Friday, 29 June 2012

How to Evade Capture - Top Tips: The Reality Part One

Lancaster Aircrew

Lancasters on a Daylight Raid

Lancaster - Hamburg 1943

Aircrew Return After an Op - 1943

1) If you have landed at night and are not badly injured, count your blessings. You are mobile and still free.

This scenario applied to RAF and Commonwealth airmen as the Americans did not bomb by night. A mixture of good fortune and skill was required to reach the point where they had landed relatively uninjured and could put their evasion training into practice.

Although some aircraft suffered engine trouble, ran out of fuel or sustained damage in other circumstances e.g. minor collision with another aircraft or land based obstructions, most aircrew were forced to bale out as a result of damage by enemy fighters or flak. Fire was often raging and at heights of anything up to 22,000 feet there was no choice but to abandon aircraft.

The airman who reached the escape hatch uninjured had survived the first tests. There had no been direct hit from flak which either liquidated the aircraft immediately or caused it to dive out of control with any surviving crew having little chance of getting out.

The aircraft would have been raked by cannon shells from enemy fighters (often from underneath at close range) or damaged by flak explosions gouging holes in the fuselage and peppering the inside with red hot shrapnel. Airmen were often killed or wounded in this way and also injured after being thrown around in the aircraft. Fires wreaked havoc. With heavy bombs, incendiaries and petrol on board it was a race against time to try to stave off any further enemy attacks, stay out of searchlights, extinguish the fire and if necessary jettison the bomb load before the aircraft was consumed in flames, no longer responded to controls or exploded.

When they returned to England, evaders F/O Robert Clements (RCAF) and F/O Jimmy Elliott described in detail in the official ‘Loss of Aircraft on Operation Report’ what happened to them on a raid to Dusseldorf. It encapsulates the reality, incredible discipline, reaction to events and decision making that happened so many times . It also illustrates what the evader would often have experienced before baling out and finally landing.

‘…the Lancasterwas attacked without further warning from underneath and dead astern. The aircraft was raked by a short burst of cannon fire from the stern to the rear end of the bomb bay. The Bomb Aimer saw yellow tracer coming up on either side of the nose at an angle of about 45 degrees. Nothing more was heard from either gunner who may well have been killed in the attack, but as far as is known no damage was done to the controls. Both the cockpit and the fore compartment were filled with acrid smoke and a smell of burning, so the second pilot opened his window.

The Bomb Aimer looked in his inspection panel and saw a can of incendiaries beginning to sparkle, so he immediately jettisoned the whole bomb load. The smoke was increasing and in his panel he could see much smoke and some fire just aft of the bomb bay and close to the flare chute. He reported this to the Pilot who ordered the Wireless Operator aft to deal with the fire. The Flight Engineer appeared to be wasting valuable time hooking on an oxygen bottle and the second Pilot suggested that they should go below oxygen level. The Pilot replied that they were already down to 10,000 feet as a result of the steep diving turn to port which he had executed immediately they were attacked. He now pulled out of his dive and flew straight and level on the reciprocal course to that he had been following before the attack.

After the Flight Engineer had been gone about half a minute the second Pilot suggested to the Pilot that he should go back and assist in fighting the fire also. The Pilot agreed but asked F/O Clements (second Pilot) to return and make a report to him on the condition of the fire. He therefore took a fire extinguisher from beside the Pilots seat and went aft. He found that the fire was situated close to the flare chute and that the photo flash which had not been jettisoned or exploded was well alight. He tried to push the flash out but was unable to do so. While he was making this attempt the Pilot opened the bomb doors again, but there was such a rush of flame along the whole length of the bay that he closed the doors immediately. The ammunition was now starting to explode and F/O Clements expected that the photo flash would do so at any moment. He went forward and reported to the pilot that the fire could not be controlled. All the time the Wireless Operator had been fighting the fire he had remained plugged in to the intercom and kept reporting progress. He also now reported that all the extinguishers had been used and that the fire was uncontrollable. The Pilot therefore gave the order to abandon the aircraft.’

