Escaping Vichy via the Vic Line

From A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell (Penguin, 2019), Kindle pp. 95-96:

Morel deliberately stopped eating and his health rapidly worsened, almost certainly with help from SOE’s famous sickness tablets smuggled in by Virginia (which caused symptoms similar to typhoid such as stomach cramps and a high fever). Friendly wardens were able to have him moved to a prison hospital near Guth’s offices in Limoges for an abdominal procedure. After the operation, Morel was transferred from a cell patrolled by heavily armed military guards to an annex monitored by a single policeman. The surgeon, also a recruit, signed a statement that it would be impossible for Morel to walk in his postoperative condition and the sole officer outside his room also obligingly dozed off. A prewarned Morel crept out of his bed, slipped on a doctor’s white coat, and, with the aid of a sympathetic nurse, scaled the hospital perimeter wall. Yet another helper was waiting on the other side to provide him with a suit, shoes, sugar, and some rum. Morel then traveled through a snowstorm to one of Virginia’s safe houses, where he gathered his strength before pushing on to her apartment in Lyon. To spring one of Vichy’s most prized prisoners was, by any measure, a spectacular coup. It showed what Virginia could now do.

After a few days nursing him back to health, she escorted Morel down to Marseille despite the dangers of accompanying the subject of a major national manhunt on a train rife with Gestapo. They were then to pick up the escape line that she had helped to set up, which left from Perpignan to cross over the eastern edge of the Pyrenees to Barcelona in northern Spain. Code-named the Vic Line—in honor of its chief, Victor Gerson—it would see hundreds of agents and airmen to safety thanks to guides, or passeurs, supplied by a general from the remnants of the rebel Catalan Republican Army. Gerson was a Jew, as were most of his lieutenants—all taking a greater risk in the field but also driven by great personal anti-Nazi motivation. Against the odds, the Vic Line shepherded the still unwell Morel over the mountains into Spain. Back in London there was “stupefaction” at Virginia’s success and Morel also marveled at what she had done for him. “Her amazing personality, integrity and enthusiasm was an example and inspiration for us all,” he reported. “No task was too great or too small for her; and whatever she undertook she put into it all her energy, sparing herself nothing.” For Virginia the escape was really the first time that she was not preparing, helping, or supporting others but directing an operation herself. She had proved she could take charge in spectacular style. Morel, though, was merely the warm-up.

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Filed under Britain, France, military, Spain, U.S., war

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