In 1944, hundreds of Allied soldiers were trapped in the prisoner-of-war camps off the Atlantic coast of occupied France. Miraculously, local villagers smuggled a message from the camp to the Allied forces—sparking a remarkable quest by an unlikely hero.
Excluded from military service due to a football injury, Andy Hodges joined the Red Cross and, in the fall of 1944, was tapped for what sounded like a suicide mission: a desperate attempt to aid the Allied POWs in Nazi-occupied France.
But Andy did far more than deliver much-needed supplies. By the end of the year, he had negotiated the release of an unprecedented 149 prisoners—leaving no one behind. This is the true story of one man’s selflessness, ingenuity, and victory in the face of impossible adversity.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Denise George is an author, teacher, and speaker. She has written or cowritten twenty-seven books, including The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister; While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age During the Civil Rights Movement; and The Gentle Giant of Dynamite Hill: The Untold Story of Arthur Shores and His Family’s Fight for Civil Rights. Her work has been published in numerous magazines, journals, and newspapers. She is married to author Dr. Timothy George and lives in Birmingham, Alabama.
Read an Excerpt
The story’s dialogue came from statements made by Andrew Gerow Hodges, Michael R. D. Foot, and the POWs that attended the Samford Reunion on January 25, 2002. These were video-recorded and included in the award-winning documentary For One English Officer. Other dialogue came from POW diaries, newspaper articles, military records, recorded statements, letters, telegrams, correspondence, and conversations with living participants and family members of participants. Some of the dialogue was created in a logical sequence to match documented stories and events.
All stories and events in this book happened just as they are described and can be documented by records, newsreels, military information/records, etc. All characters in this book are real, and appear in the story as they did in the real life events. The names of Schmitt’s nephew, Walter, and sister, Greta, were created. Schmitt had a sister and a nephew, but their names could not be found. The German sentry in Lorient, Klaus, was a created name/person.
The names Léon Spanin (his birth name) and Léon Rollin (his pseudonym) are used interchangeably throughout the book. He is also referred to by his nickname, Leo.
THE FIRST EXCHANGE
There was one man . . . on the Allied side, armed only with his wits and a Red Cross badge.
—HARLAN HOBART GROOMS, JR., COLONEL, U.S. MARINE CORPS RESERVE (RETIRED), PAST PRESIDENT OF THE BIRMINGHAM BAR ASSOCIATION, BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA, USA
A CROSS, A FLAG, AND A DANGEROUS JOURNEY
Thursday, 23 November 1944, Thanksgiving Day, 94th Infantry Division Headquarters, Châteaubriant, France
Andy Hodges had been handed a job no one else dared to accept—a direct order from Major General Harry J. Malony, commander of the 94th Infantry Division, headquartered in Châteaubriant, France.
“It’s a suicide mission,” Malony’s chief of staff, Colonel Earl Bergquist, had told him. But Andy had his orders, even if he’d most likely become the target of a German bullet.
However dangerous the assignment, deep down Hodges welcomed the opportunity to serve his country. He thought about the lives that were depending on him—men with families in America, France, and Britain—mothers, fathers, wives, and siblings who waited for a word of hope about their loved ones recently declared missing in action. He hoped he could save the POWs held in the St. Nazaire prison camp. The prisoners were cold, hungry, and becoming deathly ill. They needed help, and quickly.
On that dismal predawn morning in late November, a cold rain spattered the sleeping French countryside. Andy placed a white flag in the jeep’s front holder, climbed inside, and began his trek toward enemy lines. Probably, no one expected his arrival on this day. In his hand, he carried a copy of a letter, dated November 21, 1944, typed in German on American Red Cross stationery. It was addressed to the camp’s Kommandant—whoever he was.
“An den Deutschen Kommandanten, St. Nazaire,” it said. That’s all. No specific name.
I hope the Kommandant has already received the original letter I sent beforehand. But I have no way to know.
The letter he held was his protection, his only defense, if he were stopped, questioned, and searched. But he knew it would provide little security against so brutal an enemy.
In seven or eight hours, back home in Geneva, South Alabama, Thanksgiving Day would dawn. He wanted to be there, sitting in his chair around the big family table, with his new bride and toddler son, his parents, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and longtime friends. He could almost smell and taste the traditional oven-baked turkey and cornbread dressing, marshmallow-crowned sweet potato casserole, last summer’s homegrown canned tomatoes, and pumpkin pies his family would feast on that day. But the whole world was at war, and he had his orders.
