The idea of writing The Shelburne Escape Line: Secret Rescues of Allied Aviators by the French Underground, the British Royal Navy, and London’s MI-9 began when I moved to France at the age of nineteen to study at the Université de Grenoble. Looking back at my journal entries, I realized my experiences planted the inspirational seed for the book. Eight years after World War II ended, I debarked from the French ship, Liberté, to spend my Junior Year studying at the Université de Grenoble, capital of the Alps.
The following are journal entries from my time in France.
I watch as the crane lowered my wardrobe streamer trunk onto the quay at Cherbourg, France. Its heavy brass locks, reinforced metal corners, and hinges glistened in the sunlight. Plastered around its black leather sides were tourist labels from Belgium, France, and Ireland—countries my father had visited on his graduation trip from college in 1924. Packed inside the trunk are 12-months worth of my clothing and personal items I know will be scarce in France. I finally clear customs and arrange for my trunk to be sent to Paris.
In Paris I find that my trunk has not yet arrived, so I check into the hotel. It is 10 p.m. before I finally sit down to eat. I don’t recognize anything on the menu, so I pick the cheapest thing and went from there. My meal turns out to be sort of sandwich. I start to pick it up with my fingers, but notice others eating their sandwiches with a knife and fork. These French are so sophisticated!
It is two days before I collect my belongings and travel to Grenoble where I will live with my French family.
October 20, 1953
After my university classes I eagerly head uphill on my second-hand three-speed bicycle to the village of La Tronche to spend as much time as possible with my new family. M. & Madame are so kind. I like playing their upright piano and teaching English to my eleven-year-old sister, Monique. Sometimes we listen to 78 rpms of operas and symphonies. She gives me the bises (kiss on both cheeks) every night before she goes to bed. The meals are superb. (Much better than at Pomona College.) I have a room on the second floor with a fireplace and nice furnishings. French doors open to a balcony that faces east, overlooking Grenoble, so I get the morning sun. Below I can see the family’s little garden where rows and rows of vegetables grow for the enhancement of our nightly meals. In the valley the city spreads out from the banks of the Isère River, meeting foothills that rise 10,000 feet to snow-covered peaks, and at night the lights of the city glisten from east to west. It's cold at night. Monsieur won't turn the central heating on until the end of October. (No hot water, either, so I take very quick cold showers.)
October 24, 1953
Today, a Sunday, makes me really appreciate living chez Jouvent. It is a family day when everybody sits at the same table. Monsieur and Madame invite another couple, so we sit for hours discussing their experiences during the War, politics and the differences between France, the U.S. and Britain. It's relaxing to be with people who are so open to all topics.
I hear nothing but complaints about France from the Americans compared to Switzerland. I finally have enough of their complaints and say, "Look, Switzerland hasn't been ravaged by two wars like France, so cool off."
November 24, 1953
I’ve been in France a little over two months. I’m feeling more and more at home everyday. I love the people; their lifestyle; their outlook on life. I know they will leave a lasting impression on me.
Tonight I stay up late talking with Monsieur Jouvent about the War and now have a better conception of what these people went through. When I hear Americans say, "They just can't forget the war, can they," I have to grit my teeth and try to answer in a civil way. Ten years ago the Germans tortured about 30 local doctors, engineers, and professors. Monsieur told about one doctor, the youngest of all the men, who was tortured so much he couldn't talk, but he had the strength left to hurl himself out of an open window next to the torture table—four stories up. Others were dunked in boiling water and freezing water, alternately. Another group of French prisoners were forced to run in front of Germans jeeps that ran over them while the occupants stood by and laughed. Monsieur just kept shaking his head and saying, "I just don't understand what goes on in their brains.”
We are pleased to announce that Réanne’s poignant book, The Shelburne Escape Line: Secret Rescues of Allied Aviators by the French Underground, the British Royal Navy and London’s MI-9 has just been published in hardback by Pen and Sword Books, United Kingdom’s largest publisher of military history.
This book, which tells the story of the Shelburne Line—a secret evacuation route that operated during World War II from the Breton coast of France—pays tribute to the audacity and heroism of the men and women of the French Resistance and Allied military personnel. The Shelburne Line was established at the end of 1943 by two French-Canadians, Lucien Dumais and Ray Labrosse, who worked as agents for a secret branch of MI-9, the British military intelligence agency responsible for providing assistance to Allied servicemen stranded behind enemy lines. Working with the French Resistance, Dumais and Labrosse arranged for groups of Allied airmen to be taken from "safe houses" in Paris by train to the town of Plouha, on the southeast coast of Brittany. Volunteers in Plouha would then hide the men in local houses until conditions were suitable for sailors from a British motor gunboat, the MGB 503, to collect them in rowboats from a secluded beach and transport them back to England. Eight successful evacuation operations were conducted on moonless nights between January and August of 1944.
A total of 121 Allied airmen and nine French agents were rescued from beneath the noses of German sentries on the cliffs above. Though the risk of betrayal remained ever present, the Shelburne Line was never infiltrated by the Gestapo.
The book contains personal stories of airmen and others who were caught up in the war in France. Some recount the experiences of American pilots whose bomber aircraft were damaged by flak or enemy fighters, obliging them to seek emergency landing fields or bail out with their crews over France, to find their way to safety. Two stories are about French youths, longtime friends of Réanne, who were too young to join the fight for their homeland but were marked for life—literally, in one case. These are intimate accounts of ordinary people that reinforce the fact that war touches everybody.