Dangerous Mistakes of Evading Airmen

It was very easy for Allied airmen or other military personnel on the run in German-occupied countries to put their helpers in terrible danger by a mistake that would expose them to the German police or collaborators.  The error might be the result of unfamiliarity with the language or customs.  It might be inadvertent.  It might also be the result of plain stupidity or carelessness.  Here are some examples:

1. Indiscreet behavior of a British soldier resulted in numerous arrests in St. Omer, France in January 1941.  “Pvt. Cowan had been hiding there since shortly after the evacuation of Dunkirk.  During the winter of ‘40-‘41 Cowan got mixed up with a French woman, Mme. Stopin.  He spoke fluent French.  During the time in St. Omer he would walk around town after drinking too much.  One night, after having had too many drinks, he and Mme. Stopin walked up to a German Gestapo agent.  She asked the German if he would like to shake hands with a British Tommy.  The German arrested them both.  As a result, several others were arrested.  Among them was a man, T. Lourdel who had been a good patriot.  But, it is suspected that under threat by the Gestapo, he gave away the names of others who had helped the British. Several others were arrested….”  (Appendix C, M.I.9/S/P.G. (F) 2552, M.I.9/S/P.G. (-) 2553, Pte. Binnie, A., Seaforth Highlanders, 51 (H) Div., and Fusilier Weightman, J., Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, 39 Div.)

2. Lt. Col. J.M. Langley, in his book Fight Another Day, London: Collins, 1974, describes his train journey: “At Amiens most of the Germans got out; we all found seats and passed out of the Z.I. (Zone Interdite) without having our papers examined.  So great was the relief from the tension that the two Scotsmen started to talk loudly and I lit a Gold Flake cigarette, the smell of which is instantly recognizable to anyone used to the smell from black tobacco, as smoked by the French.  We were in a Pullman car and were very lucky.  Several people looked up but there were no longer any Germans nearby and nothing happened.”  After arriving in Paris they were taken to a “safe hotel.”  While registering at the hotel, Langly recounts, “ when I wrote ‘Dunkirk’ on the registration form as my place of birth Madame laughed, tore the form in half and suggested that I remember that I was French.  Shamefacedly I re-wrote ‘Dunkerque’ and made sure I got the other details right.”

3. Pte. Louis Arthur Green, 4th Bn. East Lancashire Regt., 42 Div., in early 1941, was awaiting implementation of a plan to get him back to the U.K.  He was spending the night at a new location in Brussels.  He wrote, “I had only been there four hours when there was a raid by the Gestapo.  It was a small flat with no means of escape.  I was found with many photographs of myself dressed up as Hitler.  This caused much annoyance to the Gestapo and I was considerably beaten up.”  (M.I.9/S/P.G./LIB./919)

4. S/Sgt. Edward F. Sobolewski of Chicago, describing his evasion experiences, wrote, “While we were in Paris, we went once to a café and enjoyed a most delicious meal.  A number of German officers were sitting around, some of them quite close.  While we were waiting for dessert, we started smoking cigarettes and held them in our hands.  One waiter remarked to us amiably, ‘Messieurs smoke cigarettes during the meal just like the Americans do.’  We could hardly get rid of the cigarettes quickly enough.”  (National Archives II, College Park, Md., E&E #331)

5. Peter van den Hurk was the leader of a very effective escape line in Meppel and Staphorst in The Netherlands.  A report in his Dutch helper file in the National Archives at College Park Md., described the following: “Peter made many trips to the Belgian frontier with evaders, sometimes with an individual, and once with a group of six.  Handling large groups was avoided whenever possible.  Generally when convoying an evader, he gave him a Dutch or German newspaper as camouflage, and seated him by a window cutting down his contact with the other passengers.  “These simple – but effective – precautions were almost impossible with large groups.  Often the evaders did not seem to realize their own danger.  Peter had to keep constant watch over them.  Once, when convoying a group of four evaders to the town of Maastricht, one of the evaders wandered away from the group.  He was carrying a German newspaper.  Noticing the paper, a German soldier walked up to him and asked for a light.  Fortunately the evader understood him.  Then the German tried to start up a conversation but by then Van den Hurk had noticed the evader’s absence.  He strode over to them, loudly hailing the evader by his Dutch name.  He clapped him on the shoulder, pretending not to have seem him for a long time, and dragged, rather than led, him back to the group.”