Elliott and Clements put on their parachutes and correctly exited the aircraft first and second. The report states ‘Directly the order to bale out was given the second Pilot picked up a parachute and placed it on the pilots lap. He then hooked on his own and went forward.’

The Navigator who became a POW was the only other survivor of the eight men. Eyewitnesses that night reported seeing two aircraft crash and one explode in the air. Post war information has the aircraft as crashing and casualties being initially buried at St Truiden. There were no indications at the time Elliott and Clements left that the pilot did not have control of the aircraft, and it was flying at a reasonable height. Assuming both the gunners were dead, the Wireless Operator, Flight Eengineer and Pilot should have had time to bale out.


Once an airman had safely put his parachute on and reached the escape hatch, although he had received parachute drill training, he faced the prospect of baling out with no previous experience of making an actual jump. If the aircraft was still being fired at, flak would be bursting around. If that did not cause death or injury, one red hot sliver could set fire to the parachute canopy once opened.

The force of the parachute opening sometimes caused problems. Evader Navigator Herbert Spiller of 103 Squadron pulled the rip ring of his chute whilst looking down instead of turning his head to one side. His face took the full force of the parachute clipped to his chest opening and knocked him unconscious.

Drifting down from around 22,000 feet would take at least 20 minutes. The airman faced the prospect of not knowing where he would land and also the ground rushing up at the last moment could cause injury, especially if the surface was not clear and flat. The force of landing was estimated to be the equivalent of jumping off the top of a double Decker bus.

Herbert Spiller regained consciousness. In the darkness he could vaguely make out the ground in the distance below. As the earth rushed up he felt another jolt of pain as he made contact and lost consciousness again.

He woke with rain dripping down his neck and pressure under his armpits. In addition to pain in his head and neck, he now had discomfort in his legs. He was swinging from side to side and up through the darkness could make out his parachute canopy hanging entangled in the branches of trees. He could not see the ground, so opting to take a chance he pressed the release button on his chute. He seemed to fall for an eternity before crashing to the ground and slipping into unconsciousness for the third time that night.

When Spiller came to he was wracked with pain, but could at least move his legs. The soft leaves underfoot had cushioned his fall and the pads on the Mae West had helped protect his head and chest. He had to get as far away as possible from the hanging parachute. Germans would be searching nearby if the aircraft had crashed in the vicinity. After chewing some caffeine tablets from his escape kit he forced himself to move. Spiller had lost a boot during his descent, so cut a piece from the Mae West to cover his foot. He got to his feet and staggered off. Breathing with rattles and gasps and barely being able to stand he struggled along with chest and back pain and although he didn’t know it, a cracked rib.


RAF Navigator F/O Maurice Garlick of 12 Squadron had taken off with his crew from Wickenby on 3rd May 1944 on a disastrous raid to Mailly-le-Camp. They had dropped their bombs and were hit from underneath by a night fighter. With the port wing and engines ablaze, the order was given to abandon aircraft.

Garlick baled out successfully and all went well until just before the ground when he hit something. There was a flash and bang and he was thrown into unconsciousness. He came to, lying in a wheat field. Both legs were useless and the pain from them was horrendous. Parts of his trousers were blackened and his legs were badly burned. He spotted a high tension cable lying nearby and knew he had hit overhead power lines. He pulled his parachute over to keep warm, then cut open his trouser legs, took off his flying boots and started to bandage his legs from strips torn from the parachute. Eventually he drifted into a pain wracked sleep.

He woke at dawn and knew he would have to get away. Soon someone would arrive to investigate the damaged high tension cable and the enemy would already have started searching. By pulling himself along he crawled to the edge of the field where he buried his chute and helmet. He could see a wood about two miles away to the South East and decided that he would make that his target. He could crawl and take frequent rests, keep to the edges of fields and lie in bushes and hollows. He would need to make use of every aspect of field craft and survival instruction to stand the remotest chance of avoiding discovery by the enemy. His legs were in a bad way, the prospects looked hopeless...

