell had become emotionally rundown and needed a break, so she didn’t visit the logeurs Mrs Schmitz, Jeanette or Paule for a few weeks. Her life became more peaceful and almost felt normal.
However, this was short-lived. Saturday, 5 February 1944, she received a telephone call from Jeanette telling her that Mrs Schmitz had been taken to hospital and that she was very ill. She understood this to mean that Mrs Schmitz was in prison. Claudette had also been arrested on arrival at Mrs Schmitz’s apartment to visit the airmen.
On Monday, 7 February 1944, at a pre-arranged meeting with Jacques Dupuis, he told Nell that the Gestapo had arrested Jeannette in a pre-dawn raid that day. The Gestapo knew she had kept Harvey and Cufley in her apartment and were surprised to find another airman, Hugh Parry. They arrested them both, as well as her maid and the maid’s husband. Parry and Jeannette were taken to Fresnes prison.
Nell felt that her time was up; she couldn’t rely on the others to keep quiet about her so she started to prepare in case she needed to leave in a hurry. She made a thorough inspection of her apartment, burnt all identity cards, documents, and addresses. No evidence of her activities remained. She told Dupuis and Axel about her decision to get ready to escape, but they didn’t think anything would happen to her. She stayed in her apartment until Thursday, 10 February 1944 and visited her husband (for the last time) at the St Denis internment camp. He told her to get away from Paris as soon as possible.
That afternoon she saw Jean-Pierre; he also told her not to stay in her apartment a minute longer. Jean-Pierre also went to see Paule Vastel and told her to get away. Paule had moved her airmen to other safe houses, but she told Jean-Pierre that she would not leave because her mother and father would be arrested, as they were also working for the Résistance. Despite Jean-Pierre’s recommendations, she refused to leave, resulting in her arrest on the morning of Friday, 11 February.
On the evening of 10 February 1944, Nell took Daniel, who was sick, wrapped him in a blanket as it was snowing, and went to another address. She asked her mother and brother to stay in her apartment, warning them that the Gestapo could come any minute. They were to say that her child was sick and that she had left for Bayeux. She gave them no further explanation, keeping them in the dark for their own safety. Her brother Dimka had been able to run his business as normal because of his French citizenship. Next morning, she called her apartment to find out if everything was all right, but the telephone was hung up abruptly, so she understood that something had happened.
Nell telephoned her brother’s office the next day and he told her she should quickly leave Paris, as the Gestapo had burst into her apartment at four in the morning. There were eight men in total. Two soldiers with machine guns stayed at the door while six plain clothes Gestapo agents searched the apartment thoroughly. The only thing they found were photographs of Nell and her friends, which she had forgotten to destroy. They kept photos of Jacqueline Frelat with Nell, subsequently using Nell’s photo on wanted posters circulated around Paris.
They questioned her mother and brother for two hours and considered arresting her brother, but his real ignorance of her activities saved him. Nell had purposely not told her family about her involvement in the Résistance to protect herself, but more importantly, to protect them.
Running out of options, she got in touch with Therese Labadie, whom she had met on her previous mission to Ecouen, and asked her if she could accommodate her and her child in the Ecouen house, where Casden and Hathaway had stayed. Therese agreed without hesitation and they stayed there for six weeks. During that time, through Jacqueline Frelat, Nell got in touch with Mr Chevreuil, the Mayor of Mortrée, whom she had previously met. He said that he would find her a quiet place in Normandy.
Nell cautiously came back to Paris to pick up a few things for their stay in Normandy. During her 48-hour stay in Paris, she learned that her brother had been arrested. Fortunately, the Gestapo kept him only for a day. They questioned him again about Nell and her son. During that day, the Gestapo travelled to all the places she had been during her holidays; they went to Nogent-le-Rotrou, they visited all members of her family, and returned to her apartment. They also stayed with her mother for the whole day, but found out nothing.
Nell left Ecouen for Normandy in the middle of April, arriving at the station at noon. After a ten-kilometre walk with Daniel she located Mr Chevreuil, who was glad to help. He worried that the Gestapo may search his house at any time, so he took her to Montmerrei, a nearby village, and hid her there at Mr and Mrs Lauitin’s home for eight months until the liberation. The Gestapo were everywhere, even in small villages. In Montmerrei, they had visited the local bakery, asking the baker’s wife if she had seen a young woman with a child in the village. Three weeks after Nell’s arrival at Montmerrei, Mr Chevreuil and all his friends were arrested by the Gestapo. He was tortured and sent to Germany. Nell had the relief and pleasure of seeing him again on his safe return to France after the war.
