Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
Right around this time in 1944 Dutch-Paris started taking downed Allied airmen to Spain. Some of the men and women in the line who worked in Brussels and Paris had been wanting to do this for some time. The problem had not been where to find aviators on the run. Other resistance groups in the Netherlands, Belgium and France were eager to pass on aviators whom they had gathered up after their airplanes crashed. The problem was that helping airmen was far more dangerous than helping Jews or resisters.
There were a couple of reasons for this. In the first place, Allied airmen were foreigners who looked and acted like foreigners. This wasn’t as true for British fliers, but it certainly held true for Americans. Without meaning to, they stuck out. Here’s a story from the liberation of Maastricht that demonstrates how attuned civilians were to strangers in their midst.
In September 1944, no one could say when the Allies would arrive in Maastricht, but there were signs of their approach. Most of the German left town, blowing the bridges over the Maas behind them. Local boys who belonged to a Dutch partisan group that camped a few miles away in Belgium came home. My uncle, who was much older than my father, for example, showed up with a gun and an orange armband.
Then five tanks rolled into my father’s neighborhood and took up positions on a railroad crossing, one on the tracks and one pointing down each direction of the crossroads. The people didn’t recognize the equipment. They were hopeful but cautious. They could have been Germans. The civilians stayed close to the walls.
Then the turret of the tank pointing down my father’s street opened. The commanding officer stood up to look around. He lit a cigarette. Chaos erupted as the people poured into the crossing to welcome their liberators. Dutch flags appeared in attic windows.
Everyone knew that no German officer would ever smoke on duty. Whoever these tanks were, they were friends.
Obviously, after four years of occupation, civilians paid a great deal of attention to the gestures of armed men in uniform, especially when a battle loomed. But civilians picked up on the nuances of strangers at all times. The problem for resisters helping aviators was that some civilians were collaborators and some Germans could read a crowd as well as they could.
Dutch-Paris went to great lengths to disguise aviators and most aviators followed their instructions. Still, it never ceased to amaze the Dutch-Paris guides that the guards and police at the major train stations didn’t pick their aviators out of the crowd.