Escape and Evasion
During the Second World war, thousands of brave men and women in France, Belgium and Holland played a critical role in saving British, Canadian and American downed fliers during the German occupation.
It is estimated that 35,000 escapees were ushered to safety by these Resistance workers. Some reports indicate that for every Airman who made it back to England a Resistance line worker lost his or her life.
The American Airforces Escape and Evasion Society (AFEES) and the affiliated British organization, the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society, were formed to perpetuate the close bond that exists between airmen and the men and women of countries such as France, Belgium and Holland who made their escape and evasion possible at great risk to themselves and their families.
Stories of Some That Got Away
There are hundreds of stories of Canadians who escaped from prisoner of war camps, or that managed to evade capture after being shot down or left behind by their units. These stories invariably include tales of intrigue, heroism and sacrifice on the part of local citizens, and an abundance of luck.
The first Canadian to escape captivity was Sapper Fraser Hutchison of the Royal Canadian Engineers. He had been left behind, wounded and unconscious in a French hospital on 8 June 1940, when the 1st Canadian Division was ordered to return to England after the initial (and premature) British invasion of France at Brest. He was captured by the Germans after recovering, but escaped from a German work detail in November 1940.
He arrived back in England a year later – via Paris, Marseille, Switzerland, back to Marseille, to Spain and finally to Gibraltar, all the while evading the Germans!
Warrant Officer James MacLeod became a prisoner in January, 1943 when his Spitfire was shot down over France. Finally, after three earlier escape attempts, he finally escaped on 23 April 1944. He and a comrade crossed the Swiss border disguised as farmers carrying pitch forks.
Howard Low and Russel Smith
Hurricane pilots Howard Low of Vancouver and Russel Smith of Kamsack, Saskatchewan were not so lucky. They managed to slip away from their compound in the Dutch East Indies in March 1942. They were caught attempting to steal a plane and were immediately shot to death by Japanese soldiers.
RCAF Flying Officer Harold Marting’s escape was unusual. An American, he had joined the Canadian Air Force in 1940. During an air battle in North Africa he shot down three enemy aircraft, but was shot down himself and captured. After interrogation, he was flown to Athens where he managed to scale a 12 foot wall and literally fall into the hands of Greek Partisans, who managed to get him to safety in Turkey on 17 December 1942.
Sergeant Charles McDonald, another American who joined the RCAF, was shot down and captured on 21 August, 1941, near Lille, France. He escaped from Stalag Luft VIII B at Lamsdorf, Germany and linked up with the Polish resistance who took him first to Warsaw, then through an escape line to Gibraltar. He reached Liverpool, England on 24 July 1943.
Flying Officer Jack Otten of Kingston, Ontario, was captured in Greece in March 1942. He was imprisoned in Campo 21, an Italian prisoner of war camp. When the Italians surrendered, Otten was digging in an escape tunnel. When he later crawled out of the tunnel with five other men, he found that the guards were gone. They climbed the wire and reached allied lines on 13 October 1943.
The story of the escape of Flight Lieutenant Hubert Brooks is an amazing tale. Born in Alberta, he joined the RCAF in Montreal and he was shot down on 8 April 1942. When his sister learned of his capture, she said, "Hubert is too full of the Devil for the Nazis to hold." Her words were prophetic.
Sent to Lamsdorf, he was imprisoned in Stalag VIII B where he made his first escape attempt on 8 June 1942. Recaptured, he served 14 days solitary confinement and on 10 September 1942, he and five other prisoners escaped again and managed to make it as far as Vienna.
Hubert Brooks and the other five escapees were all recaptured while hiding on a freight train and returned to Lamsdorf for more solitary confinement. Ignoring orders that he would be shot if he tried to escape again, he made his third escape on 10 May 1943. He reached Czestochowa, Poland on 15 May and hooked up with the Polish Underground.
In an amazing decision, Brooks remained with the Polish Underground helping Allied prisoners escape. By doing so he risked summary execution if caught.
He remained with the Poles as an Underground Platoon Commander and was so well respected by the Polish Government in exile, that he was awarded the Polish Cross of Valour and the Polish Silver Cross of Merit. His days on the run ended when the Russians arrived and he landed in Britain on 19 March 1945. He was mentioned in Dispatches and awarded the Military Cross in 1946.
