The scholar Buchenwald couldn't break
THE LAST DAYS OF FRANK PICKERSGILL
He was a big, ungainly egghead before the days of eggheads. At first he didn’t care much for the Nazis or the Allies. Yet his underground career and his last excruciating days at Buchenwald were filled with “unspeakable courage”
IN A LETTER written shortly after the outbreak of World War II, Frank Pickersgill, a twentyfive-year-old Canadian student at the Sorbonne in Paris, said: “I cannot imagine myself as a bloody hee-row.” Yet Frank Herbert Dedrick Pickersgill, an intellectual who shrank from combat, scoffed at military deportment and doubted the integrity of the Allied cause, became one of the great unsung heroes of the British secret service.
Captured by the Germans when they invaded France in 1940, Pickersgill made an escape to England that resembled a thrilling movie sequence. There he was commissioned into the Canadian army and seconded to a secret British parachute unit. Then he parachuted back into France to reinforce the French resistance movement. He was betrayed to the German Gestapo and recaptured. The Gestapo tortured him but he yielded no information. During an attempt to escape a second time he was brought down in a running street fight by German bullets, and sentenced to death. Finally he marched to a horrible end in Buchenwald concentration camp with a guardsman s gait and a song on his lips.
The importance of Pickersgill's story lies
not so much in his practical contribution to Allied victory as in his demonstration of resourcefulness, stoutheartedness, high spirits and composure under physical and psychological stresses that reduced many intrepid men to servility and madness. When he was Canadian ambassador to France, after the war, George Vanier, now governor general of Canada, said of Pickersgill: “He was as upright as a saint and as brave as a lion.”
The day war broke out Frank Pickersgill, a native of Winnipeg and graduate of the University of Manitoba, was doing postgraduate work at the Sorbonne with the financial assistance of his brother Jack, then secretary to Prime Minister Mackenzie King and today one of the leading members of the opposition in Ottawa. Frank Pickersgill was helping to defray his Paris expenses by working as a milkman, writing free-lance newspaper articles and translating into English the works of the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. At that time Pickersgill was a six-foot, prematurely balding blond, so powerfully built that he could have earned his living as a longshoreman. But there was about him—perhaps in his pale complexion and sensitive features, perhaps in his ill-matched and carelessly worn clothes—something that identified him unmistakably as a scholar. His hefty frame was slightly off balance owing to deafness in one ear. He trundled, lopsidedly, rather than walked, talking incessantly to companions of philosophy, religion, history and the arts, his wispy hair fluttering in the breeze and his big strong arms flailing the air.
He talked much of how the war had tossed him into a tussle with his conscience. To his brother Jack he wrote that he was torn between dark thoughts about the war, which he saw as a conflict of “two rival systems of oppression,” and emotions he described as “acute attacks of enlistitis.” When Jack Pickersgill urged him to return to Canada he replied: “If I did I would be getting out of something that all my friends have to put up with and that would be horribly unpleasant.” He added that he owed so much to the culture of France that if he did enlist !t would be in the French army.
But he didn’t have time to make up his mind.
As German tanks screeched into the northern suburbs of Paris in the second week of June 1940, Pickersgill mounted his bicycle and joined the refugees who were choking every road to the south. In his pocket he had fifty francs, then worth about two dollars. His object was to reach the protection of the Canadian legation which, a few days before, had moved to Tours, 145 miles southwest of Paris.
A BICYCLE BUILT FOR FLIGHT
As Pickersgill cycled toward Tours, German fighters dived out of the hot summer skies and machine-gunned the dense columns of fugitives. When he reached Tours, Pickersgill discovered that the Canadian legation had moved again, this time to an undisclosed destination. Anxiously Pickersgill turned west toward the coast of Brittany in the hope of picking up a steamer to England. He was delayed by a French mob that mistook him for a German parachutist, dragged him off his bike and prepared to shoot him. At the crucial moment a French policeman approached, found Pickersgill’s papers in order, and set him free. Shakily Pickersgill pedaled away.
On June 19 he reached Quimper, forty miles from Brest, and almost collided with an advance column of German tanks. For several weeks a patriotic Frenchman named Paul Philippar hid him. But on August 3 Pickersgill was picked up by a house-searching German patrol and flung into the Caserne de La Tour d'Auvergne, a
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THE SCHOLAR BUCHENWALD COULDN’T BREAK
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At 7.30 on a Sunday morning they escaped and grabbed a Paris streetcar
barracks—ironically named for one of France's greatest patriots—that housed three thousand French and eighteen British civilian prisoners.
