Frequently Asked Questions
This page updated 26 Sept 2018
The idea of this page is to try and answer some of the first questions that people ask about escapers, evaders and escape lines. It is difficult to give definitive answers to many of these questions and opinions vary depending on who you ask. I have tried to give impartial answers with data to support them but alternative answers from others will also be considered for publication here. If you have further information, or questions of your own, then please contact me.
Q.1 Which was the first escape line of WW2 ?
Q.2 Which was the most successful escape line ?
Q.3 How many men were brought out by the escape lines ?
Q.4 Did many men escape without the assistance of any escape line ?
Q.5 Were all escapers shot-down aircrew ?
Q.6 How many escape lines were there ?
Q.7 Who was the most 'famous' escaper or evader of WW2 ?
Q.8 What is the difference between an escaper and an evader ?
Q.9 After they got back to the UK, were evaders returned to combat ?
Q.10 Why don't you have a list of all the helpers ?
Q.11 What role did the British security services play in the escape lines ?
Q.12 What books would you recommend about escape lines ?
Q.13 Why isn't my name on the Escaper List ?
Q.14 How many men escaped across the Pyrenees to Spain ?
Q.15 How many men escaped from German POW camps ?
Q1: Which was the first escape line of WW2 ?
With a few exceptions, the first men helped to leave Occupied Europe were evaders from the Dunkirk area (Operation Dynamo ended 4 June) and particularly from the surrender of the Highland 51st Division (and many associated units) at St Valery-en-Caux on 12 June. Men captured at St Valery were marched across northern France to Belgium before being taken to POW camps in Germany. This enabled several hundred of them to escape the marching columns and find shelter with local people. The Organisation, as it soon became known, evolved from these local helpers, and from the soldiers themselves. Meanwhile, other men were making their own way south towards Marseille from where, they hoped, they would find a way home. However, once across the demarcation line to the relative safety of Vichy controlled France, most were arrested by the French authorities and held in various internment camps. By mid-October, all the internees were transferred to a single prison at Fort St Jean, Marseille.
Not all the evaders headed south were arrested however, many made it to Marseille and started looking for ways out of the country by whatever means they could find, so when the internees arrived in the city, they found a fledgling escape organisation already in place. It soon became apparent that the only reasonable escape route was over the Pyrenees to neutral Portugal, or non-beligerant Spain and then Gibraltar. They made their plans and contacts and so began the southern arm of the Organisation. Soon the northern and southern groups established contact with one another and what later became known as the Pat O'Leary escape line began to establish itself. I think it reasonable to say this was a recognisable escape line by the late autumn of 1940, long before any other. Note that Pat O'Leary himself didn't get into the escape line business until June 1941. Rtn
Q2: Which was the most successful escape line ?
This is not a competition, and anyway, that would depend on how you define 'successful'. If you only consider the number of people brought out of the occupied countries then probably the Pat Line, especially if you include those brought out by Francois Dissard after the arrest of most of the other key Pat Line personnel in early 1943. It is impossible to put an exact number on the servicemen brought out by Pat but certainly several hundred. The other major escape lines were of course the Belgian Comète organisation and Georges Broussine's reseau Bourgogne. Comète records show they took 293 servicemen across the Pyrenees to Spain between September 1941 and June 1944, and in fact they can be credited with helping many more, whilst Bourgogne/Burgundy brought out about 300 servicemen. Alternatively you could consider Shelburn as being a particularly successful line since, although it only ran for a few months in 1944, so far as I know, they only lost two of their hundred plus evaders. Rtn
Q3: How many men were brought out by the escape lines ?