During the six months they spent in Montmerrei, Nell struggled financially. She was paying board for her accommodation and because she had no food cards she had to use the expensive black market to buy food and clothing for herself and her son. To compound matters, her regular Paris expenses still had to be met, which included rental for her apartment, taxes, telephone, gas, and electricity. Her meagre loan from the British government could not cover expenses and she was forced to borrow money from friends. She stayed in the house and only walked in the garden, as the Gestapo were visiting the village almost weekly. Life was very dull, but Nell was appreciative of the kindness shown in the knowledge that the family were risking their lives for her.
Despite limited funds, severe rationing and poor conditions during the occupation, like many Parisiennes Nell remained fashion conscious as a matter of pride. She had a positive outlook, was always well-groomed and remained cheerful on her missions. This attitude was something she maintained all her life. Several airmen commented on her appearance. One such comment appeared in Walter Dickerman’s E&E report:
About 6 January, Nell came. Nell is very pretty, a real blond. She has a boy of four. Walking with her makes one the centre of attention; her looks alone make everyone stare and she is also a flashy dresser.
Nell was of the opinion that being ‘obvious’ made her less suspicious; also, the sight of a woman with a child was usually disarming, so German soldiers and the Vichy police, who were Nazi sympathisers, would not question her. She once said, ‘I always took Daniel along. Germans like children and his presence made my lot easier. They never suspected that a woman travelling with a child would be an underground agent.’ Her looks, however, were the cause of some jealousy among a few of her female associates, particularly Paule and Jeanette.
Arrests and Imprisonment
In early February 1944, the Gestapo came to arrest Jeanette Huet, as they had learned that she had given shelter to Harvey and Cufley. They were surprised to find another airman, Hugh Parry, in her apartment. Both were taken to Fresnes prison eleven kilometres south of Paris. Paule Vastel was rounded up after the others on 11 February 1944 and was also sent to Fresnes. During their incarceration, Jeannette and Paule were brutally interrogated by the Gestapo. Parry later reported seeing them both in Fresnes and he was shocked that they were barely recognisable owing to the treatment they had received.
During his interrogation at Fresnes, Hugh Parry naively disclosed more information than the Germans expected about the Paris landlords and guides. On 17 February 1944, he was brought face to face with Paule Vastel, and admitted to being housed by her and said that another airman was also in her apartment. The Germans also had his diary, which led to the arrest of three others, including Doctor Benassis, who had looked after him. Keeping a diary not only defied common sense, but also specific military instructions forbidding airmen to do so. Paule Vastel later wrote that her father and housemaid were arrested because of Hugh Parry’s stupidity.
After a month in Fresnes prison, Parry was sent to Stalag Luft III in Germany where he remained until the end of the war. Marguerite Schmitz was captured with Marie-Rose Zerling (Claudette) at around the same time as Huet and Parry, and was also sent to Fresnes prison. She wrongly believed that she was denounced by an associate of her ex-husband Marcel Schnerb – who was himself arrested on 7 February that year.
After the arrest of Jules Carter in January 1944, the subsequent capture of Jeannette Huet, Hugh Parry, Marie-Rose Zerling and Marguerite Schmitz in February, followed by the arrest of Paule Vastel a week later, rumours were rife as to who had betrayed them. Dr Benassis, Paule Vastel’s cousin who had treated Hugh Parry for his wounds, passed on the story he had heard from Paule. He told US Flight Lieutenant Luke Felton, who had been hiding at Paule Vastel’s apartment, that a beautiful Russian girl had betrayed Huet, Parry and Schmitz to the Gestapo. On his return to England, Felton noted this in his E&E Report.
On 28 April, Jeannette Huet, Paule Vastel and Marguerite Schmitz were condemned to death by a German military court for sheltering Allied airmen. They only avoided the death penalty when the Swiss consul, Mr Nordling, intervened and negotiated an exchange of political prisoners, ensuring their release on 17 August 1944. A few weeks later, Paris was liberated.
