AVENUE OF SPIES – PART TWO – Escape From France

War History Online is proud to be able to present you this exclusive second extracts from Alex Kershaws new book: Avenue of Spies

The girl’s dress was torn and soiled. She had not washed for several days. She looked haunted. Her face was etched with permanent disillusion. A tall American in a small car would never forget her expression as he passed her on a road leading to Paris. In his eyes she symbolized defeated France. She had seen the complete “moral breakdown and degradation of her own people,” recalled the American diplomat George F. Kennan. “She saw them fight with each other and stumble over each other in their blind stampede to get away and to save their possessions. . . . She saw her own people pillaging and looting in a veritable orgy of dissolution as they fled before the enemy . . .”

A French woman on the run, May 1940, via Bundesarchiv

Kennan had left Brussels that morning of  July 2, 1940. A slim, balding thirty-six-year-old destined to become one of the great statesmen of the twentieth century, he was at the wheel of a rickety Chevrolet. Beside him sat Donald Coster, the volunteer ambulance driver who had witnessed the Blitzkrieg late that spring. Coster had told Kennan he was trying to get back to Paris to recover his clothes. It was a rather odd motive for leaving Brussels in a hurry, a poor rationale for making the hazardous and distressing journey through the ruins of northern France. The two Americans had water and some chocolate to fortify them, and had been warned that the country between Brussels and Paris was, in Kennan’s words, as “uncharitable to travelers as a desert.” The devastation was enormous. Some towns were totally gutted.

On June 14, Coster had persuaded a Belgian Red Cross official to drive him to Brussels, where he and other Americans were granted safety at the American embassy. Before long, Coster encountered Kennan, who agreed to give him a lift to Paris. Coster had not told Kennan that he was trying to stay a step ahead of the German military intelligence service, the Abwehr, or the Gestapo, or perhaps both. But he had told him he could not sit around and wait for the Germans to reach Brussels. He had to keep moving.

German Soldiers near the Arc de Troimph, June 1940, via Bundesarchiv

German troops were up ahead. The Chevrolet slowed. Kennan pulled out his diplomatic pass. Anxious seconds followed as the Germans examined it. The Americans were allowed through but it was slow going. Traumatized refugees returning to their homes clogged the roads. Finally, two days later, Paris was in sight. It was July 3 when Kennan dropped Coster off at the Hôtel Bristol, on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, not far from the Élysée Palace. The grand hotel with a spacious courtyard was one of Paris’s finest and home to a disparate band of American refugees.

Soon, though, Coster was starting to feel positively paranoid, like a “sitting duck.” Germans were everywhere, “all over the place,” he remembered, “filling the best hotels, shopping with their Credit Marks in the luxury shops: snapping cameras and jotting down notes in their pocket diaries. Busloads of soldiers made conducted tours of the principal monuments.” The hotel’s telephone was working. But when he picked it up, he heard clicks as the line opened to listeners at German headquarters. He had to keep moving.

One day that July, Coster left the hotel. He headed northwest, crossing the Seine, and made his way to the American Hospital in Neuilly. Somehow he knew of an American doctor called Sumner Jackson. Once he had found him, he asked the harried surgeon—a decorated veteran of the First World War, and well-known figure in expatriate circles—for help. Could he hide in the hospital until it could somehow be arranged for him to get out of France undetected by the Gestapo or the Abwehr, German military intelligence?

It was a momentous decision for Sumner. He knew the risks were enormous. Coster was clearly on the run. Why else would he need to hide in the American hospital? But how did he know about Sumner? If the Germans made a surprise visit, or their intelligence services tracked Coster to the hospital, what would happen? Sumner had a family to worry about, unlike in the last war. Now, suddenly, he was being faced with a defining choice, far more significant than whether or not to listen secretly to de Gaulle on the BBC. If he helped Coster, hiding him from his pursuers, he would be gambling not just with his own life but with the lives of those he cared most about: his family and the people at the American Hospital.

Avenue of Spies

The leafy Avenue Foch, one of the most exclusive residential streets in Nazi-occupied France, was Paris’s hotbed of daring spies, murderous secret police, amoral informers, and Vichy collaborators. So when American physician Sumner Jackson, who lived with his wife and young son Phillip at Number 11, found himself drawn into the Liberation network of the French resistance, he knew the stakes were impossibly high. Just down the road at Number 31 was the “mad sadist” Theodor Dannecker, an Eichmann protégé charged with deporting French Jews to concentration camps. And Number 84 housed the Parisian headquarters of the Gestapo, run by the most effective spy hunter in Nazi Germany.

Summer Jackson (left) in WWI

From his office at the American Hospital, itself an epicenter of Allied and Axis intrigue, Jackson smuggled fallen Allied fighter pilots safely out of France, a job complicated by the hospital director’s close ties to collaborationist Vichy. After witnessing the brutal round-up of his Jewish friends, Jackson invited Liberation to officially operate out of his home at Number 11–but the noose soon began to tighten. When his secret life was discovered by his Nazi neighbors, he and his family were forced to undertake  a journey into the dark heart of the war-torn continent from which there was little chance of return.

Drawing upon a wealth of primary source material and extensive interviews with Phillip Jackson, Alex Kershaw recreates the City of Light during its darkest days. The untold story of the Jackson family anchors the suspenseful narrative, and Kershaw dazzles readers with the vivid immediacy of the best spy thrillers. Awash with the tense atmosphere of World War II’s Europe, Avenue of Spies introduces us to the brave doctor who risked everything to defy Hitler.

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Alex Kershaw

The best-selling author of The Liberator brings to life the incredible true story of an American doctor in Paris, and his heroic espionage efforts during World War II.

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