Subscribe to Scotiana's blog RSS feed in your preferred reader!
Follow-Scotiana-On-Twitter

Twitter Updates

    follow me on Twitter
    December 2019
    S M T W T F S
    « Nov    
    1234567
    891011121314
    15161718192021
    22232425262728
    293031  

    Archives

    Follow Me on Pinterest

    Dr. Donald Caskie of Islay (1902-1983), the ‘Tartan Pimpernel’ ..

     
    Bonjour Marie-Agnes, Janice et Jean-Claude !   🙂
    Hello again from Scotland !   How are you all today ?
    .
    A few weeks ago we saw Remembrance Sunday, which in Britain has now for a hundred years been observed on the second Sunday of November.  In recent times though, it has become common also to commemorate Armistice Day, recalling the actual moment at 11.00 on 11 November 1918 when the slaughter of the Great War ended.  That there should now be – in most years – two commemorations, is a due recognition, I think, that the events of this greatest catastrophe of modern times have passed beyond living memory.  Mr.Harry Patch, the ‘Last Fighting Tommy’  – Britain’s last surviving soldier of the Great War – died of natural causes in 2009.  Briefly the oldest man in Europe, Mr.Patch was in his 112th year.
    .
    All Hell Let Loose The Forgotten Highlander The Will to Live Scotiana triptych

    All Hell Let Loose / The Forgotten Highlander / The Will to Live / @Scotiana triptych

     
    Tragically, war broke out again in 1939, this second conflict spreading around the world and causing an even larger death toll than did the Great War.  This was Total War, warfare on an industrial scale in which civilians died in vast numbers.  Russia alone is estimated to have lost 23 million people.  Almost 75 years have now passed since the ending of the Second World War, yet significant books continue to appear – even a single-volume history of the entire conflict:  All Hell Let Loose, The World at War 1939 -1945 by Max Hastings (Harper, 2011).  Sir Max’s work of over 700 pages has been hailed by the reviewers as a masterpiece.  As recently as 2010, The Forgotten Highlander by Alistair Urquhart appeared (Little, Brown), and in 2013 Len Baynes’ The Will to Live (Pen & Sword Books – a reference to the maxim ‘The Pen is Mightier than the Sword’).  Both of these last books describe the brutal cruelty soldiers endured as prisoners of the Japanese.
    .
    The Tartan Pimpernel Donald Caskie Birlinn 1999

    The Tartan Pimpernel Donald Caskie Birlinn 1999

     
    Dear friends, the book I’d like to say something about today is another personal account from the darkest days of the Second World War, although written this time not by a soldier, but by a pastor, a minister of religion – Dr. Donald Caskie from the Scottish island of Islay (‘eye-lah’).  The Tartan Pimpernel was a best-seller when it came out in 1957.  Without any preparation at all, Donald Caskie found himself thrust into the centre of a great adventure; for several years, as part of a top-secret network, he took part in the rescue from occupied France of Allied servicemen and escaped prisoners of war.  This was extremely dangerous work, for the occupying Nazi forces were utterly ruthless and assisted by Gestapo (secret police), traitors and informers.  It becomes immediately clear to us, I think, that Dr. Caskie’s bravery – like that of the many French Resistance fighters – was not the bravery of an hour or a day or a single event, but a quite outstanding and enduring courage.  In Donald’s own case, I’m confident that this indomitable courage, this inner strength, was a product of his unshakeable religious faith.
     
    I’ve searched in vain for a comprehensive biography of Dr. Caskie – perhaps no such book has yet appeared.  But I did come across an excellent piece of writing posted online 13 or so years ago by Dr. Robert S Rayburn (Faith Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, Washington, USA), who had corresponded with Donald Caskie, and I gladly acknowledge my debt to Dr.Rayburn in quoting a few of his words.  Recognising the absolutely central place of religious belief in Caskie’s life, I’d like to reproduce – in Donald’s own words – his account of how he was converted to Christianity:  “One evening, after a time of searching, I knelt down at my bedside and surrendered myself to Christ.  The words which came to me as I knelt that night were words which our minister uttered at the close of his sermon: ‘Whoever comes to me, I will never turn away’.  There was nothing emotional or spectacular about it.  This simple act of faith completely changed my life and made me, and all things, new.”  (This concept of being changed – converted – is of great importance in the tradition of the reformed churches.)

    .