There he saw' two German guards drunkenly club to death with rifle butts a little French prisoner. Later Pickersgili wrote: "It took half an hour and was one of the most frightful experiences I’ve ever had." Further observations of Nazi troops impelled him to the conclusion that the Allied cause was not "solely a struggle for spheres of economic influence but also a crusade against a barbarian cult that reeked of homosexuality and sadism.”
F'scape was uppermost in his mind when he was transferred late in 1940 to St. Denis, an internment camp for British Commonwealth civilians in the suburbs of Paris. It was fifteen months before he found a w;ay.
The compound was surrounded by barbed wire. Beyond the wire was a fifteen-foot brick wall. During the week end all prisoners save one were confined inside the wire. The exception was J. W. Hicks, an Englishman, whose job it was to scrub the German censor’s office every Saturday afternoon.
Pickersgili found in Hicks a trusted friend, and with him mulled over schemes for using the scrubbing job as an opportunity to escape.
Ehe censor's office stood against the outer wall. Above it. at the head of a staircase, was an apartment occupied by a German officer. In the apartment was a barred window' which looked out onto the street, and freedom.
Flicks was supposed to be guarded when he did his scrubbing. But by feigning a meek and stupid nature he encouraged the guards to get progressively slacker until the time came when they invariably left him alone. He discovered that the German officer who lived in the apartment above went off to Paris every week end, and occasionally, left the key to the apartment in the outer side of the door. This in itself was useless as a means of escape since the window in the apartment was barred.
Fven so, Pickersgili asked Hicks to carry a piece of plasticine and make an impression of the key. In this Hicks was successful.
On visiting day, once every two weeks, the internees were allowed to receive friends. Pickersgili received an old student friend named Robert Lapassade. This Lapassade. a pioneer of the French underground movement, worked at the Mint. On a visiting day early in 1942 Pickersgili slipped to Lapassade Hicks’ plasticine impression of the key. Two weeks later, when he shook hands with Lapassade, he receiv-
ed a duplicate of the key. Then in a loaf of bread in a gift parcel from Lapassade, Pickersgili found a hacksaw blade.
Hicks persuaded the Germans that he needed a helper w'ith his scrubbing, and managed to get Pickersgili appointed.
On Saturday afternoon. March 7, 1942, Pickersgili and Hicks went to the censor’s office with buckets and brushes. They climbed the staircase from the censor’s office and let themselves into the German officer's apartment. There they waited. To pass the time they made tea on the officer's hot plate. Half an hour after midnight on Sunday morning they felt sure they had not been missed. They started sawing through the bars of the window. The job was done by 4.30 a.m. Because it would
have meant certain arrest to be out in the curfew hours of darkness they waited until daylight. At seven-thirty of a sleepy Sunday morning they dropped out of the window. Casually they took a streetcar into the centre of Paris. At eleven they kept a rendezvous with Lapassade at the dare du Nord.
Lapassade sent them with an underground courier to a point where they could cross the demarcation line into unoccupied France. In Lyons. Pickersgili got in touch with a prewar friend Constance Ray Harvey of the American Consulate. She clothed him and sheltered him in a country villa. Then she set about getting him an official exit visa from the Vichy government. During the six-month wait Pickersgili made clandestine journeys to Marseilles. Grenoble, Clermont and other cities, to meet friends of Lapassade and to give them information on how to raise resistance groups.
Meanwhile Hicks left unoccupied France illegally, and escaped through Spain to Gibraltar, whence he was flown to London. There he delivered to Allied intelligence officers documents given to him by Lapassade.
Finally, Miss Harvey got permission for Pickersgili to leave Vichy France openly via Portugal, its a noncombatant with a deaf ear. In neutral Lisbon, Pickersgili received joyful cables from his brother Jack, who entreated him to return to Canada. “I’m afraid," Pickersgili replied, "that such a prospect is a pipe dream. I am in the war up to the neck. There are certain jobs I can do better than others. I think I shall be enlisted next week.”
A few' days later—it was in October 1942—Pickersgili flew to London and wats met by intelligence officers. For several weeks he lived in a garret over a flat rented by Alison Grant, Mary Mttndle anti Kay Moore. The first two were Canadians and Pickersgili had known Kay Moore since their student days in the University of Manitoba.
