Escapers, Evaders & Their Helpers, World War ll
Television Documentary Proposal 1984 for 1985
The following are notes made in 1983 and 1984 from information supplied by Elizabeth Harrison of the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society. In 1984 Christopher Long submitted a formal proposal, based on these notes and others, for a TV documentary about Escapers, Evaders and their Helpers in wartime Europe, 1940-45. The idea of marking the 40th Anniversary of the RAFES was not accepted, despite the fact that the escapers, evaders and helpers were already vanishing fast. Fifteen years later, in 2000, a number of TV documentaries on this and related subjects appeared, but by this time there were very few witnesses still alive to tell their tales.
A few examples of possible interviewees (there are hundreds to choose from and each has a fascinating tale to tell):
Capt. George Duffy was shot down over Holland and escaped thanks to Dutch helpers. Is in touch with all of them. Escaped down the Comet Line and cycled from Dachs to St Jean do Luce where he was greatly helped by French Basque war heroine, Kattialin Aguerre a colourful old lady now. She and Duffy (who now lives in Spain) come from totally opposite backgrounds but he has made sure that he, his children and grand-children are all intimately in contact with wartime helpers from 40 years ago. Duffy recently retired as an airline pilot.
John Remmington (lives in Plymouth) was shot down over Holland and escaped through Belgium thanks to a helper who still lives in a street named after her father who was shot for his part in getting British airmen back to Britain. Remmington and his helper are great friends still and she, a lonely old lady, has made deep friendships with other resistance helpers (including one in Poland) thanks to the efforts of the RAFES.
Capt. Dell (former airline pilot and now chairman of the RAFES) was shot down over Holland and rescued by a farmer with 10 talkative children. The children viewed the non-Dutch speaking airman with deep suspicion until the day he went out to a barn to have a strip wash from a bucket of cold water. In the silence he saw 10 small children watching him stark naked and was thus able to reassure them that he was indeed a normal human being.. Dell was awarded the highest Dutch Resistance award. Last year Lady Airey [widow of Airey Neave] and the RAFES president Sir Lewis Hodges received the same award from the Dutch Queen. All available for interview. Airey Neave was of course helped in the same way as all the others after escaping from Colditz and was got out of France [with the help of the author's family] along with 600 other airmen who were hidden [in the Rodocanachi family's flat in Marseilles] until the escape line and its helpers were betrayed. Amazing tales involved.
Dell is in touch with all the children mentioned above.
Norman Mackie was shot down over Central France and among other places was hidden in a cafe by the owners. The owners still live at and run the cafe and Mackie, who escaped through Switzerland thanks to them, is in touch with the family still.
Fernyhough thanks to the RAFES, was able to rediscover his helper, an elderly French woman who still lives in Paris and who had been wondering for 40 years what had happened to him. She was highly decorated for her resistance work.
Dickson, a New Zealander living in Sussex, was helped by an English speaking French woman who had appalling difficulties getting civilian clothes to fit a 6ft Englishman when she was a spinster and few Frenchmen were more than 5ft 6ins tall. Mlle Mallard was awarded the Gorge Medal for her work and they rediscovered each other this year thanks to RAFES.
Marlow lives in Surrey but was shot down over Italy and was rescued, hidden and helped to escape by desperately poor peasants in the mountains of Abruzzi. Hidden in caves. Is still in constant touch with his helpers and each meeting is apparently highly emotionally charged.
These and hundreds more can all tell tales of the risks taken by helpers; helpers who were shot, imprisoned and tortured; of the difficulties in obtaining food when the families were often near to starving themselves; and the problems of obtaining clothes, passes and money. Also the inevitable emotional involvements with local girls in such emotionally charged situations and hundreds of amusing anecdotes such as the non-French speaking airman who was travelling by train on Christmas Eve and dutifully answered 'Oui' or 'Non' as a French woman traveller chattered away to him. She spoke to him again as the train stopped at one stage and again he answered 'Oui'. Only later did he discover that the woman had asked him if they had reached Rouen. They hadn't and he still feels desperately guilty that it was his fault that a harassed woman with several children found herself standing beside the railway line with all her children miles from anywhere on Xmas Eve.