    Islay Bowmore Church © 2015 Scotiana (1)

    Islay Bowmore Church © 2015 Scotiana

    Bowmore Main Street Islay Scotland © 2015 Scotiana

    Bowmore Main Street Islay Scotland © 2015 Scotiana

    .
    I cannot say, but would guess that Donald Caskie was probably in his teenage years at this time.  He had been born in 1902 at Bowmore, Islay, into a family ultimately of seven boys and one girl – I have been unable to discover the birth order.  His parents were humble crofters, but Donald was highly intelligent and well fitted to academic study.  From Bowmore village school he progressed to Dunoon Grammar School as a boarder, no doubt having won a bursary to help meet the expense, although I have no record of this.  Donald pays tribute to his lady teacher at Dunoon, who appears to have given him a love of France as well as a thorough grounding in the country’s language.  It’s pretty clear, I think, that Donald Caskie had a particular flair for language-learning; a native Gaelic speaker, he mastered French – in his own words – ‘as well as any learner ever does’.  In connection with his studies for the ministry, he would have needed Greek and Hebrew – and Latin too, of course.
     
    Donald graduated from the University of Edinburgh and from New College in 1928, with a higher degree, a doctorate, in Divinity.  Further studies – and some travels – followed, before young Dr. Caskie was licensed to preach and ordained to the ministry of the (reformed) Church of Scotland in 1932.  His first charge was at Gretna, almost on the English border – the town which, ironically, had grown up around the top-secret explosives factory of the Great War. (Largest in the British Empire, this installation stretched for a distance of nine miles down to Longtown, Cumbria.)  Three years later – in 1935 – a fresh and exciting chapter opened in Donald’s life, when he was called to the Scots Kirk in Paris.
    .
    The Scots Kirk 17 rue Bayard in Paris (8ème) Source Wikipedia

    The Scots Kirk 17 rue Bayard in Paris (8ème) Source Wikipedia

     
    Olypic sprinter and misssionary - Source Wikipedia

    Eric Liddell Scottish Olypic sprinter and misssionary – Source Wikipedia

    A small congregation of the Church of Scotland had existed in the French capital since 1858, acquiring in 1885 the building in the Rue Bayard formerly used by the American Episcopal Church.  (It was here, close to the elegant Champs Elysees, that the Scottish Olympic sprinter and missionary, Eric Liddell, had preached in 1924.  Wishing to observe the Sabbath, he had refused to run that day.)  Dr. Caskie did not hesitate to attack from his pulpit the Nazi regime in Germany, where Adolf Hitler had attained supreme power as Chancellor in January 1933.  As Hitler’s policies and plans became ever more aggressive and extreme – with talk of racial hatred and Germany’s supposed right to extend its borders at the expense of its neighbours, Lebensraum – Caskie became more outspoken in his condemnation.
    .
    Dachau-camp-1947

    Dachau-camp-1947

     
    Only for the youngest readers, I would think, do I need to say that the Nazi regime was both authoritarian and totalitarian.  Germany had become a state where only a single party – the Nazi Party – was permitted.  There was no freedom of speech, no further discussion of politics, and no possibility of changing the government by peaceful means.  The country was trapped – there was no way back.  Just two months after coming to power, Hitler had opened the internment camp at Dachau on the edge of Munich to punish the tiny minority who might dare to speak out against him.  His control over every aspect of daily life became ever tighter.  Secret police, the dreaded Gestapo, watched over the population.  The Wehrmacht, the German Army, with its honourable traditions, had become subservient to the Nazi Party, as had the courts of law and everything that mattered.  Party and State merged together, to the point where anyone who doubted Hitler’s policies was made to feel unpatriotic.  It was dangerous to say anything against the Nazis – colleagues at work might report you to the Party, and you would lose your job.  And if you attracted attention in this way, the prospect of a spell in the Dachau work camp became more real; you had been warned.  This was totalitarianism.
    .
    Hitler with Nazi Party members in 1930

    Hitler with Nazi Party members in 1930

     
    We mustn’t forget that Hitler did not come to power in circumstances that were in any way ‘normal’.  Germany had been in turmoil, on the brink of revolution and civil war, and there was a deep longing for stability and security.  Many who did not consider their opinions extreme in any way, supported Adolf Hitler in the early days – among them Hans-Helmut Peters from Hanover, the Lutheran pastor who was to save Donald Caskie’s life, as we shall see.  The two men were to become close friends.
    Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1994-036-09A,_Paris,_Parade_auf_der_Champs_Elysée

    Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1994-036-09A,_Paris,_Parade_auf_der_Champs_Elysée