After the liberation of Paris, and her release from Fresnes prison where she had been badly beaten, Paule Vastel made several accusations against Nell. She claimed that Nell worked for the Gestapo and had denounced members of the Résistance. Nell became aware of the rumours and accusations made about ‘a beautiful Russian agent’ betraying the network. So she decided to tackle the issue head on and in November 1944, she asked the US military authorities to establish an official hearing calling on a dozen witnesses comprising network associates, senior officials and, most importantly, Mme Paule Vastel, who had made a written submission accusing Nell of collaborating with the Germans. At the formal military hearing held on 17 November 1944, the following comments were made by witnesses.
Jacqueline Frelat: ‘Mme Vastel had the intention of marrying Jean-Pierre Mouline, who as a consequence declared that he was the lover of Mme Gill.’
Captain Richard d’Asniere from British Intelligence on Mme Vastel’s accusations: ‘I see nothing in this story but the play of feminine rivalry.’
Jacques Dupuis, head of the Paris end of the Jules Carter Escape Line: ‘Mme Vastel had an imprudent attitude for the network.’
At the conclusion of the hearing, Paule Vastel retracted her accusations in writing, stating: ‘After examining the different points that I raised, I recognise, acting in my own free will, that I cannot find any evidence in support of my declarations and as a result, I retract these in their entirety.
In July 1945, Jean-Pierre Mouline stated: ‘Women are hell to work with. Jealousy and all that’; ‘Nell was not my mistress’; and ‘Nell did the best work. Mlle Huet was a patriot who took to lodging aviators like other people take to deep sea fishing. Mlle Vastel once disobeyed my orders; I had no use for her.’.
In her written reports, Paule Vastel displayed her bitterness toward Nell by continually referring to her as ‘La Russe’ – the Russian. Some of Paule’s documented behaviour after the hearing gives further insight into her character: On 6 December 1945, Paule Vastel and Monsieur Bataillard visited MIS-X to make a statement concerning Jean- Pierre Mouline. They said they didn’t like him and complained that he was taking all the credit for aiding parachutists. In July 1946, she wrote to the United States army asking for an investigation into the sale of American military tyres to French civilians. Captain Byron wrote back explaining that all American equipment had been ceded to the French government and he had no knowledge of any tyre sales.
The Suspicious Norwegian
Debriefing statements from Nell and various airmen mention a suspicious Norwegian only known to them as Alfred, or Fred. He was staying at Mrs Schmitz’s Paris safe house. Nell reported: ‘He spoke four languages, said he worked for the BBC and had to bail out of a plane, was taken prisoner by the Germans, escaped and came to Paris. As he spoke French, Mrs Schmitz allowed him to go out in the local streets and to cafés. It would have been very easy for him to pass on information to German agents. Comments about ‘Fred’ in the debriefing statements by Nell and the airmen who met him in Mrs Schmitz’s apartment stated: ‘Fred’s stories to us were contradictory, so we were all suspicious and careful.’
Claudette also had grave doubts about his authenticity; so much so that she passed on her suspicions, but no action was taken.
Senior sergeant Walter Dickerman spent eleven days in Mme Schmitz’s safe house at the same time the Norwegian was there. These are his comments about ‘Fred’ in his E&E report:
There was a Norwegian staying at Mme Schmitz’s with me. He called himself Fred. He claimed to have been connected with the BBC. He could speak German, Dutch, French, Norwegian and English. His story was that he had left Normandy when he was 17 years old at the beginning of the war, had escaped to England by a northern route and had worked for the BBC for three years. He said he was a private in the British army and had two brothers: one had gone to America and the other was MIA in Italy. He had done about 40 missions over France and Holland dropping arms, and had made a recording for the BBC while flying in a B-17, before being shot down over a German target. He was then captured by the Germans but escaped after two days with a Dutchman, and had gone with the Dutchman to his home, then returned to Norway and then came back to France through Denmark. Many of his stories were contradictory. Claudette said that if he could not be identified, he would be shot.
Second lieutenant Sidney Casden reported in his debriefing:
On 10 January, Nell took us to Mme Schmitz’s. Here we also met a Norwegian called Alfred, of whom I and the French were very sceptical. Alfred claimed to be a Norwegian serving as a private in the British army. He worked for the BBC and was on a fortress raid, making a recording when he bailed out, but he was caught, escaped and reached Paris. His trip from Germany to Paris was done in five days. His parents in Norway (so he said) were collaborationists. He spoke French and he told Edouard that he had studied French for five years. He told me that he had ‘picked it up’ in France. He said he had flown a PW190 and an ME 109 in England. I asked him how he had learned. He said he had just ‘picked it up’.
