Flyboys On The Ground: Air Force, Part 21

May 1, 2007 by Hugh A. Halliday



Top: All five of these airmen were able to evade capture in World War II; a member of the Belgian underground emerges from a hiding place, December 1944.

Some of the most dramatic adventures of World War II involved evading capture or escaping from enemy detention. Royal Canadian Air Force personnel featured prominently in many of those events, and so this story and the next two will focus on evaders and escapers.

Throughout the war, thousands of RCAF aircrew attempted evasion, and although no one can say how many succeeded, the numbers ran to several hundred. Successful evaders were interviewed by MI.9, a branch of British Intelligence. Their reports, which are now declassified, provide numerous insights into these activities.

Unfortunately, in many cases there are not a lot of written details explaining the various travels, events or situations–dangerous or otherwise–that unfolded after an evader or group of evaders made contact with a member of the resistance or escape organization.

Evasion included a fair amount of bluff. Shot down in December 1942, Pilot Officer Frank E. Lewis of Toronto suddenly found himself on the run with Sergeant Thomas I. Boddy of the Royal Air Force. Both men had dirtied their trousers and removed distinctive badges from their tunics. “During the day we passed two German soldiers,” noted Lewis. “Being unable to avoid them, we followed the advice we had received in lectures and walked boldly past them. They paid no attention to us.”

This was not a unique experience. Flight Lieutenant Gordon C. Fisher of Regina was a bomb aimer on an aircraft shot down over Belgium on the night of Aug. 28, 1942. He had several close calls in the grey period between the downing of his aircraft and making contact with resistance units. The night of Aug. 30 was especially harrowing. It was pouring rain and he hid in a cave, but found a German sentry patrolling nearby. Fisher left hurriedly and headed for a lighted house. The house turned out to be a bar with four Germans in it. One of them, thinking Fisher looked cold and miserable, stood Fisher to a drink. At the first opportunity, Fisher left the bar and headed across country, preferring rain to the risk of capture.

Some stories included elements of farce. Flt. Lt. David M. McDuff of Trafalgar, Ont., was hit by light flak over Normandy on Aug. 20, 1944. He bailed out of his burning Spitfire but parachuted directly into the courtyard of a chateau occupied by the Germans. He subsequently reported: “I was taken inside (and) searched by a corporal under the supervision of an Ob.Lt. (senior lieutenant). Everything was taken from my pockets, including aid box and purse, and private money, but my escape photos were returned to me. I was given a receipt for the money.”

The “escape photos” were small prints showing him in civilian dress, intended for use in forged documents if he linked up with the resistance. The Germans had mistaken them for private pictures. Issuing receipts at that time was also quixotic in the confusion of battle and retreat. McDuff escaped from his captors three days later and linked up with Canadian troops on Aug. 25.

Footwear was an ongoing concern. Aircrew wore flying boots with tops that could be cut away to resemble civilian shoes. However, a person bailing out of a burning plane might lose one or both boots. Flight Sergeant Walter W. Drechsler, a bomb aimer from Saskatoon, normally wore bedroom slippers inside his flying boots for greater warmth. Shot down on Sept. 17, 1942, he began his evasion with a seven-hour hike across country in those slippers.

Flight Lieutenant Douglas J. Sale of Toronto was shot down on the night of May 12, 1943. He lost one flying boot when he bailed out, and so started his evasion wearing two socks on one foot, the remaining boot on the other. Two days later a Dutch farmer gave him a pair of wooden shoes. These blistered his feet and were rather noisy on cobblestone streets as he tried to sneak through villages at night. He finally obtained a proper pair of shoes on May 16 which eased his way thereafter.

Evaders often wondered who to trust. Particularly until 1943, there were plenty of Dutch, Belgian and French people who either sided with the Germans or were ready to curry favours from the occupiers by turning in Allied aircrews. Many otherwise friendly civilians were unsure of their neighbours and thus terrified of offering even minimal help. While on the run in May 1944, Flying Officer Adolphe Duchesnay of Chicoutimi, Que., found his French almost as much of a liability as an asset; he reported great difficulty in convincing farmers that he was not a German agent.

Lewis and Boddy, having reached Bordeaux in southern France, were walking on secondary roads to evade German checkpoints as they made their way toward Spain. Suddenly, it looked as though their quest had failed. “On the road between St-Stéphorien and Sore we were arrested by two French gendarmes on bicycles,” Lewis reported. “They had revolvers and, after making us put up our hands, handcuffed us. I explained to them that we were British. They said they had taken us for tramps, and, first making sure there was no one in sight, they marched us off the road, took off our handcuffs, and shook hands with us.”

Some airmen took frequent, even imprudent risks. Sergeant Earl G. Price of Canterbury, N.B., declared his identity to seven different persons in a two-week period before finally making contact with an escape organization.

After being shot down on May 9, 1944, Flying Officer Leon Panzer of Toronto was hidden by various Belgian helpers until early August when he and four other evaders were taken to Brussels. Their new host cell turned out to be a “front” run by the enemy, with a resistance traitor funnelling evaders into a trap. Imprisoned in Brussels, Panzer was closely interrogated and accused of being a saboteur because he was wearing civilian clothes when he was captured. Although he was not tortured, he saw many civilian prisoners who had been terribly beaten.

On Sept. 1, 1944, Panzer and about 50 other PoWs were put on a train bound for Germany. Allied air attacks had so disrupted the railways that they could not be moved. After two attempts to get out of Brussels, the Germans derailed the train and fled. Panzer and his comrades met British troops on Sept. 4.