Sources - National Archives Files
Ticket to Freedom - H J Spiller
Shot Down and on the Run - Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork

© Keith Morley

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

How To Evade Capture Part Two - Last Twenty Tips Plus Information for Escapers

Paris 1943 -  André Zucca

French Countryside during WW2

Lone Evader

Advice to Navy and Army Escapers


If a sailor comes to grief in enemy waters or on land to the seaward side of enemy coastal defences his chances of Evasion are slight. He may be picked up by the enemy and taken prisoner, in which case he must devote his efforts to an early attempt at escape as indicated under * ‘Rules for Escapers of All Services.’ 


As long as a soldier is capable of bearing arms the problem of Evasion does not arise e.g. half a platoon cut off from the main force. It is their duty if humanly possible to fight their way back as a disciplined military unit and only resort to evasion when no other course of action is open. Evasion instructions are only to be followed after fighting is no longer possible. These reservations apply equally to Naval Beach parties where re-embarkation is not feasible and to air-borne troops where there is no opportunity of withdrawal by air. 

*Rules for Escapers of All Services

In the early stages of capture every opportunity should be taken to try and accumulate and hide an iron ration. This will require strength of mind, since the food provided by captors may be meagre in quantity and quality.

Look for every opportunity to escape during the early stages of capture. Regular troops are likely to be detaining you as opposed to specially trained guards on the journey to prisoner of war camp.

Remember that once in captivity the state of mind and powers of resistance of prisoners can start to deteriorate, especially on long and difficult journeys. The escaper should try their luck whilst still fit in mind and body. Feigning sickness or lameness may deceive the guards into relaxing their vigilance, creating an opportunity to get away. Once on the run escapers should follow the same strategies as evaders.


21) Keep your feet dry and clean. When resting, keep them elevated if possible. Leave your shoes off as long as possible, wash and dry your socks and change them from one foot to another. When faced with the possibility of frostbite, wrap your feet in straw or brown paper/ newspaper and keep them as dry as possible.  Author’s note  - which airman would ever take a spare pair of socks on an operation just in case he got shot down and had to evade.

22) Try to get regular sleep. Make a wind break by piling branches and grass against tree trunks. Haystacks are warm and comfortable. In extreme cold try to snatch odd half hours during the marching at night whilst the blood is circulating well.

23) Keep eyes and ears open; watch the behaviour of birds and cattle well ahead. They are easily disturbed and will give the enemy’s position away as well as your own (especially jays, magpies, plovers and black-birds.) The main dangers are in front, but remember someone may be following you.

24) A moving object is more easily noticed than a static one. A person will often not be spotted at distance or in general observation if standing still.

25) Farm dogs bark easily at night, but people rarely leave warm beds to investigate. A dog barking in the distance may denote a guard or policeman.

26) Many rivers are fordable. Sluggish waters are deep; a ford is often indicated by a line of rippling foam over shallow rocks below.

27) Water can be difficult to find. A line of bushes and trees following a valley often denotes a stream. Very green lush grass and plants often cover a natural spring. Digging a hole there can result in clean water seeping through. Boil water from ponds and ditches for two minutes. 

28) If you hear a noise crouch down and listen, rushing or ‘hurrying on’ may give yourself away.

29) A cigarette is often as good as a meal, but do not smoke in the daytime or when on the march. The smoke may give your position away. Save your butt ends, you may be thankful for them later on.

30) The dawn is in the east and sunset in the west, moss does not grow only on the northern side of tree trunks and the Northern or Pole star is a very accurate guide on cloudless night. Churches on the continent are not necessarily aligned East and West.

