Albert Guérisse

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Albert-Marie Guérisse
'Pat O'leary' concentration camp portrait by Brian Stonehouse.jpg
Concentration Camp portrait drawn by Brian Stonehouse
Nickname(s) Lt. Cdr. Pat O'Leary, RNVR
Born 5 April 1911
Brussels, Belgium
Died 26 March 1989(1989-03-26) (aged 77)
Waterloo, Belgium
Allegiance  Belgium
 United Kingdom
Rank Major General
Commands held "Pat Line"
Belgian medical detachment, Korea
Belgian medical component
Battles/wars World War II
Korean War
Awards George Cross
Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Distinguished Service Order

Major General Comte Albert-Marie Edmond Guérisse GC, KBE, DSO (5 April 1911 – 26 March 1989) was a Belgian Resistance member who organized escape routes for downed Allied pilots during World War II under the alias of Patrick Albert "Pat" O'Leary, the name of a Canadian friend. His escape line was dubbed the Pat Line.

Biography[edit]

He was born in Brussels, and qualified in medicine at the Université Libre de Bruxelles before joining the Belgian Army. At the outbreak of World War II, Guérisse was serving as a Medecin-Capitaine, a captain in the Medical Branch, as the medical officer of the Guides, a Belgian cavalry regiment. After Belgium was forced to surrender, he escaped to Britain through Dunkirk. He then joined the French-crewed ship, Le Rhin, which had been accepted for special operations and renamed HMS Fidelity. His British commission was therefore a naval commission in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR).

Guérisse was serving mainly as a conducting officer, escorting agents ashore in small boats through the surf, whilst the large vessel lay some distance offshore. This was skilled work, exposed to physical dangers from the sea-conditions and operational dangers from the Vichy security services. On 25 April 1941, during a mission to place Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents in Collioure, on Roussillon coast in southern France, Guérisse was in the skiff on its way back to the ship when it turned over and he had to swim ashore. To the Vichy French coast guards, Guérisse claimed he was a Canadian airman named Pat O'Leary. The 'Canadian' identity attempted to explain his not-quite British accent in English, and his not-quite French accent in French, without compromising his relatives in occupied Belgium.

He was taken to St. Hippolyte du Fort near Nîmes, where he met 'fellow British' officers, including SOE operative Ian Garrow who got him released and took him to Marseille. In this roundabout way, Guérisse was inducted into the clandestine work on escape-lines. Both for security in Vichy France and for consistency in his story, Guérisse decided to continue with the O'Leary alias while he remained ashore in France. At this point he might still have assumed that his work in France was a temporary measure and that he would, in his turn, make his way to Gibraltar and resume his original naval service. Events were to dictate otherwise.

Initially one of Garrow's assistants, along with others such as Nancy Wake, but when the Vichy France authorities captured Garrow in October 1941, Guérisse took over as chief of the escape network. He smuggled a German uniform to Garrow in his cell in Mauzac concentration camp which helped Garrow's escape on 6 December 1941. At this point the British decided it was time for Garrow to return to London, so Guérisse continued in command and expanded the reach of the escape line's operations. The line carried over 600 escapees to Spain and back to Britain.

In January 1943, the escape line was infiltrated and betrayed by French turncoat Roger le Neveu, who was an associate of Harold Cole and Guérisse was arrested in Toulouse in March. He managed to get one of the younger members, Fabien de Cortes, to flee the train when they were transported to prison to warn the British. After his arrest the line was, in turn, taken over by Marie Dissard. Guérisse told nothing to the Gestapo interrogators when he was tortured and then was sent to a series of concentration camps.

In the summer of 1944, he was at the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in Alsace with another SOE agent Brian Stonehouse. At the camp he witnessed the arrival of four other female SOE agents, Andrée Borrel, Vera Leigh, Diana Rowden, and Sonya Olschanezky, who were all executed and disposed of in the crematorium in an attempt to make them disappear without a trace, under the programme of night and fog. After the war, Guérisse and Stonehouse were able to testify at the Nazi war crimes trials as to the women's fate.

Finally, Guérisse was taken to the Dachau concentration camp, tortured again and then sentenced to death. However, when SS guards surrendered before the Allied advance, "O'Leary" took command and refused to leave before Allies agreed to take care of the inmates. On 30 April 1945 he was chosen as the first president of the International Prisoners' Committee that administered the camp after liberation. From its founding in 1956 until his death he served many terms as president of the Comité International de Dachau, and regularly gave the keynote speech at the May memorial ceremonies.

After the war, Guérisse resumed his real name and rejoined the Belgian Army. He served with the Belgian forces in Korea during the Korean War where he was wounded trying to rescue a wounded soldier. He became the head of the medical service of the Belgian army and retired in 1970, in the rank of major general.

In his personal life, he married Sylvia Cooper-Smith in 1947 and they had a son. Sylvia predeceased him.

Awards and decorations[edit]

General Guérisse received 35 decorations, from a variety of nations.[citation needed] In 1946, the British recognised his war service with the award of the George Cross. This was the highest possible award of the British Commonwealth nations for actions not in combat and only the Victoria Cross (the equivalent award for bravery in actual combat) takes precedence. In the UK it is the convention for the post-nominal letters for both these awards to be amended to the surname even for general usage, i.e. to refer to: 'Guérisse, GC'. Recognising his military service as a whole, the British later also conferred on Albert-Marie Guérisse, GC, an honorary knighthood (KBE).

Similarly, the King of Belgium recognised the lifetime service of General Guérisse with the grant of a peerage in 1986, in the rank of Count (comte). His motto: Honores non quaero, fidelis sum (Honors I do not seek, faithful I am).

Death[edit]

General Count Albert-Marie Guérisse died in Waterloo, Belgium on 26 March 1989, aged 77.

Reading[edit]

  • Vincent Brome, The Way Back, Cassell and Company (London), 1957

External links[edit]