Escape or die: The untold WWII story

by John Nichol and Tony Rennell

It’s one of the great untold stories of the war. How 5,000 Allied airmen, shot down behind Nazi lines, played cat and mouse with Hitler’s dreaded secret police, and made a home run back to BlightyWas it only two months ago that he had been returning, job done, from a raid on Frankfurt, winding down, thinking of bacon and eggs and coffee laced with rum in the mess, when his RAF Halifax had been shot down by a Messerschmitt 109? He had lived a dozen lives, died a dozen deaths, since then.

His escape from the stricken plane had been remarkable enough. As the Halifax plummeted in a terminal dive, he lay trapped in the Perspex nose cone, transfixed, staring ahead, “waiting for the ground to come up”, as he later recalled.

Out of frustration and fear, he beat his hand against the side – and the Perspex unexpectedly gave way!

“A hole appeared and I fell out. I pulled the ripcord of my parachute and a mass of billowy silk opened. Above the wind in my ears I could hear myself saying ‘You were lucky to get out of that.'”

He was lucky, too, when he landed and managed to hobble away from the torches and guns of a German search party; luckier still when he saw a peasant on a bicycle, stepped out into the road and in schoolboy French said he was an English flyer.

The man’s face broke into a smile. “But of course, monsieur,” he said. “My name is Gaston and I am a member of the Belgian Resistance.”

Since then, Bolter had been passed along the line from safe house to safe house. He was constantly in danger – and so were those helping him.

If he was found and resisted capture, he faced being shot; at best, he would be thrown in a prison camp. His helpers, doing what they considered their patriotic duty in helping British airmen get home, would be tortured first, then shot out of hand.

But carrying false documents identifying him as Cyrille van der Elyst, a butter merchant from Limbourg, he had made it from the countryside near the German border to this attic in Brussels, in the home of a Resistance fighter he knew only as Adrian.

Now Adrian was beside him at the window as they looked down at the Germans. “I’m going over the rooftops!” the Resistance man said.

“And I’m coming with you,” Bolter replied, emboldened by the pistols Adrian had handed him. He would use them if cornered, he told himself, but first the Gestapo had to catch him. “I still had a chance.”

On the top landing, Adrian flung open the window at the back of the house. They were four storeys up. The nearest roof was six foot away, across a chasm. Adrian edged out on to the sill and jumped.

Bolter recalled: “It was a wonderful leap, weighted down as he was by weapons. Then it was my turn. I stood on the sill and looked down. Pedestrians in the street below looked frighteningly small. But finally I jumped. Adrian caught me as I landed.”

The pair lowered themselves down through a skylight, to find pandemonium on the floor below. “Young women appeared wearing practically nothing at all followed by middle-aged men, also in a state of undress, who should have been at home with their wives. We had landed in a brothel!”

Adrian drew his revolvers and motioned to the prostitutes and their red-faced clients to raise their hands. “The Gestapo are after us,” he announced. “If you do nothing, say nothing, you will be quite safe.”

Then, while Bolter covered them, he set off downstairs to check if it was safe to leave. The street was empty, the Germans still concentrating on the house next door. The two of them slipped out of the front door, dodging down side streets and jumping on a tram until they felt out of danger.

Adrian’s chief concern now was to get ‘the Englishman’ into another hiding place. Bolter was ushered through the dark streets to the door of a Mme Dubois. He knocked, and a slow shuffle of bedroom slippers came down the hall.

The elderly couple were well prepared for ‘visitors’ like this. Mme Dubois showed Bolter the dining room. “This will be your hiding place if the Gestapo come,” she told him, and pushed a concealed button in the wall.

“The bookcase, which a moment before had stood solidly against the wall, swung away to reveal a small cavity behind, just enough for a man to sit in by drawing up his knees under his chin.

“I tried it, and it was dark and intensely uncomfortable. My whole body went numb in just a few minutes. She left it open ready for use. If we needed it at all we should need it in a desperate hurry.”

For now, however, Mme Dubois – plump, with rosy cheeks, a plain and simple Belgian housewife with no pretence to heroism – got on with her normal life, busily preparing breakfast and hot coffee as if this were any other morning. “I found her preoccupation with domestic things soothing.”

He was soothed in a different way when Adrian returned with his cousin, a beautiful girl in her early 20s with blonde hair and vivid blue eyes. Her name was Marie and throughout the occupation it had been her cherished ambition to meet ‘un aviateur anglais’.

“Bonjour Monsieur Terry”, she said in a low, husky voice. “I have pledged myself to kiss the first English flier I see.”

