The war grave warriors

When the German army overran Belgium in 1940, a small group of Britons who tended the graves around Ypres were forced to disband. Sue Elliott has written a book about their children (to accompany a BBC TV programme) and here she reveals how three of them fared in the Nazi onslaught

A group of Belgian refugees fleeing upon the arrival of German troops on the roads, 21 June 1940. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Early on Saturday 18 May 1940, 200 men, women and children gathered in a school playground in Ypres, Flanders, ready to evacuate. Panzer divisions had stormed into Belgium a week before and now threatened the town. Ypres – famous for holding out against the Germans throughout the First World War – was on the brink of occupation. But the families about to join the miserable tide of refugees weren’t Flemish. They were British and their marshalling point was known locally as the Eton Memorial School. They were the proud but vulnerable remnants of Ypres’ once-thriving British colony.

British ex-servicemen had made their home here since 1919, marrying local women and starting small businesses in the burgeoning battlefield tourism industry. At the heart of this unusual colony was the peacetime army of Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) gardeners who tended the many First World War cemeteries scattered across Flanders. They worshipped at their own Anglican church of St George and sent their children to the staunchly British Memorial School, built by Old Etonians in memory of their fallen former school-friends. Growing up British in Ypres was a formative experience shaped by war: the children played in rotten trenches, collected live ordnance for pennies and helped their fathers in the cemeteries. They guided pilgrims to gravesides and on Armistice Day marched to the Menin Gate.

May 1940 marked the end of the British in Ypres. The playground party had a miraculous escape but not everyone got away. Those left behind faced occupation, imprisonment and death. The colony scattered, never to return in significant numbers after the war. Today, St George’s Church in Ypres is a fine and much-visited memorial to the dead of two world wars. The school, still there behind the church, never reopened.

Stephen Grady – joined the resistance

The Germans arrived in Stephen Grady’s village of Nieppe on the Belgian-French border on 30 May 1940, his 15th birthday. The son of an IWGC gardener and a pupil at the Eton Memorial School, Stephen missed the main evacuation because his French mother was blind and his father refused to leave her behind. So the family stayed put and his father went into hiding.

Stephen made his own unsuccessful escape attempt and returned to Nieppe just in time to witness the British Expeditionary Force’s retreat to Dunkirk. He salvaged a useful arms cache from among the abandoned equipment and hid it in the British war cemetery at Pont-d’Achelles where his father worked. After minor acts of sabotage and disobedience, in 1941 Stephen was caught writing pro-British slogans on a Messerschmitt and imprisoned for three months. This harsh experience – and a fierce patriotism reinforced by his schooling – forged a determination to fight back. A nascent Resistance group in Nieppe needed someone to interrogate shot-down Allied airmen in English to check they weren’t German spies. Stephen fitted the bill.

His group gained confidence and professionalism with support from the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). After delivering the clandestine newspaper, La Voix du Nord, and ferrying downed Allied aircrew to safe-houses – both dangerous activities – Stephen soon progressed to large-scale sabotage operations under the direction of the outstanding SOE agent Michel Trotobas, and to the deadliest of missions – assassination. By 1944 he was a section chief, leading ten men, and fought in the fierce battles to liberate Nieppe, where many of his comrades were killed by the SS. He was still only 19. Decorated for his bravery by the French, Americans and British, Stephen went on to pursue a long and distinguished peacetime career with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. He now lives in Greece.

Lillian Wilkins – became a prisoner

Sixteen-year-old Memorial School pupil Lillian Wilkins, her younger sister and their mother, also missed the evacuation – by mistake. They had set off from their home in Ypres with their IWGC head gardener father a few days before the main party, but became separated from him in the confusion at Calais. When he arrived in England a week later he was distraught to discover that they had been left behind. He wouldn’t see his wife again for four years. Abandoned in occupied territory, the Wilkins women made their way back to Ypres and evicted squatters from their home. As British passport holders, they were put under house arrest and risked internment at any time. Without an income, they struggled to survive for almost a year until in 1941 their mother was arrested and taken to Liebenau internment camp in southern Germany, leaving the girls to fend for themselves.

With the help of neighbours they kept going on very little: Christmas Dinner 1942 was a single baked potato. They were alone, surrounded by billeted German soldiers and frightened. Even when young Stephen Grady (see above) turned up one day in a rescue attempt, Lillian was too scared to open the door. There was minimal contact with their parents: letters were censored, infrequent and short.

Then in 1943 the girls were themselves arrested and taken to join their mother in Liebenau. Lillian will always remember the Alpine views, the disgusting food, and the desperate longing to be together again as a family. The girls were eventually released on a prisoner exchange but their mother, her health destroyed by years of incarceration, had to wait more agonising months before she, too, was repatriated. The Wilkins were reunited in London in June 1944, but never returned to live in Ypres as a family. Lillian now lives in Watford.

Elaine Madden – worked for the SOE

Elaine Madden, a popular and spirited girl, loved her time at the Memorial School, a welcome refuge from her home life where her widower father was a feckless gambler. She was just 17 when the Germans invaded in May 1940. Together with a young aunt she joined the refugee trail and on the way to the coast they had the extraordinary good fortune to be picked up by a retreating BEF convoy. After a perilous two-day journey, and disguised in tin hats and greatcoats, the two teenagers joined the chaos and horror of Dunkirk as the ‘little ships’ evacuation was in full flow – only to be given away by their legs as they climbed into their rescuing craft and to safety.

Back in England, Elaine got her call-up to the ATS but, with three languages and a detailed knowledge of Flanders, felt she could offer something more, and was introduced to SOE’s T (Belgian) Section, security checked and recruited for covert missions in occupied territory. Still very young, she wasn’t sure quite what was involved – until she underwent training in coding, burglary, ‘silent killing’, and parachuting.

Her August 1944 mission was particularly sensitive. Dropped in the Belgian Ardennes, she became trusted assistant to star SOE agent Andre Wendelen, tasked with minding the mysterious ‘Monsieur Bernard’ and arranging his safe passage to Britain. Constantly dodging the Gestapo, she and Wendelen were about to dispatch their charge in September when the British finally broke through in Brussels and ‘Bernard’ revealed himself as Prince Karel, brother of Leopold, King of the Belgians.

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Elaine was feted in Belgium and awarded the Croix de Guerre for her SOE work as one of only two women agents in T Section. “I wasn’t a heroine,” she says (in her home in France), “just young and excited and willing to do anything except join the ATS!”