Friday, 1 March 2013

They Got Away Twice - Part One


Lysander Painted Black for Night Camouflage 

Ziri - Formerly in Yugoslavia

When an airman in World War Two abandoned his aircraft over or in occupied Europe, he faced odds of up to one hundred to one against reaching home by evading capture or subsequently escaping from a Prisoner of War Camp. When set against the numbers of airmen who were lost in action or became POW’s, it is remarkable that a very small number managed the feat twice.

In December 1940,  Sergeant John Mott (first name Arnold) was the pilot of a Whitley bomber from RAF 78 Squadron which took off from Dishforth to bomb the dockyard at Lorient Brittany. He was forced to jump from the burning aircraft, landing on the North West edge of Lanvallon. The rest of the crew baled out, but all were captured apart from the rear gunner Sgt A J McMillan.
Mott was able to hide and lie low before initially receiving assistance from a chain of helpers. In early January 1941, he was taken to the home of Monsieur and Madame Delavigne in Nantes, Brittany who managed to shelter him up until September of the same year. In mid August Sgt Macmillan had arrived and been located in a safe house with a Madame Flavet and her family. In late September, security in the network was compromised and arrests were made by the Gestapo. Amongst those taken were Madame Flavet and her family and Macmillan and Mott’s convoyer Monsieur Hevin. The latter was executed just under a month later. Once the cellhad been penetrated, Mott was shuttled around a series of safe houses by the Delavignes, whilst a plan was formed to get him out. 
Madame Delavigne recalled:

‘The leader of the organisation Claude Lamirault (MI6 agent) was to ensure the escape of the two airmen. Unfortunately the Flavet family and MacMillan were arrested. Having been informed immediately and not knowing the leaders address, we decided to do all we could to save Mott’
For a price, the Delavignes negotiated a passage for Mott into the unoccupied Vichy zone of France. He would be accompanied by an agent codenamed ‘Rips’ operating in the area and vaguely known to them through the trafficking of letters into the Vichy area. On 26 September, Mott and the agent left Nantes on bicycles and taking the fast train to Bordeaux arrived at an address of a Pole called Selk. Mott was helped to reach Toulouse on 4 October and he recalled what happened next:

‘On the 12th I crossed over the frontier of Spain. Once there I kept walking to the British Consul who passed me on the Embassy in Madrid. On 14 November 1941, I arrived in Gibraltar and left in a Sunderland flying boat on 13 December, arriving at Pembroke Dock on the 14th.’
The Delavigne family were arrested on 5 March 1942. After a spell in a Bordeaux civil prison which took the life of their nephew, they were finally released in July 1943. To continue sheltering evaders after arrest and imprisonment was almost suicidal, but Monsieur and Madame Delavigne started up where they left off. Their luck ran out in January 1944. Monsieur eventually died of exhaustion in Camp No 1 at Gouzen in January 1945 and Madame after a succession of prisons was liberated at Mauthausen concentration camp by the International Red Cross on 22 April 1945 weighing only four and half stone. 
John Mott had attained the rank of Flight Lieutenant with RAF 161 Special Duties Squadron when on the night of 28/29 May 1942 he was involved with a second Lysander aircraft in a double operation around delivery and pick up of agents from France. He was delivering Alex Nitelet, scheduled to be the Pat O’Leary Escape Line’s new operator. The aircraft landed at Chateauroux, but became bogged down and failed to take off.
Mott was captured and held in various French prisons until being transferred to Italian Prisoner of War Gavi Camp No 5. In September 1943 after the Italian armistice the Germans made plans to transfer the prisoners in the camp by train to Austria. Housed in cattle wagons the opportunity for escape presented itself to the men. During the journey Mott managed to cut a hole in his wagon near to the buffers, and followed by other officers the men lowered themselves down and dropped off the train. This operation was extremely dangerous as attempts by this method in previous unrelated escapes had sometimes resulted in limbs being severed, escapers falling under the train or being shot by the guards. Mott himself sustained a head injury but managed to get away.
He joined a fellow POW officer who had also escaped and they travelled to Tarcento with other POWs and joined up with some Partisans who took them over the border to Ziri in Yugoslavia. The group came under fierce attack from the Germans and they decided to break away in pairs from the Partisans and try to reach Italy again as they were close to the border. Flight Lieutenant Carmichael who had also escaped from the train travelled south with Mott, and the pair crossed the border reaching Calla in the extreme north of the country.
By this point the weather was too bad for any sustained travel, so they took refuge and did not set out again until 3 December 1943. The plan was to travel south, then cut across to the east coast of Italy and sail a boat out of the country. Allied sympathisers gave them shelter as they travelled and a Lance Corporal who Mott does not name joined them, the three men were given false identity papers and with the help of an Italian officer who took them by train, they reached Bologna.
The journey must have been a difficult experience as the party had to try and obtain financial help in order to secure a small boat. The country was in turmoil at this time, and looking beyond the sketchy narrative of events in parts, numbers of Allied POWs who had escaped from captivity were clearly trying to make their way out of Italy.
Mott and the other escapers reached the eastern town of Fermo six kms from the Adriatic coast and subsequently managed to secure a boat. They were joined by more escapers and the ‘crew’ set sail on ‘The Pitch and Toss’ (as they named the vessel) on 17 March 1944, reaching the initial safety of an RAF radio direction finder station at Ponte Della Penna on 19 March 1944. Mott had beaten the odds for a second time.   


