The books mentioned in the first part of this column were “Evader” by Jack Newton and “Home Run” by John Nichol and Tony Rennell. Both are tense, exciting books about allied airmen escaping via “lines” run by Dutch, Belgian and French civilians. We talked about it last week, and at the end I asked a question: If I had I been a downed flyer, would I have tried to evade capture?”
The answer I gave? “No.”
Surprising answer, isn’t it? If someone made it out of a burning aircraft to the ground alive, you would think he’d try to get back to England — and back in the war. So why, “No?”
The answer is simple. The cost was too high.
I’ve read a lot of tales of escapes over the years — exciting, tautly written tales of razor-edge tension and near disaster. I’ve seen some fine films and TV programs too. Trouble is, every one of them avoids a harsh truth.
To begin with, there was no “getting back in the war.” Only a few airmen who made it to England ever flew again. No more than four or five British, and only two or three Americans.
Escaping meant throwing away the uniform and identification, which entitled you to treatment as a prisoner of war. Replacing them with civilian clothes and false papers automatically made you a spy. If caught you could be shot. Some were. Others were sent to death camps. Those who weren’t shot or sent to death camps stayed alive by proving they were combatants, by proving who they were and providing information such as the names of the others in their aircrew. Therefore, any crew member who made it back could not fly again; if recaptured he could legally be shot as a spy.
That’s the least of it. Few airmen caught in civilian clothes were able to resist days or weeks of Gestapo questioning under torture. Only human, they broke, revealing the names of Dutch, French and Belgian patriots, who were then executed. The numbers are appalling. No more than 150 airmen ever made their way back to England. The cost was several hundred Dutch, Belgian and French lives, two or three brave men and woman for each airman, who — remember — could never fly again.
However, it was not only the direct effect of the revelations under torture which brought into question the wisdom of trying to evade capture, unless you did it in uniform and on your own. The ripples spread far and wide. Many civilians involved in escape lines were also engaged in the resistance. Each resistance member captured who broke under torture gave away as many as five to eight others, and each of those in turn might give away another five or eight, and on and on ...
Over 4,000 members of the large resistance group, the Armée secrète, died during the war, while smaller organizations also sustained high casualties. Estimates put the number of resistance members killed during the war at over 19,000, roughly 25 percent of all active resistance members. How many of them died as the result of airmen who screamed out names and addresses under more than flesh and blood can bear will never be known, but what is plain is that no matter what the number was, it was too high a price to pay for 150 men, fewer than 10 of whom never returned to flight duty.
Consider the alternative. What happened to the men who, knowing full well that the odds of escaping were close to zero, simply raised their hands and surrendered. What harm came to them? Fundamentally, none.
Captured airmen were closely questioned by specialists who were good at getting information, but they were rarely, if ever, threatened, and even then they knew the threats were empty. They were soon placed in POW camps run under the Geneva convention.
While life in a German POW camp may not have been the most glorious of all wartime experiences, it was not harsh. POWs could send and receive mail. They were reasonably well fed, clothed and housed. Camps received Red Cross packages containing things like cigarettes, food, toothpaste, shoelaces, socks, underwear, hats, warm gloves and other small personal items. Packages came from home, shipped at incredible expense via neutral countries and containing small things that made a big difference, like cookies, cakes, chocolate and photographs.
POW barracks were heated to the standards of Europe, supplied with bunks and blankets, and kept dry and clean. POWs engaged in sports. They were allowed to create theater groups and bands that were supplied with instruments and choral groups. They were supplied with buildings where they could stage shows. They had books. They could even take courses for college credit.
They were, in fact, not at all bad off. In fact, German civilians often bitterly resented the way Allied troops were fed and treated, feeling that the enemy received better than they did under wartime rationing.
And no one had to die for it.
So my answer is, “No, I would not have risked the lives of so many others just to avoid a couple of years as a POW.”
Seem reasonable, Johnny?