Terry Bolter would cherish that memory when, a few months later, he arrived safely home in Britain. It sealed his membership of an exclusive band of brothers whose wartime exploits have been largely forgotten.

In World War II, a quarter of a million Allied soldiers and airmen were stranded behind enemy lines and became prisoners of war. Just a few thousand – somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 – evaded capture, stayed free and made a ‘home run’, usually by travelling across occupied France, over the Pyrenees and into neutral Spain.

Their courage was constantly tested as they fought the most intimate of wars in the enemy’s own backyard. They walked hundreds of miles, swam raging rivers in the dark, climbed mountains, sneaked past German barracks and frontier posts, talked their way through checkpoints and snap inspections, or, more often, posed as deaf mutes and said nothing.

Others chanced their luck on the railways where Gestapo agents and collaborationist local policemen roamed the corridors on the lookout for runaways. Just as many thousands failed as got through. Those who succeeded needed coolness, courage, determination – and, above all, luck.

They had to trust their helpers totally, yet fear every stranger and suspect every would-be friend. They had to be infinitely patient, yet, like Terry Bolter, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.

Despite all this, they were unsung heroes. Their deeds cut no ice with the military authorities in London, who allocated just two men and a single small office in Whitehall to the organisation helping them. There were few medals for those who beat such enormous odds.

Yet the evaders were a constant thorn in the side of the German forces. The Gestapo, SS and Luftwaffe became obsessed with hunting them down and diverted precious resources to finding and destroying their escape lines.

The evaders also had a huge impact on the morale of the RAF.

When a long-lost man completed his home run and returned to his squadron, apart from boosting numbers he was living proof to every one of his comrades due to set out on the next dangerous operation that this war was survivable.

Even more important, however, was the boost the evasions gave to the morale of the conquered people of Europe. During the darkest years, helping Allied soldiers and airmen escape was their only chance to fight back against Nazi tyranny.

Not one of the men who made it back to Britain would have stood a chance without the aid of brave souls who decided to defy the Germans.

Men on the run sometimes had doors slammed in their faces by people too frightened to help – but equally they benefited from countless spontaneous gestures of support, whether a simple bowl of soup, a change of clothing or a bed for the night.

Other helpers went further, taking men in at great risk to themselves and hiding them for months on end. And to a small minority of the very brave – men and women who deserve to be ranked among the greatest heroes of the war – the saving of Allied lives became an allconsuming crusade.

Some of the bravest of all were little more than girls. Seventeen-year-old Nadine Dumon, a quiet, studious Belgian who looked a most unlikely firebrand, was driven by indignation at the Germans invading her country and taking away her freedom.

She began secretly distributing a clandestine newspaper called Libre Belgique and acting as a courier for her father, who was in the Resistance. Then she advanced from a bearer of messages to a transporter of people.

Sixty years later, she recalled how a local headmaster named Frederic de Jongh came to see her.

“He said that his daughter, Andree, was organising the escape of British servicemen and needed help.

“We didn’t know how to react. Could we trust him, or was this a trap? But we instinctively felt he was all right and so I agreed.

“My first job was to pick up a soldier who was hiding in our area and guide him to another safe place. I took him on a tram through Brussels and dropped him off. It was as simple as that. I wasn’t scared, but I did know that if I was caught I would be tortured and shot.”

Nadine had just joined what was to be one of the most successful escape lines of World War II – dubbed the Comet Line because of the speed with which it got men home.

Just as the headmaster had said, its founding genius was his daughter, Andree, known to everyone as Dedee.

Dedee was in her mid-20s but looked younger, just another girl in ankle socks, pretty enough in her light blue floral dress and dark jumper but with nothing to make her stand out in a crowd.

Her ordinariness was her disguise. It hid the steeliness and courage to carry out extraordinary deeds.

In 1941, she took a group of escaping Belgian soldiers across the Pyrenees and presented herself at the British consulate in Bilbao.

She explained that her family had been helping British evaders since Dunkirk and that she had put in place a chain of safe houses all the way from Belgium.

She said she was prepared to pass more servicemen along it, so long as an organisation was set up to collect them once they crossed the mountains. Although Spain was neutral, its government sympathised with the Nazis – and previous evaders had been arrested and thrown in concentration camps.

Her pitch – from such a sweet and ineffectual-looking girl – was greeted with incredulity and then scepticism. Surely she was far too fragile to have made the mountain crossing? A quick check established that she had. But was she a German plant, an infiltrator?

London was drawn into the discussions. The acting head of MI6 dismissed her as a phoney – he distrusted all women – but cooler heads ordered checks on her, and she came up clean.