Dinners at home will have to wait—till next year, or the year after that. I sure hope I get to sit at my family’s Thanksgiving table again one day.
As he drove slowly down the narrow path from Châteaubriant, he shined his flashlight on the old, crinkled map of France, the only one he could find. When he reached Chauve, he stopped and checked the tangle of thread-like roads that branched out like a spider’s web from the small Allied-occupied village southeast of St. Nazaire on the western coast of central France.
Only about four miles to Saint-Père-en-Retz. That is, if I take the right road.
He picked up a pen and carefully marked the route he had been advised to take. It was in the French language and was confusing.
Northwest along Les Epinettes. Les Epinettes becomes Le Bourg. Stay left along the Rue de Nantes.
Andy’s sense of direction wasn’t so bad, but, except for a few words, he knew no French.
Maybe if I’d played less football and studied more languages in college, I’d be better equipped for this mission. At least I could read this map.
He worried about the accuracy of the faded map for the Vannes-Angers region of France, and how much the area had probably changed during the years of war. He ran his hand through his thick brown hair and sighed.
Must trust the map. No other choice.
Alone in the foggy, wet darkness, the twenty-six-year-old, tall, slender Alabamian continued his journey toward enemy territory. As he drove, his stomach knotted and burned. Bile rose and stuck in his throat. He swallowed hard but couldn’t dislodge it. He clutched the steering wheel tighter with each mile he traveled.
As he inched forward toward St. Père-en-Retz, he moved farther away from the Allied-controlled countryside, and closer toward the barbed wire blockade that ushered him into the German-occupied seaport pocket of France. He was thankful for the jeep’s canvas top that protected him from the rain—a perk granted to him by Malony. He shivered as the west winds blew in from the Atlantic and made the eerie fog twist in surreal shapes across the still dark countryside.
The German lines can’t be much farther.
Andy’s heart beat faster. He wondered how a German sentry would react to a lone American, wearing Red Cross insignias, driving a jeep sporting a large white flag, appearing ghost-like and unexpected at the opening in the concertina wire fence separating the combatants.
He’ll shoot me. That’s how he’ll respond.
Before he was ready, he was there. He saw the wire barrier within a few yards of him. He stopped the jeep and sat still, quiet, his eyes closed. In his mind, Andy envisioned the faces of the people he loved, as they would gather later that day around the family’s table. He saw his young bride, Mary Louise Shirley, the popular campus beauty who had fallen in love with him—Andrew Gerow Hodges, Howard College’s rising football star. Number 15.
Mary Louise Shirley—beautiful, brilliant, educated, from a good family—how did I, a poor country boy from South Alabama, ever get such a fine girl?!
Andy shook his head, smiled, and thought about the baby boy born to them a year after they married—Andrew Gerow Hodges, Jr. “Little Gerry” was almost two years old the summer Andy left Alabama to join the war effort in France.
The faces of Andy’s father and mother appeared next in his mind. He felt unusually thankful for his dad at that moment, a poor horse trader with little or no education, but a loving father who had taught his three sons great lessons in moral ethics, wisdom, honest hard work, and good common horse sense. He thought about his mother, kind, selfless, loving, and dedicated to her boys.
Poor Mom. I wonder if she’ll be able to handle emotionally receiving the missing-in-action telegram—or something worse—that might come before Christmas—if I don’t make it back from this mission.
For a brief second, a feeling of helplessness overwhelmed him. He’d never felt so alone and so far away from those he loved, from those who had always offered him unconditional love and support.
I had a choice. I could’ve stayed home. I chose to come and serve.
Andy rubbed his left shoulder. The old college football injury still caused him pain. A teammate’s violent blow had ruptured his biceps tendon. But the suffering caused by a damaged deltoid didn’t hurt nearly as much as the military’s 4-F classification that came as a result of it. Andy was in excellent physical shape—a well-built, trim, muscular college athlete. But when the army medics had examined his left shoulder, they declared him unfit for military service. The news was unexpected, shocking, and caused Andy deep grief. He watched his buddies eagerly march off to war, and he agonized over his humiliating 4-F status. Finally he could bear it no longer. He knew the physical injury could keep him out of the United States military, but it could not keep him out of the American Red Cross. If the U.S. Army forbade him to come in the front door with his college friends and other recruits—well then, he could just join the American Red Cross and come in through the back door. And that’s exactly what he did.