A review of all the reports, later substantiated by MI9, indicate that ‘Fred’ Olaf Hanson was in fact a German agent and he was responsible for leaking information to the Gestapo, which led to the many arrests. However, he vanished before French underground forces could bring him to justice.
The Cost of Patriotism
In November 1944, at the time the false allegations were being made against Nell, she had to endure another battle – this time against the bureaucracy. The British Embassy added pressure by writing to Nell demanding reimbursement of the loan they had granted during the war. This was followed up on 2 September 1946 by a visit from a representative of the British Embassy. Nell explained that she had spent far more than the loan amount by buying train tickets, food, clothing and cigarettes for Allied airmen. She was told this did not concern the embassy and that she should claim expenses from IS-9. On 9 September 1946, Nell called on Captain Byron from IS-9 British section. In his absence his secretary said she would prepare a report for the finance department; she also asked Nell to make a written claim to the Bureau de Recherches, which Nell did the same day, with a copy to Captain Byron
On 10 September, the letter detailing expenses was received and passed to IS-9’s finance department. The next day, Squadron leader MG Wills wrote to Nell, stating that as the expenses were for American evaders, her letter would be passed to the US office, MIS-X
Six weeks later, on 28 October 1946, Nell wrote to MIS-X asking for a reply to her letter dated 9 September. Captain William S. Mayeaux, MIS-X United States Army division, replied, stating that Captain Byron had forwarded her letters to him prior to his discharge from the army and he had sent them to their Finance division. Her case had been reviewed and he regretted to inform her that they had no funds available to satisfy her claims.
After operating with the constant threat of betrayal and torture; being hunted by the Gestapo and put on their most-wanted list; putting up with the accusations, petty jealousies and bickering of some comrades; and worrying about her family, friends and associates, this was the final indignity for Nell.
Despite receiving no recompense for her expenses during the war, Nell was recognised with several prestigious awards.
On 2 February 1945, she received a certificate signed by the OCM commanding officer stating that Nell had rendered valuable service in repatriating Allied airmen and that she was forced to flee her apartment as she was being hunted by the Gestapo.
14 March 1945, the provisional French government awarded Nell ‘La Croix de Guerre a l’ordre de la Brigade’ (the War Cross). The wording on the proposal for the award was as follows:
A very devoted agent, intelligent, and confident. Did an excellent job and then specialised in the repatriation service of the Allied airmen, a service which worked very well until 1943, when there were many arrests. She maintained her freedom only by her spirit of discipline, and quick decision making. She transported aviators and was of great use to us because she spoke four languages. Never giving in to fatigue, nor to the many difficulties which presented themselves.
After the military hearings had exonerated Nell, the following was recommended:
Mme Gill has been spoken of very much and has even been accused. I do not think all the same that this goes any farther than jealousy against such a pretty woman. We propose Grade 5 or 4 Citation.
John F. White Jr., Major of the Awards section MIS-X wrote to Donald Darling on 24 May 1945, recommending a grade 5 military award for Nell with the possibility of grade 4 . On 28 June 1945, Major Darling sent a memo to Captain LeFort and Major White asking that they consider upgrading the award to a grade 4 at their next meeting.
In due course, Nell received the higher, grade 4 award ‘Mention in Dispatches’, also called ‘Certificate 17’.
July 1945, IS-9 wrote a letter of gratitude to Nell for helping Allied airmen in dangerous circumstances.
16 October 1945, Nell received a King’s commendation from the British government. November 1946, she was awarded the US Medal of Freedom.
That year, she was also awarded a Certificate of Gratitude from the British government, signed by Sir Arthur Tedder, Air Chief Marshal, Deputy Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force
and a Citation from the President of the United States of America expressing ‘gratitude for assisting the escape of Allied Soldiers from the enemy’, signed by General Eisenhower.
But the award Nell was particularly proud of was a prestigious award from the French government, which referred to her as ‘a soldier without uniform’. She regretted losing it during one of several relocations during her life in Australia.
After the liberation of Paris by the United States Army in August 1944, and closure of the internment camp at St Denis, Nell immediately began to search for her husband, James. Her enquiries over the next two years and the vague reports she received from the authorities led her to the conclusion that he had been one of the casualties of the war and that he had been killed.
