11th Feb

What was the Escape Committee?

Considering that the Second World War went on for six years and it was the duty of every British officer to attempt to escape capture, it’s not surprising that POWs spent quite a bit of time devising escapes. Officers, at least, didn’t have much else to do.

But it wasn’t easy to get out of a POW camp. A man had to get through locked doors, barbed wire and guards who were not easily amused. Some POW camps, like Colditz, had additional challenges in the form of stone walls and moats. It was possible for a man to bluff his way out in a basket of laundry or some such, but a planned escape involved a number of men. A tunnel, for instance, had to be dug without adequate tools. And they had to hide the dirt they took out of the tunnel and shore up the tunnel as they dug. The men working on the tunnel needed sentries to warn them when guards approached.

Once a POW got to the other side of the walls, he was in enemy territory. He needed Read the rest of this entry »

28th Jan

Escape from Colditz

Most of the Allied servicemen whom Dutch-Paris smuggled out of occupied territory via the Pyrenees and Spain were aviators who had bailed out of their airplanes or crash landed them in the Netherlands, Belgium or France. That was certainly the case with the men who were arrested – or not- at the Porte de Pantin in Paris in December 1943.

But some were aviators or soldiers who escaped from POW camps in the Third Reich or Italy and made their own way to Switzerland. Once there, they came under the protection of their respective embassies. It just so happened that the Dutch military attaché in Bern had connections to Dutch-Paris and was on good terms with the British and American military attachés in Switzerland. The Dutch military attaché arranged for a number of escaped POWs to travel from Switzerland to Spain with Dutch-Paris. His American and British counterparts paid for the men’s expenses such as train tickets, black market food, false documents for the border zone in the Pyrenees and a guide, or passeur, over the Pyrenees.

One of these men, F/Lt Hank Wardle, was a Canadian book keeper who had volunteered with the RAF before the war began. He had the dubious honor of piloting the first British bomber to be shot down over Germany at night in April 1940. He escaped from a POW camp in August 1940 but was captured the next day when he Read the rest of this entry »

14th Jan

The only French resister to be arrested at the Porte de Pantin in December 1943 (see earlier posts) was the leader of the group from Livry-Gargan. We’ll call him the grocer.

His arrest caused a lot of worry to his colleagues and everyone who was helping aviators in town because they expected the Gestapo to torture the grocer. Everyone was expecting a raid on the town, but it never came.

It turned out that the grocer was at least as good an actor as a resister. During the 29 days that he was in German custody he managed to convince his captors that he was insane. He also played up Read the rest of this entry »

31st Dec

Let’s continue the story of the Gestapo trap for Allied aviators at the Porte de Pantin, Paris, in December 1943. Sixteen aviators were arrested that afternoon, but 15 got away. How? Some were lucky enough to be on a truck driven by a quick-witted resister who pulled away in time. The men in the first truck, however, had already gotten off before anyone realized it was a trap.

After the second truck left, the Gestapo agents pulled their guns on the French resistance leader from Livry-Gargan and started looking for aviators. The four Frenchwomen who were acting as guides kept walking in the crowds. One of them was stopped but convinced the Gestapo agents that she was on her way to the market. A British aviator, the engineer on a Lancaster bomber, also managed to walk away through the crowd because, according to an American, he looked like a young boy.

A Polish Spitfire pilot in the RAF and an American mill worker from Washington State also walked away. These two, another RAF officer, and a Frenchwoman thought it was too risky to be standing around in the square with such a large group of fugitives so they went into a café. While they were there, a man came in, acting very suspiciously Read the rest of this entry »

17th Dec

Capture at the Porte de Pantin

Seventy-four years ago, on December 16, 1943, 16 Allied aviators fell into a Gestapo trap at the Porte de Pantin in Paris. The men had bailed out of their fighter planes or crash landed their bombers across northern France. The engine of one British Typhoon had simply cut out, forcing the pilot to land in a tree. Local people had gathered these men up, sheltered them, and passed them on to whatever contact they could find in the resistance. Those local resisters had passed them on to a group in Livry-Gargan (outside Paris) that had connections to the famous Pat O’Leary escape line.

Unfortunately a traitor infiltrated the Pat O’Leary line, causing arrests that cut the group in Livry-Gargan off from the route to Spain. In December 1943, they found a new connection to Spain and arranged to pass the 31 aviators hiding in their town to a new escape line at the busy Porte de Pantin in Paris.

The aviators traveled from their hiding places to Paris in two trucks. The drivers were supposed to park if they saw a particular car parked in front of the Church of Sainte Claire with a Nazi flag in its window. They saw the car but no flag. The leader of the French resistance group, the town grocer, had a bad feeling that the whole scheme for the rendezvous sounded too easy. So he got out of his car and started walking toward three men standing near the church. Something about one of them made him think that he was a Gestapo agent. The grocer asked the men for directions as a ruse and Read the rest of this entry »

3rd Dec

The Afterlife of an Alias

As I discussed in my last post, resisters sometimes got lost in the confusion of war because their aliases worked so well. There were also cases in which a resister accomplished so much and became so well-known by his or her wartime pseudonym that the false name became part of the resister’s postwar identity.

