Allied evaders and escapers reaching safety in Western Europe were transported back to
for full debrief. Upon arrival they were usually taken under guard to the nearest railway station, placed in a sealed carriage and escorted to England for interrogation. The British Intelligence Agencies MI9 (b) and IS9; and from 1942 the American organisation MIS – X worked closely together on this. Reports were written for each debriefing and since the public release of these documents they have become a vital source for the historian, researcher and writer. London
These reports are held in the
and US National Archives respectively. They contain several Appendices in varying detail around the sequence of events that caused the escaper/evader to be in the position they were, any information about their journey, the people that helped them (often just descriptions or pseudonyms), observations of military interest and questions around functionality of the various escape aids that they carried. UK
Whilst this factual information is vital, there is much more that can be read into the reports about the man on the run, his character and state of mind both then and later at the debrief. American transcriptions have a colour and texture about them because the stenographer wrote down what was said as the accounts were given. Although the typed MIS-X summary that quickly followed is useful for making sense of the shorthand in the original manuscript, it does not always contain every detail.
The British IS9 and MI9 reports are more routine and were typed up after the debriefing. Some reports have a brevity about them that indicate narrow recollections, possibly created by fear and apprehension, or a need to press on head down and not be noticed, whilst in others the fragmentation and missing details can indicate a state of mind at the opposite end of the scale.
The MI9 Report of an RAF Flying Officer that crossed the
Pyrenees with the airman in my book seemed very brief. He told me, ‘I just wanted to get home. I knew that if I finished this thing in time, they might just let me catch the late train out of . I could get the last bus in London that went to the garage. Dad worked there and he didn’t know I was back in Birmingham . They let me go and I made it. The garage was in darkness, so I shouted my name three or four times and Dad came running.’ England
The man who asked questions sometimes got answers or snippets of information from his helpers, but these were not always included in the reports. Many servicemen were told solely the details they needed to know about their current journey for obvious reasons:
American 2nd Lt Ralph Smith reported:
“On 10 November a 37 year old woman – slim 5’5in, dark straight black hair – took us to
where we met the head of the organisation – a Belgian. He spoke eight different languages and told us that the Germans had parachuted about 60 agents into different areas and many Frenchmen had been caught aiding them. He said the identifications were too difficult.” Paris
This would have been no surprise to the airman in my book. After being questioned intensely by the Belgian Secret Army in the early part of his evasion and getting his details verified via radio transmission to London, he was congratulated and advised he would have been shot had they have been false. A German infiltrator had been eliminated two weeks before. A vague gesture towards a nearby field was given. Both the airman and a man in the Secret Army who was there at the time told me this, the latter emphasising repeatedly the excellent English that the impostor spoke. Yet none of it appears in the airman’s MI9 Report.
Descriptions of helpers were vital in identifying who was responsible for assisting the servicemen on their journey. As the war turned and liberation came, citations, medals and financial reimbursement for costs in sheltering and assisting evaders/escapers were considered. It was to the MIS – X, MI9 and IS9 reports, along with testimonies of fellow helpers that the allies turned.
Some evaders describe the personnel in very precise detail, others merely ‘a man’ or ‘middle aged man’ or ‘girl’. In the American reports, character terms are sometimes used to label the helpers and fit them in to the narrative. The reader forms an instant picture, a suitable parallel with the writer who uses ‘show not tell’ and minimal description so that the reader fills in gaps themselves.
“2nd Lt John Maiorca describes one of his helpers as ‘Al Capone.’ Sgt Harold Pope refers to guide Max Roger who has a scar along his nose as ‘Scar Face’. Fernande Onimus, a key operator in
is described as ‘The little lady in black’, ‘Tiny woman in black,’ ‘Woman under 5 foot, dressed all in black, carrying a shopping bag and wearing a red hat.’ Paris
Actions often speak louder than words and this also shows in the reports. An American was being stared at intently by two German soldiers at a railway station. He decided to walk by and just glare them out. The Germans broke first and did not stop him. A group of four airmen were yards from the French - Spanish border when shots rang out and they thought the party was surrounded. Their guide gave a signal to run, scatter and lie low once they were over the hill and in to neutral territory. Once they had reassembled it was realised an airman was missing. One of them risked everything and went back. The sick airman had fainted and was lying on the edge of a precipice. He was helped over the hill to freedom.
© Keith Morley