     
    Hitler mobilised all of German society and was clearly preparing for war.  His attack on Poland in September 1939 precipitated the second great conflict in Europe, and in June 1940 it was France’s turn to be overwhelmed by the most powerful armed forces the world had ever seen.  Up to one half of the population of Paris, Caskie estimates, tried to leave the city – those who had somewhere else to go.  The long columns of refugees were a tragic sight, often attacked from the air by the German air force, the Luftwaffe.  It was gratuitous cruelty, an atrocity calculated to spread terror; even warplanes from Italy, Germany’s fascist ally, joined in the violence.  Donald Caskie’s loud condemnation of the Nazis obliged him also to flee Paris for his own immediate safety.  With a heavy heart he locked the door of the little Scottish Church after the Sunday service of 9 June, leaving the key in the care of Gaston, the friendly keeper of the cafe nearby.
    .
    Belgian_refugees._United_Nations_-_NARA_-_535895.tif

    Belgian_refugees._United_Nations_-_NARA_-_535895.tif

     
    Everyone headed south, to those parts administered by the government based at Vichy, initially unoccupied by the Nazis but subject to Nazi control.  This was France’s blackest hour, unimaginable to those who have never known such a monstrous invasion.  Seeking guidance in prayer, Donald Caskie soon felt a duty to remain in France, rendering such help as he could.  Ultimately he reached Marseilles – Marseille.  Here the Scottish minister opened the British Seamen’s Mission, ostensibly a simple place of shelter and spiritual support, but from the start Caskie had always intended to give assistance of a more tangible and substantial kind.  Those seeking help usually arrived under cover of darkness – cold, hungry, often wounded, for the Mission was to become the last link in a chain of ‘safe houses’, refuges, for escaping Allied servicemen that stretched all the way to Dunkirk – Dunkerque in the north.  When a man was well enough, and after Donald had said a prayer for him, he would be guided across the Pyrenees to neutral Spain and ultimately to Gibraltar, from where he might return to Britain to rejoin the forces.  Significant numbers of these men came back to France on 6 June 1944 – D-Day – to fight on the beaches of Normandy; but the highest priority was given to airmen – pilots – whose value to the war effort was enormous.  These men were, quite literally, ‘worth their weight in gold’.
    .
    France_map_Lambert-93_with_regions_and_departments-occupation_Belgium

    France_map_Lambert-93_with_regions_and_departments-occupation_Belgium

     
    The escape-route south to Marseilles – one of four in France, I think – was planned by one of the most-decorated men of the Second World War, a Belgian medical officer by the name of Albert-Marie Guerisse (1911-1989).  As a member of both the French Resistance and the British Intelligence networks – as was Caskie – Guerisse needed a second identity, and chose the name of one of his Canadian friends, a certain Patrick Albert O’Leary.  Thus he became Lieutenant-Commander Pat O’Leary of the (British) Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve – just 29 years of age when Donald Caskie met him in 1940, but a man of quite outstanding courage.  His escape line is most usually referred to as the PAT line.  Guerisse continued to serve in the military until 1970, the recipient of a total of 37 decorations.  He had been honoured with the George Cross, Britain’s highest award for courage other than in battle; the KBE, a ‘knighthood’ given to those not of British birth; and the DSO.  Under the nom-de-plume of Vincent Brome, General Guerisse published in 1957 his account of his experiences in France as Pat O’Leary.  Written in French, the book has the title: L’Histoire de Pat O’Leary(By coincidence, The Tartan Pimpernel also came out in 1957.  Donald Caskie generously assigned the copyright in his work to the Church of Scotland, to help with the expense of rebuilding the Scots Kirk that year.)
    .
    L'histoire de Pat O'Leary Vincent Brome Le Livre Contemporain 1957

    L’histoire de Pat O’Leary Vincent Brome Le Livre Contemporain 1957

     
    At Marseilles, Caskie was under constant surveillance from the Vichy police; everywhere he went, he felt he was followed.  The house itself was frequently raided.  He had to be ultra-careful – ‘canny’ is the Scots word.  “My only armour was the grace of God,” he wrote.  His first duty towards each new arrival was to hide him, at least until such time as ‘papers’ of some sort could be obtained.  Money and clothing were always in short supply; Donald’s own clothes were of limited use, for he was not a tall man and had unusually broad shoulders.  Food, too, was never plentiful, so there was excitement at the Mission one day when a man called Alf happened to find a small bundle of ration cards in the street.  Studying the cards, the Scottish minister realised that they belonged to a widow and her children, and that they must be given back.  Calling at the address, Donald found the door opened by a child with huge, round eyes.  His mother, Mme Tillois, was in tears of despair.  She had been praying.  “A miracle !” she exclaimed, as the lost cards were returned.  This good woman insisted that Donald should come to meet the pastor of her church, M. Heuze.  Dear friends, how curious I am to learn more about this fine Christian, for a number of years Pasteur of the French Church in Glasgow, whose congregation were to provide a link in the escape route organised from France.  Their help to Donald Caskie in his work was invaluable.  I’m sorry to say that Pasteur Heuze was shot out of hand by the Nazis, the fate of so many who dared to resist.
    .
    Pasteur Heuzy Source The Tartan Pimpernel © The Church of Scotland