Free to Fight Again - Alan Cooper


  1. Keith, I know I haven't commented before but I've been following your blog with great interest and I'd like nominate you for a Leibster Award. I know how busy you are, so feel free to say no but if you are interested all the details are on my blog:

  2. Further to the theme of people who escaped twice expertly produced by Keith a man called Henri Giraud also did so. He was born in Paris in 1879. A captain of Zouaves in WW I, he was wounded in the Battle of Guise in August 1914, left for dead, and captured by the Germans. Within a few weeks he escaped from a hospital and made his way to the Netherlands.
    In 1939, at the outbreak of WWII, he was given command of the Seventh Army Group. Once again in May 1940, he was captured by the Germans, who this time placed him in the fortress of Konigstein, a maximum security prison perched on a sheer cliff with all entrances double-guarded and numerous sentries passing every few minutes.
    For two years, Giraud carefully planned his escape. He learned German until he could speak almost without accent, and he memorized every contour of a stole map of the countryside. On April 17, 1942, he lowered himself down the side of the mountain fortress and reached the ground. Donning a raincoat and a Tyrolean hat, he shaved his moustache and headed toward the town of Schandau, 5 miles to the south, where a contact was waiting. Escaping a motorcycle search party, he lept aboard a moving train, changed trains at Stuttgart and through a series of fortunate ruses, managed to reach the French border 40 miles away.
    Giraud's escape captured the imagination of a defeated and humiliated France and he became a public idol. Infuriated, Himmler sent secret orders to Gestapo headquarters in Paris to "find Giraud and assassinate him." German agents swarmed into Unoccupied France in search of the missing general. However, Giraud was persuaded that he had to go. On 5 November, he was picked up near Toulon by the British submarine 'Seraph' (which was clumsily disguised as a U.S. vessel to placate Giraud). (Eisenhower had advised contrary to his request for an aeroplane that he be fetched by the British submarine under an American captain). 'Seraph' took him to meet General Dwight Eisenhower in Gibraltar. He arrived on 7 November, only a few hours before the landings. Eisenhower asked him to assume command of French troops in North Africa during 'Operation Torch' and direct them to join the Allies.
    Pro-Allied elements in Algeria had agreed to support the Allied landings, and in fact seized Algiers on the night of 7-8 November; the city was then occupied by Allied troops. However, resistance continued at Oran and Casablanca. Giraud flew to Algiers on 9 November, but his attempt to assume command of French forces was rebuffed; his broadcast directing French troops to cease resistance and join the Allies was ignored.
    When the Allies found out that Giraud was maintaining his own intelligence network, the French committee forced him from his post as a commander-in-chief of the French forces. He refused to accept a post of Inspector General of the Army and chose to retire. On 28 August 1944, he survived an assassination attempt in Algeria. Clearly a man determined to survive who was very resourceful.
    “That survival instinct, that will to live, that need to get back to life again, is more powerful than any consideration of taste, decency, politeness, manners, civility. Anything. It's such a powerful force.”
    Danny Boyle