I was first alerted to the possibilities behind the story, Operation Kingfisher, by a friend called Tony who has a keen interest in Inland Waterways, both in the UK and in France, writes Hilary Green. He has his own narrow boat, which is currently moored on one of the French canals. It was Tony who asked me if I knew that during the Second World War the French canal network had been used as a way to smuggle POWs and downed airmen out of the country. When I expressed my interest he sent me some photocopied pages from a book, Keeping Afloat by John Liley. These contained a reference to an extraordinary event which occurred in April 1943.
After the Allied invasion of North Africa the Germans, fearing an attack on the south coast of France, decided to move some of their warships from the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Rather than taking the long sea route they decided to use the French canal system. French canals are considerably wider than the ones in the UK and carry much heavier traffic. The vedettes (small boats) were brought down the River Yonne and the intention was to take them through the Canal de Bourgogne to connect with the River Saone and thence to the Mediterranean.
However, when they reached Laroche Migennes, where the Canal de Bourgogne meets the Yonne, they discovered that the locks on that canal were too short to accommodate the ships. A new route had to be devised and 1,500 young men were pressed into service to rebuild roads, so that the ships could be moved overland. Buildings were demolished, bends straightened out and gradients eased. The nearest slipway was in Auxerre and the residents of that town were astounded to see the spectacle of these huge craft being hauled out of the river. They were loaded onto two 48-wheeled chariots, pulled by three giant tractors, with four more at the rear to provide braking power.
It was forbidden to photograph these events but there are, nevertheless, several pictures taken clandestinely to bear witness to this amazing undertaking. Ironically, the RAF was alerted to what was happening and not one of the ships ever reached the Mediterranean!
These events form the background to Hilary’s new novel, Operation Kingfisher, due for publication on 29 November 2013.
Hilary’s novel, The Last Hero, is available now.