Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Devil is in the Detail

When an evader was sheltered in an organised escape line, they became entirely reliant on others. Following instructions exactly and paying attention to detail was of crucial importance to the lines’ helpers and their fugitives.

In occupied Europe the enemy’s Police forces, Abewehr and Gestapo were all practiced in looking for anything unusual. They were good at spotting details however trivial or minor and this could instigate further scrutiny and attention. Inconspicuous in civilian clothes and well versed in surveillance they became a major obstacle to escape operations.

It was also vital that the collaborator and general civilian personnel were given no opportunities to inform the enemy. Safe houses were dangerous; the contradiction in terms was accurate, Servicemen on the run had to be smuggled in without being seen. From the outside, household patterns had to look unchanged with no significant variation in visitors, and  food requests via coupons or extra washing on the line. In apartments and properties close to each other, the fugitives had to stay away from windows, speak quietly and expedite great care when moving around indoors. If the main occupants went out, little movement was permitted and difficulties could arise around using or flushing the toilet. A single lapse could lead to arrest and disaster for the escape line.

When travelling from one point to another the evader would follow a guide (or series of guides) at a safe distance. Here they were vulnerable, guides never travelled directly with their ‘parcels’, always behaving as if they were alone, but keeping their charges within easy visual distance, especially on trains and trams. Sometimes a series of prearranged signals or instructions were used to communicate whilst en route. One airman in Brussels was told to follow a guide and if they approached and spoke to someone waiting alone the airman must then follow that person. The journey across the city by tram and on foot involved over ten changes of guide.   

The escape line also had to provide faultless identity papers, passes and an Ausweiss (work permit). In theory their charges had to be able to pronounce the name, place of birth and any other relevant location on the papers. Easy to pronounce names were often chosen, but the reality was less straightforward as many evaders only spoke English. Even though some were taught to recognise simple phrases, any form of questioning or conversation would not be understood. If it was possible, their guide would try to intervene and shield the evader without compromising themselves.

‘Monique’, a guide that helped the evader in my book told her charges to appear tired and slouched as they handed over railway tickets and papers for inspection. Another guide,  ‘Diane’ was forced to think on her feet when an American airman she was escorting approached a station exit. His edgy behaviour was beginning to attract attention, so she accidentally spilled the contents of her handbag onto the floor. Being an attractive lady, there was no shortage of assistance and the airman passed through the barrier without any incident.

Evaders were also warned about :

  • Marching in military fashion.

  • Lapsing into cultural habits from their home country.

  • Walking with hands in their pockets and jangling loose change.

  • If eating in public, cutting up their meal with a knife and fork then eating with just the fork.

  • Wearing the clothes they had been given in the least conspicuous manner and adopting the local habits to blend in.

  • If wearing a beret in France, ensuring it was worn at the correct angle for the region.

  • Ensuring any possessions that would give them away were not on show e.g. wrist or bracelet watch (which was virtually unknown in many occupied Western European countries) and cigarette lighter. The escape lines often took these possessions away from servicemen.  

  • Ensuring matches were used when smoking.

  • Learning to roll their own cigarettes.

  • Smoking cigarettes to the very end as they were not easy to get and never throwing the end away.

  • In France, smoking with the cigarette out of the corner of the mouth and slinging a haversack over one shoulder not as a pack on the back.

Attention to detail also remains crucial for writers of all genres. For the novelist it is in their planning, research, plotting and application. Considerable thought goes into plot and characters before they begin to write their novel. A detailed plan can highlight any things that don’t work before the actual writing reveals it, thus avoiding major retrospective surgery.

The short story writer can build their scaffolding around the same template and draw from it, whilst the non fiction and literary docudrama writer can work with a similar core construction as the novelist without the plotting.

The use of detail within the text needs to be carefully considered. It should be unobtrusive and measured, so as not to be conspicuous and heavy, yet be sufficiently visible. Whether in fiction or non fiction, the reader should be absorbed into the work and forget that they are actually reading.

In fiction writing, no detail should be included that does not move narrative, action, character or a scene forward. However there is always room for the descriptive passage that gives a reader a better understanding about the characters and their world.

Unlike the evader in an escape line, much depends initially on the writer themselves, but on the path to publication, ultimately they will depend on others.  

