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Library Reference Number: 168

RAF Aircrew and Resistance Workers in Europe WW2

Gabriel Cochet - Numero 1, CMO Resistance Section 138

Harry Fisher, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA.

Although wartime experiences were too horrific to be mentioned by RAF aircrew and resistance workers immediately after the events took place, it would be unjust if the courage and bravery exerted for the benefit of others, should be forgotten. It is almost impossible to describe all that occurred, but by focusing on the life of one such worker, it may in some way show our respect and pay tribute to all those hundreds of men and women who risked everything, in some cases sacrificed their lives, in helping aircrew who had been shot down over Europe.

Vic-sur-Aisne. Gestapo arrested Gabriel Cochet in this buildingTrying to gauge the extent of their sacrifice, it is estimated that more than 750 men were saved by the Comète Escape Line but about the same number of French and Belgian Resistance workers died in prison and concentration camps. Others were shot, beheaded or assassinated or died from the terrible conditions prevailing in the camps. The Comete escape line was only one route of many, but the following account describes how, for one man, the whole sequence of events began, and how his story came to light when Saltire Branch member Harry Fisher was brought into his presence after being shot down over France.

Gabriel Cochet had risen to a position of importance among French resistance workers, in that it was he who arranged interrogations, and finally decided if Harry Fisher was a genuine RAF aircrew member worthy of risking life and limb to help on his way to escape back to UK. But where did it all start for Gabriel Cochet to bring him into this high-risk situation, knowing full well, that if his activities were discovered it would mean death or concentration camp?

Born in Lavaqueresse en Thiérache on July 21 1904 into a family of small farmers, Gabriel Cochet was a man of the earth. He had learned to fight to gain respect, to fight after the great war to help his parents who had taken over the farm Faverolle. He was also struggling to be able to study at the Veterinary School at Maisons Alfort. Despite his father's good prospects, the son of the small farmer had unfortunately to give up his studies because he had to work long hours at the farm helping his father, as outside labour was too expensive to hire.

Gabriel Cochet took advantage of an opportunity to take over a farm at Hurtebise on the Chemin des Dames. Unfortunately, a crisis struck his wheat farm and forced him to sell. He then became head of agriculture and head of the distillery Coeuvres and Valsery until 1937 before becoming a director of the grain silo of Aisne Agricole Vic sur Aisne. When war came along, Gabriel Cochet was one of those men who cherished freedom too much to accept without a word checks, requisitions and rationing. For him, there was no question of participating in demonstrations ordered by the Vichy government. Gabriel was uncertain what to do when it was necessary to be wary of everyone, and for that reason he was suspicious of making contact with the many risky networks that organized here and there.

Gabriel Cochet had a friend, André Bataillard who worked on two steps silos of Aisne Agricole. Andre was able to escape the STO (Service du Travail Obligatoire) forced labour in Germany, by presenting a medical certificate of convenience. The two men knew each other well, Andre Bataillard often returned to the capital with his bike and could have contact with "The Army of Volunteers," a national movement well structured. They decided on both entering this movement of resistance in December 1940 but Gabriel Cochet wanted to engage much more in acts of sabotage and preparing his men to participate in forthcoming battles for the liberation of France he considered would shortly be taking place. In early 1943, in agreement with key members of its network, he joined the CMO (Civil & Military Organisation) in the region of Soissonnaise. Gabriel's group was entrusted with the running of CMO 138, and in March 1943 he was appointed Numero 1 with rank of Captain and pseudonym "Gaby." Andre Bataillard became his deputy with rank of lieutenant and pseudonym "Baby." What had started as numbers of individuals wishing to escape STO deportment to Germany's labour camps, became ideal recruitment material for Gabriel's intention of becoming more active.

From very small beginnings, and only a handful of resistance workers, Gabriel built up a force of over 240 workers intent on organising escape routes for allied aircrew members shot down over their country. Daring chances had to be taken, as the Germans were masters at placing false "airmen and escapees" into the arena, trying to entice resistance workers to fall into their traps and exposing their true role in helping the Allies. Resistance workers guided evaders into escape routes, one of which was the mountain trail over the Pyrenees into Spain. From there, the next step could be Gibraltar and home. Alternative routes led to neutral Portugal, but it transpired that none of these actually applied to Harry, as his escape route over the Pyrenees was foiled within sight of the Spanish border by German border guards.

The time was now approaching the end of April/beginning of May 1944. After a series of scary experiences coming close to discovery, Harry Fisher was eventually taken by resistance workers in a farm cart to meet Gabriel Cochet, where lightly covered in straw he was able to see German guards on the way, always on the look-out for prisoners or escapees on the run. Miraculously, and despite the close German presence, resistance workers managed to hustle Harry Fisher into Gabriel Cochet's house to be interrogated by the resistance leader. Harry stated in his own account, "Our time with Gabriel Cochet was short although thoroughly interrogated by him in French, and though his wife who spoke a little English. Satisfied that we were the genuine article, it was explained that English-speaking Germans in RAF uniforms would knock on doors saying they had been shot down thus trying to trap Resistance workers.