For example, several Frenchmen hyphenated their last names, adding their resistance name to their family name. The dashing First World War veteran and partisan leader Henri Petit, who harassed the Germans during the Second World War under the name Romans, changed his name to Henri Romans-Petit after the war. It was undoubtedly easier than trying to get everyone to remember that “Romans” was not really the name of the famous hero. In other cases, Frenchmen with political ambitions attached Read the rest of this entry »

19th Nov

The common practice of using aliases or noms de guerre in the resistance worked very well. In at least two cases of Dutch-Paris resisters, the Germans never cracked the resisters pseudonym, even in the concentration camps. Not that there was anything good about being deported to a concentration camp. But in these cases the men were simply sent there without undergoing the torture that the German police would have used to get more information if they had known who they had arrested. So the alias protected them even after their arrests.

Sometimes, however, the alias could work almost too well. Take the example of a French woman known in the resistance as Madame Vassias. Mme Vassias was the secretary of the Polish officer who ran the escape line between Paris and Spain that also took Dutchmen for the forgotten Dutch escape Line X (see previous post). When the Pole and his Dutch counterpart were arrested in November 1943, Mme Vassias took over leadership of that escape line. She was arrested in February 1944 because a personal friend of hers who belonged to a French resistance group gave away her address under torture.

Several Dutchmen knew Mme Vassias because they either Read the rest of this entry »

5th Nov

Here’s another story connected to the forgotten Dutch escape line I described in the last post. It involves a German Jewish family who had the foresight to leave Germany while they could. They relocated to Amsterdam until the war made that city unsafe as well. They moved again, this time to a flat above a café in Brussels. The family’s two sons, who were in their early 20’s, could not get jobs because they were in hiding. But they did illegal work for the forgotten escape Line X. Clues in the few available documents also suggest that they were involved in hiding Jews with the Comité (that later joined Dutch-Paris).

In October 1943 a Dutch woman living in Brussels gave Line X a mission. She actually belonged to the famous Comet Line and had radio access to London. Dutch rescuers and helpers in Brussels did not care very much about who belonged to what line. They worked together as resisters to help the people who needed help. At this particular time this Dutch woman needed a way to get an agent from the Dutch Intelligence Services (Bureau Inlichtingen) to Spain. For some reason that she took to her grave in the concentration camps, she did not send the Dutch secret agent through the Comet Line. Instead, she decided that the Brothers R. should escort him from Brussels to Spain along Line X’s route because they spoke French and Spanish.

So the brothers took the secret agent to Paris. From there the three of them took the Polish officer’s route over the Pyrenees into Spain. They were among the last Engelandvaarders to make it safely through that escape line before it collapsed with the arrests of the Pole and the banker in November. The three travelers made it to England soon after arriving in Spain. The secret agent parachuted back into the Netherlands in 1944. The Brothers R. also reported for war work.

Like so many other resisters, the brothers did not talk much about their illegal work in Brussels after the war. In fact, the family knew they were Engelandvaarders, but they thought that the brothers had traveled to Spain via Dutch-Paris. They did not know about Line X or that the brothers had resisted as part of an escape line before they became Engelandvaarders.

22nd Oct

As I mentioned in the last post, Dutch-Paris was far from the only escape line operating in Europe during the Second World War, but only a few enjoy postwar fame. Here’s an example of one that I came across repeatedly in my research but has been all but forgotten.

If this line has a name, I never saw it. So we’ll call it Line X. Line X was based in Brussels around a group of young Dutch expatriates and led by a young banker who worked for a local branch of a Dutch bank. Round about 1942 other young Dutchmen started asking the banker to help them escape to England. He opened his home to Engelandvaarders and gathered together some other young Dutchmen to get these Engelandvaarders out of occupied territory.

The banker had plenty of connections in the Netherlands and Belgium, but not Read the rest of this entry »

8th Oct

There were Many Escape Lines

I made the perhaps rash prediction in my last blog that no one will have questions about the title of the American edition of my book, The Escape Line (coming out with Oxford in June 2018). There may not be questions but someone will surely object that Dutch-Paris was not the only escape line and not the most famous escape line either. Both are true.

All sorts of escape lines operated across Europe during the Second World War. Some took Jews to safety, some took soldiers and aviators, some took civilians. Some worked in a strictly local area to get people across a particular border in a particular place while others, like Dutch-Paris, covered entire countries. Some had funding from the Allied militaries or from international organizations or governments in exile while others received no outside money at all.

Something many people do not know is that the escape lines started long before Read the rest of this entry »

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