31) Survival Off The Land - All animals of the European continent are edible. Animals may be eaten raw or cooked. The official instructions go into graphic detail about catching, killing, preparing, cooking and eating rats, mice, birds, frogs, snails, dogs, cats, grass snakes, lizards , hedgehogs , eels, coarse fish, horse meat etc. They are not for the faint hearted, but provide important information that could keep an evader alive and are likely to apply today. Similar survival information is given around cultivated and wild vegetables such as stinging nettles, clover, bracken fern, sow thistle, dandelion, corn, fruits hips and haws, yew berries and the arrowhead plant. The dangers of mushrooms against other edible fungi are mentioned as are poisonous weeds such as all docks and sorrel, plus rhubarb leaves, buttercups and hemlock. The leaves of all cultivated root vegetables are seen as ‘first class food’ and a slight mould on the over ripe fruit ‘is a penicillin and quite harmless’ How to make a smokeless fire for cooking is also covered.

32) Aircrew should make sure that their Escape Kit is carried on their person at every operation and secured so that it will not be lost when baling out. They should make careful use of their Escape kit once evading (See Post 2 for some of the contents of an Escape Kit.)

33) If you are Aircrew make sure the photographs carried in your uniform are kept clean and uncreased, otherwise they cannot be used on a new identity card.

34) Do not wear a wristwatch. Conceal it in your pocket. Compasses must be kept in a safe place when travelling. These can easily become damaged.

35) If acting alone try to collect a bicycle to avoid public transport and improve distance covered.

37) In public, adopt a tired slouch. Do not march in military fashion. 

38) Sling your haversack over one shoulder. French peasants usually carry theirs this way, not over their back as a pack. Do not use a cane or walking stick unless directed, this is a British custom.

39) Use a beret in France, it is a good disguise.

40) Follow the instructions of your helpers and guides exactly and if approached and spoken to by a stranger, pretend not to hear or understand. 

Sources - National Archives Records  & Downed Allied Airmen and Evasion of Capture - Herman Bodson

 Next week – The Reality Part One. With Top Tips as headings, and using individual and eyewitness accounts, evasion and liberation reports, find out what really happened.  

© Keith Morley

Thursday, 14 June 2012

How to Evade Capture Part One - Top Twenty Tips

Occupied Paris 1943 -  Andre Zucca
Carte d' Identité
Three Allied Evaders Walk Behind a German Kriegsmarine Officer at the Trocadero Paris
- 'Ticket To Freedom' -  H J Spiller

1)      If you have landed at night and are not badly injured, count your blessings. You are mobile and still free.

2)      Bury or conceal your parachute, dispose of any secret papers, operational maps etc. and get away from the landing area immediately otherwise your liberty may not last long. Enemy patrols usually motorised, will reach the area within half to three quarters of an hour.  If you’ve not been spotted already, full searches and sweeps will begin at first light.

3)      If you’ve crash landed destroy the aircraft and all secret documents, divide into parties of no more than two and head off initially in different directions (should have been decided before take-off). Endeavour to get clear of a five mile radius from the aircraft, searches rarely cover beyond that.

4)      Once you are well away from the landing point - hide. Good places are woodland, bushes, a ditch next to a hedge or a haystack. Treat farm buildings with care. Surveillance of the place in daylight is advisable before any approach is made. If you land in a town or city, find a deserted shed, hut or garden to conceal yourself until it is daylight.

5)      If you bale out during the day, avoid opening your parachute until the last moment so as not to make yourself too visible. Once your chute is sighted there may be a race between the locals and Germans to reach you first. * Airmen reported seeing parachutists machine gunned or shot at from the ground whilst drifting down.

6)      When you reach the ground, unclip and bundle up your chute, then run away from the site, checking the lie of the land as you go. Make for any nearby trees; observation without being seen is vital to the next decision you will have to make.    