Pickersgili lived intensely during this brief freedom, taking extraordinary pleas-
ure out of bus rides to remote suburbs, oU movies, poring over back numbers of Canadian magazines, and visits to plays, art galleries and libraries. In the evening, according to Miss Moore, he gave lively dissertations in the flat, his subjects ranging from the constituents of mother’s milk to the sexual practices of Tibetan priests. “Never was there so much talking in our house,” she wrote.
The girls did their best to fatten him up. They took him on a farewell party to Prunier’s. Much to the surprise of the waiter the girls paid the bill. “Frank sat
unconcerned, brawny, huge and tough,” wrote Miss Moore. “He asked us when the waiter had gone, ‘Do you suppose he thinks I’m a kept man?’ It was the sort of situation Frank loved.”
On November 9, 1942, Pickcrsgill was commissioned in the Canadian army and seconded to the British army. His scholar’s indifference to soldierly pride led him into a sensational military debut. On his first appearance on London streets as an officer he wore with his khaki a dark blue shirt and dazzling civilian tie and was bustled unceremoniously, by a pair
of goggling military police, into the nearest guardroom.
The highly unconventional Captain Pickcrsgill joined a British unit officially termed the French Section of the Western European Directorate of the Ministry of Economic Warfare. But to Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, its CO, and to the four hundred men and fifty women who served in its ranks—including the indomitable British agents Odette Churchill and Pickcrsgill’s old friend Hicks—it was known affectionately as “the Firm.”
At various country houses. Pickersgill
was trained in espionage, sabo. rilla warfare, parachuting and cla.. communications. His role was to j«.. into France for liaison work with underground guerrillas in the Paris district. Exercising his right to choose his own radio operator, he selected John Macalister, the twenty-nine-year-old son of A. M. Macalister, then the editor of the Guelph Mercury. The young Macalister, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, had entered the Canadian Intelligence Corps in England as a sergeant and was promoted lieutenant on volunteering for "the Firm.” During training he had become a crony of Pickersgill’s.
On the night of June 15-16, 1943,
Pickersgill and Macalister were dropped near Blois in the département of Loir-etCher, 110 miles southwest of Paris, and were met by Pierre Culioli, a maquisard captain.
Somebody had betrayed them.
On June 21. as they were making their way to Paris by car, the three of them were arrested by the Gestapo. They were taken to Fresnes, a huge jail on the outskirts of Paris, then reserved for resistance prisoners.
Wing Commander F. F. E. YeoThomas, GC, MC, a wartime British secret service officer and a postwar British businessman in Paris, says: “Pick and Mac were given the usual beating up: rubber truncheons, ice-cold baths, electric shocks, clouts, kicks in the genitals and what have you. They were in possession of names, addresses and codes that the Gestapo badly wanted, but neither of them squealed. Although somebody had blown the gaff on the part of the underground circuit they were heading for, the remainder of the circuit remained intact. It would never have been able to do this if Pick and Mac had spilled anything.”
Gestapo prisoners rarely were told that they had been condemned to death since it was the captor’s policy to keep them in suspense on the chance that they would break down and disclose information. However, the following message, found after the war scratched on the walls of Cell 159 in Fresnes, suggests that Pickersgill knew his execution was scheduled:
“Pickersgill Canadian Army Officer 26/6/43-7/7/43. Trial and condemnation death . . . Not . . . 8/7/43 . . yet . . . and see . . . Procès et condamnation à mort ...” The rest of the phrase in French was undecipherable. One interpretation of the message is: "I was here from June 26. 1943, to July 7. 1943
under sentence of death. On July 8, 1943,
I discovered that my execution was not to take place just yet. I must wait and see.” Pickersgill evidently tried to repeat his message in French but for some reason, probably exhaustion or agony, could no longer write legibly.
In the fall of 1943, Pickcrsgill and Macalister were taken to Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and were reduced to skin and bone by torture and malnutrition. In April or May 1944 they were flown back to Paris for further questioning at a Gestapo post in 3 Place des Etat s-U nis, an office district near the Etoile.