With the new code name of ‘Postman’, she was directed back across the Pyrenees to fetch the next batch of evaders. She was told to concentrate on British airmen, now being shot down in increasing numbers as the bombing war against Germany intensified.

Dedee set off on her journey, only to learn that the Gestapo had raided her home. Brussels was too dangerous for her.

Instead, she decided to operate from France, sending her father a suitably innocent message for a headmaster – Envoyez-moi des enfants(Send me some children). It was at this point that Nadine Dumon was recruited, escorting evaders on the start of their journey before handing them over to Dedee.

And so it was that airmen like Sergeant Jack Newton, gunner on a Wellington bomber, found themselves living through scenes that could have come from a farfetched thriller or adventure film. The unreality began from the moment they fell to earth.

Newton’s plane was downed on its way back from a raid on Aachen, when either flak or an enemy fighter blew the starboard engine. Astonishingly, the pilot managed to land the plane on a darkened Nazi airfield outside Antwerp, skidding to a halt beside rows of parked Dorniers and Messerschmitts.

They expected to find themselves surrounded by armed Germans as soon as they scrambled on to the runway. But no. The place was deserted. Only when they exploded flares inside the Wellington to destroy it did they hear distant shouts and the revving of engines.

Splitting up, they ran pell-mell for the perimeter fence. The rest of the group were caught, and spent the remainder of the war in prison camps, but Newton and two comrades were spotted by a passing cyclist. “Ello? Are you English airmen?” he called out. “I am with the Resistance.”

They were whisked away to a farmhouse, only to be put under fierce interrogation by their saviours. Reasonably enough, the Resistance didn’t believe their story.

How had a British bomber managed to land on a Luftwaffe airfield and its crew escape? It sounded preposterous. They had to be imposters.

It was not long since the Germans had pulled a crashed Wellington bomber out of the river Meuse, stripped the uniforms from the drowned crew, dressed six of their own Englishspeakers in them and sent them to infiltrate the escape line.

The Resistance had soon cottoned on and dealt with them. But were the Nazis trying the same trick again? A furious debate ensued. Some wanted to kill Newton and his friends immediately.

He was subjected to furious cross-examination about his life in London, down to the number of the bus that ran past his home. Just one wrong answer might have condemned him to a bullet in the head, but it all checked out when passed to London by radio.

With the Gestapo scouring the countryside, his rescuers remained extremely edgy. Newton found himself separated from his crewmates and moved from house to house so often he lost count, locked alone in attics and cellars.

Once, losing patience and finding himself unwatched in a suburban home, he rebelled. Deciding to risk a quick walk outside, he slipped through the garden gate…and straight into the path of a German soldier.

A challenge rang out, a rifle was raised, his papers demanded. As if in a dream (or so he recalled), he walked towards the German with only one option. He hit the soldier hard in the face and the man crumpled, unconscious.

Newton was smuggled away instantly to another refuge, lodged with a monk the size of Friar Tuck who packed two Colt revolvers under his cassock. He explained that one gun was for any German who came his way – and the other was for Newton if he compromised the escape line again.

It was no idle threat. When bored evaders in Paris slipped out of their hiding places to have fun in cafes and clubs, horrified Resistance chiefs sent a frantic call for guidance to MI6 in London and received a two-word reply: “Kill them.”

Luckily, the evaders had moved down the line before the order could be carried out.

But rumours circulated among British runaways of a group of their countrymen holed up in Belgium who made “a bloody nuisance” of themselves and were driven to a quarry by their Resistance minders and executed. Given MI6’s documented attitude, it could well be true.

Newton found himself in gentler hands. Before long, he was sitting a few seats away from Dedee on an express train heading south.

As it pulled into Bayonne, on the Atlantic coast, Dedee stood up, straightened her hat in the mirror and glanced round casually, checking that Newton and her other two charges had got the message.

Newton stood up too, pushing his copy of Le Figaro into his overcoat pocket. He had been buried in its pages for hours, not understanding a word, just keeping his head down, anything to discourage other passengers from striking up a conversation.

Suddenly, a German soldier banged against him, pushing his way to the door. Newton let him go. These were dangerous moments when an English “sorry” or an “excuse me” could slip out and blow a man’s cover.

Newton and his two companions – an Australian and a Pole – were the first travellers on the fully-fledged Comet Line. They were ‘Package One’, ‘Package Two’ and Package Three’ – the first of the 110 deliveries Dedee would make.

Newton kept the Belgian girl in sight as she stepped on to the platform and headed away from the ticket barrier, where gendarmes and secret police were demanding papers, and towards the station cafe.

