How Do I Learn About an Allied Airman Who Was Shot Down During WWII But Escaped?
Periodically I get requests from visitors to this website for advice on how to research the story of an airman who was shot down during WWII and what happened to him afterwards. The Germans tried to capture those airmen who survived but many managed to evade capture, at least for a time. Below are suggestions of potential sources of information. I would welcome any suggestions of additional sources.
Enlistment Records. Go to the Enlistment Records page of this website for information on how to access the online index to WWII enlistment records at the National Archives. Their nearly nine million U.S. Army Enlistment Records include the following information: Army serial number, residence, date and place of enlistment, year and state of birth, race and citizenship, education, civilian occupation, and marital status. Another possible source of information is a website on military service records.
Learning About the Bombing Mission. Be sure to contact the Air Forces Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), at Maxwell A.F.B., Montgomery, Alabama. Their website is at http://www.afhra.af.mil/ (with their contact form at http://www.afhra.af.mil/main/contactus.asp). In response to my request for information on 2nd Lt Tom Applewhite, they provided the Mission Report for his last mission. It included the Loading List, Group Formation Flown diagram, Take-Off and Landing Times, a map of the route from his airbase to their target and return, the Navigation Report, and a table listing the time and elevation of his plane when it was shot down. Much the same records are available at National Achives II in College Park, Maryland. Examples of these documents in the case of 2nd Lt. Tom Applewhite are shown on the page of this website entitled, Mission Report, 385th Bombardment Group, 11 Nov. 1945. A searchable website, ArmyAirForces.com, has a Missing Air Crew Report Database.
Learning About His Base in England. You may find valuable information about the airfield where he was stationed in England by checking the websites devoted to that subject.
Aircraft Crash Records and Crash Sites. See the page on this website on the subject of Aircraft Crash Records and Crash Sites. You will find several suggested sources of information, including published sources and website data bases. See also the page, Allied Aircraft Crashes in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Portugal, United Kingdom, and Ireland on this website that provides links to Internet websites providing data on WWII crashes.
Luftwaffe Fighter Claims. See the page on this website entitled Luftwaffe Fighter Claims of Downed Aircraft. The database cited here will provide records of downed aircraft as submitted by the Luftwaffe pilots. These records give the date, the Allied mission objective, the names of the Luftwaffe pilot, his unit, they type of Allied plane shot down, the location on the German maps, time, and microfilm reference.
Civil Defense Records. Local archives may hold the reports compiled by civil defense authorities on airplane crashes and the arrest of airmen who survived. Local police, however sympathetic to the Allied cause, were likely to have German overseers and were forced to arrest the airmen. Their reports may provide valuable testimony as to the circumstances of airmen, when and where they came down, and their arrests.
Historical Societies. Try contacting the local historical society of the town. In searching the Internet, in the case of The Netherlands or the Flemish part of Belgium, use “heemkundekring” (historical society) and the name of the town.
City Archives, Regional Archives. Also contact the usual sources: city archives, regional archives, etc. For example, I had an address of a contact of the Smit-van der Heijden Line in Amsterdam. The Amsterdam City Archives was able to provide me with information on everyone who was living at that address during the war and even background on their Resistance activities. Because much of the escape line’s activities were in Tilburg, I went to the Tilburg Regional Archives where the archivist located a great deal of valuable information for me, even arrest records.
VVV Offices. In The Netherlands, when I have had difficulty finding a local historical society, city archive, or city library, often I have written the local VVV office (the tourist office) for assistance. Just enter “VVV” and the name of the town in your Internet search.
Grave Adoption, Overseas Cemeteries. There are two other pages on this website that may be useful. One is on WWII Memorials and Overseas Cemeteries. The other is on War Graves and War Graves Adoption. Many people in the countries occupied by the Germans and liberated by the Allies have adopted the graves of Allied soldiers and airmen who were buried far from home. You may find that the grave of the person you are interested in or a member of his crew has been adopted. The person adopting the grave is likely to be eager to share information with you, the result of his or her own research on the airman. In addition the various databases will likely provide the date the airman died, rank, etc. See in particular the website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), American Battle Monuments Commission, and the National WWII Memorial.