The adventures of Flying Officer Joel M. Stevenson also demonstrated how swiftly fortunes might change. Stevenson was a Texan who had enlisted in the RCAF. After his Lancaster was shot down over France on July 5, 1944, he met hospitable civilians, and by the 12th was in a car with five other RCAF aircrew bound for Paris. Two days later they realized too late that an “American” contact was part of an elaborate Gestapo net designed to extract military information. It was not clear just where they had passed from “friendly” to “hostile” hands, but the man who had driven them to Paris also delivered them to Gestapo headquarters.

On Aug. 15, Stevenson was put into a boxcar with 70 other prisoners. When the train left Paris two days later, the boxcar had 90 prisoners. Some 40 kilometres east of the city Stevenson sawed a hole in the floor and, with two French officers, dropped from the boxcar as it was moving at about 40 kilometres per hour. Not long after that, the farm he found shelter in was liberated.

Evaders frequently made their way over the Pyrénées Mountains to Spain, en route to Gibraltar. Most had made contact with an organized resistance unit long before reaching the Spanish frontier. Lewis and Boddy were exceptions. Although aided by many individuals in their travels, they crossed the mountains in winter without guides.

Spain was not necessarily an easy stop. Spanish civil guards arrested men and threw them in local prisons where evaders experienced fleas and atrocious food for weeks. Relief and liberation usually came when a junior British diplomat visited the prisoner. Being turned over to a Spanish air force officer was also a good sign, as the evader was soon on his way. Conditions improved and incarcerations shortened as Allied victory loomed.

Some evasions were in northern rather than temperate climes. Flying Officer Donald P. MacIntyre of Saint John, N.B., was piloting a Halifax bomber that was attacking the battleship Tirpitz on April 28, 1942. The aircraft was hit by small-calibre flak. MacIntyre’s skilful force-landing on a partially frozen lake resulted in only one crewman being injured; it also enabled the RAF Museum to salvage the wreckage 40 years later.

Another member of the team was Sgt. Joseph P. Blanchet of Trois-Rivières, Que. The men split into two groups, and eventually it became necessary for them to leave their injured colleague with a Norwegian farmer who promised to summon a doctor. After several close calls and many hardships, the men managed to cross into Sweden, from whence they were flown back to England.

An entire six-man RCAF crew evacuated by boat was headed by Flt. Lt. Marion M. Neil of Toronto. One engine of his anti-submarine Wellington bomber failed, and then a fuel cock jammed causing much fuel to be lost. With no hope returning to base at Wick, Scotland, Neil crash-landed at Haegeland, Norway. The crew promptly burned the airplane and then consulted with Norwegians who had gathered.

It turned out there was a German garrison only 10 kilometres away. For two weeks they were hidden by anonymous partisans, at one point within sight of a U-boat training base. They were advised that one crucial element in disguise was that they shave their moustaches. Finally, on the night of Oct. 11, they were bundled into a motor launch and taken out to sea to meet a fast Norwegian naval vessel, part of a system known as The Shetland Bus Service. They landed the following morning at Scalloway in the Shetland Islands.

The greatest number of Canadian evasions was in Northwest Europe, but there were many instances of personnel in the Mediterranean theatre remaining at liberty in very different circumstances. Flying Officer Albert I. Smith of Islington, Ont., piloted a Beaufighter of No. 272 Squadron out of Malta, in company with his British navigator. On Nov. 10, 1942, while looking for strafing targets between Tunis and Carthage in Tunisia, one engine burst into flames. The two force-landed on a beach and were immediately taken into custody by French soldiers.

The Allied invasion of North Africa had begun and French officers were uncertain about remaining loyal to the Vichy government or siding with the Allies. Those deciding the fate of Smith and his navigator expected American troops to arrive within two days and so they elected to help the two fliers. But by Nov. 13 it was Germans, not Americans, in charge of Tunisia, but by then the two fliers were disguised as Arabs and concealed in a well, the first of many hideouts provided by an assortment of nationalities until the German capitulation the following May. At one point, Smith fell briefly into enemy hands, and the incident–described below–would have been fitting in a movie script.

“About the end of March 1943 I was living in an empty apartment near the docks in Tunis. Having heard that people in the neighbourhood were talking about me, I decided to consult a helper about other accommodation. On my way to this helper’s house I was stopped by a German officer who asked me in French for directions. As he was speaking to me he glanced at my desert shoes, which I had dyed and, speaking in perfect English, told me, I belonged to the Eighth Army. He called two German soldiers, who fetched two other soldiers in a small car. One soldier drove the car and the other, armed with a Tommy gun, sat beside me in the back. I had a small revolver and presenting it I picked the gun from the soldier’s lap and told him to stop the car. He did so and I made both soldiers get out and walk up the road, covering them with the Tommy gun. They had their revolvers in the car. I got into the car, turned it, and drove towards the city. After a bit I ditched the car and walked into Tunis, returning to the empty apartment.”

Many personnel were decorated for evasion and escape, but such honours were not automatic. The Royal Air Force grappled with determining who should get what. A memo from late 1944 gave some idea of how such decisions were made. It suggested the following:

*For an uneventful or comparatively uneventful escape: No award.

*For a fair escape: Mention in dispatches.

*For a good escape: Military Cross or Military Medal (or Distinguished Flying Cross or Distinguished Flying Medal if accompanied by air gallantry).

*For a very good escape: Distinguished Service Order.

These standards were very imprecise. “Uneventful” escapes obviously included many instances of Allied aircrew shot down in Western Europe in the summer of 1944 and essentially laying low for a few days or weeks before being overtaken by advancing Allied armies. But what constituted a “fair escape” Versus a “good escape”? It would seem that a “very good escape” involved being captured by the Germans and then getting away from prison camp.

Evasion stories were tales of partnerships involving aircrew and helpers, with sacrifices all around–some of them terrible indeed. They ranged in drama from the mundane to the epic. Fortunately, many of these adventures have been recorded, and the associated literature is one of the richest bounties of WW II heroism.

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