Monday, 30 July 2012

The Food - Part One

RAF Escape Kit

Contents of Red Cross Parcel

POWs at Sagan

Once an evader had cleared his landing or crash area, thoughts would turn to using key items in his escape kit (see Post Two.) This was assuming he still had the pack, as it was sometimes lost whilst jumping from the aircraft or during an exit after a crash landing. Airmen who were forced into immediate hiding because of the location or injury would also be looking to their kit for sustenance.  

Thirst usually struck first as only flasks of tea or coffee sustained airmen during operational flights. Filling the water bottle from a stream was often the priority, and then concentrated squares of chocolate and Horlicks tablets would be used sparingly. This was not always easy if an airman found he was unable to move far on his journey. 

When these supplies were almost exhausted, airmen lived off the land applying field craft that had been outlined in their evasion training. (See previous posts)        

Sergeant Ray De Pape was second pilot in a Halifax that was hit by flak on a raid to Cassel on 3 October. He landed in Germany and walked for four days before reaching a town.

 ‘During the first three days I lived on my flying rations in my escape box. I found water plentiful and made good use of the Halazone tablets and my water bottle.’

De Pape literally walked out of Germany and approached some farmers four days later. They told him he was in Belgium. His feet were in poor shape, but he had avoided capture and travelled entirely alone. He stated in his evasion that during his journey:

‘I stole apples, cabbages, turnips and any other edible fruits or vegetables I came across.’

It took him two more days before he eventually found help.  

The escaper had a different strategy, as his rations would be minimal and would start at ‘iron rations’; enough to sustain him during the first part of his escape only. His immediate priority was to put as much distance as possible between himself and the point of escape. There would be little time to stop apart from short rests and it would be then, whilst on the move, or travelling on a train that rations would consumed.

The famous three ‘Wooden Horse’ tunnel escapers from Stalug Luft 111 (Sagan) prison camp Lieutenant Richard Codner, (Royal Artillery), Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams (RAF) and Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpott (RAF) had a form of ‘dog food’ hard cake made from dried milk, sugar, Bemax and cocoa. This had been packed into small square tins (five per man) which came from Red Cross parcels. They planned to wear these around the waist between two shirts.

There were also several small linen bags containing a dry mixture of oatmeal, raisins, sugar and milk powder, as this would help ward off hunger. One method used was to sew a bag into each armpit of a jacket as an emergency ration. Codner says in his escape report:

 ‘I was carrying five tins of concentrated foodstuffs prepared in the camp, also a little chocolate. It would have been better to have taken more food, particularly biscuits, as the Germans frequently order beer and coffee at a restaurant and eat food with it produced from their own pockets in paper bags. This is done in the best hotels, often by Army officers.’

Fellow escaper Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot employed another tactic for some of his rations:

 ‘I carried a small vulcanite suitcase with, primarily the means to keep looking well shaved and smart with it and secondarily, some of the camp escape food disguised as a margarine product.’ (Amongst his nine forged documents, Philpot carried  a typed letter from the Margarine Verkauf’s Union, introducing him to prospective employers)

It is interesting that Philpot also comments on the consumption of escape rations on a train:.

‘I went to the lavatory, which is the Prisoner of War train traveller’s normal place to sort out his papers, maps, etc. and eat his escape food as well as clean up generally.’

When evaders approached a farmhouse as per their training, they often received food and drink from patriots before being sent on their way. (Many locals were sympathetic,  but simply too afraid to become involved.) Flying Officer Alfie Martin did not reach a farmhouse before receiving aid. 

He had landed near to the village of Sivry on the French/ Belgium border and commenced walking until around 6.30 am when it became too risky to continue in daylight, so he settled down in hiding. Around 1.00 pm he was disturbed by the sound of something large crashing against bushes. A cow appeared, driven from behind by a young boy. Startled and directly in the way of the animal, he stood up. The boy stopped, studying him for a moment, before putting his hand to his cap in a salute.

With a few French words, sign language and gestures the pair managed to communicate for nearly thirty minutes. The boy left and returned with some cold potatoes in a pot and a bottle of beer. Later the boy’s father and brother visited and a woman came to the hiding place with bread and cheese and two hardboiled eggs. She was a friend of the boy’s father, but was not able to make herself understood. Despite this, she shook Martin’s hand and kissed him on both cheeks before leaving.

Later the boy’s father and brother returned with travel directions to the village of Soire Le Chateau and an old grey coat and light brown cap to help Martin blend in. They gave him more food for the journey and left at 8.00pm with regrets that they were not able to assist any further.

