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.
Escape and Evasion
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 (RAFES), 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.
The Rise of Resistance Groups
Following Germany's initial successes with its Blitzkrieg, or Lighting War, which allowed it to capture much of Europe between 1939 and 1942, resistance or underground groups rose to defend their nations.
While these organizations didn't have the numbers or material to confront Nazi Germany head on, they found other ways to fight back. They fed intelligence to the Allies; they sabotaged infrastructure, including trains and bridges; and they also helped Allied soldiers and aircrew escape German-held territory. Resistance groups weren't isolated to Europe, either; they also aided the Allies in Africa and Asia.
In all, Europe's resistance groups helped over 7,000 Allied servicemen (the vast majority of whom were aircrew) reach safety during the war. Over half of those escapers and evaders were ferried from Europe before the June 1944 D-Day invasion. That number also includes some 1,000 British soldiers trapped in France after the British retreat at Dunkirk in the spring of 1940.
In return, Allied intelligence agencies, such as MI9 in Britain and the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) in the U.S., provided the groups with expertise and leadership, along with clothing, weapons, ammunition, and perhaps most importantly, money.
Training and lectures
Knowing that many service personnel, specifically aircrew, faced capture behind enemy lines, British and American intelligence organizations began training their personnel in escape and evasion tactics. Some of the simpler ways to help evaders was to teach them local habits and mannerisms. They would find them civilian clothes and footwear; teach them to slouch rather than to march (a dead giveaway); ride a bicycle; and to not wear a wristwatch.
The intelligence organizations, which instructed over 600,000 personnel during the war, also reminded evaders to be patient, obey instructions of members of the resistance or escape line, don't talk to strangers, and don't try to escape on one's own.
MI9 and MIS also provided their personnel with creative and well camouflaged tools to help them evade capture. These ingenious inventions provided the basis for the gadgets the fictional spy James Bond used in his adventures (Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, served as naval intelligence officer during the war).
They included silk escape maps, miniature compasses, pocket-sized food packs, compact saws disguised as boot laces, and a flying boot with a hollow heel that could hold a compass, map, and some money.
However, even with some innovative tools and helpful training, without the resistance groups, evaders stood little chance of returning to England. While most of the escape lines in Europe were organized and led by MI9 agents, members drawn from the local populace served an important role by locating Allied soldiers or aircrew and escorting them to safety.
The escape lines became so good at helping evaders that aircraft crew shot down over mainland Europe had a 50 percent chance of escaping Europe.
The first escape line in Europe was established after the Battle of Dunkirk, which saw thousands of Allied personnel unable to escape Normandy following the failed battle. While the first evaders did the best they could with whatever help they could find, MI9 began working with British officers captured after Dunkirk and held at Marseille, France, to free soldiers held in that city. At that time, captives were, at first, allowed to move about the city, which created numerous opportunities for many individuals to escape Europe.
The Pat Line Ian Garrow, a captain with the Glasgow Highlanders, began helping MI9 spirit soldiers to freedom from Marseille in 1940. He was betrayed and arrested by Vichy police in October 1941. Albert Guerisse, a Belgian national posing as Pat O'Leary, a French Canadian, took over Garrow's role, and the escape line became known as the Pat Line. O'Leary was later arrested, as well. Even with the betrayals, the Pat Line, which collapsed in 1943, still managed to help some 600 evaders escape Europe by way of France and Spain.
The Oaktree Line With the Pat Line out of commission, MI9 set out to form a new escape line located due south of Britain, known as Oaktree, which would bring evaders out of France by way of Brittany. But the Oaktree mission failed after the Gestapo arrested Val Williams, one of the agents tasked with setting up the line, while the other, Raymond LaBrosse, a French-Canadian signalman, fled into Spain with twenty-nine airmen.
The Shelburne Line Oaktree, however, would eventually see success as the Shelburne Line. After his successful escape through Spain, LaBrosse returned to France with another Canadian, Lucien Dumais, who had also escaped France into Spain by way of the Pyrenees. The Shelburne Line brought evaders from Paris to Brittany where they would be hidden in barns and farmhouses near the town of Plouha.