7)      On your way to the first hiding place, carry out minor alterations to your uniform to make it resemble as far as possible civilian clothing. Try to avoid being seen and do not arouse suspicion by being too furtive. Evaders have bluffed the Germans by carrying a bundle of wood, or pretending to work in fields and vineyards.

8)      Try to make your hiding place as near to water as possible – searches can last for three days. During this time use the rations from your escape kit box sparingly. From your ‘bolt hole’, look and listen, wait to see if you spot anyone that looks friendly. The local inhabitants may contact you first.

9)      If there are signs of the enemy searching (especially with dogs), the hiding place may have to be abandoned.

10)  Make sure you are clear on the names and descriptions of members of your crew. Individual members of an aircrew may be picked up by the Resistance in different locations, this will enable the Underground to check up amongst themselves that each airman is genuine and not an enemy agent masquerading as an Allied airman to try and infiltrate escape lines.

11)  Be prepared for further travel alone before you manage to obtain help, and always adopt the attributes, clothing and manners of the local population on your journey back.

12)  It is imperative to remember that one evasion has begun, the sailor,soldier or airman adopts the guise of a civilian, all arms and weapons must be discarded and force must no longer be employed. This does not rule out the rare occurrence where an evader may have to dispose of an enemy, but even then, this method will only be used if and when the lines of helpers are not thereby jeopardised and there are no eye-witnesses.

13)  If travelling on foot across the countryside, try to move at night, resting up in the day in a suitable hiding place.

14)  Keep close to hedges and avoid walking in the centre of fields. It is harder to notice a moving object if it is set against a dark background. Also be wary of crossing the skyline.

15)  Keep to the edges of woods as opposed to walking through the middle; this improves your field of vision and decreases the noise you will make.

16)  Conserve your energy and rations (in case you are chased), take care of your feet and try to sleep in the day when holed up.

17)  Exercise caution if approaching civilians and never approach anyone who is not alone, unless instructed by a helper.

18)  Consider isolated farms off the main roads for assistance. Watch the buildings and activity during the day from a hidden vantage point and if the location is considered free of the enemy make an approach for help once it is dark. Once you are convinced of the owner’s or inhabitant’s good intention, you should declare your true identity and give full particulars. This will assist in verifying who you are. 

19)  Remember that the punishment for helping an evader is death, whereas the evader if discovered will eventually be transferred to a POW camp.    

20)  Never take chances.

Some extracts taken from ‘Escape and Evasion Chapter One’ held at the National Archives.

© Keith Morley

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Traitors Part 2

Harold Cole
 Jacques Desoubrie
 Paris -  André Zucca
Harold Cole was 33 when he enlisted in the British Army at the outbreak of war. He joined a Royal Engineering Unit in the British Expeditionary Force and was soon in France. A petty criminal and fraudster, he may have joined up to keep on the move from the Police, but Cole managed to mask his past by lying about a military and French Foreign Legion background and quickly attained the rank of Sergeant.

In early 1940 he deserted with the non-commissioned officers mess money and later surfaced in Lille as ‘Paul Cole.’ Working his way into the ‘Pat O’ Leary Escape Line’ which was operational at that time from Northern France to the Marseille area, Cole worked as a courier, helping soldiers and airmen to travel down the line. In the Vichy controlled coastline area, evaders and agents were taken out to a waiting mother ship in small skiffs,

But his work had another side to it which came to a head on 2 November 1941 in an apartment belonging to one of the Escape Line’s key players. Pat O’Leary (real Belgian name Albert-Marie Edmond Guérisse), SOE’s Bruce Dowding and other operatives confronted Cole about the stealing of their line’s funds. He managed to escape from the apartment, journeying north before being arrested by the Gestapo. At this point Cole began working for the Germans and systematically betrayed the Pat O’ Leary Line in Northern France. Many of its main organisers, couriers, and safe-house keepers were arrested, others fled to the south; some managed to escape over the Pyrenees and on to London.

