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
Born5 April 1911
Brussels, Belgium
Died26 March 1989(1989-03-26) (aged 77)
Waterloo, Belgium
Allegiance Belgium
 United Kingdom
RankMajor General
Commands held"Pat Line"
Belgian medical detachment, Korea
Belgian medical component
Battles/warsWorld War II
Korean War
AwardsGeorge Cross
Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (honorary)
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 French and Belgium 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]

Guérisse was born in Brussels, and qualified in medicine at the Université Libre de Bruxelles before joining the Belgian Army. Guérisse was Médecin-Capitaine with a Belgian cavalry regiment during their eighteen day campaign in May 1940. He managed to escape to England through Dunkirk. In Gibraltar, he joined the crew of a former French merchantship, the Rhin, which had been renamed HMS Fidelity to serve in the Mediterranea on clandestine missions. He secured entry into the British Navy and was commissioned as Lieutenant Commander Patrick Albert O'Leary RNVR of french Canadian origin. The "Canadian" identity attempted to explain his not-quite British accent in English, and his not-quite French accent in French, in order to protect his family in occupied Belgium if he was captured. He had a six-week undercover training session with Naval Intelligence. Until april 1941, he 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 and three crewmen from the HMS Fidelity were arrested by the Vichy French coastguards and taken to a camp for British military prisoners at Saint-Hippolyte-du-Fort near Nîmes. Helped by 'fellow British' officers, O'Leary finally escaped in early June 1941. He went to Marseilles where everyone at the Fort knew there was an escape organisation run by a man named Ian Garrow and soon made contact. At this point his intention was make his way to Gibraltar and resume his original naval service. Events were to dictate otherwise because Garrow wanted O'Leary to stay and help with the organisation since he was a military officer, he had undercover training and unlike Garrow, spoke French fluently. Consequently, a request was sent to London that he stay, which was approved and confirmed by a BBC radio message received on 2 july 1941. The Fidelity was lost with all hands when torpedoed in the South Atlantic on 31st December 1942. O'Leary immediately began his job : within a four-month period, he helped about fifty men escape from the prison of St Hippolyte du Fort, then moved them down the line back to England through the Pyrenees.

When the Vichy France authorities captured Garrow in October 1941, Guérisse took over as chief of the escape network. Along with others such as Nancy Wake, 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 O'Leary 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, an associate of Harold Cole; Guérisse was arrested in Toulouse in March. En route to prison he managed to get one of the younger members, Fabien de Cortes, to escape and warn the British. After his arrest the line was 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 until the 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.

Personal life[edit]

In his personal life, he married Sylvia Cooper-Smith in 1947; they had a son, Patrick. Sylvia Guérisse predeceased her husband.

He was the subject of This Is Your Life in November 1963 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at the BBC Television Theatre.

Awards and decorations[edit]

General Guérisse received 37 decorations, from a variety of nations. In 1946, the British recognised his war service with the award of the George Cross[1]. 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 appended 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 (ASIN: B000ZRBLPQ)

References[edit]

  1. ^ Pat O'Leary. "The London Gazette".

External links[edit]