Prisoner of War
1940- 1944

The following was written by Fr Tom Dooley at the behest of  Eugene MacBride.


A few days ago, 25th August, to be exact, my memory was stirred by the fact that forty years had passed since we were released from St. Denis. But memory was not stirred as much as all that . . . there are still a lot of gaps. A group of us together would be able to dig out quite a lot. But I am on my own. Still you can have what I can give.

For a good number of years the British province (it was not yet a province at that time) had a house at Autreppe, in Belgium for the philosophers of the province. It 1939 it was decided to close this house and open another house in England, near Doncaster, for this purpose. So the house in Autreppe was duly closed ( or returned to the Belgian province) in July and the philosophers told to report to Rossington at the beginning of September. But the war was declared on the 3rd September. In spite of this, a number of us were invited to go to Rossington to get it ready for use, the others having their holiday extended. After about six weeks a halt was called and we were told that we would be going to Kerlois to complete our Philosophy. I do not know what exactly had happened: whether the WFs had found the opening of a new house beyond their financial capacity and so were willing to let it to the army or whether the first approach had been made by the army and the WFs were financially incapable of refusing their offer. Whatever, we were invited to go home and wait for further instructions. The instructions arrived: we had to assemble at The Priory to wait for transport to France and to do a little bit of study. I do not think my parents were particularly. worried. I know I was not unduly upset but perhaps I was a bit green. Tod O'Donnell and I went to sleep while we were still at anchor in Southampton and woke up as we were approaching Le Havre. But it was in the days of ‘the phony War’ when nothing much was happening.

With hindsight I suppose we could say that nothing really prevented us from escaping after the breakthrough at Sedan. But we had no foresight. The French superiors a Kerlois were convinced that it was just a temporary setback: ‘Ils ne passeront pas'. We did one day hear strains of 'South of the Border', a popular tune in those days, coming from a road near the seminary.


They were British troops heading out towards Brest. We did ask permission to try to join them but we were ridiculed by the Superior. I do not say this with any bitterness or with any desire to share out the blame.

As I said, we had no foresight. We did try to get to the unoccupied territory and thereby hangs a tale with many ramifications. Quite interesting really but only for those involved and on the whole an enjoyable time with the occasional adventure. However, once again authority intervened in the person o£ the priest in charge of the group. Progress was becoming more difficult and dangerous, not only for us but for those whose help we needed. And so we returned to Kerlois on foot. We had crossed the Loire at Angers (ferried across by German troops) and it was from there that we returned to our point of departure, as I said, on foot since the Germans had by this time taken over the railway station etc.

We were not long back at Kerlois, perhaps a couple of days, before we were ordered to repot to the German Kommandatur in the village of Hennebont. The emotions of the group? Difficult to say. A certain amount of apprehension but no hysteria. The guard was changed while we were in the office and some of us thought it was the firing squad. I think in situations like that the mind and the emotions do not work in parallel. We could accept the idea of a firing squad but emotions would not have started registering until we were looking down the barrels. Or perhaps we were just plain dumb. So I have to come back to apprehensive but not hysterical. Those with Irish passports were allowed to return to the seminary and the rest of us were told that we would be detained . . . just like that. We were then marched off to a military camp. We were the only prisoners there and, of course, many came to stare at these strange specimens dressed in douillette and shovel hats.



(more below)


(Source : Celia, sister of Fr Kevin Wiseman)

Fr Tom Dooley (2nd right, centre) and his fellow prisoners.