Escape Lines. During WWII there was a proliferation of escape lines, including local ones that moved escaping airmen a short distance within a country, others that crossed national borders, and yet others that encompassed several countries. To get oriented, take a look at the map Major Escape Routes Through France, 1940-1945, on this website showing three escape lines, Pat O’Leary, Comet, and Shelburne. Multiple escape lines may be involved in a single airman’s story, an airman having been passed from one line to another. For further information, see the Escape Lines Websites below and Keith Janes’ website, Conscript Heroes, which has a good survey of escape and evasion in his Frequently Asked Questions.
False Escape Lines. The Germans used whatever means necessary to break up the escape lines, including creating false lines to scoop up unsuspecting airmen and their helpers. A particularly well-known example was the KLM Line in Antwerp run by the Abwehr, German military intelligence. Many airmen were guided across the Dutch-Belgian border by patriotic members of the Resistance who unwittingly delivered them to German agents. A search on the Internet will provide information on Rene van Muylem, a collaborator who worked for the Germans in the KLM Line.
Escape Line Websites. View a list of escape and evasion websites. These websites are exceptionally valuable in several respects: (1) They provide background on the escape lines’ operations. (2) Some websites, such as those on the Comet Line, provide an account of each airman’s experiences, including the names of some of their helpers, with biographical information on the helpers. (3) They may contain easily-searchable lists of Allied airmen who were helped by the respective escape lines. For example, one of the Comet Line websites has a master list of airmen helped by that escape line. The Comete-Bidassoa website has a list devoted to that part of the escape line. And Keith Janes’ Conscript Heroes website has three lists, (a) a master list, (b) a list of British and other Commonwealth soldiers and airmen, and (c) a list of American airmen. (4) Some sponsor treks following escape routes (see below).
Join a Commemorative Trek Following an Escape Line Route. Several groups sponsor treks following the WWII escape line routes. Joining one of these treks is an excellent way to learn about the escape route used by your airman and meet other people who share similar interests. The group Les Amis de Comete sponsors treks across the western Pyrenees. The WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society is developing treks in northwestern Europe (Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium, France) as well as Poland, Crete, and Italy. Le Chemin de la Liberté commemorates the escape route across the higher Pyrenees.
Escape and Evasion Reports Available Online. Go to the page of this website entitled Escape and Evasion Reports Available On Line for instructions on how to access the online database of the National Archives of Escape and Evasion (E&E) reports compiled by Allied Military Intelligence on the airmen who were shot down but evaded capture or were captured and then escaped. An E&E report typically will include an account of the shooting down of the plane, what happened to the airman in the minutes after parachuting to the ground and his passing into the hands of the Resistance, what the fate was of other members of the crew, a questionnaire about the airman’s opinion of his E&E equipment, what intelligence he picked up during his journey back to Allied-controlled territory (for this see the Appendix B), etc. It may also include his Appendix C (see discussion below). If the airman became a POW, there will be no E&E report for him but he may be referred to in the E&E reports of other airmen who did escape. For information on what the British National Archives has on members of the RAF, RCAF, etc., see below.
Appendix C. I list this document separately from the E&E report (see above) because of its importance. It may or may not be included in the E&E report available online. If not, then you will want to write the National Archives and request a copy. (Alternately you can hire a professional researcher. For further information, click here.) Typically the Appendix C will provide a more detailed account of what happened to the airman after being shot down, including dates and places where he was hidden and who helped him. See UD 140 and UD 141 for references to the Appendices C in the index to E&E records at National Archives II in College Park, Maryland. Once you have the names of his helpers, you will want to seek copies of the helper files of his Dutch, Belgian, Luxemborg, and French helpers.