It's impossible to put an exact number on it. MI9 records suggest more than three thousand UK and Commonwealth servicemen got back to the UK, however that includes men who were repatriated, either on medical grounds, or the many aircrew who were stranded and interned in neutral countries. That number also includes men who were sheltered in occupied countries until liberated by the advancing Allied forces, and some of the many men who evaded in Italy where there were no recognised escape lines. The majority of evaders brought back to England during the war were taken across the Pyrenees to Spain but in 1942 about 80 men were evacuated by sea from southern French beaches and taken direct to Gibraltar. A few evaders were picked up from France by aircraft, and French fishing boats brought small numbers of evaders across the Channel throughout the war. About 150 men were brought back from Brittany by Royal Navy MGBs, and almost 100 downed aircrew were smuggled out of Denmark to neutral Sweden. Escapers from German POW camps who made it direct to Sweden were almost all helped by the Polish underground so I would put the total number of servicemen brought back to England by the various escape lines in Europe at about 1,800 - including about 700 American aircrew. Rtn
Q4: Did many men escape without the assistance of any escape line ?
In the early months of the war many evaders got back before any of the escape lines were properly organised, however very few men got back without help of some kind. Whilst many helpers are known to have been associated with the various organisations, it can sometimes be difficult to know whether a man was helped by members of an escape organisation or not. Rtn
Q5: Were all escapers shot-down aircrew ?
Certainly not. In the early years of the war the vast majority of escapers and evaders were soldiers. Of the first 600 men that got home from France, only about 50 were airmen. It wasn't until mid-1941 that evading aircrew started to arrive in large numbers. However by the end of 1942, almost all evading soldiers had left for the UK, and the first American aircrew started to arrive. After that, Allied bomber crews and fighter pilots were shot down in increasing numbers. If we use Comète as an example, their first 'parcel' taken across the Pyrenees was a soldier in September 1941 but they only brought out eleven in total, the last three being escapers from Laufen POW camp taken across in October 1942 - the rest were airmen, including more than a hundred Americans. However, if you look at the number of men who escaped from German POW camps throughout the war (see Article) you'll find that most of them were soldiers. Rtn
Q6: How many escape lines were there ?
It's impossible to say since one can't define an 'escape line'. There were many smaller groups that were formed, destroyed, dissolved, reformed, amalgamated or simply worked in concert with other groups. Often, especially as the war progressed, men were collected by someone who knew about, or possibly knew someone else who knew about, an organisation. That organisation may then have passed him on another group. An example would be Etienne Dromas' organisation at Chauny that generally passed it's parcels to others, notably Comète and Bourgogne, but whether Chauny could be defined as an escape line in it's own right is open to debate. Rtn
Q7: Who was the most 'famous' escaper or evader of WW2 ?
Famous for escaping (successfully) during, or became famous after, the war ? Airey Neave would certainly be a contender as would Whitney Straight or Chuck Yeager. Rtn
Q8: What is the difference between an escaper and an evader ?
I believe the Geneva Convention gives an exact definition but MI9 (see 'Saturday at MI9' pg.21) classified escapers as those who escaped from enemy hands, whilst evaders were those who had not been captured by enemy forces. The importance as far as evaders were concerned was that while escapers could be repatriated should they be subsequently caught in a neutral country, evaders were liable to be interned for the duration. That is why most evaders claimed to be escapers if arrested in (say) Spain. There was a slight problem of classification for allied servicemen held in Unoccupied France up until November 1942 as they were technically internees rather than prisoners of war. Rtn
Q9: After they got back to the UK, were evaders returned to combat ?
Many escapers and evaders went back to war. Of my father's escape party for instance, two of the three soldiers returned to active service (I have no information on the third man) as did all three fighter pilots - two of whom were later killed in action. I understand that by 1942, Bomber Command at least had adopted the policy of not returning downed aircrew to the same theatre of operations as their evasion - presumably to protect their helpers. However, while some aircrew became training officers, significant numbers did return to combat missions. Some were even shot down and evaded a second time and many more subsequently killed in action. Rtn
Q10: Why don't you have a list of all the helpers ?
Much as I would like to publish such a list, I have no idea how to assemble it. Some organisations are well documented and their members known but most helpers' names are not recorded, and I think it would be grossly unfair to only list the 'easy' ones. I do have a list of about 20,000 French helpers and their addresses that I am in the process of putting into a searchable database but I'm not sure whether it will be technically possible for me to publish that. Similar lists of Belgian and Dutch helpers are also available from the National Archives. Rtn
November 2014 : Franck Signorile in Paris is working on a similar database of French helpers, using the same sources as I am. The big difference is that Franck's work can be accessed through my friend Bruce Bolinger's website. Click here to go the relevant page on Bruce's website and then follow the link to Franck's work.