There, another girl was waiting, a pretty blonde teenager. Through the cafe’s lavatory was a back way out of the station – a locked door that opened directly on to the street. The girl had a key. It was that simple.

They took a tram to the nearby town of Anglet and then walked out into the countryside. Newton stared at the Pyrenees away to the south. They looked impossibly high. Freedom was on the other side. So near, yet so far away – the tantalising motto of every evader.

Dedee had warned them it would be no picnic in the mountains, clambering up narrow, steep paths, through dense fog, heavy rain and snow, walking in absolute silence for fear of alerting German patrols.

“It will be tough and dangerous but you are brave boys,’ she cajoled them. Newton felt humbled.

“We were flying bombers over Germany and crashing in her country and here was this girl saying ‘I’ll get you home,’ and risking her life to do so. What she was doing was more dangerous than anything I was up to.”

They were soon resting in a safe house in the foothills, preparing for the final leg. Newton couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen if he were caught here in the border country.

This was a forbidden zone, constantly patrolled, and he knew so much – 35 or 40 helpers along the way, all with names and addresses the Gestapo could thumb-screw out of him. “If I was tortured, the Jerries would have a field day with me.”

The physical journey ahead troubled him, too. Did he have the stamina?

Sensing his anxiety, Dedee sat beside him. He would be fine, she said. “And if you run out of steam, our Basque guide Florentino will carry you on his shoulders. You’ll see.”

He met Florentino soon after, a giant of a man whose arrival brought squeals of delight from Dedee The craggy-faced and weather-beaten guide was tougher than any man he had ever come across, his huge body fortified by years of goat’s cheese, rough red wine and cognac.

Shaking his hand, Newton recalled, “was like putting your fingers in a car-crusher”.

He knew every inch of the mountains, and was as much at home there as the sheep.

Yet, surprisingly, he yielded control of operations completely to little Dedee, the girl from Brussels. She was the boss. Florentino led the way but she made the decisions.

They set off and soon were up above the mist and into a clear, star-lit night, marching through pine woods at first, then on narrowing, steepening tracks and finally on to loose scree. Newton stumbled and fell frequently, gasping for breath in the thinning air.

Eventually, they reached the 8,000ft peaks and began the treacherous descent to the icy Bidassoa river, which they would have to wade through to enter Spain. Newton could hear the river roaring.

But the sound worried Dedee It must be in spate to be so noisy. Would they be able to cross it?

When they reached the torrent it was clear the answer was no. Newton was close to tears, cursing his luck. He could actually see Spain. So near and yet so far – this time, it seemed like an epitaph.

After slogging over the mountains for 17 hours, all they could do was retrace each weary step back to where they had started. A few days later they set out again, following a different route. They would go further upstream this time and take their chances on an old rope footbridge, patrolled by Spanish border guards. It would be very risky but there was no choice.

After another back-breaking climb, they finally came to a high-sided gorge. Swaying in the wind was the rickety bridge that stood between Newton and freedom.

It was 100ft in length, with ropes top and bottom and wooden slats, some of them missing. Below the river gushed out of control. At the end was a customs post manned by two guards.

It was midnight when Dedee and Florentino decided the guards were asleep. The moment of truth had come. The guide scuttled down the bank and stepped out onto the damp slats. Gripping the ropes with his hands, he was nimbly across in seconds.

Then he sank to his knees and crawled past the customs post and over a railway line. From the cover of some trees, he beckoned Newton to follow. It was a moment the airman would remember for ever.

“I took a big gulp, adjusted my beret and slowly felt my way down the slope to the bridge. My God, it looked flimsy. What if a plank broke?

“I looked down. The water was 100ft below, thundering through the gorge. If I fell, it’d be curtains. But I knew I had to hold my breath and start the walk across.”

Step by step, plank by plank, he crept forward until his feet were on the far bank. He ducked low beneath the customs post window and dashed to join Florentino, who slapped him heartily on the back

The others followed, with Dedee in the rear, moving – as the now much-smitten Newton recalled – “with the lightness of a windblown feather and the eloquence of a prima ballerina”.

She was not even out of breath. “Bravo my brave boys,” she announced and gave Newton’s hand a gentle squeeze.

They were not home yet. There were Spanish guards to dodge if they wanted to avoid a concentration camp and make it to the British consulate. But the worst was over. Comet’s first ‘packages’ were about to be delivered.

Many more would follow, against increasingly desperate odds. The slicker and more professional the Comet Line became, the more determined the Gestapo grew to break it.

Informers were talking. Soon the arrests would begin…and Dedee and her helpers would pay a terrible price for their heroism.

• Extracted from Home Run: Escape From Nazi Europe by John Nichol and Tony Rennell