Despite his weakness, Pickersgill’s spirit remained unquenched. Somehow, from a departing prisoner, he managed to get hold of a key. With this he let himself out of his cell on the third-floor landing and laid out a Ukrainian guard with a bottle. Bernard Guillot, a fellow prisoner, says: “Fie came within two fingers of freeing the whole prison.”
Other guards, however, hearing the noise, rushed up the stairs. Pickersgill charged through them and reached the second floor. Here he sprang through the
glass of a landing window and dropped to the sidewalk thirty feet below. He sprained an ankle but tottered into some ornamental gardens in the centre of the square. Guards ran out of the Gestapo building and gave chase. There was a hectic game of hide and seek among the bushes. Guards opened fire from upper windows of the Gestapo building whenever Pickersgill broke cover. Even after he was hit twice with heavy-calibre bullets Pickersgill kept on running. It was only when a third and fourth bullet hit him in the legs that he collapsed and was recaptured.
Evidently the Gestapo still hoped for information from him, for they kept him alive. At a hospital his wounds were perfunctorily dressed. When he rejoined Macalister at Fresnes he was limping badly, one arm was still in bandages, and his face was swollen and gory. Macalister was also bloody from a beating.
On August 8, 1944, Pickersgill and
Macalister were handcuffed together, taken to the Gare de l’Est and united with a batch of thirty-five other British and French prisoners, all from the underground. The captives were split into two groups and crammed into two compartments of a third-class railway coach. A third compartment contained a number of British women parachutists, among them Violet Szabo, a Londoner, and Inyat Khan, an Indian, both of whom eventually died heroines’ deaths in the women’s concentration camp of Ravensbruck.
In Pickersgill’s compartment was Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas. who had been arrested on his way from a secret meeting at which the final chain of command for the French Forces of the Interior, a union of many underground groups, had been drawn up. Also among Pickersgill’s companions, were Robert Benoist, a
French auto racing driver, and Guy Sabourin, a twenty-year-old French Canadian whose activities in the French underground have not yet been publicized.
As senior officer, Yeo-Thomas took charge. He organized a drill in which the various handcuffed pairs would take turns at standing, squatting against the walls and lying on the floor. Before the train pulled out, however, the captives were panting, sweating and thirsting in the August heat. I he guards refused to bring them water.
"Pickersgill and Macalister,” says Yeo-
Thomas, “were in worse shape than anybody else. Pickersgill was in agony from his wounds. But both showed remarkable fortitude.
"Then Pickersgill started joking. They weren't particularly funny jokes. 1 can't remember one of them. At first they weren't appreciated. Then suddenly everybody realized that Pickersgill was only trying to keep them all from going crazy. They cheered up a bit and took a grip on themselves."
Outside Verdun the captives were transferred to trucks and carted to Saar-
brücken, a grimy coal - mining town on the German side of the Franco-German frontier. Here Yeo-Thomas, first out of the truck, received from a guard a sickening blow in the face. Fach of the others suffered the same treatment as he alighted. All had to run a gantlet of blows and kicks toward a hut.
After a few days in Saarbrücken the thirty-seven male captives were put in a box car and hitched to a freight train. At once Yeo-Ihomas formed an escape committee. The plan was to jump out of the moving train, manacles or no man-
acies, during the night. Pickersgill, whose shattered leg left him little chance of success, and Macalister, who was equally handicapped hy being handcuffed to Pickersgill, were among the keenest to try. "They were plug-full of guts,” says YeoThomas.
Some of the prisoners, however, believed that they were now on their way to an Oflag where they would receive the treatment accorded officers taken in open warfare. The fainter-hearted few insisted they would be shot in reprisal if the others jumped, and threatened to warn a German gun crew riding on the flatcar behind if any escape attempts w'erc made. Yeo-Thomas had difficulty in preventing a fight between the factions. Soon there was so much talk about the Oflag that some of the more stouthearted captives also began to see it as a mirage.
And so, on August IX, 1944. the party reached Buchenwald. In 1945 the world was shocked by photographs of the ninety thousand wraiths who were freed from this hell by advancing Allied armies, and
of the butcher’s bone heaps of rotting cadavers.
Pickersgill’s group were put in Block 17, an isolation section. Instead of the ringed uniforms worn by the political prisoners they were given scarecrow’s clothing. Their heads were shaved as bald as eggs. All around them travesties of men shambled blindly through the dust holding out empty bowls like beggars, or staggered away from the snapping jaws of trained dogs.
