Monday, 1 July 2013

The Questions

Allied evaders in World War Two faced inevitable questioning once they came into contact with the resistance or escape lines. In Holland, Belgium and France, the evader would usually be sheltered and then passed amongst local patriots until the bigger players became involved. Few of the locals spoke much English, and many evaders had little or no knowledge of Dutch, Flemish or French, so initial verbal communication involved little direct questioning.
Anyone helping an Allied serviceman risked everything. The Germans had made the penalties for engaging in this very clear – capital punishment for men and deportation to a concentration camp for women. Other members of the family were also at risk as many were arrested and shipped off, so taking steps at an early stage to establish that the evader was genuine became vital.
The enemy regularly attempted to infiltrate resistance and escape lines at any point. The main lines tended to operate as separate links in one large chain, with only a few main operators knowing more than their link. This was good security practice which helped prevent or slow down mass collapses  after members had been arrested and tortured to reveal information. Because the lines were organised in this way, evaders found themselves still being quizzed at various points in their journey, long after the initial 'test' had been passed. 
Although evacuations by sea (and a few by Lysander aircraft) took place, many evaders moved south west down lines towards Spain and the Pyrenees. Airmen landing in Holland and also their helpers, faced very serious challenges. The Dutch coast was well guarded; constantly shifting sandbanks made navigation difficult, the land was flat and there were few hiding places. Escape by boat was rarely an option.

In March 1942 the Germans also began the ‘Englandspiel’ penetration of Dutch intelligence, which gradually expanded until the majority of intelligence operations in Holland had been compromised. The Abwehr had the upper hand, making large numbers of arrests and slowing the development of other resistance groups.  This had a significant effect on the Dutch Escape Lines. Networks including the Smit-van der Heijden and Dutch Paris Lines were under constant threat of discovery and infiltration.
For the evader, once they had landed in Holland there was little time to locate a hiding place or shelter after reaching the ground. Flat land, straight roads and good observation networks enabled the Germans to close in on parachutists and crash sites very quickly. As the air war intensified; the numbers of RAF and American aircraft in the skies grew. This led to an inevitable increase in Allied airmen baling out of their aircraft. Many were captured, but some managed to go into hiding with the locals.
For obvious reasons the Germans considered it vital that airmen were quickly located. Those who had slipped through the net plus the patriots who aided them had to be tracked down and dealt with. In Holland, the enemy attempted to use moles to infiltrate resistance and Escape lines more than anywhere else. By 1942 the strength of German intelligence there, enabled a greater chance of success and there were less established escape lines operating than in Belgium and France.
The classic mole ploy was to place an English speaking German (often agent or flyer or traitor) dressed in the uniform of an allied airman, somewhere in the area near a crash site. The fake evader would often already have information about the crashed aircraft and the name of a specific member or members of its crew. The latter information came from a captured airman from the aircraft who had given his name, rank and number according to the Geneva Convention and may have unwittingly also revealed additional facts. After the first patriots had assisted the ‘airman’, the next point of referral was usually the local resistance or actual escape line. If the fake could burrow his way in, major damage and a domino effect of arrests and collapse of various links in the network would follow.
The disastrous effect of infiltration by fake airmen was described by Elsie Bell in her diary. She had married a Belgian soldier Georges Maréchal whom she met in London during an air raid in the First World War. Twenty years later in Nazi occupied Brussels, Elsie was operating with the Comete Escape Line.
‘On 18 November 1942 ‘E’* was due at headquarters at 2 pm. Just as we were sitting down to table at midday ‘B’* went to answer a ring at the door. There were two fellows with a guide whom we knew from Namur. The two airmen were introduced as Americans. The guide left and we gave them dinner. They spoke good American English, they were not so sympathetic as the other fellows we’d had. ‘E’ had to rush to get to HQ in time and ‘B’ had left for school, so I was alone in the house.