Fl. Lt. Brooks served in the post war RCAF and played on the RCAF Flyers Hockey team that beat the Swiss team 3–0 to win Olympic Gold in 1948. The team had a 6-0-1 record. Fl. Lt. Brooks was a truly remarkable man and Canadian hero.
V. Bastable and Pavel Svoboda
Another RCAF flyer was Warrant Officer V. Bastable of Winnipeg. Shot down and captured in September 1942, he was sent to Stalag Luft 344 in the Sudetenland. He escaped twice and was recaptured. By then Bastable had formed a solid friendship with Sergeant Pavel Svoboda, a Czechoslovakian who had escaped his homeland and joined the RAF.
On 22 October, 1944, the two indomitable flyers escaped a final time and joined the Czech resistance movement where they remained until wars end. Bastable returned to Canada where he was killed in a jet plane crash in 1949. His friend and comrade Svoboda fled the communists after the war and died in Britain in 1993.
Don Learment and William Fredenberg
Another remarkable story of escape occurred a few days after the D-Day invasion. Allied soldiers and airmen who had been captured by the Germans during the Normandy invasion were put into dirty railway boxcars for transport back to prison camps in Germany. During this frightening railway trip to Germany, the railway lines were bombed by the Allies, there was little food and the prisoners had been sealed into the boxcars.
After some days, Major Don Learment of the North Nova Scotia Highland Regiment and an American Pilot, William Fredenberg, managed to pound a hole in the end wall of a boxcar filled with Senior NCO’s and officers. One after the other, these soldiers and airmen managed to squeeze through the hole head first, land on the boxcar buffers and jump to safety.
Jack Veness and Jack Fairweather
Two of these men were Army Lieutenants, Jack Veness and Jack Fairweather, 21 and 20 years of age respectively. Both from New Brunswick, they had been captured on the 7 June, 1944, when the German 12 SS Division, over ran the North Nova Scotia’s at Authie.
About 22 July, after days on the run, the escapees hooked up with a group of French resistance fighters known as the Maquis (The term "Maquis" is a Corsican word that describes woodlands or forested areas where outlaws hide). Veness and Fairweather stayed and fought with the Maquis until the fall of 1944, when they managed to return to England. Later, they rejoined their Regiment, the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, were both promoted to Major and continued the fight.
Stories of Those Who Helped Downed Pilots Evade Capture
Naturally, pilots and airmen shot down over France were determined not to become prisoners of war. "The best way to escape is not to get caught" wrote Eric Williams in Great Escape Stories. In August 1942, British intelligence established a secret escape organization working with French Resistance groups to help pilots shot down to evade capture and be repatriated to England. Two very special, very brave and determined French Canadian soldiers were selected for one such network.
Raymond Labrosse, a 22 year old Canadian Army Signal Corps Sergeant had earlier teamed up with French resistance and for six months had helped downed airmen return to England. Then his Resistance Unit was infiltrated by Gestapo. Labrosse managed to evade the Gestapo and escape via the Pyrenees to England, but ready to return to France once more. The man selected to return with him to France was 38 year old Sergeant Major Lucien Dumais of les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, a veteran of the 1942 Dieppe Raid.
Both fluent in French and after several months of intense training, the two landed near Paris in November 1943 to run Operation Bonaparte, which was part of a larger escape network called Shelburne.
Carrying impeccable, but false identity papers, Labrosse and Dumais traveled extensively in France under the very noses of the German occupation troops. They set up safe houses, recruited and trained their contacts in the French Resistance and established radio links with British intelligence.
Always in fear of infiltration by Gestapo agents, or betrayal by Frenchmen collaborating with the Germans, Sgt. Major Dumais himself always interrogated each downed pilot or airman. So careful were Dumais and Labrosse that Operations Bonaparte and Shelburne were never exposed. In fact, none of the repatriated Allied airmen even knew that an escape network existed.
Years later a repatriated American pilot learned of the Bonaparte network while vacationing in Europe. Ralph Patton learned to his amazement that in seven short months Dumais and Labrosse had rescued 307 downed Allied airmen and agents from certain death, or prisoner of war camps. In 1964, 50 of those repatriated gathered in Buffalo, New York to honour Lucien Dumais, now a Montreal businessman and Royal 22nd Regiment Major, Raymond Labrosse. A truly remarkable story.