During the Second World War many Allied airmen were shot down while on missions over enemy territory. Thousands of those who survived these fiery crashes were picked up by the Germans and held in P.O.W. camps.
A few of the lucky ones managed to evade capture.
These evaders, as they became known, were a distinguished lot. Somehow they had slipped through the enemy's dragnet avoiding enemy contact altogether - often while right under their noses.
Many of these young men: pilots, radio operators, navigators and gunners, all in their late teens or early twenties, were often injured, wounded or emotionally traumatized by the experience - well aware that just minutes before some or all of their buddies had been killed during a savage attack by German fighters or anti-aircraft guns.
Their flight training included lectures on what to do if they had to bail out of their aircraft. They were also given escape kits to help them survive the ordeal, but nothing could truly prepare them for what they would experience if they made it to the ground safely.
Despite the desperate risks, if an evaders wanted to avoid the clutches of the merciless Gestapo they had to put their trust in virtual strangers. A tightly guarded system of these civilian helpers risked their lives to return the intrepid flyers to their bases Britain.
The helpers - sometimes members of the organized resistance, sometimes emphatic civilians - were authentic heroes. They numbered in the thousands. They were young and old. A large number of them were women. Even though they were volunteers, they realized the risks they were taking. Every move they made could (and often did) cost them their lives.
Three main escape routes known as the Shelburne, O'Leary and Comet Escape Lines traversed over a thousand miles of western Europe. The networks along these lines formed a veritable underground civilization: a private club whose active members were never openly confirmed. The evading airmen could count on their helpers to not only guide them along one of the routes, but also to provide them with painstakingly forged identity cards, unobtrusive clothing and expert medical care.
Airmen hid in the middle of thorny bushes, under haystacks and behind false panels in secret rooms. They pretended they were mute and deaf or dressed like peasants. They moved across Western Europe along clandestine escape routes: cleverly hidden under a load in a wood burning lorry, squeezed into the hull of a kayak, on foot following a dog by moonlight or onboard regular trains surrounded by German soldiers.
Incredibly, an airman downed in Holland, less than fifty miles from the English Channel, could expect to move from one safe house to another before finally heading south through occupied France and finally crossing the treacherous Pyrenées mountains into the relative safety of Spain - a thirteen-hundred-mile side trip.
Evaders were protected by the Geneva Convention which virtually guaranteed them humane treatment and imprisonment if caught. Helpers were not so fortunate. If they were caught aiding the crews of enemy aircraft, either directly or indirectly, they prayed their fate was to be shot on the spot rather than face execution by firing squad after days or weeks of merciless interrogation and torture in a Gestapo prison.
Most of the time the evader and helper shared only moments together; as the evader was passed from one helper to another. But some were bound together for weeks or even months as they waited for an evader's wound to heal or for the escape route to be declared safe or open. All the while living on pins and needles, cheek to jowl, flitting from shadow to shadow. Always fearful of discovery; dreading the ominous knock on the door.
The bonds these helpers formed with each other and the airmen they rescued would remain strong long after the war. Theirs was an experience few would ever know.
This project is their legacy to us and our tribute to them. For, in the end, these are their stories...