He had chosen to come, leaving a wife and son, and a good-paying job, so that he could serve alongside his comrades, and help win this war against Hitler. The 94th Army Infantry Division, stationed in France, was glad to have him, gave him the rank of captain, and made him their ARC senior field director. Andy’s dedication to duty, dependability, and courage in difficult situations quickly earned the confidence and respect of Malony as well as Bergquist. The commanding officer had given him critical missions he’d entrust to no one else. Andy was doing his part, even if a small one, and inside he felt real good about it.
As Andy faced the wire barrier, he pondered how to proceed. He had witnessed firsthand the depth of German cruelty toward Allied soldiers. He felt the urge to turn the jeep around and go back to headquarters—back to the safety of Châteaubriant and the 94th Division. But he knew he couldn’t. If he’d learned anything from his father, it was determination and duty, not backing down when the going gets tough, and doing the best job you can do—even if it kills you.
And this trip might do just that.
Checking the security of his ARC collar pins and the Red Cross badge on his left shoulder, he licked his lips, took a deep breath, and somehow found the courage needed to move forward. He had no weapon, no protection—other than his wits, a letter, a white flag, and the Red Cross insignias.
I hope it’s enough.
Driving slowly to the wire, Hodges stopped abruptly when he saw a surprised German sentry running from the woods, pointing his automatic weapon and screaming: “Achtung!Halt!Achtung!” [“Look out! Stop! Your attention!”]
Here it comes.This ballgame may be over.
24 August 1944, St. Nazaire Sector, Brittany, France
Captain Michael R. D. Foot had proved himself a skilled assassin. As a member of Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS), whom Hitler called the “terror troops,” he had participated in many demanding and dangerous missions. This one, however, would be his first foray into German-occupied France. In the summer of ’44, Britain’s SAS commander ordered the young Foot to infiltrate the St. Nazaire sector of Brittany to hunt down a particular vicious German officer.
“A certain German, by the name of Oberleutnant Bonner, in the Sicherheitsdienst [SD], is causing us much trouble. He has been especially cruel to our POWs. Find him. Capture him if you can. If you can’t, then kill him,” the commander ordered Foot.1
Michael knew about the Sicherheitsdienst—the Nazi Party’s intelligence and security body, created by Heinrich Himmler in 1931. He’d personally seen the results of their unlimited power—given to them by Hitler himself—to deal with all opposition to the Nazi government. Foot eagerly accepted the assignment, and parachuted into Normandy, ready and eager to begin his secret mission. On August 22, he secured a jeep, hired a French SAS driver named Caplan, and together they wormed their way along narrow roads and set out to infiltrate enemy lines.
“Make haste, Caplan,” Foot ordered his driver. “We don’t have much time. Let’s get this job done and get out of here.”
Foot and Caplan spoke little as they sped down dirt roads toward St. Nazaire. As Foot saw the countryside pass by, he thought about the long list of military heroes sprinkled throughout his prominent British family—his great-great-uncle, the Royal Navy’s first sea lord, Jackie Fisher; his paternal grandfather, who had achieved the rank of major general; his father, Brigadier General Richard C. Foot, head of London’s air defenses; and himself, an SAS captain. He held his head a little higher. He felt proud—of his family, of his father, and of himself. He knew he had a legacy to uphold, and that he could never fail. He’d rather die than face embarrassing his distinguished father, or disgracing his celebrated British ancestors. Military failure was not an option for Michael Foot.
Foot watched closely for German machine gun nests hiding along the roadsides. He had been warned about Jerries crouching and hiding beneath and behind the thick hedgerows that grew in this part of France. He knew the Germans feared the SAS, the elite United Kingdom forces, one of the toughest in the military worldwide. He had heard of the unfortunate fates of SAS members when captured by the enemy, and the fact that few SAS men had ever seen the inside of a German POW prison camp. Most had been shot on sight, no questions asked.
As Caplan drove in the area near Savenay, the English officer thought about the recently failed Operation Bulbasket—a military disaster.2 He remembered that just the month before, a group of SAS members had been captured near Poitiers, France.
That was a bloody mess, a really bad show. Those mucking Jerries. They should all be shotfor what they did to those SAS members.
Foot instinctively winced when he envisioned how thirty of these SAS men had been savagely tortured and executed by a German firing squad. He scanned the area around him, feeling an uncharacteristic moment of fear.
If I’m captured, I’m dead.
Suddenly, without warning, Caplan slammed on the brakes. The jeep’s wheels skidded to a stop at the edge of a steep drop-off in the middle of the road.
With his right hand, Foot grabbed hold of the windshield to keep from falling out.
“Caplan! What the blazing . . . !”
