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Silent Heroes

Silent Heroes: Downed Airmen and the French Underground

Copyright Date: 2001
Edition: 1
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Silent Heroes
    Book Description:

    In the early years of World War II, it was an amazing feat for an Allied airman shot down over occupied Europe to make it back to England. By 1943, however, pilots and crewmembers, supplied with "escape kits," knew they had a 50 percent chance of evading capture and returning home. An estimated 12,000 French civilians helped make this possible. More than 5,000 airmen, many of them American, successfully traveled along escape lines organized much like those of the U.S. Underground Railroad, using secret codes and stopping in safe houses. If caught, they risked internment in a POW camp. But the French, Belgian, and Dutch civilians who aided them risked torture and even death. Sherri Ottis writes candidly about the pilots and crewmen who walked out of occupied Europe, as well as the British intelligence agency in charge of Escape and Evasion. But her main focus is on the helpers, those patriots who have been all but ignored in English-language books and journals. To research their stories, Ottis hiked the Pyrenees and interviewed many of the survivors. She tells of the extreme difficulty they had in avoiding Nazi infiltration by double agents; of their creativity in hiding evaders in their homes, sometimes in the midst of unexpected searches; of their generosity in sharing their meager food supplies during wartime; and of their unflagging spirit and courage in the face of a war fought on a very personal level.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4798-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    With a hurried but sincere expression of gratitude, Royal Air Force crewman John Brown took his leave of Georges Mandet, the Frenchman who had unselfishly extended to him the hospitality of his home and a meal. It was the early morning of July 19, 1944, and though not yet dawn, the day had already been far too long and eventful as far as Brown was concerned. He and his crew had taken off late the night before on a bombing mission to Revigny, a small town in northeastern France. Just after releasing its bomb load, his Lancaster bomber had been...

  4. 1 Science Fiction or Military Strategy: The Activities of MI9 and MIS-X
    (pp. 5-23)

    Against the noisy backdrop of an Italian air raid, Donald Darling, a member of British military intelligence stationed in Gibraltar and connected to Room 900, listened in silence as Frenchman André Postel-Vinay recounted his treatment at the hands of his German captors, an experience Darling had never expected him to survive. Postel-Vinay, a member of the Pat O’Leary escape line in France, had been arrested for his efforts to help downed Allied airmen and servicemen evade capture by the Germans. A series of almost miraculous events, including capture, interrogation, a nearly fatal suicide attempt, and his meeting a sympathetic German...

  5. 2 It Was Raining Aviators: The Evaders
    (pp. 24-43)

    All the effort put into rescuing downed Allied airmen carried with it the understanding that they were a valuable part of the fighting forces. Though escape lines initially evacuated any servicemen, the Air Ministry soon requested that airmen be given priority.¹ Donald Caskie, a Presbyterian minister and keeper of the Seamen’s Mission, a vital point of entry for the Pat O’Leary line, said the other servicemen found it difficult to accept the order from British intelligence that flyers receive first priority in escaping, and he often regretted having to follow the directive.² Considering the amount of manpower necessary to defeat...

  6. 3 My Brother’s Keeper: The Helpers
    (pp. 44-75)

    In a farmhouse in France, a woman worriedly looked at her husband over the sleeping airman whose head she held cradled in her lap. Her nightgown was torn where she had ripped away some of the cloth to use as a rag to clean shrapnel wounds on his face and leg.¹ Her feelings of sympathy for the young man, who was little more than a boy, were tempered with fear for herself, her husband, and their three young daughters, because she understood the possible consequences of their act of humanity. If she had had any doubts, the decrees of German...

  7. 4 Adolph Should Stay: The Pat O’Leary Line, 1940–1941
    (pp. 76-97)

    Ian Garrow, member of the 51st Highland Division of the Seaforth Highlanders, wandered through the crowded streets of Marseilles, a port city located on the Mediterranean coast of France. He had been left behind when German troops overpowered the Allied defenses near Dunkirk, ending the miraculous operation that evacuated about 340,000 British and French forces during late May and early June 1940.¹ Ironically, Garrow’s abandonment was to prove a godsend for hundreds of servicemen and airmen who had also been left behind or were subsequently shot down over enemy territory as the war progressed.

