The Escape - Robert Muchamore
5 June 1940 – 6 June 1940
Nazi Germany launched its invasion of France on 10 May 1940. On paper, the forces of France and her British allies were equal or superior to the Germans’. Most commentators predicted a long and bloody war. But whilst the allied armies spread out in defensive formations the Germans used the radical new tactic of blitzkrieg – massing tanks and armour into huge battle groups and punching through enemy lines.
By 21 May the Germans had successfully occupied a huge section of northern France. The British were forced into a humiliating sea evacuation at Dunkirk and the French army was in tatters. German generals wanted to push on towards Paris, but Hitler ordered them to pause, regroup and secure their supply lines.
On the night of June 3rd, he finally gave orders to resume the attack.
As a baby, Marc Kilgour had been abandoned between two stone flower pots on the platform at Beauvais station, sixty kilometres north of Paris. A porter found him lying inside a wooden fruit box and rushed him into the warmth of the stationmaster’s office. There he discovered the only clue to the boy’s identity – a scrap of notepaper with four handwritten words: Allergic to cows’ milk.
Now twelve years old, Marc had imagined his abandonment so often that his memory of it seemed real: the frosty platform, his anxious mother kissing his cheek before boarding a train and disappearing for ever, her eyes moist and her head crammed with secrets as the carriages steamed into the night. In his fantasies Marc saw a statue being erected on the platform some day. Marc Kilgour: fighter ace, Le Mans race winner, hero of France …
But his life so far could hardly have been less exciting. He’d grown up in a decrepit farmhouse a few kilometres north of Beauvais, its cracked walls and shrivelled beams constantly threatened by the destructive power of a hundred orphan boys.
The region’s farms, chateaux and forests were attractive to Parisians who came out for a Sunday drive; but it was hell to Marc, and the windows into more exciting lives he got through the radio and magazines tormented him.
His days were all the same: the squirming mass of orphans rising to the crack of a walking stick on a metal radiator, school until lunchtime, then an afternoon toiling on a nearby farm. It was brutal work, but the men who were supposed to do it had been called up to fight the Germans.
Morel’s farm was the largest in the area and Marc was the youngest of four boys who worked there. Mr Tomas, the orphanage director, took advantage of the shortage of labour and received a good price for the boys’ work; but the lads saw none of the money and any suggestion that they should was met with a stern expression and a lecture on how much each of them had already cost in food and clothing.
A long history of run-ins with Director Tomas had earned Marc the least pleasant job on the farm. Most of Morel’s land produced wheat and vegetables, but the farmer kept a dozen dairy cows in a shed whilst their calves were raised for veal under an adjacent canopy. Morel had no land for pasture, so his cattle lived on fodder and only glimpsed daylight when they were led to a neighbouring farm for a romp with Henri the bull.
While his fellow orphans tended fields, Marc clambered amidst the tightly packed stalls, scrubbing out the milking shed. An adult cow produces a hundred and twenty litres of faeces and urine each day and takes no account of holidays or weekends.
Seven days a week, Marc found himself in the vile-smelling shed, scraping manure down a sloped floor into the slurry pit. When the trampled straw and muck was cleared, he had to hose the concrete and replenish each stall with bales of hay and vegetable waste. Twice a week came the worst job of all: shovelling out the slurry pit and wheeling the stinking barrels to a barn, where they would rot down before being used as fertiliser.
Jae Morel was also twelve and had known Marc since their first day at school. Marc was a handsome boy, with tangled blond hair, and Jae had always liked him. But as the daughter of the area’s wealthiest farmer she wasn’t expected to mix with boys who came to school with bare feet. At age nine she’d moved from the village school to an all girls’ academy