One afternoon in 1947, she arranged to meet a friend at a café in the Champs Élysées. While sipping her coffee, she was surprised to see a man who looked like James and remarked to her friend, ‘If I didn’t know he was dead, I would swear that’s my husband.’ When he looked up and met her gaze, the realisation struck… it was James!
They spent some time catching up and found that they each thought the other had been killed by the Gestapo. At a subsequent meeting, he explained that his situation had now changed, and he was with another woman. The dual shock of finding him alive and realising that they would no longer be a couple probably started her thinking about a total change of direction for her and Daniel.
The political instability in France, divisions in society, in-fighting between factions, severe rationing and the fact that she now needed to raise her son by herself, prompted Nell to seek a new life outside France. As she later recounted, she made an impulsive decision and chose a new country that promised opportunity: Australia.
In January 1948, Nell and her now eight-year-old son Daniel sailed from Le Havre to New York on the SS DeGrasse.
A number of the airmen Nell had assisted kept in touch with her by mail, particularly Andrew Hathaway, whose family were insistent that she meet and stay with them in New Jersey on her way to Australia. The Hathaways were delighted when she accepted. She and Daniel stayed with the family in Hillside New Jersey for three weeks, during which time she was interviewed by the local paper, keen to meet someone from a foreign land who had helped a local hero .
On arrival in Sydney, in need of employment to support her son and herself, Nell found that her fluency in multiple languages and exceptional secretarial skills, including shorthand, made her a sought-after employee.
She accepted a job as an executive secretary with a French wool-buying company, Dewavrin et fils. It was mere coincidence that the head of the company had the same name as the French Résistance hero, André Dewavrin, alias Colonel Passy; the two Dewavrins were not closely related. It was during her employment at Dewavrins that she met a Frenchman who was to become the managing director of the company and her future husband, Gustave Deltoer. They were married on 7 February 1953 and subsequently had three children: two daughters, Patricia and Michele, and a son, Marc.
Nell passed away peacefully in Sydney on 6 December 2011, aged 94 years.
All this information of her war time activities has only been discovered since her passing. How she would have reacted to the family knowing her secrets we will never know, nor will she know how proud her family is to have discovered it all and that she was, truly, a soldier without uniform.
- To read a discussion of Helene Gill’s work in the Resistance by her daughter, Patricia Gemmell, on the website of Keith Janes, go to http://www.conscript-heroes.com/escapelines/Feedback-01.htm and scroll down to the entry for 29 June 2015.
- To view a 68-page handwritten account by Helene Gill of her role in helping Allied airmen, click on https://www.americanairmuseum.com/media/30284 at the American Air Museum. After opening it, click on the “Download PDF File” and open it. Then click on it to view Helene’s 18-page typed version of her experiences followed by her 68-page handwritten description.
- For the Escape and Evasion Questionnaire on Helene Gill compiled by Allied Military Intelligence, see below:
The following description of airmen assisted by Helene Gill was provided by her son, Daniel Gill:
Airmen Assisted by Nell Compiled by Daniel Gill
The following accounts are based on the debriefing (E&E) Reports of the airmen with additional information courtesy of Keith Janes.
On 16 July 1943, the crew of a Halifax bomber from RAF 78 squadron were ordered to bail out after their aircraft was badly hit by flack. Wireless operator Ivor Sansum (MI9 1561) parachuted near Nogent-le-Rotrou, badly spraining his ankle on landing. Local farmers found him, transported him hidden under hay in the back of their horse and cart and gave him shelter in a local farmhouse. The pilot and bombardier, who were killed in the plane crash, were buried near the village by locals. During his stay in the farmhouse, Sansum was visited regularly by Nell (Hélène Gill), who was holidaying in Nogent. As she spoke English, she was the only person able to converse with him, she tried to contact people in the Résistance to get him out of occupied France.
After three weeks the British Intelligence Service in Paris sent a new recruit, Carmen, to take Sansum to a safe house in Mortrée. Nell joined Carmen on the journey and they placed him in the care of the mayor’s daughter. A few weeks later, Nell came back to Mortrée with Jacqueline Frelat to take Sansum and two other airmen, Mankowitz and Freeman, to connect them with the Jules Carter Escape Line in Lyon.
On 29 October 1943, Sansum finally arrived at the British consul’s office in Barcelona.