List of Airmen who Escaped. It is very useful at times to know who the other airmen were who were traveling with the airman you are researching. In the case of American airmen, the Escape and Evasion Report numbers appear to have been assigned in the order in which the airmen were interviewed by Allied Military Intelligence upon arriving in Gibraltar or England. By examining the Index of E&E Reports – American in Western Europe reproduced on this website, you may make some useful connections with the stories of other airmen. [The index to report numbers 1-248 was typed onto this website; the rest of the index appears as images in subordinate pages, beginning with reports 249-319.] It lists the airmen in the order of their E&E numbers and includes their bomb squadron and bomb group along with the country from which they escaped. See also Keith Janes’ excellent website, Conscript Heroes, which contains a numerical list of E&E numbers, 1-2986 with information on the airman’s unit, plane, date failed to return, and escape line. Note how 2nd Lt. Tom Applewhite is listed with E&E #324.
Helper Files. After the Liberation of the countries that had been overrun by the Germans, Allied Military Intelligence compiled files on every person they could identify as having helped Allied airmen. They sought to honor those who helped airmen, often at the risk of their own lives. In addition, the Allies provided monetary and other forms of assistance to those who had lost so much. These records also helped to account for missing airmen and bring to justice the collaborators who helped the Germans by betraying airmen and their helpers. A sample of the questionnaire (vragenlijst in Dutch) appears on this website. The website also contains indexes to the Dutch and Belgian helper files and other tools for locating the files (Dutch, Belgian, and French). You can order a copy of a helper file directly from National Archives II or hire a professional researcher to locate and copy it for you.
British National Archives. Other escape and evasion websites provide guidance on using the escape and evasion records of members of the RAF, RCAF, etc. See, for example, the website www.belgiumww2.info. After opening it, in the column of headings in the left margin, click on “Researching WW2 E&E.” The first half of the page is on researching the British National Archives (formerly the Public Records Office) at Kew (London). The British National Archives has scanned some escape and evasion records and offers them for a fee. The following are some useful links to their services:
- Animated guides.
- To search their catalogue.
- For instruction on using their records.
- Their guide to British Prisoners of War, 1939-1953.
- Opening hours and closure dates.
- What to bring with you to the archives.
- ID requirements necessary for a reader’s ticket.
- To contact them and to order copies of records.
Note that in searching for a particular RAF, RCAF, etc. escape and evasion report, you will want both the archival reference number and the number assigned the report at the time it was created, referred to as the SPG number. As John Clinch notes in his website under “Researching WW2 E&E,” the escape and evasion reports are in archival reference numbers WO 208 3298 to 3327, with each file containing about 70 reports. At this time the reports available online from the British National Archives appear to begin with WO 208/ 3324.
A commercial genealogical site, FindMyPast, offers RAF, etc. escape and evasion records for sale. For a guide to Royal Air Force operations, click here. For information on a Royal Air Force squadron, click here. For Royal Air Force combat reports 1939-1945, click here. For operations record books, 1939-1945, click here.
Reference Work on British Escape and Evasion. I particularly recommend the book by Oliver Clutton-Brock, RAF Evaders, The Comprehensive Story of Thousands of Escapers and Evaders and Their Escape Lines, Western Europe, 1940-1945, London: Grubb Street, 2009. For background information on MI9, the British intelligence agency in charge of facilitating the escape of downed Commonwealth airmen and prisoners of war, see the book’s Appendix V, MI9, IS9, and IS9)WEA).
London Gazette. The official newspaper of record, the London Gazette, may have useful information on Commonwealth servicemen. See their website at www.gazettes-online.co.uk. For most purposes, you will want to choose the London Gazette, but if the name seems to be Scottish or Irish, also visit the Edinburgh and Belfast editions. For an example of the type of information on awards for military personnel announced in the London Gazette, click here.