I spoke a little with them and could not help feeling a little suspicious about them. The taller one in answer to my question said he came from Jersey City, but Jersey he pronounced with a slight foreign accent. I made up my mind to communicate our impressions to the chief on the very next occasion. Then the doorbell rang. I went directly to ask them to be upstairs to be out of the way in case of visitors, but the taller one was coming to meet me and grasped my arm with one hand and with a revolver in the other said ‘Madame, the game is up.’ The other small fellow had opened the door and let in another man of the GFP (Geheime Feld Polizei)
…The two so called Americans were Germans in disguise. They’d succeeded in entering the line at its source and had followed it up to Brussels. Sad to say, one who had worked in our line had turned traitor and so made such a thing possible. Then followed arrest after arrest in Nmaur, Ciney, Brussels etc.’

* ‘E’- young Elsie - Elsie senior’s eighteen year old daughter, also working for Comete

* ‘B’- Robert (Bobby) -  son aged sixteen.

Resistance and Escape Lines had to establish the evader was genuine at a very early stage, so prepared their own questions to test the serviceman (fairly brief questions usually geared to an airman.) Anyone who did not pass was eliminated. Problems could arise when the evader would not disclose military or personal information because of training or his own doubts about the validity of his interrogators.
RAF personnel were instructed in their evasion training to cooperate with the Resistance once they had made contact, but in the early stages of shelter, trust was a difficult call on both sides and obtaining the necessary information from evaders could be a cagey process. American airmen received minimal evasion training until later in the war and many refused to complete local questionnaires.
One strategy around this difficulty was for the Resistance and Escape Lines to ask about general military terms and slang which only genuine English or Americans would know plus questions on current information around the UK.  This could present problems, especially if not targeted in the right way. Comete evader Sergeant George Duffee 78 Squadron RAF was interrogated in 1943 by the local Dutch resistance at gunpoint. He described what happened:

Sgt George Duffee
‘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 let’s give him a chance.’

Not all experiences were the same as Duffee’s. In November 1943, T/Sergeant Ronald Morley of RAAF 467 Squadron was questioned by a member of the Belgian ‘White Army’ in a village south east of Antwerp.
‘I was only just twenty two, and he looked maybe eighteen or nineteen if that. His English was good and he explained why he was asking the questions. He told me about the Boche pretending to be RAF airmen. In the end I gave him my name, rank and number. He had a small notebook and pencil and I could see my name already written at the top. We reached a point where he sat back in the chair and told me he knew what we had been instructed to say, but if they were going to try and help me, we would have to trust each other. He told me his name was ‘Denise’ (I assumed that was a codename), then he began to ask about my aircraft and crew. There were questions about me, my date of birth, where I lived, my parents’ names and my occupation before the war. He even asked me to name a building I had visited in my home city and why. I also got asked what ‘Groupy’ and ‘duff gen’ were.’

The network helping Morley had good radio contact with London (two SOE agents were operating in the area) and where this occurred it clearly influenced the content of the questioning. Some days later after his details had been verified, Morley was told, if they had not checked out he would have been shot and buried in the nearby fields as someone had been a fortnight before.

The RAF and later the Americans dropped in questionnaires to help the resistance and escape lines collect information to establish whether an evader was genuine or not. With good radio links, verification of personal information could be made and where this was not available, judgement calls could be taken based on the rest of the answers given. As the war progressed, the questionnaires were refined, with the Resistance and escape lines making their own additions and English speakers adding in their own ‘catch’ questions, but the threat of imposters was always there and some of the smaller escape operations always remained especially vulnerable.

RAF Questionnaire - Featured in Downed Allied Airmen and Evasion and Evasion of Capture: The Role -. Herman Bodson
The RAF Questionnaires focused much more on factual information. Additional questions could be added by those seeking the information.  

The sheet for Joseph Ashbrook was completed in Holland in 1944. Although meant to cover Allied airmen from Britain and its colonies and America, it leans towards RAF service jargon. There is no request for a date of birth which most questionnaires had. American Ashbrook is unable to answer some of the questions, but there is enough dual content for him to satisfy his interrogators, and any radio contact would verify the identity details. He did not manage to evade and became a POW in Stalag Luft One.