Miscellaneous Sources – Downed Allied Airmen and Evasion of Capture: The role of Local Resistance Networks in World War 2   Herman Bodson

© Keith Morley

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Good Luck

'Good luck'


Anyone who has seen the film The Great Escape will remember that pivotal moment when Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) and Flight Lieutenant Andy MacDonald (Gordon Jackson) get on a bus after showing their papers to a suspicious Gestapo agent. Macdonald falls for the same trick he warned his fellow POWs against earlier in the film by replying in English.

The character of Bartlett was modelled on RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, a habitual escaper who spoke good German. In the real ‘Great Escape’ Bushell’s travelling companion was French RAF pilot Lieutenant Bernard Scheidhauer. As the two men approached a Gestapo checkpoint on the edge of the town of Saarbruchen in Germany they were apprehensive, but their papers were perfect and their German good enough. They talked their way through until Scheidhauer who was used to speaking English in the camp fell into the same trap as Macdonald did in the film and answered with ‘Thank you.’ Bushell was unlucky. For him the stakes were high as like Bartlett he had been warned earlier that if he escaped again he would be shot.

Luck and breaks often played a part in evasion in World War 2. However well prepared and trained the men were, their fate often hinged on a chance event or good fortune. An airman in a stricken aircraft had to get firstly get out of it alive, either by baling out or surviving a crash landing. Many had no time, as their aircraft exploded in mid air or when it hit the ground. Some were consumed by fire, or lay pinned to the inside of the fuselage by gravity unable to reach the escape hatch as the aircraft spiralled down.

A few were lucky and blown clear by explosion, having managed to get their parachutes on in time. Those landing safely on the ground by parachute had avoided their canopy catching fire from enemy anti aircraft shrapnel, but may have been injured in the attack on their aircraft or during landing.

Any incapacity reduced the odds of staying free; many had to give themselves up to the enemy. Two of the crew in my current work book surrendered, the Second Pilot because of shrapnel in the stomach, the Flight engineer due to wounds that kept him in a German military hospital for eighteen months.

The next problem for the airman was the location of his landing. If it was Germany the possibilities of getting out were few. Open countryside at night gave a fighting chance of getting away from the area before enemy searches began. In daylight, the odds lengthened dramatically.

For two of my late RAF friends, their outcomes were completely different. Sergeant Ken Harvey was pinned to the side of the fuselage of his diving Lancaster as flames roared towards him. Somehow the pilot managed to gain control for a split second and Harvey fell through the forward escape hatch. With just enough time for his parachute to open he landed in a spinney in France. Perfect cover, except it was in the middle of a German airfield. He lit a cigarette and waited for the soldiers and dogs to arrive.

Sergeant Derrick Allen’s aircraft broke in half whilst spinning earthwards and he fell out hundreds of feet above the ground. His parachute did not open in time and he remembered floating face down, watching the dark mass of earth and trees racing up fast. When he recovered his senses he was hanging from a tree branch virtually uninjured, and found his way back to American lines. One of his crew had fallen a few yards from the wood and died instantly.

The writer of today lives in a totally different world, with challenges that bear no relation to those facing the escapers and evaders years ago. But it’s still a war zone out there, few writers get their big chance without some element of luck, and for many there are false dawns and dashed hopes. However hard they plan, prepare and pitch, the watershed moment can sometimes come with a happening, coincidence or chance introduction they have no control over. The story of how Harry Potter first became published has been reported many times.

Romantic novelist Margaret Kaine became tired of rejections of her manuscript from agents, so sent the first five chapters to a top publishing firm. The head was retiring due to failing eyesight and he came into the office to find his successor inundated with submissions. Margaret’s manuscript was typed in a large font and printed out in clear dot matrix as she didn't have a computer. He picked it up and was able to read it, so to help out, took the manuscript home. The result was a 4-book contract and ‘Ring of Clay’ went on to win two major literary awards. Six novels later, the rest is international history.

‘Good luck’ and ‘Thanks’ for reading.

© Keith Morley

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Writers Escape Kit

Original Escape Kit
Silk Map
‘He was in plain clothes, his instinct was to escape. Here was the risk; as he appeared on top of the wall shots might ring out. He heaved himself up…his waistcoat hooked on to something…he freed it…a sentry lighting a cigarette…He dropped into the garden and crept into some bushes. To his horror he realised he had left his food tablets, map and compass on the wrong side of the wall, as a result of which he later suffered considerably.’
(Report about Winston Churchill on his escape during the Boer War.)

This self explanatory message appeared at the beginning of an Escape and Evasion Instruction Bulletin for British and Commonwealth aircrews in World War Two. It carried an extra punch because of the person involved and its continuing relevance over the years.

