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


  1. Your blog shows how hard it must have been for the evaders, treading on metaphorical eggshells, never relaxing for an instant, under terrible emotional and physical strain.Heroes and heroines abound.
    'If ever I am rich enough to make a generous gesture, let me hide my hand...........' Luckily we can now sing the praises of these people. Very much enjoyed reading this, Keith-look forward to the next one.

  2. Thanks Helen. It was worse for the helpers on the line. Discovery usually meant execution, imprisonment or concentration camp. The women were often sent to Ravensbruck. Many who helped the airmen featured in my book sadly did not survive.

    The loose analogies I make with writing today only show how we should step back and keep things in perspective.