The Shelburne Line saw its first successful operation on the night of January 29–30, 1944 followed by operations in February and March. Those three operations alone saw 115 Allied airmen and agents spirited back to England. By June 16, 1944, after the D-Day invasion, the Shelburne Line, which was still operating, had seen six successful rescues.
The Shelburne Line finished its work with two operations in July 1944. Final evacuation of aircrew on July 13 followed by two more operations at the end of July to get Allied agents into and out of France.
The Comet Line While the Shelburne Line pushed aircrew and other personnel from France, another highly successful escape line, the Comet Line, had been at work since the start of the war with the fall of France. The Comet Line, was founded and run by a 25-year-old Belgium woman, Andrée de Jongh, also known as Dédée and the "Little Cyclone" for her vast energy.
De Jongh, who personally escorted 118 individuals to safety over the Pyrenees, initially recruited her friends and members of her own family, including her father, Frederick. For the most part, the majority of the 3,000 operatives (also known as guides or helpers) working for the Comet Line were young people. De Jongh ensured security by creating a structure where each of the line's operatives knew very little about how the line was organized.
De Jongh and the Comet Line first began rescuing soldiers trapped in Europe following the failed British invasion and the disastrous retreat at Dunkirk, but once she had made contact with MI9, the Comet Line shifted to helping downed aircrew. The Comet Line collected evaders in Belgium and Holland and moved them to Paris by way of the Belgium city of Brussels.
From Paris, evaders were escorted south west to the border of France and Spain. Even though Spain was technically neutral, assuming a stance of non-belligerence, it still had strong ties to Nazi Germany for much of the war. As a result, Allied evaders faced imprisonment if caught crossing into Spain by way of the western Pyrenees Mountains.
Once in Spain, evaders were quickly handed off to British authorities, who whisked them south to Gibraltar, a British territory. From there, they were taken to England by ship.
The Comet Line was remarkably efficient. In one instance, the line escorted the seven-member crew of an RAF bomber to safety in a week. Despite betrayals and Gestapo infiltration, the Comet Line helped 288 individuals, most of whom were Allied aircrew, including Canadians. During the years that it operated, 200 of Comet's roughly 3,000 members were killed or died—shortly after rescue—in concentration camps.
De Jongh was arrested in January 1943 and spent the rest of the war in a concentration camp. She survived the war; however, her father, Frederic, did not. He was executed in 1944 after his 1943 arrest. Even without some of its key members, the Comet Line continued to operate successfully.
When Italy surrendered to the Allies in September 1943, following the July invasion of the Italian peninsula, it's believed as many as 55,000 allied and Italian prisoners-of-war captured prior to the 1943 Italian armistice fled the camps. Initially, POWs had been ordered to wait for what was supposed to be a quick campaign, but the German army dug in and remained in control of central and northern Italy, and rather than be taken prisoner by the German Army, many prisoners fled into the mountains.
These escapers and evaders had two options, head north towards Switzerland or south towards Allied lines, and as they attempted to reach safety, American and British secret services worked together to create the joint 'A' Force. Agents were sent into German-held territory to rescue Allied personnel.
German forces quickly re-captured most of the prisoners, transporting them to camps in Germany, while many of those who managed to evade capture got help from Italian farmers and villagers and resistance groups.
Even though 'A' Force had agents on the ground in Italy only two escape lines were in use: one in Rome and the other in the Alps that helped evaders reach Switzerland.
Of those 50,000-plus Allied soldiers on the move through the Italian countryside, 17,000 reached either Switzerland or Allied lines. Some of those escapees reached Rome where they received help from Hugh O'Flaherty, an Irish priest who served the Holy Office at the Vatican in Rome. O'Flaherty was nicknamed the "Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican" after a fictional character who rescued French aristocrats following the French Revolution.