The line was decimated, but it did recover and continued to run until early 1943 with new land routes over the Pyrenees, fresh sea locations and safe houses in Northern France and Brittany. The line’s fate was virtually sealed when it was infiltrated in the Paris region by another Gestapo agent, Roger le Neveu (‘Roger le Legionaire’) who also knew Cole. This time the effect proved to be terminal as most of the line’s senior organisers were arrested, including Pat O’Leary, and large numbers of his operatives. Further arrests in Northern France, Marseille and Toulouse completed the destruction.

It is difficult to put a number on how many members of the escape lines and French Resistance Cole betrayed; at least 150 is a conservative estimate with a third of them being executed by the Gestapo. Cole was later described by Reginald Spooner the Deputy Commander of Scotland Yard at the time as ‘the worst traitor of the war.’

By May 1945 Cole was wanted by both French and British governments, and MI9 were also in pursuit. He was captured in Bad Saulgau Germany in June 1945 and imprisoned at the SHAEF prison in Paris. Incredibly he managed to escape again on 18 November 1945. A large manhunt began and on 8 January 1946 after receiving a tip off, French police went to the Rue de Grenelle bar in Paris where Cole had been hiding on the fourth floor. He opened fire on them and was shot dead. Pat O’Leary who had survived the concentration camps identified the body.

Jacques Desoubrie, the illegitimate son of a Belgian doctor joined the Gestapo in 1941 aged twenty. He was a drifter with no real family roots as his mother had abandoned him at a young age. This short and stocky man of neat appearance, light brown hair and piercing grey eyes became a dedicated supporter of the Nazis. He infiltrated resistance groups resulting in massive arrests and moved on to the Comete Escape Line posing as Jean Masson.  Like Prosper Dezitter (who he knew), Desoubrie was a good English speaker and plausible. He wormed his way into the line and in June 1943 most of Comete’s Paris organisation were arrested, He was directly responsible for the capture of Frederic de Jong (father of Comete founder Andrée de Jong) and key operator Robert Ayle as they got off the train in Paris with six evaders.

The organisation had received information about a traitor working in one of the escape lines operating between Brussels and Paris, but Desoubrie was never suspected. Afterwards he passed on information to the Gestapo he had amassed about the Brandy Escape Line and that collapsed. With the danger of assassination looming, Desoubrie slipped into hiding before resurfacing under the alias Pierre Boulain. Again he worked his way into a recovered Comete line which had no personnel left free who recognised him. More damage was done, but this time he was discovered as a result of  information passed on by a helper who had just been arrested. The similarities with Dezitter are obvious and it is clear that whilst operating separately they were linked together.

As liberation of France approached Desoubrie fled to Germany and was arrested there by the Allies. He was tried and finally executed in December 1949.

It is easy to see through Dezitter, Desoubrie and Cole; uncomplicated cold characters with only Desoubrie operating for political reasons. Cole and DeZitter had one motivation – money and all the pleasures that it brought. As the Germans controlled the currency, generous payments presented no problem. All three had that believability which allowed them to create havoc; actors and liars with good memories who could always think on their feet.

Maurice Grapin (alias Henri Crampon) gave information to the enemy that led to the mass arrests in Paris on 18 January 1944 and another serious collapse in Comete. But he was not out of the same mould as the other featured traitors. Grapin was a Comete operative, a true French resistant involved in various duties including the organisation and running of a network of safe houses. In July 1943 he had taken the place in the Line of the arrested Robert Ayle, but he was pulled in for questioning and during interrogation had pressure and threats applied regarding his pregnant wife. Grapin had previously admitted to a priest involved with Comete that he would not be able to keep silent if arrested again.

He began to work under the direct supervision of France's second chief of the Sicherheitsdienst (Intelligence Agency of the SS) and supply a daily report around names, addresses, times and schedules. Jacques Désoubrie who was operating in the area and the Gestapo of Rue des Saussaies remained ignorant of this and continued with their own investigations. Interdepartmental politics may have taken over, but the Germans bided their time and in the usual way amassed information before moving in to make the arrests.