Flight Lieutenant Dennis Hornsey (RAF) rode his luck in the early stages of his evasion. He had been on the move for twelve hours in Belgium without food or sleep when he approached a run-down isolated inn. It looked quiet so he decided to try and buy some bread and beer. Still in uniform but with the insignia removed he entered, approaching the inn keeper. Hornsey asked in halting French for beer and bread and produced a fifty franc note. The innkeeper stared at him, then without saying anything walked past and closed the door. He disappeared into the back, returning with a bottle of beer and a plate of sandwiches made up of black bread and black sausage meat. Despite the awful taste, Hornsey finished one and indicated that he would like to take the rest with him and have another beer. Still saying nothing, the man wrapped the sandwiches up for him and produced another bottle. Pointing to a map on the wall he asked for directions to Brussels. The man spoke for the first time, reeling off towns and villages along the route. He took the airman to the door, faced him towards it, and indicated right turn. More directions followed with a ‘bonne chance.

It was fortunate that the inn was deserted and the proprietor sympathetic to the Allies. Hornsey had not only given himself away by looking and speaking out of place, he had also offered to pay for the food with a very large note and not handed over food coupons which was the usual method. Evaders rarely got second chances and once they were into an escape line, slips could jeopardise not only the evasion, but the whole line. The stakes were massive.


Evasion Reports from the British National Archives

The Pilot Walked Home by Dennis Horsey

Escaping Occupied France With the Resistance by Alfie Martin    

© Keith Morley


  1. Raw cabbage and turnips - it seems unthinkable but presumably you ate whatever you could.

  2. Thanks for your comment Sally. Not exactly 'Haute Cuisine' was it, but I guess when you are very hungry things suddenly look and taste different. The evaders had to keep going in the early stages if they hadn't already got into an Escape Line, or were not holed up in a barn/farmhouse whilst a patriot tried to find someone who could help. Tricky one as the story of the RAF airman Maurice Garlick illustrates.

    For the escapers in the Wooden Horse episode, it was very different. If they hadn't prepped meticulously they would have been picked up very quickly (the chances of making it were still very remote anyway.)

    The food issue was vital especially in the early stages. Interesting how they improvised from the camp provisions, virtually all of which came from pooled Red Cross parcels.

    I was looking for some Evasion Reports at tne National Archives in connection with my book and came across the ones relating to the escape of Williams, Codner and Philpott. Behind the Great Escape (same camp) it is arguably the second most famous escape of all. There they were... the documents, unobtrusively filed in date order according to when the escapers were debriefed by MI9 after they reached GB. Philpott drew pencil diagrams of how they concealed themselves in the vaulting horse and how they dug the tunnel etc. A whole post will come on that later.

  3. This latest episode was another involving and enjoyable read thanks Keith-look forward to the next. I’m sure the ‘black market’ may feature sometime during the subject of food in WW2.People like ‘Flash Harry’ From St. Trinians or Pte Walker from ‘Dad’s Army’ no doubt could obtain items hitherto unavailable through the legal channels…… Napoleon stated that ‘an army marches on its stomach’ and food was obviously vital to the war effort but crucial to those seeking to escape and evade capture/death at the hands of the ‘enemy’. Logistics – getting food, clothes, and spare parts to the front – was often what made or broke conflicts. The truth of this was illustrated by Napoleon himself when, in June 1812, he tried (and failed) to invade Russia with a force of 500,000 men. Because the Russians removed most of the food and crops in advance, Napoleon's army couldn't live off the land as they had in previous campaigns. Our airmen here in this detailed post have been living off the land but also had the help of the allies. The meeting of the boy and the airman was touching and he was right to salute him as he didn’t know him.Still they managed to communicate. Once did an exercise in drama where fellow student and I were not allowed to say anything but we had to do a robbery onset and escape whilst evading the authorities. Words are not always essential. That part of the engaging blog made the story of ‘The Little Prince’come to mind. “I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings." Amongst other things the Little Prince tended to and grew a rose. “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

    The allies tended to and sheltered, fed and nurtured many airmen and soldiers, their ‘roses’, throughout WW2 at deadly risk to themselves and their families.

    “People have forgotten this truth," the fox said. "But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.”

  4. Really enjoyed reading this, Keith. It must have been terrible for those farmers and others who helped. In a split second they have to decide whether or not to become involved, knowing the consequences could be fatal. The details of food (and photos) are great. Poor blokes, but I guess anything would sustain you in those circumstances.

  5. Thanks Liz. Life and death decisions were sometimes made in that split second moment. There was also quite a bit of 'wait there until its dark - I can't help, but I know a man who knows a man who can' or here's some bread and milk, but please leave before we all get caught.
    This week's post deals with the food once the evaders were sheltered and what happened when they stopped in safe houses in the cities and towns. A massive problem. There were experiences that traversed the whole range of culinary 'delights.'