(Click here to identify individuals)


We were not badly treated physically but all those who could speak a bit of English were only too anxious to convince us that we were the scum of the earth. One officer and one Feldwebel were particularly obnoxious but we survived. Next day were moved to a proper prisoner-of-war camp, within hearing-distance of Kerlois. We were taken as we stood but shortly afterwards we were allowed to receive some clothing and odds and ends from the seminary. As far as I remember we were in five camps before we eventually arrived in St. Denis. This took roughly three months. Looking back, it seems a lot longer. You can well imagine the problem the Germans had to face when they discovered they had had hundreds a of thousands of prisoners on their hands. Accommodation and food were very poor but I would not hold that against our captors. They had a tremendous job to get things organised and we and they were very fortunate that the weather was exceptionally mild.
As far as I understand the Grande Caserne of St. Denis was built to house the occupation army (British) after the Battle of Waterloo. And as far as I know it was never utilised for anything else other than as an army barracks. Certain adjustments were made and as time went on a number of huts (cf the photo you sent me) were built to accommodate the internees. I suppose our numbers fluctuated between 1200 and 2000. The structural alterations were the responsibility of the Germans but the gardens, tennis courts, football ground, boxing ring were all the work of the internees themselves with a fair amount of co-operation from the Germans as regards material. Within the camp there was a committee of internees responsible for order and cleanliness. I have forgotten how they were appointed. I think we had some kind of election. Each room or hut had a room corporal who was responsible for the inmates and for keeping the place clean. These room corporals formed a sort of committee for the internal running of the camp.


I cannot. remember clearly how the first news of our situation reached home. I believe some news came to the WFs in England from Portugal. The. news was brief enough . . . . all alive and well in the hands of the Germans. It took about six months or more before we had direct contact with our families. From our side we were allowed to write letters of twenty five words on special forms. Later we were allowed to write normal letters but on special forms. And, of course, our families used the official forms for prisoners of war. Once things got a bit organised we were allowed to write three letters a month. There was no regular postal service in the sense that you could expect an answer to your letter within a certain period of time. It seemed to be a haphazard sort of business. Maybe there was some sort of planning but I never noticed it. And for the six months before our release we had no communications with our families.

I suppose it was nearly a year before we started receiving parcels regularly from the Red Cross. I am rather vague about that although the parcels were an important feature in our lives and a distribution of parcels gave a tremendous boost to our morale. The general idea was that we would receive a parcel every week. At times it did work out that way but there were many interruptions and some long periods without anything at all. The parcels came mainly from the British Red Cross but we did receive them too from other countries especially Canada, America, S. America . . . . . The spice of life. We have always been very grateful for what we received from these organisations. More than a few of us would not have made it without them.





Our families were allowed to send us individual parcels of clothing. This did not work out too well. Many of the parcels went missing and some were pillaged before they reached us. We received cigarettes from the Red Cross. When things were going well we would receive a ration of fifty per week. Needless to say we often missed out on them. We were also allowed to buy a ration of French cigarettes - sixty a month. We had some money. Once again it took some time to organise but eventually the British government was lending us £I-50 per month. Of course the buying power was much more than it is today but I just cannot remember the price of the goods available for sale in our canteen. But the loan was enough to buy our cigarettes once a month and the half litre of very poor quality wine we were allowed each week and other odds and ends like soap and razor blades. The money we received was a loan but nobody ever asked us to return it.
It seems easy to say that morale was always good. But I do not honestly remember a time when we were all fed up to the teeth at the same time. And, of course, some individuals were more pessimistic than others but on the whole the morale was good. We always took it for granted that the allies would win the war some time or another. The only question was how long it would take. Strangely enough, I simply cannot remember whether there was free access to newspapers. I do not think so but of, course, newspapers did turn up from time to time. And we were never short of information about what was happening outside the camp. There were a few hidden radios in the camp but the big problem was to dig out the reliable information from the oceans of rumour that were constantly on the move.

I have already point d out that those who held Irish passports were not arrested as internee. Fr. D'Arcy, Fr. Brennan, Fr. Houlihan ( and I think another whose name escapes me at the moment) held British passports and so were part of our group. However, the Irish Consul in France, a Count O’Kelly, was willing to issue Irish passports to those who could establish a claim. The above named were able to establish such a claim and were duly released. But they were not able to return to Ireland. They were eventually sent to WF house in the unoccupied zone of France and then later to N. Africa. Just in passing, I should say that we were in constant contact with the WFs in France and they helped us in many ways.