    Pasteur Heuzy Source The Tartan Pimpernel © The Church of Scotland

     
    Caskie and his comrades became suspicious of a man by the name of Cole, a Londoner who had joined their network and seemed given to boasting.  At several points in his book Donald writes of the ‘second sight’, a mystical talent he believed many Highlanders to have, forewarning of future events.  Donald Caskie certainly had a strong premonition regarding Cole.  When at last proof of his treachery was obtained – but only after the deaths of some brave men – O’Leary agreed that he must die.  He was to be strangled, for he had to be silenced.  Unfortunately, before this sentence could be carried out, the wretched man escaped.  Harold / Paul Cole (1906-1946) employed at least a dozen alternative surnames.  An Englishman, but devoid of all principle, he had become an agent of the Gestapo.  His sole motivation seems to have been to get his hands on large sums of money, in order to impress the women whose company he craved.  He had a talent for deceiving people, and delighted in it.  Often described as the worst traitor of the war, Cole’s despicable actions led to the deaths, often under torture, of well over a hundred courageous members of the Resistance.  Cole did not die quietly in his bed, however, but was shot dead by French security officers in 1946, while trying to escape.  Disowned by his family, he lies in an unmarked grave.
    Le Palais de l'université - ancien siège des facultés de Grenoble.

    Le Palais de l’université – ancien siège des facultés de Grenoble.

     
    Dr. Donald Caskie’s dangerous and clandestine work at Marseilles had continued for almost a year before he was suddenly arrested.  Was this due to Harold Cole ?  Convicted on scant evidence of helping Allied servicemen, Donald received only a suspended sentence.  Banished from Marseilles, he was directed to Grenoble where his high academic qualifications allowed him to take up a post in the department of English at the university.  Grenoble was the ‘intellectual centre’ of opposition to the Nazis and many students were deeply committed to the Resistance. Donald Caskie earned a salary again and had a little money in his pocket with which to buy cigarettes – he smoked quite heavily.  But he did not cease to be active in his wider mission of rescue.  The Scottish minister knew many people – many who might be able to assist – and seemed to have a talent for making new friends; he has been described as a consummate ‘networker’, 50 years before this modern term was coined.
     
    For reasons of security Donald kept few records.  When it was unavoidable he might use abbreviations, or his native Gaelic.  But we do know the name of the last man whom Dr. Caskie helped to rescue while at Grenoble – Mr. William Nash, a fellow Scot from Whitburn, West Lothian. It was April 1943.  In just a few days Donald Caskie was to find himself again under arrest, but this time his situation would be altogether more serious.  Returning to his accommodation one evening, he switched on the light to find himself confronted by five men of the Nazi Gestapo.  Seized at gunpoint, Donald was not to know another moment of freedom until the liberation of Paris in August 1944.  Had the courageous pastor been betrayed?  Could this again have been the work of Cole?
    .
    Old postcard of Fresnes Prison Source Wikimedia

    Old postcard of Fresnes Prison Source Wikimedia

     
    Dear friends, the more I read of Dr. Caskie’s imprisonment – he was held in seven places altogether – the more astonished I become that he survived the war.  For 16 months or so, he ministered to many who were to die.  Donald writes of the words of encouragement and comfort he offered to several condemned men in the huge prison at Fresnes, to the south of Paris:
    “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come ..
       .. shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.”  (Romans, 8:38)
    .
    Memorial plaque in Paris Fresnes Prison

    Memorial plaque in Paris Fresnes Prison

     

     
    Fresnes had become a Gestapo slaughterhouse, the firing-squad assembling each evening at five to carry out that day’s killings.  Earlier, in the mediaeval fortress at San Remo, the Scottish pastor had suffered the torment of squatting in the darkness of a ‘bottle’ cell – a cavity hewn out of the rock, so narrow and low that it caused agonising cramps.  Psychologically, the effect was devastating – it was the closest thing to being buried alive.
    .
    Odette Marie Céline Brailly Sansom WWII SOE agent Source Wikipedia

