Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
Because Dutch-Paris helped more than 120 Allied aviators evade capture after their aircraft had crashed in the Netherlands, Belgium or France, I’ve read dozens of escape and evasion reports describing these men’s journeys back to England. They always begin with complete and detailed descriptions of the men’s last mission: the weather, the bombing run, the trouble with the plane, the procedures they followed to land or evacuate the aircraft, injuries to the crew, civilians or German troops on the ground when they landed.
Naturally, I’ve focused of the parts of the reports that describe the aviators’ experiences with the Dutch-Paris line. When I read the first part of the reports about the bombing run and the crash, the images in my mind’s eye came from Hollywood movies. I’m sure you know what I mean: handsome young men in their fleece lined bomber jackets, steely eyed with determination, stoic or sarcastic in the face of disaster.
I really had no idea how uncomfortable, cramped and cold those long hours flying from England to Germany and back must have been until I walked through a B-17 bomber two weeks ago. This particular B-17 and many other WWII war birds were at the Experimental Aircraft Association air convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Even with the ladder provided for us tourists, it wasn’t easy to get into the B-17. Nor was there any room to turn around. An average sized man would have had to look for a place to stretch out his arms. The catwalk through the bomb bay is too narrow to stand with both feet together. There are openings in the midsection for guns that were never closed no matter what the weather or the altitude. Indeed, there was no way to close them. How the other gunners got into the ball turret or rear gum emplacement is beyond me. I’m humbled by the courage of the men who crammed themselves into those spaces where they hung in the air with nothing but glass between themselves and enemy fighters or flak. I’m amazed that the rest of the crew ever managed to get injured men out of those places during an emergency.
And the B-17 was a big plane in its time. There was a British Lancaster bomber at the show as well, which looked to be on the same scale, although I didn’t get to go inside that one. The B-24, which some Dutch-Paris aviators flew, was smaller. The fighter planes were smaller still. All of these planes, including the Flying Fortress, were dwarfed by the postwar B-52 bomber. Compared to today’s F-22, they are midges.
Hollywood does the crews of these war planes a disservice. Those movies don’t convey the physical reality of flying in them, the test of sheer endurance that every mission must have been. Having walked through a B-17 at its best on the ground on a warm summer day, I know that I would now read the descriptions of the final missions of the crews whom Dutch-Paris helped differently. I just can’t decide about the men who crashed in the Netherlands then jumped from a moving train a few days later when the Gestapo found their trail. Should I be more impressed with them now that I have a better sense of the whole trauma that flying and crashing a B-17 must have entailed? Or should I be less impressed that they jumped from a moving train knowing that they flew to Germany and back in a B-17? Jumping from the train does seem a whole lot less uncomfortable or dangerous than a bombing mission.