Various aids were given to RAF and US airmen before they left on a mission, to help them survive and evade capture if they landed in enemy territory (by parachute or crash landing). Most of these were packed into an ‘Escape Kit.’

Contents of the 14 x 12 x 2.5 cm packs were expertly put together with no space being wasted. Looking down the list of items, I decided by using tenuous connections to make up my own Writer’s Escape Kit:

The 14 x 12 x 2.5 cm Pack  -  Imagination. Essential for any story teller.

Escaper’s Compass – Airmen needed to check their compass before they started walking. The direction for most in Western Europe was south to Spain. Crucial I decide the direction of my writing before beginning a new project.

Silk Maps – Contained in a pouch that fitted into a uniform pocket and often stored near to the escape kit. Detailed information on the maps helped the planning of routes.  Important I detail the sources of factual reference, plan meticulously and know the stages and specifics of the story’s journey.   

Fishing Line and HookVital I trail out a decent line and draw the reader in with good hooks to keep the pages turning.

Sewing Needle and ThreadFundamental that the story is sewn together chapter by chapter and I can stitch it back later with a seamless join if unpicked to make changes.   

Two Small Rolls of Sticking PlasterUse to hold together rough drafts, experimental changes and for stretching writing boundaries. Also for sticking over wounds picked up on the journey.

2 Packets of Chewing GumMuch needed when agonising over all of the above. Unlikely to last long.

2 Bars of Chocolate, Horlicks Tablets, and Condensed Milk -. For consumption sparingly, as the story will be a long, unpredictable and tense journey. Use when adrenaline and creativity feel at their lowest.

Anti Fatigue TabletsI don’t do drugs so no Benzedrine or ‘wakey wakey’ pills as the RAF airmen called them.  Will try to ‘coffee myself out’ and rely on adrenaline.
Rubber Water Bag and Water Purification Tablets - Essential for the airman. The rubber bag could be useful if I’m ‘coffeed out’ on a long public journey, but unless the writing has reached an inhospitable and barren place the purification tablets must be saved for another day. There is no need to cleanse the life out of a manuscript with them.  

Safety MatchesUse for heating up the sag in the middle of a story or lighting a bonfire of my old rejected manuscripts.

There is no physical comparison between an evader/escaper’s fight to stay free and the writer’s struggle for survival on their journey. But a Writer’s Escape Kit has kept me going and I continue to draw from it. The pure writing comparisons are as relevant today as when Winston Churchill escaped during the Boer War.

© Keith Morley

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

First Post

Thanks for looking in on The Escape Line. This is the first of my weekly posts. I hope it will become a good place to share all things writing and talk about escape and evasion and other aspects of World War 2. 

If you’re still reading this, I guess you’ve got under the barbed wire or are out of the tunnel. Maybe you’ve not been captured and are on the run, holed up in some safe house or following a Partisan guide through the streets or across country.
As a writer you will already have experienced fear, self doubts, highs and lows of morale, false hopes and disappointments.

Above all, you will have kept going, sometimes with the help of others and always deep down with that intrinsic spirit of survival and desire to reach your goal against the odds. Readers and researchers of escape and evasion will relate equally to this raft of emotions. However, it is a comparison that sits at the bottom end of the scale to those who actually experienced the real event. No one can fully imagine what it must have been like to be a serviceman on the run in occupied territory, but the emotions when placed in their own theatres do share the same common ground. As writers and readers there is so much that we can draw from them.  

The terms escape and evasion run together, but there are distinct differences:

An Escaper has managed to escape from ‘secure enemy custody’. This could be a prison, a prisoner of war camp, under guard on a train, or on the ground.

An Evader has not been captured and is still on the run. Initially they may have some of their own kit and equipment, but like the escaper, they must stay undetected, outsmart the enemy and stay free from capture.

The goal of both escapers and evaders remains to reach friendly territory and ultimately return to their unit or squadron etc.

Servicemen who did make it back to home territory usually referred to their journey as an escape, rather than evasion, whether they had been in enemy hands at any time or not. For writers of fiction or literary docudrama this is a convenient use of blanket terminology, because ‘escape’ instantly sounds the sharper and more identifiable word and will be often used in future posts.

I have been asked if this blog is an on line journal, or a forum to express thoughts and whether it is intended to educate or be used as a portfolio? Escapers rarely knew what was around the next corner as they were working from a rough map or compass and were kept in the dark by their helpers for security purposes. Let’s go and find out.

© Keith Morley