Charlie Mankowitz (MIS-X264) and Willard Freeman (MIS-X263) were both US flight crew on B-17 ‘Nymokymi’. On 4 July1943, after releasing its bombs, the B-17 was hit by flak over Le Mans. The plane turned north, but was hit again in the number four engine, causing the crew to bail out near Sées. Two failed to bail out and were killed in the wreckage, two were captured by Germans after ditching their parachutes. The remaining survivors, Freeman and Mankowitz, both injured, were hidden by local French farmers in a forest hut ten miles from the crash site. They remained in Mortrée for 47 days before joining Ivor Sansum on the way to safety with the help of Jules Carter Escape Line guides Jacqueline and Nell (Hélène Gill).
Trafford Curry served in the US Air Force, 100th Bomber Group as a top-turret gunner. His plane was severely hit by flak, losing a wing and setting fire to the bomb bay – where a dozen 500-pound bombs were lying. After trying to extinguish the flames, he bailed out through the fire. He landed safely in the woods, removed his flotation vest and flying boots, rolled them up in his parachute and hid the bundle in the bushes. He was quickly found by French farmers, who provided him with clothing and food. Arrangements were then made to have him taken to an escape line. He was sheltered in Jeannette Huet’s Paris house for several weeks, then taken by Nell (Hélène Gill) from Paris to the next safe house in Lyon. He eventually crossed the Pyrenees with the Jules Carter Escape Line and arrived safely in the UK on 17 January1944. His personal account is included in the book Century Bombers, The Story of the Bloody Hundredth (100th Bomb Group).
Shortly after dawn on 12 November 1943, Halifax bomber HR791 from RAF158 squadron was severely hit by German anti-aircraft fire, causing it to crash near Surville in Normandy. Flight-engineer Kenneth Skidmore (MI9 1767) bailed out, landing near Bonneville-la-Louvet. He was found and sheltered by locals in the Normandy area until contact was made with the Résistance escape network. On 10 December, Nell (Hélène Gill) and Jean-Pierre Mouline were sent to bring him to Jeannette Huet’s apartment in Paris. Four days later, Jules (John Carter) took him by train from Paris to Lyon, where he was supposed to join a group of five other evaders bound for the Spanish border. However, on arrival the guides told him they could only take a maximum of five people, so he stayed on in Jules’ apartment until 17 December when he was moved to another house on the outskirts of Lyon. On 4 January Jules took him back to his apartment and prepared him for the Pyrenees trek. Two days later he was taken with another airman on the 515-kilometre train journey to Lavelanet, 113 kilometres from Andorra. They anxiously waited in a Lavelanet hotel for more than a week, unaware that Jules and his party had been arrested by the Gestapo.
On 16 January, Skidmore with five other airmen and a guide left for Andorra. The crossing took three nights. They then spent one night at Canillo (Andorra) before moving to the Hotel Coma in Ordino (North Andorra) to recover. Two days later, they were driven to the Spanish border, which they crossed on foot to an unnamed village, from where they were collected by truck and driven to Barcelona. Skidmore then boarded a train to Madrid with a Spanish air force officer and an American civilian. After a few days in Madrid they left for Gibraltar on the 6th of February 1944.
Skidmore was demobilised in 1946 and married the same year. He later became a Methodist preacher, writing a small booklet ‘Follow the Man with the Pitcher’, which is an account of his spiritual experiences from his time of baling out over northern France until his return to England.
Norman B Cufley (MI9 E&E 1728) and John Harvey (MI9 E&E 1729) were RAF crew on board Halifax JD247, which crashed near Moy-de-l’Aisne on the night of 18 November 1943. The aircraft had already lost one engine on the way to Ludwigshaven and when two more engines failed on the return, the aircraft was abandoned to crash south of Saint-Quentin, near Moy-de-l’Aisne.
After ditching their parachutes, Cufley and Harvey were sheltered by local people until late November when they were taken to Paris by one of the Résistance guides. In Paris they were moved several times between safe houses, finally staying with Jeanette Huet for a month. Nell (Hélène Gill) arranged for the two airmen to be connected with the Shelbourne escape line by putting them under the care of a senior resistance operative code named “Claudette”
On 17 January 1944, “Claudette” took Harvey and Cufley to be interrogated by Captain Hamilton (MI9 agent Lucien Dumais) of the British Intelligence Services. The following day, Captain Hamilton questioned Hathaway and Casden, then arranged for guides to take the four airmen by overnight train to St Brieuc and Plouha in Brittany, where they joined others waiting to be taken to safety. January 28, 1944 Motor gun boat MGB503 picked them up at Bonaparte beach, and took them to Dartmouth on the on the first of eight evacuations from Plouha code-named Operation Bonaparte.
