How Cambridge hero Frida Stewart busted out of a nazi prison in wartime France

Summary

An account from Frida’s talk in Stirling, Scotland in 1942

This book arrived recently

Writing under her married name, Frida published this book in 1975 – five years after her return to her home town of Cambridge, where she grew up, attending the Perse Girls during her early teens.

fridaknightspanishcivilwar

Anti-fascist legend – Frida Knight (nee Stewart) who evaded Franco’s fascists, Petain’s Vichy collaborators, and the nazis.

As Frida makes clear in her book, she was more concerned about the fate of the French resistance – wanting to document their war rather than trying to write an account of her escape. Fortunately for us, the daughter of the woman who Frida escaped with wrote a book with an account of her mother’s escape with Frida from their captors in occupied France. (I’m awaiting for the book to arrive). It feels like a common theme of the people carrying out the heroic acts being the ones who play their actions down. In the case of Frida I get the sense from her writing that she was more concerned about the fate of those left behind – people who risked their lives and those of others in order to help her escape. Hence why she not only went on a speaking tour of the UK when she got back to the UK, but headed down to London to work for De Gaulle’s Free French operation. Her observations of De Gaulle close up are fascinating – the details that can only come from someone who worked close up to a famous historical figure at a time when they were under the greatest pressure in their lifetimes.

Frida Stewart in Scotland

In 1942 Frida went to Scotland – to Stirling, to give a talk of life in occupied France. We’re fortunate that the Stirling Observer (see the British Newspaper Archive here – requires £subscription)wrote an account of what Frida said. Frida was one of a number of women in Paris who were captured in wartime Paris shortly after the collapse of the French government following the retreat at Dunkirk. The sense I get from Frida’s account of what was happening in Paris was that central government was utterly compromised, and that there were more than enough fascist sympathisers willing to do a deal with the nazis than resist. It was by no means a majority – rather it was a small number of very well organised people who compromised the French state. It was shortly after a gestapo raid on their flat that they were interned.

Confined to post-Napoleonic barracks

“They were put in local barracks built in 1820 with sanitary conditions of about the same date”

According to the same article, the place was full of bugs, and so cold that they had to dance to stay warm – leading to complaints from people on the floors below them that even more bugs were being shaken out of the woodwork in the ceilings, making things even worse.

They were moved to a different camp in the north of France. Workmen carrying out work at the camps took huge personal risks smuggling letters out.

420917 Frida Stewart escapes nazi jail_1

From the Stirling Observer 17 Sept 1942 in the British Newspaper Archive. The cyclist ended up turning down a side road so never caught up! 

You couldn’t blame them for wanting to move out. Hole in the fence, waiting for the coast to be clear, pretending to be local women…not all escapes are high octane fire-fights that expend thousands of rounds of ammo.

Given they were in northern France, it’s interesting that they chose to head southwards to Vichy France (unoccupied at the time but being run by the collaborationist Vichy regime under Marshal Petain). Frida in her book is scathing of the French Catholic Church which effectively regained its privileges lost to them after the fall of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71.

As an aside, the strong secular tradition in France (that has been in the news recently over France and its Muslim citizens) stems from attempts by the Catholic Church in France to regain its prominence following the fall of Napoleon III’s regime – where the nephew of Wellington’s and Nelson’s adversary sort of saw himself as the military wing of the Catholic Church. Hence France getting involved in Mexico in the 1860s providing thousands of soldiers to support a pro-Church faction in imposing Archduke Maximilian (brother of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph – who would in 1914 declare war on Serbia starting off WWI) as Mexican Emperor.

In 1905, France brought in very strong secular laws restricting religion in public places and what religious organisations could do – aimed primarily at the Catholic Church in France. Those restrictions remained until the fall of France. Marshal Petain’s regime had a number of pro-church figures and sympathisers which enabled the Church to regain powers and influence that it had previously had. This article on the reactions of the two most senior clerics in France, the two French Cardinals makes for interesting reading. One wing was very pro-collaborationist while the other very hostile.

The picture Frida gives in her book of the French resistance is that of a highly organised operation with people taking huge personal risks. And resistance wasn’t all guns and bombs. It was the little things such as go-slow operations, or those working in factories making things that weren’t quite up to scratch.

420316 Frida Stewart Rosemary May Daily Record Photo

From the British Newspaper Archive – Frida and Rosemary (Rosie) Say on arrival back in the UK

There is so much more to Frida’s story – not least the in depth study of her personal papers which as far as I am aware has not been undertaken. Some of those papers are deposited here and I think these are the papers of her father.

 


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