Putting yourself in the hands of an escape line certainly increased your odds of getting to Switzerland or Spain, but it didn’t guarantee it. Things went wrong for everyone, and everyone – guides and fugitives alike – needed to be flexible and maintain their sense of humor.

On 24 November 1943, a young Engelandvaarder we’ll call E. and his travelling companion were given blank false papers and told to fill them out in the restrooms at the Gare de Lyon in Paris. They did so by smudging their thumbs with ink from their fountain pens for the thumbprint. Having smeared it the first time, E did it again, only making a worse mess of it. Rather than panic, they laughed.

They spent the night on a train going south with bona fide laborers but arrived in Tarascon four hours too late to make their connection to Toulouse. They found Tarascon to be miserable with nothing but a castle, Gestapo, and German police, but managed to register themselves at a small, filthy hotel. The owner pointed out that their false papers, which had them as geography students, didn’t have any numbers on them. They spun out enough of a tale that the man let them have a room.

The next morning they woke up to knocking on the door and the hotelier asking “voulez-vous du thé?” [Do you want tea?] Their answer was “of course.” It took a lot more knocking for them to figure out that what he was really saying was “votre carte d’identité” [your identification papers], which is a whole other matter all together.

They gave him the obviously false papers, closed the door and opened the window with the intention of jumping onto the awning below and escaping. There on the sidewalk stood three Miliciens [French paramilitary collaborators]. They waited. The hotelier returned their papers with a wink.

The two young Dutchmen fled to the station and took the 9:30 am train to Toulouse. Arriving at 4:30, they started looking for tram 47/90 to the terminus, where they would find a certain hotel. There was no tram 47/90. They finally asked the driver of tram 43/90, who told them to get on and not to bother paying because “there are already so many of you there, you don’t need to pay.”

More timid men might have changed their destination, but these two kept on. They found the hotel full of Dutch friends, but woke at 2:00 am that night to more frantic knocking. Apparently there had been arrests in Paris and they had to leave immediately. The group split up, with E and his friend carrying soccer shoes and pretending to be going to a match in a mountain village. They “roared with laughter” in the crowded milk train where everyone knew what they were actually up to. They arrived at their destination, but their colleagues who had taken the express were all arrested and never seen again.

They didn’t find much to laugh about over the next few days as they climbed through the Pyrenees with nothing more than a pound of sugar to eat and frostbite on their feet. But they made it to Spain and on to England. With the help of the Dutch Prince Bernhard, to whom he mentioned that he’d been turned away from flight training, E made it into the RAF.

E made the trip through Occupied Europe with the help of two, possibly three, escape lines, but he had to fall back on his own resources more than once. It’s hard to say which served him better: his determination to reach his goal, his flexibility or his sense of humor.