As the Allies approached Paris, Grapin cast off his shackles and took part in the liberation. He was then arrested and put on trial after the war. A number of the main Comete operators who had survived imprisonment and the concentration camps (under sentence of death) spoke up for him. He received six years imprisonment and upon release vanished to South America.

Grapin was a patriot who leaked information to the enemy as a result of intense pressure, yet he still received the support of key members of Comete after the war despite what some of them had indirectly suffered as a result of his actions. He may have been fortunate to survive or not receive a longer term of imprisonment, but Grapin will have carried with him to South America a heavy conscience about the many French men and women he helped send to the camps. For some they paid the ultimate price.  

The traitors were only one part of the scaffolding of this ‘war within a war’ which was built on deception, with everyone striving to play a part. Evaders with false identity papers and borrowed clothing so they could masquerade as someone else, guides pretending not to know their charges and travelling apart, escape line and safe house operators ‘who had seen no one and knew nothing’, Gestapo and Abwehr agents hiding behind ‘normality’, Germans posing as Allied flyers and finally the traitors spinning their web of lies and deceit before the frightening truth was revealed.

Grateful thanks to Philippe Connart for information on Maurice Grapin

© Keith Morley


Friday, 1 June 2012

The Traitors Part 1

                                                 Prosper Dezitter

Evasion lines in Europe during World War 2 were constantly at risk from infiltration by the enemy posing as resistance fighters or Allied airmen. The airman featured in my book was told after his identity had been confirmed by radio transmission from London that he would have been taken outside and shot if details had not been substantiated.

In 1943, Comete evader Sergeant George Duffee 78 Squadron RAF was interrogated by the local Dutch resistance at gunpoint. ‘They asked me the sorts of questions that I couldn’t answer – like what’s the latest show in London…I didn’t know, I was based in Yorkshire. ID tags? I left them at home…you can’t believe it now, but they did just actually take people outside and shoot them. So they took a vote. I won by one vote’ (the vote belonged to a Dutch school teacher he met after 5 days alone on the run) ‘He said lets give him a chance.’

The most dangerous and ruthless organisation was the Geheim Staat Polizei or Gestapo. Along with the Abwehr (former German army intelligence organisation) who adopted more humane interrogation practices, they battled constantly to break the escape lines.

As the war developed, both sides learned from their mistakes. The Germans used any means possible to try and infiltrate the lines or obtain intelligence. They also increased controls at border points, established Atlantic zone lines and restrictions in other key areas. An identity card and Ausweiss (work permit) were essential for personnel and specific travel documents were compulsory for certain areas. To counter this, the escape organisations looked for ways and diversions around these difficulties, forging papers and recruiting volunteers ‘on the inside’ in the gendarme and customs services to help them. It became a separate ‘war within a war’ with high stakes. One arrest could lead to a domino effect where information was surrendered under interrogation, more arrests were then made revealing further information and a major collapse of the line was under way.

Often the enemy would penetrate evasion lines with agents posing as airmen and using documents taken from captured aircrew. These infiltrators would usually be German, excellent English speakers with a background of living in Britain or America for a sustained period. This tactic resulted in escape organisations tightening their questioning to include more detailed personal information which would often be verified by radio transmission and also slang and specifics that only a genuine Allied airman would know.    

More difficult to detect were traitors from the Allied occupied countries, or even Great Britain and USA. It is difficult to step back and view these individual’s actions without feeling revulsion and contempt as they were often motivated by money, although some did it under the loose umbrella of politics, others for extra food rations, or to be freed from prison sentences still being served when occupation began. A few were nobodies who craved for fame and attention, and some had been discovered working against the Nazis and were turned by the Gestapo with various levers being applied including threats and actions against family.  