    As he walked along the city...

  8. 5 In the Wake of Betrayal: The Pat O’Leary Line, 1942–1943
    (pp. 98-118)

    The aftermath of Cole’s betrayal was devastating. O’Leary sent a new agent, Jean de la Olla, into the north to replace Bruce Dowding, reestablish connections among the helpers who remained free, and find new workers to replace those who were gone. In spite of these major changes, 1942 proved to be a successful year for the line, though expensive in terms of loss of agents. The Pat line extended its efforts into Switzerland, providing assistance to POW s from Germany, and established a route from Monte Carlo for POWs from Italian camps. With the help of Louis Nouveau, O’Leary also...

  9. 6 Riding the Tail of a Comet: The Comet Line, 1941–1944
    (pp. 119-145)

    A young couple crawled stealthily through the heavy grasses growing on the banks of the Somme River, searching for a rowboat. Already the searchlights of German sentinels on patrol along the river had nearly exposed them, and they soon concluded that the boat was not there. After a hasty conference, they returned to the group of Belgians hidden nearby and explained that the boat was missing and all would have to swim across the river, where a young woman was waiting to hide them for the night. Because most of the group did not know how to swim, one of...

  10. 7 Out of the Ashes: The Shelburne Line, 1944
    (pp. 146-159)

    Fifteen-year-old Pierre Moreau watched with silent interest as the evasion network chief, “Val Williams,” and two other intelligence agents secured the shutters to the kitchen windows of his home and unrolled secret plans and maps on his mother’s dining room table. The documents detailed a new evacuation operation to be conducted, in cooperation with the Royal Navy, off the Brittany coast near the small village of Plouha. Though young in age, Moreau had lived all of his teenage life under the shadow of German occupation and understood very well the seriousness of the events taking place in his home. He...

  11. 8 We Will Never Forget: The Aftermath
    (pp. 160-172)

    When Georges Jouanjean took over the care of English evader Gordon Carter, he had no idea of the role Carter would later play in his life. Likewise, Carter, fearful about his immediate future, was blissfully ignorant of what awaited him at his quickly arranged temporary safe house with Jouanjean’s married sister, Lucette. Jouanjean’s beautiful second sister, Janine, caught his eye, and the two enjoyed each other’s company from the beginning. When Jouanjean arranged for Carter to move to new quarters, he asked Janine to ride along with them to counter any suspicion that might arise from two young men riding...

  12. 9 Conclusion
    (pp. 173-176)

    The home where Georges and Fanny Rodocanachi once sheltered evaders and from which the drama of Paul Cole’s betrayal of the Pat line unfolded is now part of an office building. A ward of the local hospital where Rodocanachi worked has been named for him, and every day people walk or drive along the Boulevard Rodocanachi in Marseilles. It is unlikely that many who see his name have taken time beyond a passing thought to learn who Dr. Rodocanachi really was. In Brussels, Belgium, the school where Comet chief Fréderic de Jongh once served as headmaster now carries his name....

  13. Epilogue: Fifty-Five Years Later
    (pp. 177-186)

    The summer of 1999 offered me a wonderful opportunity to travel to France and visit some of the people and places about which I had read and written during the previous two years. The trip was as rewarding as the research that led me to take it. The French people I contacted made me feel wonderfully welcome, meeting me at train stations, organizing accommodations, and treating me like a queen. From the small village of St. Girons in the Pyrenees foothills to Paris, Brittany, and Normandy, I was received by former French helpers who, much to my surprise, held receptions...

  14. Appendix A: List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 187-188)
  15. Appendix B: Evaders Evacuated through the Burgundy/Shelburne Connection
    (pp. 189-190)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 191-214)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 215-222)
  18. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 223-226)
  19. Index
    (pp. 227-235)