On 24 September 1943, Flight Lieutenant Hugh Parry, a pilot in the 41st Spitfire squadron, was shot down near Beauvais in France. Badly wounded, he was nursed for three months by local farmers. When he gained strength it was decided Nell (Hélène Gill) would take him to a safe house in Paris. She was accompanied by ean-Pierre Mouline as they were warned that Parry was too weak to walk and would need to be carried. After a hazardous journey they finally reached Paule Vastel’s apartment building. There, they had a difficult climb to the fifth floor as Parry was more dead than alive. He was exhausted, cold perspiration flowing down his face and he could barely breathe.
He was first looked after by Paule Vastel and her cousin a doctor. She subsequently transferred him to Jeannette Huet’s apartment. While recuperating Parry enjoyed the generosity of his new hostess Jeannette, reputed to be one of the wealthiest women in Paris. During his eight days staying in her large apartment he fondly remembered lavish dinners accompanied by fine wines.
His idyllic existence was short lived when the Gestapo raided the apartment pre-dawn on 11 February1944. He and Jeannette were arrested, interrogated by the Gestapo for two days then taken to Fresnes prison. In prison he was brought face to face with Paule Vastel and admitted to being housed by her and said that another airman was also in her flat. The Germans also had his diary, which led to the arrest of three others, including Doctor Benassis who had looked after him. Keeping a diary defied specific military instructions forbidding airmen to do so. Paule Vastel later wrote that her father and housemaid were arrested because of Hugh Parry’s carelesness.
After a month Parry was sent to Stalag Luft III, where he remained until the end of the war. He was one of the POWs who participated in the tunnel digging for the world famous Great Escape.
The following is a newspaper report from the Wiltshire Times:
Bradford-on-Avon 6 November 2015.
A 100-year-old survivor from the ‘Great Escape’ Nazi war camp celebrated his birthday last Thursday (29 October 2015) with a flypast from the RAF over his house in Bradford-on-Avon.
Hugh Parry, who has lived in Bradford-on-Avon since 1983, but was born in Kent, served in the RAF for much of the Second World War and is one of the last survivors of Stalag Luft III, immortalised in the film The Great Escape. The British officer for the RAF served as a pilot with the 601st squadron in Malta in 1942, and the 41st squadron in Britain the following year. Mr Parry was shot down by the Luftwaffe just outside Beauvais in northern France. There he was sheltered by the French Résistance, managing to evade capture for five months before eventually being tracked down by the Gestapo and taken to Fresnes prison, near Paris.
Walter E Dickerman (MIS-X 354) was the tail-gunner of B-17 42–31173, which was shot down and crashed near Hénonville (Oise). Dickerman bailed out just north of Beauvais. He was helped by locals and taken to a nearby village where he stayed with a man who ran the local garage. His helpers were unsure of his identity as he had no dog tags or escape kit with him, so they arranged for him to be interrogated by a British Intelligence Service agent, who verified him. Dickerman was moved to another village, then driven in a delivery van to Beauvais where he was given identity papers before being taken by a new guide by train to Paris. He stayed with Mme Schmitz in Paris for 11 days and met the suspicious Norwegian (Olaf/Fred), who was also staying with her. Mme Schmitz took Dickerman to the station where he joined three other airmen taking the train to St Brieuc and Plouha.January 28, 1944 he left France by British motor gun boat MGB503 on the first of eight evacuations from Plouha code-named Operation Bonaparte.
Sidney Casden (MIS-X 355) was the bombardier of B-17 42–30058, which crashed near Etampes on 26 June1943. He spent five months sheltered by local people. It was not until about 28 November that he was taken to various safe houses in Paris. Then Marie Therese Labadie moved him and Andrew Hathaway to her home at Luzarches, 33 kilometres north of Paris. On 10 January 1944, Nell (Hélène Gill) came to take Casden and Hathaway to stay with Mme Schmitz in Paris, where they met Walter Dickerman(MIS-X 354), Norman W Maybee, Paul R Saunders of the Royal Canadian Airforce and Fred, the suspicious Norwegian.