Escaping Society Records – Royal Air Forces Escaping Society (RAFES). There was a point in my research where I reached a blank wall in trying to identify the helpers of 2nd Lt. Tom Applewhite in the south of France. I learned that the membership records of the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society (RAFES) were at the Imperial War Museum in London. Knowing that Sgt. Stan Munns, a member of the RAF, had been with Applewhite on that part of their evasion, I wrote to the IWM requesting copies of Munns’ RAFES membership. They complied and provided a copy that listed all of Munns’ helpers, including the ones in the south of France which he shared with Tom Applewhite. Once I had their names, I was able to get copies of their helper files from the National Archives II in College Park, Maryland. Their files confirmed their help to Munns and Applewhite. I now had the missing part of Tom’s story.
Escaping Society Records – Air Forces Escape and Evasion Society (AFEES). The American equivalent of RAFES is the Air Forces Escape and Evasion Society. Unlike RAFES, however, AFEES is still active. A valuable source of information is a collection of 20 scrapbooks compiled over the course of 24 years by Scotty David, widow of Clayton C. David. They contain correspondence, newspaper articles, personal accounts, etc., representing her contact with over 600 evaders and 2000 helpers. They can be viewed on DVD at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Pooler, Georgia near Savannah. In working with them, note that the computer index to the content counts the initial title pages. This means a slight difference between the computer page number and the scrapbook page number. Note also that AFEES is in touch with living evaders and helpers. Contact the membership secretary for assistance. Note also that AFEES welcomes “friend” members, people who share an interest in escape and evasion. The AFEES annual meetings are an opportunity to meet people who have similar interests.
Canadian Sources: I asked one of my Canadian contacts who has done escape and evasion research for recommendations as to Canadian sources of information. He recommended the following: (1) Library and Archives Canada (in Ottawa), (2) Bomber Command Museum of Canada in Nanton, Alberta, (3) National Air Force Museum of Canada, Trenton, Canada, and (4) Comox Air Force Museum, Comox, BC. These would be in addition to the Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence in Ottawa. One person my contact mentioned in particular is the Canadian historian Hugh Halliday. Another Canadian source recommended Veterans Affairs Canada and their Books of Remembrance.
United States Army Air Forces Associations. See the two pages on this website on the 8th Air Force and the 9th Air Force for links to bomb group and fighter group associations . Once you have identified to which group your airman belonged, the corresponding association may be able to help you in your research.
World War II Forums. See the page on this website, World War II Message Boards and Forums, for links to different forums where you can post requests for assistance in your research.
Other Useful Websites. For persons researching airmen who crashed in The Netherlands, the Jack Edward Gibbs Memorial Tribute website has a vast amount of information on different airmen. To search it, click on Control+F.
Telephone Databases, People Searches, and Social Security Database. For people living outside the U.S. who are trying to locate an American airman or his family, take a look at the websites offering telephone databases, people search databases, and the Social Security Death Index.
Newspaper Sources. If you are searching for information about an airman or his family, Google News may be useful. Go to Google, click News at the top and then click the down arrow at the right side of the search box. The resulting drop-down menu will allow you to search by words, location within an article, date of publication (including anytime), within a range of dates, the source, and location. In addition, scanned copies of newspapers from around the world are available at http://news.google.com/newspapers.
Genealogical Societies. It seems that virtually every county in the U.S. and many cities have genealogical societies, often with volunteers who will be willing to look up information in response to a request. If you are trying to locate an airman or his family and have been able to identify the name of his county, try doing an Internet search with the name of the county and “genealogical society.” And to obtain the name of the county, an Internet search on the name of his city or town probably will result in a website that gives the name of the county in which the city or town is located.
Frequently Asked Questions in the Conscript Heroes Website. Valuable background information on WWII escapes are to be found in the Conscript Heroes website. I recommend it to you.
Frequently Asked Question: What Did My Father Do in the Resistance? See the other Frequently Asked Question, “What Did My Father Do in the Resistance?” for additional suggestions that might be helpful in documenting the aid given to the airman you are researching.