    Odette Marie Céline Brailly Sansom WWII SOE agent Source Wikipedia

     
    At the Villa Lynwood, Nice – an elegant mansion on the most beautiful part of the coast – Donald Caskie had exchanged a greeting with a fellow prisoner, a woman.  Soon afterwards, he was to learn that this had been the heroine perhaps best known to the world today simply as OdetteOdette BRAILLY (1912-1995) had been born in France, but joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in England and travelled secretly back to her homeland to help in the Resistance.  Villa Lynwood had become a house of torture. Subjected to 14 brutal interrogations, Odette endured unspeakable agonies; the flesh of her back was burned with red-hot irons and her feet butchered as all of her toenails were torn out.  The only thing that saved her life, it seems, was that the Nazis believed her tale that she was closely related to Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister.  Odette was awarded the George Cross by the British government and enrolled as a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur by the French.  She will never be forgotten.
     
    While a prisoner at Fresnes, Donald Caskie was tried before a Nazi court, convened in the Parisian townhouse which the Gestapo had taken over as their headquarters at 11, rue des Saussaies.  He faced a panel of 12 judges, two of them women.  (A photograph that includes the two is reproduced in The Tartan Pimpernel.  They are not named, but I quickly recognised the face of Herta Bothe.  Soon to become a guard at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, she was fortunate to escape with a sentence of 10 years imprisonment when she was put on trial in 1945 for her sadistic cruelty.   Eleven of her co-defendants were hanged.)
     
    One doubts that any of the judges had much standing in the legal profession – perhaps only the presiding officer. In proceedings that dragged on until evening, Caskie’s courteous response to each question brought the angrily shouted comment: “You lie!”  Donald was not surprised to hear the unanimous verdict – guilty.  A few days passed before he learned that he had been sentenced to death.  Without delay, he asked if he might speak to a clergyman or pastor.  It was now the Scottish minister’s own turn to seek spiritual comfort.  The slightly-built man who came to him gave his name as Hans-Helmut Peters, a Lutheran chaplain of the Wehrmacht, the German Army.
     
    The two men quickly became friends, for they had much in common.  They talked, of course, of church and religious matters.  It transpired that they even had a mutual friend in the Rev. Lamb, minister of the Church of Scotland at Nice, where Helmut Peters had once been employed.  The German clergyman prayed with Donald and gave him Communion, but had to tell him that he had no authority to have his death-sentence set aside.  He promised solemnly, however, to do all in his power to save Donald’s life.
    .
    Old postcard Caserne Saint-Denis - Source Archives de la Ville de Saint Denis

    Old postcard Caserne Saint-Denis – Source Archives de la Ville de Saint Denis

     
    For seven weeks Donald Caskie feared that each day might be his last, but on 7 January 1944 Herr Peters was able to give him the news that his intervention had been successful, and that the sentence of death had been lifted.  The decision had been taken in Berlin, at the highest level.  Donald now dared to look forward to a time when he might resume his work as a parish minister.  Soon he found himself transferred to the Caserne St. Denis, a regular prisoner-of-war camp rather than a high-security prison, where the men eagerly awaited the end of hostilities.  Donald’s joy at the liberation of Paris was ecstatic.  “My happiness can only be imagined,” he wrote, “it cannot be described.”
    .
    Parade celebrating the Liberation of Paris -August 26th 1944

    Parade celebrating the Liberation of Paris -August 26th 1944

     

    Islay Bowmore Church © 2015 Scotiana (2)

    Islay Bowmore Church © 2015 Scotiana (2)

    Dr. Donald Caskie returned to Scotland in 1960.  His last charge was at Monkton, close to Prestwick Airport, from which he retired in 1968 due to failing health.  He died in the last days of 1983.  Donald had not married, and is interred with his parents in the graveyard of Kilarrow Church at Bowmore, Islay.  A heroic Scottish figure.
     
    A bientot !
    Iain.

     

    Share this:
    Share this page via Email Share this page via Stumble Upon Share this page via Digg this Share this page via Facebook Share this page via Twitter

    2 comments to Dr. Donald Caskie of Islay (1902-1983), the ‘Tartan Pimpernel’ ..

    • William McEachern

      Thank you for a marvellous overview of the life of Donald Caskie. I especially appreciated your addition of the YouTube video at the end. My family originated from Islay so Caskie is especially significant to me.

      William McEachern

    • Iain

      I’m very grateful for your kind words, Mr. McEachern, so encouraging to all of us here at Scotiana. Donald Caskie’s book is, I think, simply one of the most significant to appear in Scotland in modern times – and what a story he tells! Of France’s agony, a time when goodness and the highest courage walked side-by-side with treachery and the most vile depravity.

      Iain.

    Leave a Reply

    You can use these HTML tags

    <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>