Dutch Questionnaire for  Joseph Ashbrook

Sgt Joseph Ashbrook

In the list of questions on US flyer Sgt Charles Lambert's sheet there is space to add details of the incident around the aircraft and what had happened to the evader since.

Questionnaire for Sgt Charles Lambert

Lambert evaded via the Comete Line (photo for false ID)

Once a line was satisfied as to an evader’s identity, they would move him on, but contacts continued to ask questions, especially when he passed from one link to another on the journey. Australian Bob Kellow a Dambuster from RAF 617 Squadron gave a good example of what happened when he was in Tournhout Belgium with his new guide ‘Lily’ ('Michou' Dumon):

 ‘What is a Wimpey?’ she asked me.

‘A Wellington bomber.’ I replied correctly.

‘Can you name three heavy bombers used by the RAF?’ she asked.

‘Lancaster, Halifax and Stirling.’ I shot back.
She seemed satisfied and went on to inform me that she would be taking me to Brussels via Antwerp the next morning.’
Questions did not end once an evader crossed into Spain. If he made himself known to their Police or was arrested, further questioning would follow from the Spanish Police and then the British authorities. Once at Gibraltar he could look forward to another interview before a full debrief in London with IS9 or MIS- X.

© Keith Morley

Downed Allied Airmen and Evasion of Capture: The Role - Herman Bodson
Ashcroft Questionnaire -  Bruce Bolinger
Ashcroft Photo -
Extract from Elsie MarĂ©chal's diary taken from 'A Quiet Woman's War by kind permission of William Etherington. Grateful thanks to the author. (Recommended read.)
Paths to Freedom  -Bob Kellow

1 comment:

  1. Another fascinating posting by Keith as the facts are revealed about the validation of the downed airmen so that the escapelines could help them. POWs, however, had to endure a different sort of questioning…."Durchgangslager der Luftwaffe" or "Transit Camp of the Luftwaffe" was called Dulag Luft by the POWs. It was located at Oberursel (13 km north-west of Frankfurt-am-Main with a population of about 20,000) and was recognized as the greatest interrogation centre in all of Europe. Nearly all captured Allied airmen were sent there to be interrogated before being assigned to a permanent prison camp. While at Dulag Luft - Oberursel the prisoners were kept in solitary confinement. The average stay in solitary was one or two weeks. According to the Geneva convention a prisoner could not be kept in solitary confinement for interrogation purposes for more than 28 days. Hanns Scharff was primarily an American 8th and 9th Air Force Fighter pilot interrogator. He was considered the best of the interrogators at Dulag Luft. He gained the reputation of magically getting all the answers he needed from the prisoners of war, often with the prisoners never realizing that their words, small talk or otherwise, were important pieces of the mosaic. It is said he always treated his prisoners with respect and dignity and by using psychic not physical techniques, he was able to make them drop their guard and converse with him even though they were conditioned to remain silent. One POW commented that "Hanns could probably get a confession of infidelity from a nun." Hanns personally stepped in to search for information that saved the lives of six US POWs when the SS wanted to execute them. Many acts of kindness by Scharff to sick and dying American POWs are documented. He would regularly visit some of the more seriously ill POWs and arrange to make their accommodations more humane. At one time the Luftwaffe was investigating him. After the war, he was invited by the USAF to make speeches about his methods to military audiences in the US and he eventually moved to the United States. General Jimmy Doolittle was one of the first to extend the hand of friendship to Hanns after the war, inviting him to a luncheon where they compared notes. Later he was invited to the home of Col. Hub Zemke who thereafter would send Hanns what he called a "Red Cross Parcel" every Christmas. And 38 years after he was Hanns "guest" at Dulag Luft - Oberursel, Col. Francis "Gabby" Gabreski was a guest of honor at Hanns 75th birthday party. In the United States Scharff worked as a mosaic artist. His works are on display in Cinderella's castle at Disney World.
    Of course we must remember that Hanns was the exception at Dulag Luft and there were other interrogators that were nothing at all like Hanns, whose treatment of the prisoners was more of a physical and threatening nature concerning torture. “Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are…the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.”
    (Primo Levi.)