6. A report by H. Vleeschdrager of the Dutch-Paris Line explained what they had to do when evading airmen arrived at the house at 19 rue Franklin in Brussels:  “(T)hey were stripped of all their belongings, except dogtags.  This proved necessary as many, especially those coming from Holland, carried betraying souvenirs, such as Dutch silver coins, snapshots, railway and streetcar tickets; we even found several letters addressed to Queen Wilhelmina.”  (Weidner Archives, WA EC)

7. Traveling on a train from Lille, an Engelandvaarder (Dutch patriot seeking to get to England), G.A. van Dam Merrett, got into a conversation with the only other person in the train compartment.  The man “informed me that from the start of the journey he had noticed I was a foreigner by my signet ring – unusual in France.  Mistake number 1!”  Later, walking on the blacked-out train platform in Nancy, “I received another shock.  A hand was laid on my shoulder and I was asked if I had escaped from Germany?  No, why? Because you carry exactly the same suitcase as I and my two friends bought in Germany after our escape.  Mistake number 2: with such a cheap case I had thought to be less conspicuous.  I wished him ‘bonne chance’ and sought shelter for the night.”  (“Memorabilia,” by G.A. van Dam Merrett, no date, p. 24.)

8. Yvonne de Meulenaere, a nurse who treated Tom Applewhite’s flak wounds, told of convoying some British and American airmen.  She left with them from the Schaerbeek hospital.  While passing Josaphat Park, they wanted to go dancing in the nearby café because there still was music, even though they obviously could not speak French and this would be dangerous.  (Email from Jacques Fischweiler, son of De Meulenaere, July 5, 2008.)

9. Then there were the “two airmen who had been hidden one night in a building belonging to the Roman Catholic People’s Association in Overschie but were found intoxicated the following morning after drinking the wine used for mass which they found in the church next door.”  (De Graaff, Bob, Stepping Stones to Freedom, The Hague, 2003, p. 57, drawing from Kooij, Om Niet te Vergetten, p. 45.)

10. “In April of 1943, two crew members of a B-24 parachuted down near Reims, France.  They had been instructed to contact a certain Frenchman who ran a wine shop in Reims.  These two men proceeded down the streets of Reims, inquiring of different people where they could find the shop of Monsieur _________.  After they finally arrived they found that the monsieur had been taken into custody by the Gestapo because of suspicions aroused after several strangers had openly inquired as to the location of his shop.”  (It’s the Little Things, Escape and Evasion during World War II, Arctic, Desert, Tropic Information Center, Air University, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, 1950, pp. 55-56.)

11. Keith Morley, describing the evasion of his father, Ron Morley, mentioned an experience of Ron’s: “Whilst hurrying through a subway in Paris and trying to keep his guide in sight he half-collided with a German soldier.  Instinctively, he apologised in English and said, ‘Oh sorry.’  There was no response from the soldier who just looked blankly at him as both parties moved on.  He fortunately obviously did not have any idea of English.”  (Email of 24 June 2003.)

12. In the book Oorlog in Oisterwijk by Oerlemans, Vencken, and Wiedemeyer, 1984, one former member of the Resistance, Bim van der Klei wrote:

“Two American airmen and I were sitting in the waiting room of the Boxtel station when all of a sudden a German officer entered. Even though we were all shocked, we did not show it. The German sat down next to one of the airmen, got a cigarette out of his pocket and then realized that he did not have a way to light it. He turned to the airmen and asked for a light. Even though the American did not understand any of the words he caught on quickly what the question was. Without saying a word he got his lighter out of his pocket and lit the German’s cigarette. In itself not that dangerous if it was not for the fact that the lighter was part of standard American army equipment which of course was not available in Europe. The pilot had kept it as a keepsake. Only when the lighter was safely back in his pocket did he realize that this could have cost him his head. Fortunately the officer did not notice anything. He politely thanked the pilot and sat staring straight ahead enjoying a German cigarette that had been lit by an American lighter.”

13. In an interview in the dvd EVADE! (see http://airforceescape.org/test-page-for-evade-dvd/), Yvonne Daley Brusselmans, a Belgian helper of Allied airmen, said they had to teach Americans to avoid American characteristics, such as shielding the flame when lighting a cigarette (a practice picked up while waiting on windy airfields in the UK), jingling the coins in their pockets, and looking like sightseers.

14. Lt. Col. J.M. Langley, in his book Fight Anoter Day, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Books, 2013, after having escaped from the Germans, was trying to cross a bridge in the German-occupied zone of France with some other escapees.  He wrote, “I was in front when we came to the bridge.  I had not gone five yards across it before there was a roar of ‘Halte! Halte!’ from behind and an angry German soldier came running up carrying a rifle with a fixed bayonet.  Convinced that I was about to be shot as a suspect saboteur I raised my hand (he had lost an arm during the German invasion) and endeavoured to explain in the few German words I knew that I was a ‘fliege offizier Englander.’  Too angry to listen he drove me to the other side of the bridge and across at the point of his bayonet.  I had omitted to read the large notice announcing that pedestrians must cross only by the right hand footpath; failure to conform led to risks of being shot at by the sentries.”

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