When we reached St. Denis the two priests in the group started to organise a course of study for us. We made up two groups: one had already completed Philosophy and were ready to start Theology and the other still had a year of Philosophy to do. During our four years as Hitler's guests we covered a two year course of the main subjects (major courses). We owed a lot the Frs. Maguire and Moran who kept our noses to the grindstone in spite of all the difficulties. The Philosophy group had their books sent to them from Kerlois (which was eventually taken over by the German army). Books on Theology were not so readily available . . . . we had to manage on one copy of Arregui's Summary . . . . for students and professor. Eventually we were able to get some books from Germany through the good services of the German Commandant of the camp in spite of this we were always short of reading matter. So we were out of normal seminary life for a period of five years but our studies in the camp counted for two years. A loss of three years. But strangely I have never heard anyone bemoaning the fact. We were not too enthusiastic about doing a full novitiate when we got back but even there I think our grousing did not go beyond the normal.

We were photographed from time to time for official purposes (I still have my identity card). Many of the visiting officials arrived with cameramen. But generally speaking we were not allowed to have cameras. I say generally speaking since it is possible that permission was granted for special occasions. It is more than forty years ago!

There was a character in the camp who from time to time would go around like an Old Testament prophet shouting 'Another three weeks' We tolerated him because he was saying out loud what most of us thought or at least hoped. And if you keep saying ‘Another three weeks’, well, the day comes when you are right. We had all the news bf the Normandy landing (together with clouds of rumours) and of course expectations grew. The build-up in Normandy took a very long time, at least from our point of view. And then came the breakthrough. It was the film of the 1940 Sedan breakthrough running backwards. And then one night someone came running into the room waking us up shouting 'They have gone!' And that was that. My stomach heaved; I did not realise I was so physically keyed up. But they had gone.



We stayed on at St. Denis for two or three days. The military situation was extremely confused and there was still a lot of fighting going on and where could we go. The problem was solved by a WF turning up with a coal lorry. We laid our hands on everything movable and set out for Paris and the WF house at rue Friant passing e Gaulle who was entering Paris from another direction. The British Embassy was opened with a skeleton staff and they undertook to get us back to the U.K. But it took a month. On arrival in one of the London airports we were interrogated by CID or something. When they found a long line of us were giving the same answers to their questions they cut it short and we were taken to a rest house in the heart of London. We were well received and well treated. We were able to send telegrams to our families and were given travel warrants. Next morning Fr. Gaffney turned up to tell us all to go home until further notice. (We already had our travel warrants in our pockets) And so home after nearly five years absence.

I am much of the opinion that there is a credit side. It is not the experience that I would have chosen for myself or for anybody else and obviously I cannot guess what manner of man I would have been without that experience.


But I have no regrets and I have not heard any of the others voice such regrets But to be more specific about the credit side is more than I can do. I think one is constantly being made by one's experience . . . made or unmade, since there is something more than the objective experience involved. For example, I have often wished I had been sent straight to Africa after ordination, to a bush mission station, instead of being involved in teaching. Or if I had to be involved in teaching I would have liked a spell at one of the universities first. If you like to put it that way perhaps I regret that one or other of these things did not happen to me. But I do not regret having spent some time as a prisoner.

Be charitable enough to say that I have a very bad, uneducated typewriter and that I am a very busy man. I have not answered your questions about unusual characters and unusual happenings. There were plenty of both. If ever you get the chance to listen in when  a few ex-St. Denis men are together you will hear plenty. And there should be room to join us because the rest tend to leave us to ourselves.

Perhaps they have heard all the stories before ad nauseam.

1.Geddes Gerry 2.Gerry Taylor 3.Gerry Napper 4.Tom Rathe 5.Vincent Batty 6.Dick O'Brien 7.George Fry Kevin Wiseman 9.Francis Paul Moody
10.Gerry Pitt 11.George Penistone 12.Jack Maguire 13.Tom Morton 14.Tom Dooley 15.Tom O'Donnell 16.Peter Walters 17.Joseph O'Brien 18.Francis Copping

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