I’ve read some interesting books about wartime escape and evasion. Winston Churchill’s book about his escape from a POW camp during the Boer War is sheer adventure. So is Paul Revere’s tale of his escape from the British the night he made his famous ride. However, two books I recently read have forced me to ask myself a hard question: If I had been shot down over Europe during World War II, would I have tried to evade capture? I can tell you right now that my answer is, “No!”
The two books I read were “Evader” by Jack Newton, and “Home Run” by John Nichol and Tony Rennell. They tell exciting stories of the escape lines running through Europe we have all heard so much about. The problem is, these books tell “the rest of the story.”
“Evader” tells of the very first Allied airman who made it back to England after being shot down. Six men crash-landed. One got home: Jack Newton. Their bomber, struck by flak, lost an engine during its raid in Germany, but by an incredible stroke of luck managed an emergency landing on a German airport in occupied Belgium.
The Germans, certain no Allied aircraft would land on one of their own fields, failed to react fast enough to catch the pilot and crew. With help Newton made it home, but Patrick McLarnon, Roy Langlois, Harold Burrell, Richard Copley and Douglas Porteous were caught by the Germans and sat out the war in German POW camps.
Sounds like a great tale, doesn’t it?
Why? It’s filled with suspense, action, courage and success. That, I’m afraid, depends on how you measure success. Did Jack Newton ever get back in action? Did his escape put an Allied airman back in the air to fight again?
No. He never flew again. Nor did the overwhelming majority of airmen who made it back. Only a very small handful of them ever saw the war over Europe again. In fact, American airmen who made a successful escape from Europe were automatically shipped home and British airmen were given ground duties. No more flying.
Why? For two very good reasons.
First of all, to escape they had to don civilian clothing and destroy anything that would have shown them to be Allied airmen. They had to use false identity cards and counterfeit papers, moving surreptitiously from area to area. They had to act, dress, and look like non-combatants. Doing so erased any claim they had to treatment as combatants.
According to international law, once they shed their uniforms and their military ID, they became spies. They could be shot — and some were. Others were sent to camps quite different from those reserved for combatants. But before any of that happened there was the matter of questioning under torture. Not more than a handful of those captured in civilian clothes were able to avoid revealing many facts — including the names of those who had successfully escaped.
If successful evaders had returned to flight duty and been shot down, the Germans were within their rights to execute them as spies for their former activities.
Far worse was the chance of being recaptured and handed over to the Gestapo if shot down again. The Gestapo would use torture to get information out of them concerning the hundreds of patriots who had aided them in their escape. That would have meant, and in some cases did mean, the death of large numbers of people.
All of which brings up my answer to that first question:
Would I have tried to evade capture?
Again, my answer is a flat no!
Next week, Johnny, when we weigh the value of evading capture against its cost, I suspect you may agree with me.