On 17 January 1944, “Claudette” took Harvey and Cufley to be interrogated by Captain Hamilton (MI9 agent Lucien Dumais) of the British Intelligence Services. The following day, Captain Hamilton questioned Hathaway and Casden, then arranged for guides to take the four airmen by overnight train to St Brieuc and Plouha in Brittany, where they joined others waiting to be taken to safety. January 28, 1944 they left France by British motor gun boat MGB503, it was the first of eight evacuations from Plouha code-named Operation Bonaparte.
After the war, Sidney Casden settled in Woodmere 30 minutes from New York City. He was the managing partner of R.C.S. Inc., a successful clothes manufacturer in New York City’s garment district. He met his wife, Catherine through work and they retired to Ormond Beach Florida in the early 1970s. He died aged 92 on 12 January 2014.
Andrew F Hathaway (MIS-X 346) was a 23-year-old B-17 top-turret gunner on a mission to bomb a Paris ball-bearing factory on 26 November 1943. The bomber was hit by enemy flak, damaging the tail section and forcing it out of formation. Four Messerschmitts then pounced on it, disabling one engine and setting fire to the bomb bay. Hathaway managed to bail out, landing near Beauvais (Oise). He walked south towards Paris, sheltering first in Pouilly and then for 16 days at Franconville. He was transferred between various safe houses until Marie Therese Labadie took him to her home at Luzarches, 33 kilometres north of Paris, where he met Sidney Casden (MISX355).
On the 12 of January 1944, Nell (Hélène Gill) was asked to pickup Hathaway and Casden and take them by train to a safe house in Paris. Entering the safe house, Nell realised alternate accommodation needed to be found quickly as there were too many people in Mme Schmitz’s small one bedroom apartment. Apart from Mme Schmitz, a suspicious Norwegian (Olaf/Fred) was there and airman Walter Dickerman was also in hiding there.
Nell promised she would only leave Hathaway and Casden for one night and she would take them to a friend’s place the next morning
A little after Nell’s arrival at the apartment a senior resistance operative, code named Claudette, came in. She had recruited Mme Schmitz and told Nell she was able to organise escape routes for the many airmen still hidden in Paris. She quickly gained Nell’s trust and confidence and arranged for the airmen to be vetted and taken out of enemy occupied France.
Early the next day Nell came to take Hathaway and Casden to another safe house. Hathaway didn’t have a jacket, so Nell gave him her husband’s new winter coat that he had left behind when he was interned. Hathaway was so grateful he later gave her his E&E silk scarf as a token of appreciation.
On 17 January 1944, “Claudette” took Harvey and Cufley to be interrogated by Captain Hamilton (MI9 agent Lucien Dumais) of the British Intelligence Services.. The following day, Captain Hamilton questioned Hathaway and Casden, then arranged for guides to take the four airmen by overnight train to St Brieuc and Plouha in Brittany, where they joined others waiting to be taken to safety. January 28, 1944 he left France by British motor gun boat MGB503 it was the first of eight evacuations from Plouha code-named Operation Bonaparte.
On Saturday 30 June 1945, 18 months after his safe return to the United States and one month after the surrender of Germany, Andrew Hathaway married 28-year-old Nina Biggard in the chapel at the Lockburn Army Air base in Columbus Ohio. Nina, a sergeant in the army, was stationed at Lockburn working as laboratory chief in the base photographic office. After his discharge from the air force, Andrew and Nina settled in Hillside, New Jersey. In 1947, they became the proud parents of a son, Andrew John. Andrew Senior later became a police officer with the Hillside New Jersey police department.
After the war Hathaway remained in touch with Nell. When his family learned that Nell and her son would be transiting in New York on their way to Australia they insisted they stay with them in their New Jersey home. They wanted to show their gratitude for the assistance given to their son.
January 23rd 1948, nine days after leaving Le Havre, the French Line S.S. de Grasse docked in New York Harbour. Nell and Daniel were met by the Hathaways and spent two weeks at their home.
During their stay with the Hathaways, the local newspaper published an article about the reuniting of Helene Gill and Andrew Hathaway. “American Airman reunited with underground aide on visit”.
Andrew Hathaway senior died in 1967, aged just 47.
List Compiled by Michael LeBlanc, Canadian Researcher of Escape and Evasion, of Contacts and Evaders Helped by Helene Gill