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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 crew members, 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.

This carefully researched text tells a story at once romantic, factual, and ennobling. Emblematic of the truly significant sacrifices and triumphs of a passing generation. -- Kirkus Reviews

Ottis has written the only comprehensive study on escape and evasion in Western Europe in the last thirty years, and she does so with powerful stories of courage, taken directly from those who participated in the resistance. -- McCormick (SC) Messenger

A very valuable book. -- NYMAS Newsletter

Tales of French underground resistance units are a familiar element of World War II history. The ‘Underground Railroad’ lines organized to lead the downed fliers to safety rarely have earned equal attention. This book is a well-documented effort to make up for that omission. -- Proceedings

A valuable addition to the ‘hidden’ history of WWII, showing us the men, women, and sometimes children who helped Allied airmen evade capture. . . . The first documented study of escape routes in almost 30 years. -- Publishers Weekly

She makes the individual Frenchmen—the heroes of her book—live, and the reader goes hand-in-hand with the helpers as they face the tension, uncertainty, and danger associated with aiding their allied charges. -- Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

“Undoubtedly one of the most stirring accounts of the assistance rendered downed American and British flyers shot down over France and Belgium.”“This is one book that needs to be read and re-read for its lessons in survival, evasion, and escape from would-be captors.”“Well-written and superbly documented.” — Leo J. Daugherty III -- World War II Quarterly

Publication Date

2001

Publisher

The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY

ISBN

9780813193335

eISBN

9780813147987

Keywords

Air pilots, World War II, MI9, Airmen, Aerial operations, French underground

Disciplines

Military History

Silent Heroes: Downed Airmen and the French Underground
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