In this nightmare, according to YeoThomas, Pickersgill seemed to become possessed of "superhuman spirit.” I he student who had once laughed affectionately at a group of French pollas straggling along with their tunics undone and flowers in their caps now became a zealot for military bearing.
Yeo-Thomas had given orders that members of the group should march about like the soldiers they were and not creep as they had been trained to do in the underground. Pickersgill was the first to approve of this. He recognized it as a
last effort to bolster morale against the suck and drag of the Stygian conditions.
When a ragged section went off to draw its rations Pickersgill would march at its head, chin up, shoulders back, singing. For a moment or two his followers would be too miserable to fall into step or take up the refrain. Then the poignant loneliness of Pickersgill’s bearing and voice would shame them and they too would start marching and singing.
The camp rules laid down that every military prisoner, no matter what his rank, should salute all German officers. On sighting an officer in the distance Pickersgill would halt his section and order it to disperse behind huts. Then, when the officer had passed, he would reform the section and march on. YeoThomas says: “In avoiding the according of military honors to human rattlesnakes. Pick helped our men to hang on to the last shreds of their pride.”
It was Pickersgill who laboriously collected the bits of pasteboard and drops of paint that enabled the thirty-seven to
manufacture a set of playing cards and stage bridge drives. Desmond Hubble, one of the English officers, had contrived to save a set of portable chessmen. Pickersgill not only gave the accomplished players a good match but spent time teaching chess to those who didn't know how to play, a tedious task at the best of times.
When a brooding silence fell upon the hut Pickersgill would utter a challenging statement, then fan the tiny grudging sparks of response until he had a widespread discussion crackling. Any subject under the sun, from movie cartoons to Picasso, from ragtime to Mozart and from westerns to Shakespeare, was sufficient to bring forth from his brain the sprout of an idea that stimulated the others to thought and self-expression.
Toward the end of August 1944. Allied bombers, attacking a nearby factory, accidentally dropped bombs on Buchenwald, killing four hundred and wounding a thousand inmates. Yeo-Thomas remembers Pickersgill standing out in the open, waving his arms, cheering, and betting a thousand dollars that they’d all be home by Christmas.
On September 6, 1944. however, the
camp loud-speakers blared: "Achtung!
Die folgenden Gefangene von Block 17 mussen sich sofort heim Turm mehlen (The following prisoners from Block 17 must report to the tower immediately): Huhhle, Kane, Benoist, Allard, Defendin'., De ta I, Leccia, Macalister, Mayer, McKenzie, G arel, Garry. G celen, Pickersgill, Rechenmann, Steele. Achtung! Achtung!"
Some knew what it meant. Others suspected. All hoped for the best. Without a word they fell in. in threes, with Pickersgill at the head of one of the files. Al Pickersgill’s command they marched off. From the hut the remaining twenty-one watched them receding, a threadbare, forlorn iittle band, trying to march like guardsmen. Up in front they could see Pickersgill, limping and occasionally staggering as his unhealed wounds, malnutrition and slight deafness combined to unsteady him. a cracked husk of a man. but unbroken.
Pickersgill began flailing the air with his hands, just as he had done on the campus years before. But now he was no longer celebrating André Gide, passing judgment on Neville Chamberlain or analyzing St. Augustine. He was beating time. And suddenly there drifted back to the hut the quavering notes of significant songs. First, for Benoist, who marched at Pickersgill’s side, "Madelon." Then, for Guy Sabourin, the little Montreal youth who was to die a few days later, “Alouette.” Then, for Yeo-Thomas, who was due for a freak of luck anti escape, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”
That night the marchers were thrashed and flung into a bunker. An emaciated French priest. Father Georges Stenger from Lorraine, stumbled a mile across the camp and pleaded for permission to administer the last sacrament to the Roman Catholics. He was refused. Stenger stayed all night outside the bunker praying and managed to slip into the captives, via a guard who began to show a sense of shame, wafers of the Sacred Host.
The following night the sixteen were taken to the crematorium and the doors were slammed. Once more Father Stenger knelt outside and prayed. Later he recalled that he’d heard scuffling noises and faint cries of "Vive la France!” “Vive l’Angleterre!” and "Vive le Canada!”
Yeo-Thomas says: "Frank Pickersgill
was a man who knew how to live and how to die. You don’t come across many who can do both quite so well. You should not forget him over there in Canada.” it