March 2016 : Franck Signorile launched a new map-based website which allows you to search for any of the 20,000 French helpers listed by IS9 either by name or location. Details of those helpers, and the evaders they helped, are continually being added to this incredible resource.
Q.11: What role did the British security services play in the escape lines ?
The three security services most often associated with the escape lines are MI9, SIS and SOE.
MI9 (Military Intelligence Department 9) was formed early in the war as a subordinate to SIS when it became apparent that large numbers of men were likely to become prisoners of war. The department set out to establish ways and means of communicating with these prisoners. In fact the official nomenclature was changed several times - for more detail see 'MI9 Escape and Evasion' by Foot & Langley. It was only when the concept of escape lines became recognised that another section was established. The highly secret IS9(d) concerned itself with establishing contact with, and supporting these new lines. In most literature, they are still referred to as MI9.
The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) was a long established organisation whose priority was intelligence gathering. Although SIS tried to keep their distance from both the escape lines and (especially) SOE, agents in the field are known to have co-operated with one another. Several dozen evaders were brought out on SIS operations.
The Secret Operations Executive (SOE) was 'born' on 19 July 1940 specifically to "co-ordinate all action by way of subversion and sabotage against the enemy overseas". This generally took the form of sending in agents to arm and support resistance organisations in the occupied countries. There are several instances on record of SOE agents being helped by the escape lines and some SOE agents were recruited with escape line experience - notably Andrée Borrel, Madeleine Damerment, Nancy Wake and Tony Brooks. SOE had their own escape lines department (DF) for transferring their agents to and from the continent (notably Vic and Var in France) but there were also some shared SOE/MI9 insertion and evacuation operations. Rtn
Q12: What books would you recommend about escape lines ?
"Saturday at MI9" by Airey Neave is the easiest book to start with. It covers most of the 'major' escape lines (although not Bourgogne) and is highly recommended. For more a more detailed account then "RAF Evaders" by Oliver Clutton-Brock is a truly excellent book. After that you can choose books about a particular escape line, one of the 'helpers' of one of the lines, or about some of the individual escapers or evaders. My personal favourite books by evaders include "Ticket to Freedom" by H J Spiller and "I Walked Alone" by the Earl of Cardigan. Some of the best books about helpers - Roger Huguen's 'Par les nuits les plus longues' for example - are only available in French. My own books "They came from Burgundy" and "Express Delivery" will tell you everything that I know about the Bourgogne and Shelburn escape lines respectively. Rtn
Q13: Why isn't my name on the Escaper List ?
The two 'qualifications' for inclusion on the list are a) that you got back successfully and b) that I know about it. This seemed easy enough when I first came up with the idea of an escaper list but life is never that simple. In the early years of the war, an Allied evader or escaper could be defined as anyone escaping or evading from enemy occupied territory and getting back to the UK. Later of course, particularly in western Europe after D-Day, returning to the UK was not necessarily a viable option. Indeed, many evaders were encouraged to remain in place until the advancing Allies could liberate the area. Also, in Italy after the Armistice in September 1943, escapers and evaders there generally started heading south rather than aiming for Switzerland (where they would be interned) or Yugoslavia. I am aware that escapers and evaders in eastern Europe and the Far East are not well represented. The list is neither complete nor completely consistent but is very much a 'work in progress' - which is why I ask you to contact me if you think a man's name should added. Rtn
Q14: How many men escaped across the Pyrenees to Spain ?
About 1,500 military escapers and evaders crossed the Pyrenees to Spain during the war, of whom nearly 500 were American aircrew. Rtn
Q15: How many men escaped from German POW camps ?
Hundreds of men escaped from German POW camps (many several times) but the vast majority were recaptured. My Article lists many of those who escaped successfully. Please note that it does not include those who escaped whilst in transit between camps as the war drew to a close.