The Shelburne Escape Line begins with MI-9 (British Military Intelligence) announcing “Bonjour tout le monde à la maison d’Alphonse” over the BBC shortwave French language service. The date: January 28, 1944. This announcement was a code for confirming the covert pickup of downed Allied aviators hidden by the French Resistance well within the Nazi occupiers’ patrol range.
Once you pick up this book by Réanne Hemingway-Douglass, you will not be able to put it down.
The author attended university in France in 1953. While there, she lived with a French family and heard their amazing stories about the French Resistance. During subsequent visits, the more accounts were shared with Réanne, the more engrossed she became in the stories about the French Underground with its safe houses for the Allied aviators its members rescued and hid. Réanne also learned of the British Royal Navy’s clandestine pickups of downed airmen, and London’s MI-9 involvement.
This is not a fictionalized tale of heroics, but one of everyday people who endangered their lives and those of their families, as they answered General Charles De Gaulle’s call to action to regain France and her liberty. And this meant fighting against her occupiers in any way possible. These ordinary people took extraordinary risks in creating an escape organization for the secret evacuation of Allied Forces.
Escape routes became instrumental as more and more Allied airmen were shot down in Nazi-occupied France. Getting these men back to English soil was more than just humanitarian aid; it was imperative to get these highly trained aviators back into the fight for freedom against the Nazi forces as quickly as possible. We learn that other escape routes had been infiltrated and collapsed due to Nazi-sympathizers.
The author shares the accounts told to her of the violence committed upon members of the various resistance groups in the Nazi’s effort to infiltrate and destroy them. She tells of the brutal treatment some underwent without revealing their secrets.
This book is divided into two distinct sections. Part II deals with a brief history of a small number of World War II French Resistance members and their staggering contributions to the escape and evasion efforts of Allied airmen, as well as the MI-9 agents and French patriots needing to escape to England. The Shelburne Escape Line, although short-lived, was the only such route never infiltrated by the Nazis.
The author chronicles the selfless giving of assistance by the people who, prior to the war, were bakers, teachers, farmers, and mechanics. We are reminded of the rationing and scarce food supplies these heroes shared with those they rescued and hid. They did this with the knowledge that, at any moment, their participation in the escape plans could mean their imprisonment in a horrid Gestapo prison camp or their execution as acting as spies for the Allied Forces.
Part II of the book deals with first person accounts of Allied airmen and their stories of how they were assisted in their escape and repatriation back to England. Several of these stories tell the tale of the airmen from their point of view; about the circumstances of their downing into occupied territory; the hazardous rescues by the French Resistance; the apprehensive time spent in hiding—not knowing if they would be able to escape before being discovered. The chance of being killed by enemy forces or friendly fire was immeasurable for everyone within the war-torn country.
We also learn about the harrowing stories of families and children who had their lives turned upside down by the Nazi occupation and the requirements to “work for the fatherland.” Each of these stories is a well-written account of a small slice of the war and the dangers and hardships, faced and overcome on a daily basis, by average citizens who endured the terrors of war in their own land. These are the unknown and unsung heroes of WWII who were instrumental in securing the freedom we have today.
As this reviewer stated at the beginning, this is as fast-paced a read as any thriller or suspense novel that I have read. The Shelburne Escape Line: Secret Rescues of the Allied Aviators by the French Underground, the British Royal Navy, and London’s MI-9 is an enthralling and well-researched read about actual events and the real men, women, and children who were involved in them.
Réanne Hemingway-Douglass has gathered this galvanizing collection of true-accounts, vividly portrayed historical details, and military tactics of these little known, but amazing, slices of WWII history. Her adept writing reminds the reader of the human elements of war. Highly recommended.
[Reviewer’s Note: This book includes: a documented photo collection, a listing of the author’s interviews and correspondence, a comprehensive bibliography, a glossary of WWII military terms, and pilot accounts of missions flown. It also includes information about the Canadian military war efforts and the French Resistance’s perspectives of WWII. ]