An Irishman’s Diary on Donald Caskie, the ‘Tartan Pimpernel’
Rev Dr Donald Caskie: known as the Tartan Pimpernel for his wartime activities in occupied France
In wartime France, a brave Scotsman helped thousands of stranded Allied servicemen escape capture by the Vichy regime and the Nazis. He told the remarkable story of his experiences in the book The Tartan Pimpernel, which was first published in 1957. It was made into a film and, most recently, a play based on the book has been staged.
His name was Rev Dr Donald Caskie and he was born on the isle of Islay off the west coast of Scotland in 1902. He was appointed as minister in the Scots Kirk in Paris in 1938. The kirk had existed in the city since the late 1850s and ministered to ex-patriates and co-religionists who were living there or just visiting the city.
Because of his denunciations of Nazism prior to the invasion of France, Caskie felt that he should leave the city once it fell in June 1940. He made his way to the second city, Marseille, which was in the unoccupied zone. There, he became involved in a seaman’s mission which was meant to provide care for sailors and civilians.
However, it was not long before Caskie was recruited by British intelligence to operate a safe house for escaping Allied soldiers who were stranded in France or who had escaped from custody. His was one of a network of safe houses that stretched throughout the country from Dunkirk in the north to Marseille in the south.
At the time, Marseille was alive with refugees and others hoping to get transit visas to escape. An important task was to kit out the Allied servicemen who turned up on his doorstep seeking refuge. For this, he went to the Arab quarter of the city and bought up civilian clothes. The uniforms were dumped in the Mediterranean Sea.
In case the mission was raided, hiding places were created under floorboards and in a space under the roof.
It was frequently raided by the local police, who were often accompanied by a Gestapo officer. If the sheltering soldiers were found, they were immediately taken prisoner and marched to a nearby army barracks where they were held in custody. Some of the locals helped to harbour escapees and source food, even though it was being rationed and becoming more and more scarce by the day.
The American consul also lent a hand by providing funds and official identification documents.
The servicemen made their way over the Pyrenees to neutral Spain and on to the British embassy in Madrid.
Caskie’s activities aroused suspicion and he was taken in for questioning in April 1942. He was interrogated, but thankfully they did not have enough evidence against him. They requested him to return to Britain and when he refused, the authorities simply banished him from Marseille.
After Marseille, he travelled to Grenoble, where he took on the role of prison chaplain. He visited captured soldiers and helped them in any way he could.
Some Protestant pastors in the city helped him by hiding soldiers in the crypts of their churches.
Caskie was ultimately betrayed and a handful of Gestapo officers arrived at his bedroom door one day in April 1943 with revolvers drawn. He was taken into custody and interrogated. He spent some time in solitary confinement and was transported to various prisons including in San Remo in Italy, where he said the Italians were worse than the Germans.
A death sentence was passed, but as with so many times in Caskie’s surreal life in wartime France, fate intervened. A German Lutheran pastor that he knew advocated on his behalf and his life was spared. He was then interned in a prisoner of war camp.
It is estimated that Caskie helped over 2,000 soldiers, seamen and airmen to escape the clutches of the enemy.
After the liberation of France, he returned to the Scots Kirk in Paris.
The Tartan Pimpernel proved to be a bestseller, going through several print runs. Funds from the sale of the book were used to renovate the Scots Kirk.
He was awarded an OBE and was featured on the television programme This is Your Life with Eamonn Andrews in 1959.
Caskie stayed in Paris until the early 1960s, when he returned to take up a post in a church in Scotland.
Today, visitors to the rebuilt and restored Scots Kirk on rue Bayard in the city’s eighth arrondissement can see items linked to the courageous Scotsman.
Among the objects on display is a large wooden cross that was donated to Caskie by Scottish schoolchildren as a thank you for all he did after the war when he organised school exchanges with a school in Paris.
Another item is a Gaelic language bible once owned by the pastor.
It was donated to the church by his nephew, Tom Caskie.