At the start of the war, O'Flaherty began assisting Italian Jews, hiding them in a network of safe houses throughout Rome, but with the fall of Italy and the German occupation, he began assisting Allied escapees and evaders. In all, O'Flaherty's work assisted some 6,500 Allied escapers and Jews.
Sea Escape Lines
While for most evaders and escapers, their final leg back to Britain was by boat—or in some cases, submarine—evaders attempting to get out of Greece and Crete after both fell to the German, Italian, and Bulgarian armies had to rely on sea escape lines.
These sea lines, first developed in March 1942, depended on fishing boats based out of secret British bases in Turkey. Known as "caïques", these 15-ton skiffs were long, thin boats which took evaders from Greece and Crete to Turkey, Cyprus, or Egypt. In all, eight routes known as "caïque plans" were developed during the war.
Like the overland routes, caïque plans came with enormous risk as the boats had to travel through enemy-held waters along fortified and well defended coastlines. As a result, searches and inspections by port officials and patrol boats were common.
Along with the European and Mediterranean escape lines, British and American intelligence organizations also set up lines to get Allied personnel out of Singapore and Hong Kong. With the fall of Hong Kong in December 1941, the British Army Aid Group (BAAG) swung into action.
The BAAG was formed specifically to rescue British soldiers and Hong Kong refugees. BAAG operatives smuggled supplies, including medicine, onto the island and rescued an estimated 1,800 civilians and soldiers.
Meanwhile, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), another British secret organization, formed the Indragiri River Escape Line to spirit Allied soldiers out of Singapore, an island at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula, that fell to the Japanese in 1942.
Escapers were ferried to the east coast of Sumatra, Indonesia's largest island, where they were transported across the island either by small river boats or by trucks. In all, an estimated 2,600 Allied personnel crossed the island to the city of Padang where they were evacuated.
Escape and Evasion Societies
Following the war, escapers and evaders set out to maintain and strengthen the bonds they had formed with the many helpers who had risked everything to see that the airmen made it safely out of Europe. These airmen also sought to express their gratitude to those individuals and their countries.
British airmen formed the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society in 1945, while Canadians participated in the Canadian Branch of the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society. American airmen, meanwhile, founded the Air Forces Escape and Evasion Society in 1964.
These societies held annual gatherings for airmen and their helpers; provided financial grants to helpers and their families, particularly those whose family member had been killed while helping evaders escape; provided charitable donations to the helpers' countries as an act of gratitude; and worked to foster good relations between their countries.
But given the war ended in 1945, the age and health of the remaining evaders has made it difficult for the societies to continue to operate. The Royal Air Forces Escaping Society folded in 1995 while its charitable fund continued until 1999. Even though RAFES is no longer operating, its story is shared at the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society Museum at the Aviation Heritage Centre in East Kirby, Lincolnshire.
The museum opened in 1994. The Canadian Branch of RAFES ended its work in 2006, however, the provincial chapters continue to serve as social organizations for its remaining members.
However, the Air Forces Escape and Evasion Society continues to operate, and as of 2022, it is still hosting commemorative gatherings. Given the secrecy of the escape organizations during the war, American escapers who successfully returned to England or the U.S. were initially told they couldn't share their experiences for a period of 50 years following the war.
The U.S. government also did not keep its records on escapers and evaders, which made it difficult for evaders to apply for benefits as their war-time records were incomplete. As a result, AFEES also helped it members receive veterans' benefits, commendations and medals.
In Europe, a number of groups, such as the Friends of the Comet Line in France and Little England, The Secret War Museum in Belgium, work to commemorate the Allied servicemen who used the escape lines and the civilians who helped them.
Other organizations, including the Freedom Trail Association and the Monte San Martino Trust, offer commemorative hikes that follow the route of escape routes in France and Italy. The Monte San Martino Trust also provides young Italians with bursaries to study English in England.
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.
Richard "Dick" Smith was the pilot of a U.S. Air Force B-17, called "Destiny's Tot". His plane was shot down over France in Dec 1943. After several months evading capture with the help of the French underground, Dick and five of his fellow crewman escaped back to England.
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.