Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Wartime escape to Switzerland

The happy wedding James Bouch to Eva Wren, 12 May 1951
During WW2 James Bouch had been taken prisoner.
After escaping from a POW camp he eventually made it home
(Family photograph)
While serving with the British Eighth Army in North Africa in Gunner James Bouch was among the 7457 officers and men reported missing during two months of Operation 'Crusader', which began on 18 November 1941. In these circumstances, the family of someone posted missing did not initially know what had happened to their loved one. While they would hope for the best, in many cases they could expect the worst.

In the case of James Bouch from Whitehaven, Cumberland the news eventually received back home was comparatively good. Gunner James Bouch had been taken prisoner by German troops. He was to spend the best part of the next two years as a POW in Italy.

Fortunately, James Bouch's story was one of those with a happy ending as he made it back home in 1944. A few years later, on 12 May 1951, James Bouch married Eva Wren at the Anglican Church of St Bridget's, Beckermet, Cumberland (now Cumbria). They would eventually settle with their family in the Littlehampton area of Southern England.

For additional information click on 'Comments' below


Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

Additional information

1. Information about James Bouch & the WW2 ‘Evadés’ in Switzerland

After the war, James Bouch seems to have said very little about his wartime experiences. Luckily, in 1944 after arriving back home in Whitehaven, Cumberland, James did tell his story to close family and friends and also to the local newspaper. This account about James Bouch is mainly based on these sources, family history and some recent research by the writer.

During WW2, in November 1941, the Allied-held Tobruk fortress was about 70 miles behind the enemy front line. By the middle of the month of November the Allied commanders had a plan to relieve the Tobruk Garrison. This was Operation 'Crusader'. For their part, German High Command had their own plans of attack and take back the Tobruk Garrison. Gunner James Bouch was among the Eighth Army taking part in the advance towards Tobruk.

By 1943 James was in a POW camp in the north of Italy when the Italians attempted to back out of war with the Allies. At this point German troops were due to take over in guarding the POW camp. However, as chance would have it, at this point James and several companions happened to be part of a working party outside the camp. With about 10 minutes to go before the Germans arrived James and his pals took their chance. In October 1944 James told a reporter from ‘The Whitehaven News’:

“We got cracking and got out of that just in time”.

The pals took their chance and made a bid for freedom. Walking northwards into the mountains, the ‘Evadés’ were helped initially by sympathetic Italian country folk. Eventually, they were able to make contact with a group of Italian partisans and made welcome. The ‘Evadés’ now had two choices: either throw in their lot with the Italian partisans or continue over the hills into neutral Switzerland. They chose the second of these two options. One of the partisans escorted James and his pals to the Italian / Swiss frontier where they were taken into custody by the Swiss frontier guards.

As Switzerland was a neutral country throughout WW2, the 'Evadés' (as POW escapees were known) were initially required to live in a camp in Switzerland and not allowed to leave the country to rejoin the fight. However, 'Evadés' were allowed to have a large degree of freedom of employment and individual liberty. Some of the escaped Allied POWs worked in the hotels, whereas James, like his father before him, was a joiner by trade. Consequently, James was able to find work as a wood cutter, with the wood being used at the POW camp as firewood or for building.

They were also allowed to form an orchestra, have dances with the local Swiss community, and take part in many different sports including swimming. According to James the ‘Evadés’ had no complaints about their treatment during the time they were in Switzerland. However, they would not have to remain in Switzerland until the end of the war.

Some weeks after the Allies began the Liberation of France and North West Europe in Normandy in June 1944, they also landed troops in the South if France in August 1944. This soon led to southern and eastern France bordering the Franco / Swiss frontier being liberated. As a consequence, the Swiss authorities declared the frontiers were open. The ‘Evadés’ were escorted to the frontier and were then able to link up again with the Allied troops. Soon, they were given a well-deserved leave before rejoining their units.

2. Some 'Family History' information about Gunner James Bouch

James Bouch was the youngest son of Joseph (‘Joe’) Bouch and Nancy Isabella (‘Isabel’) Bouch (née Ritson). Joe Bouch had been born in Aspatria, Cumberland in 1857. Isabel had been born in Whitehaven in 1876, although her father’s family, like the family of Joe Bouch also came originally from Aspatria. James Bouch was born on 8 June 1917 and was baptised at the Parish Church of St Nicholas, Whitehaven on 24 June of the same year by Reverend H. Robinson. The family home was on the corner of John’s Lane / Fox Lane, Whitehaven.

James signed up to the Army in 1940, and as outlined above served with the British Eighth Army in the North Africa until just before Christmas 1941. Although James was taken prisoner during the attempt to relieve Tobruk, the campaign did eventually prove successful and the Axis Forces (Germans and Italians) were eventually driven from the North Africa.

After the war, James Bouch returned to work as a joiner. He was 33 years old when he married 21 year-old Miss Eva Wren who lived at High Croft Cottages, Calderbrige. The banns for the wedding were read in the Parish Church of St Bridget’s, Beckermet, Cumberland on 15 April, 22 April and 29 April 1951. Calderbridge is in the Anglican Parish of St Bridget’s, Beckermet. Eva was the youngest daughter of Mr and Mrs John Wren. At that time Eva’s father John was recorded as being a Retired Forestry Worker. James and Eva’s wedding took place at Eva’s Parish Church of on 12 May 1951, with the ceremony being performed by the Reverend J.H.C. Stocks.

The Best Man at the wedding was Joseph Bouch, older brother of the bridegroom. Eva’s bridesmaids were Miss Jean Bailey (niece of the bride) and Miss Blanche Stephenson (friend of the bride). There were two small attendants – Pat and Joyce Conery. The witnesses who signed the register were John Wren and Blanche Stephenson. Eva’s wedding dress seen in the above photograph was made of white silk crepe and full length veil with a coronet of orange blossom. The string of pearls worn by Eva in the photograph were a wedding gift from James.

3. Writer's comments

As referred to above, James and Eva Bouch and their family left my home area of West Cumbria and settled in the Littlehampton area some time after their wedding. Unfortunately I do not recall ever having met James Bouch, although we are in fact kinfolk. Isabel Bouch, James’ mother, was an elder sister of my paternal grandfather. So James was a first cousin of my late father.

Although I have several family photographs of James Bouch and have heard other relatives speak of him, it is only recently I have been able to piece together some of his interesting wartime adventures. With access to additional official records about James at some future time, it may be possible to find out more of the details about what took place and when. From what I have been able to learn up to the present, Gunner James Bouch certainly seems to have had an eventful war!

Tuesday, 23 December, 2008  
Blogger Brian S said...

Data from the Escape Report.

1086472 Gnr James Bouch 102 R.H.A.
Captured Sidi Rezegh 21-12-1941
66 Capua 26/12/41 - 23/1/42
59 Servigliano 23/1/42-24/1/43
53 Macerata 24/1/43 ? 19/5/43
106/22 Vercelli 19/5/43 - 10/9/43
After the Italians Capitulated he wandered in the Mountains meeting Partisans. Walked to Brissago and crossed Border.12/12/43

Tuesday, 31 July, 2012  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

Thanks for the information, Brian. I presume you obtained the file from the National Archives?

It is much appreciated.

Tuesday, 31 July, 2012  

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