In 1941 a British navigator bailed out of a blazing bomber over northern France and parachuted into German occupied countryside. His fellow crew members were probably Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders or Poles. He, however, was lucky because he was spotted immediately by a peasant farmer whose family took him in, hid him, fed him and eventually were able to pass him on down the escape lines which allowed him to get back to Britain to live and fight another day. The French farmers suffered great deprivations to assist escapers and evaders and would have been summarily shot if they had been discovered aiding or harbouring Allied servicemen. The servicemen, on the other hand, risked only capture and life in a POW camp.
On September 18, 1945, hundreds of airmen who had been helped by civilians in Occupied Europe decided to form the RAF Escaping Society, dedicated to keeping in touch with each other but, more importantly, keeping in touch with and helping the people who had helped them in their hour of need. The RAF Escaping Society flourishes to this day from its headquarters in Knightsbridge where ex-airmen from all over the world still maintain active links with their wartime rescuers. Many of those young airmen have become very successful in peacetime and contribute generously to provide financial assistance to farmers, factory workers and others in Belgium, France, Holland etc., while all of them take part in visits to the people who helped them.
The work of the RAF Escaping Society is unique. It represents a living memorial to courage, tragedy, daring and many extraordinary or amusing episodes from grim wartime days: something positive in peacetime that still flourishes out of the destruction of war.
Forty years exactly from September 18 1945 the airmen and their helpers are still available for interview. The barns, cellars and other hiding places can still be seen. The young daughters of a Belgian farmer are now middle-aged but can remember the risks they took to get extra food on the black market to feed their 'guests' and how they re-sewed Royal Airforce uniforms into anonymous-looking civilian clothes.
Many can describe the price they paid family members shot, tortured or imprisoned in German reprisals while others can relate almost unbelievable tales of narrow escapes and the problems caused by language barriers.
The RAF Escaping Society will be holding its own anniversary events in 1985. They have full and meticulous archives, photographic records and access to almost every surviving airman and helper, scattered all over Britain, Europe and the rest of the world. The Imperial War Museum say they will be very pleased to help the author [Christopher Long] with any archive film that would be required and the author is himself a member of the family that set up, financed and operated the best-known of the major escape lines through France during 1940-43 [Pat Line]
IT IS PROPOSED that a film documentary should follow the trail of rediscovery by perhaps half a dozen former airmen as they re-visit their wartime helpers. For obvious reasons it would be advisable that they include as many nationalities as possible (offering distribution and sale potential in Canada, the United States, Australia, etc.). They might be interviewed at home (in order to show their present lifestyles) and then followed to locations in France, Belgium, Holland etc. More general background could be obtained from staff at the RAF Escaping Society whose offices in Knightsbridge are, ironically, situated over the 'ghost' tube station of Brompton Road which, in wartime, was the underground headquarters controlling London's air defences. The tube station itself is still visible as a time-warp time-capsule.
The Royal Air Forces Escaping Society was wound-up in 1995 when it was decided that it had fulfilled its purposes. Its charitable fund was transferred to the RAF Benevolent Fund. Its archives and records are still maintained by volunteers who are happy to liaise with those interested in knowing more about the individuals and events involved.
The author first developed an interest in Escape & Evasion when researching, in the 1970s, his own family's involvement with Pat Line. Later, in 1982, he was able to study and write about the work of the RAFES after meeting its remarkable secretary and organiser, Elizabeth Harrison, at the society's original offices at the Duke of York's Headquarters in Chelsea, London. Later on Mrs Harrison and the society were very helpful to the author Helen Long who recounts many of the original stories of the escapers and evaders in Safe Houses Are Dangerous (Helen Long, 1st Ed. hardback: William Kimber & Co, UK, 1985; 2nd Ed. paperback: Abson Books, UK, 1989)
Important research into the work of escapers, evaders and their helpers in particular has been carried out and published by the historian Sherri Ottis. She is the author of My Brother's Keeper Aid Rendered To Allied Airmen In France During The Second World War for Mississippi College, Clinton, Mississippi (1999), which includes important new research into the escape lines: Pat, Comet, Burgundy and Shelburn, etc.
© (1983-1984) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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