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


  1. That is so interesting. It is amazing what motivates people, even when we think their actions are wrong, it still takes courage.
    I love reading your pieces.

    1. Thanks Sally. At times it is difficult for me to take a step back and write about this subject with a balanced overview, because I'm so close to it. Writing the book which is almost complete now has taken me through the whole range of human emotions. War is a dirty business and it makes ordinary people do extraordinary things; good and bad. Who would have thought Hardy Amies was involved with SOE Belgian Section. This only came to light recently following the release of documents held in the National Archives. After the war when he was quizzed about his involvement with SOE, he simply replied 'Sorry old man - don't know anything about it.'

  2. I often wonder what motivates people, but then I expect it all comes down to whose side you choose to take. Threats against family would be high on anyone's list I imagine.

    Has Dezitter's story been made into a film do you know? Or has one been based upon it?

    1. To my knowledge there has been nothing on DeZitter specifically in actual feature films (English or foreign), but there have been 'fictional' dramas and films that are clearly based on the escape lines, especially Comete e.g. Secret Army. The Yesterday Channel's 'Secret War' series devoted a whole 1 hour episode to SOE Belgium Section, Hardy Amies, DeZitter and the aborted 'Operation Ratweek'. Some of my E & E friends were involved with providing information for the making of that programme.

  3. The full range of treachery and collaboration perpetrated by Britons during WW2 was well documented in a book by Sean Murphy called ‘Letting The Side Down’. Lord Haw Haw-aka William Joyce who was actually American was executed by hanging by Albert Pierrepoint and afterwards a few men in the crowd outside were seen to do a Hitler salute albeit not as overtly as they would have wished... John Amery the son of H. Leopold Amery a member of Churchill’s wartime cabinet, was also hung. A national newspaper said,‘Moments before the white hood of a condemned man was placed over his head, John Amery, a Second World War traitor, turned to his besuited executioner holding the noose and said: "I've always wanted to meet you Mr Pierrepoint. But not, of course, under these circumstances."’ I’m not sure I believe that a person under such stress would be so calm but that was the story told at the time. PG Wodehouse had made some ill-advised broadcasts for his American fans, but this was regarded as simply naïve rather than malicious. He was denied a Knighthood until his demise in 1975. There were around 200 Britons who collaborated with the Reich in WW2 which excludes the Channel Islands-the only British soil to come under German occupation.
    The airman’s escape in your book was even more remarkable given the background to treachery you have posted here and that Dezitter our anti-hero was operating at that time.(Negotiating a cobweb of delicate strands which could have been blown away at any time.) A matter of luck or judgement, circumstance and behaviors. Why one saved and another not? The eternal question. In ‘Les Miserables’ in the famous song about lost comrades Marius sings “My friends, my friends forgive me,that I live and you are gone”. Also, “here they talked of revolution, here it was they lit the flame, here they sang about tomorrow, but tomorrow never came…” French revolution but still ringing true in WW2. Our featured traitor here was shot. His reasons for his actions may have gone with him. Jesus was supposed to have said on the cross in translation, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”. However Dezitter knew exactly what he was doing. Another riveting blog, Keith, to be commended and I look forward to Part Two.

    1. Thanks for your comments Helen. The more I research this theatre of war, the more dark and misty the waters become. Dezitter's actions were motivated by money, but he was acting out a part in one great play -deception. I remain convinced that there was a bigger picture to some of this. I wonder what is contained in the SOE files that are still sealed.

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