The most successful infiltrators all had the same strengths, a good memory, an ability to act a part, to lie with conviction and think on their feet.  Arguably the most notorious traitor operating largely in Belgium was Prosper Dezitter. Born in Paschendale, he fled to Canada in May 1913 at age 19 after being convicted for rape and sentenced to three years imprisonment. He married an English girl in Winnipeg but returned to Belgium at the end of 1926. More prison sentences followed for marriage fraud and embezzlement and it is possible that once Belgium was occupied by the Nazis in May 1940 he was released from prison by the Nazis and began working for them.

From the beginning he operated with his mistress Florie Dings and managed to infiltrate groups who were helping Allied soldiers and airmen. Dezitter would pass on information to the enemy leading to evaders and escape line personnel being  arrested, only to show up again in another location using another alias or disguise.

Initially he posed as an English or Canadian airman ‘Jack Kilanine’ or ‘Jack the Canadian’, William Herbert Call (a Londoner), or ‘Williams.’ A number of evaders were warned about him by the resistance including the airman in my book. Dezitter may have been a master of aliases and bluff but he had one clear identifying feature, the top part of the little finger on his right hand was missing. He tried to mask this on occasions by wearing gloves.

In July and August 1943 Dezitter was running a "safe" house (an apartment at Avenue Slegers) and fake escape line in Brussels. He had established connections with resistance/escape organizations in Holland and also other parts of Belgium outside of Brussels. Once he learned of an evader in hiding Florie Dings and an accomplice would drive out of Brussels to collect the airmen or they would meet them at Brussels Gare Midi station in a large black car. The evaders would then be driven to the ‘safe’ house. Dezitter often operated this deception under the name of ‘The Captain’ or ‘Captain Jackson’, with Dings introducing herself as ‘The Captain’s Secretary.’

Evaders were later taken to Gare du Midi and travelled to Paris where they were arrested by the Gestapo as they left the station. Later the operation was moved to another apartment house but the sequence of events remained the same and numerous airmen were led into Gestapo traps in Brussels and Paris. Dezitter also operated in the Ghent area in 1943 as ‘Captain Willy.’

He had become such a problem to the Allies, that his description appeared in Belgian underground newspapers and in the summer of 1943 he was one of the top names on an assassination list drawn up by SOE Belgian Section’s Hardy Amies (the well known fashion designer.) Codenamed operation Rat Week the plan was to use agents to eliminate selected traitors with Welrod silenced pistols. The exiled Belgian government in London would not agree to it on grounds that any execution without trial was unacceptable and that if Dezitter was that bad, their own resistance would deal with him. The campaign was aborted allowing the deceptions to continue. Either the Belgian government had totally underestimated him or there was a more significant underlying reason.
His time in the English speaking world gave Dezitter a good grasp of the language and as a native of Belgium he was ideally placed. Constantly fooling the escape lines, resistance and evaders, he could disappear then resurface in another area to wreak havoc again. Many of the airmen would be easy prey; they were just young men desperate to get home where the opportunity of an organised journey to freedom was their only chance. Others were suspicious, but still went along with the plan.
Over 70 RAF aircrew along with numerous USAAF flyers were led into Gestapo traps from the safe houses in Brussels. These figures exclude those evading aircrew from other areas of Belgium, British soldiers left in occupied territories after the fall of the Low Countries/France in 1940, plus the Belgian helpers and agents etc he betrayed. The total traced back to Dezitter’s handiwork runs into hundreds.
After the war ended, Dezitter and Dings were arrested in Wurzburg Germany whilst being hidden by a German resistance movement and were brought back to Brussels. They were tried and found guilty. Dezitter was executed by firing squad on the 17th September 1948.
More next week on the traitors and the author’s views.
Factual Sources: Downed Allied Airmen and Evasion of Capture: The Role Herman Bodson 
For a more detailed account of Prosper Dezitter a visit to by John Clinch is highly recommended.

© Keith Morley