Incredibly, just less than two months later, a highly dramatic scene occurred at the house where Harry Fisher had been interrogated by Gabriel Cochet. At 16.00 hours on Wednesday 29th June 1944, a German agent posing as a "farmer" entered the office of Gabriel, while members of the Gestapo were waiting in hiding at a nearby bridge. After receiving an "all clear" signal from the fake "farmer", four civilians and two Feldgendarms entered the house and Gabriel was immediately arrested then placed in a car. Before reaching the car, the group came face to face with Andre Bataillard and Pierre Henin who had returned to resume discussions, having had an earlier meeting; they too were arrested.

Harry Fisher having passed scrutiny by Gabriel Cochet, was making his way to and from safe houses, but he was eventually apprehended at the Spanish border, and imprisoned by the Germans in Toulouse. Gabriel was taken to Kommandantur where the Gestapo had taken up residence. He was harshly treated and severely interrogated for seven hours, subjected to the "bath torture" (threatened drowning), then suspended by arms twisted behind his back for two hours. Although having been betrayed himself, Gabriel was told names, but refused to confirm the names of others engaged in resistance work and regardless of any form of torture. Realizing Gabriel was deadly serious in not giving names, he was told that much worse treatment was to come. Gabriel was taken to Neuengamme Concentration Camp on 28th July 1944.

Sandbostel Concentration CampAs the Allies came closer, he was taken on a six night journey in cattle trucks to Sandbostel Concentration Camp, arriving there on 13th April 1945. Already weakened and sick, Gabriel contracted typhus, but continued to fight for his life in deplorable conditions. Of the 1300 less able prisoners in his group, more than 700 died between 7th and 15th April 1945 as a result of mistreatment. The British Army reached Sandbostel on 29th April intending to release the prisoners, but by this time the Germans had determined to avoid the prisoners being released, and decided to take them to Lubeck in four ships.

Gabriel, who by this time had the registration mark 40060 on his right arm and destined for extermination, was put on board the vessel Athena, and which along with the other "hell ships" were the subject of a horrendous error. The RAF had not been warned that the four ships were loaded with prisoners and proceeded to bomb them with disastrous effect. This occurred on 3rd May, and resulted in more than ten thousand deportees drowning or suffocating inside locked holds. Others who struggled to free themselves in the water were machine gunned by the Nazis. By some miracle, the Athena managed to return to the dock but only 200 people were saved. Gabriel Cochet was one of them.

Confronted with the threat of a massive outbreak of typhus spreading even further; one British doctor admitted they had considered burning the large number of bodies to prevent the disease spreading on an even larger scale. It seemed an unbelievable twist of fate, that those thousands of deportees destined for extermination camps, were now dying in such horrific circumstances before even reaching those camps. During this period, Gabriel recalls that he had no food to eat from 7th April to 4th May. Initially taken to Brussels, Gabriel Cochet was eventually repatriated, and lying on a stretcher in a train at midnight on 30th May, he arrived at Compiegne. He was able to phone and hear his wife Eugenie's voice and he reached home the very next day. Before being arrested by the Gestapo he had weighed 90 kilos but now weighed a mere 40 kilos yet still alive and surrounded by friends and family. This remarkable man, despite incredible hardship and adversity survived until 1998, dying at the age of 94 years.

This is only one of hundreds of other accounts describing the relationship between evader aircrew and resistance workers who aided their escape. Many of those stories will forever remain untold but what of Harry Fisher whom Gabriel Cochet had interviewed and sent him on his path to freedom? Harry's story is told in our Website Library, Index Nos. 13, 14, 94, 143, 148 & 150. Index No.150 includes the RAF Escaping Society's tribute to the men and women who assisted them escape and in some cases making the ultimate sacrifice in doing so. With the help of the French Maquis, Harry Fisher returned to UK by a Special Duties aircraft on 3rd September 1944 little realising what had happened to Gabriel Cochet following his meeting with him. Even when Harry returned to France in the post war period to meet and thank some of the resistance workers for their help. Gabriel Cochet mentioned none of the hardships he had suffered. This was typical of the man. It is only in recent years and through the medium of the Internet, that Harry Fisher discovered the magnitude of the problems, and depth to which the Germans had descended in the treatment of their prisoners, and how close he had come to sharing the fate of those who offered him help in his escape to freedom.

Harry states "The main object of the RAF Escaping Society (of which I was a member from its formation in 1945) was to keep contact and assist helpers who were in need in whatever way. The Continental Standard was laid up in the British Embassy in June 1995, we were then royally entertained by various French Organisations followed by a short march up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe with military bands playing all the way. Even then, the full extent of the courage, sacrifice and bravery shown by the Resistance Workers was not fully known. During my post-war meeting with Gabriel Cochet, the harrowing experiences of incarceration and torture were never mentioned."

Harry Fisher concludes: "I can only confirm the statement made by Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon in 1995 when he said. "You would be the first to acknowledge that none of this would have been possible without the Helpers and you, above all, would know that, however long it took to reach safety, whether it was days, weeks or even months, there was an end game and when you reached it, God willing, you would be free. For your Helpers, that was not the case. They had everything to lose, their family, their home and overshadowing it, the persistent fear, the threat of concentration camps and execution - a pressure that was there for years. I can understand why you feel so strongly and have committed yourselves so valiantly to the links with the Helpers. From my own personal experience and recent details regarding the fate of one such Helper, Gabriel Cochet, I now have complete understanding and reason to be grateful for all the help given."

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