“The bridge! Sir, the bridge across the canal is gone!” Caplan shouted. “We’re lucky we didn’t go over!”
“Go around another way, mate!” Foot ordered, straightening himself in his seat and checking his wristwatch.
“Sir, there is no other way. We’ll have to go back. I’ll turn the jeep around. It might take a moment.”
“Do what you must!” Foot scowled. “Just chivvy on and hurry it up!”
Foot climbed out and stretched his long legs. It took several tries for Caplan to reposition the jeep between the tight hedgerows bordering the road. Foot checked his watch again and began to pace.
Hurry up, Caplan! Turn the sodding jeep around!
While he waited, Foot thought about his grandfather, a commanding officer in the Territorial Army Hartfordshire Artillery Regiment, who, in 1912, had told Michael’s father, Richard, it looked as if a war was going to occur. He suggested that young Richard enlist. Of course, he did. He fought throughout World War I, and made his father proud.
And that’s exactly the same thing that Richard, my father, told me in the winter of 1938–39, while I was still in university.
Michael had taken his father’s advice, enlisted, and was assigned to a searchlight battalion in an anti-aircraft command. He spent eighteen months in North Africa and Sicily, and was promoted to major in January 1944. He, too, made his father proud.
And I will make him even prouder as an intelligence officer with the esteemed SAS. I don’t dare make a muck out of this assignment.
Michael had requested the mission. He wanted to get closer to the enemy.
I’ve spent only six months with the SAS. They assured me I would get much closer to the daft Germans, and they were certainly right!
Back and forth, back and forth, Foot paced, waiting for his driver to turn around. Then he heard a terrifying shout.
“Halt! Hände hoch! Halt! Hände hoch!” [“Stop! Put your hands up!”] a harsh, deep voice shouted from behind him.
Foot felt his heart race. He stopped and raised his arms high. Then he turned around slowly, and looked straight into the barrels of machine guns. The camouflaged blouses and pot-shaped helmets instantly identified the enemies as German paratroopers. The weapons were no surprise, the deadly, rapid-firing MG42s. They proved a nasty combination. He held his breath and waited for a paratrooper to fire.
Go ahead. Shoot me. Get it over with. I am not afraid to die. But I had hoped for a more spectacular demise!
Foot, well bred, brilliant, and wealthy, felt he deserved a more sensational end to his mission, to his life.
His head held high and his face showing no expression, he mentally prepared himself to be shot.
One bullet to the head and it’s over. Finished. A life lived well, but cut short.
Michael Foot should prove a prized catch, one the Germans could brag about for a very long time. A handsome young intelligence officer, he had been well schooled before his military career, studying at England’s foremost universities, including Winchester College and Oxford University. His father had boasted of his son’s distinguished involvement in North Africa’s Operation Torch and Sicily’s Operation Husky.
“My boy also helped plan certain phases of the D-Day landings,” Michael had heard his father tell important friends.
My father will be disappointed;I’ve mucked up and let him down.He expected more from me.
The Germans kept their weapons focused on him. For the first time, he wanted to make the prestigious SAS insignia on his sleeve disappear. It was no longer a symbol of pride and honor, but a death sentence. Not only did it identify him as a member of the British Army’s most renowned special forces unit, but it proudly boasted the SAS’s pompous motto: “Who Dares Wins.”
They’ll see the insignia, and I’m dead. My new motto? “I dared. I lost.” I hope Father knows I did my best.
Foot kept his eyes on the machine guns. In the distance, he heard the gunning sound of the jeep’s motor, and the squeal of spinning tires, as his driver escaped down the road.
Good for Caplan! He’s nobody’s fool. At least one of us has been saved.3
The captain let out the breath he had been holding, exhaling a bit more loudly than he meant to.
A German lieutenant approached Foot, speaking in English.
“You are with the SAS? Impressive!” the lieutenant said, noticing the insignia on the captain’s left shoulder. A rare find. Not too many of you men left.”
Foot remained silent, ignoring the remark.
“You remember, of course, last month’s Poitiers incident?” the lieutenant asked Foot.
Upon hearing the name “Poitiers,” the surrounding soldiers nodded and some grinned.
Foot clenched his jaw, narrowed his eyes, and focused on the woods far in the distance.
Yes. I remember. Some of those mates were my friends.
The officer, who then introduced himself as Lieutenant Bernstein, walked up close to Foot’s face and pulled a penknife from his pocket, the sharp blade extended. Foot didn’t flinch, as he expected to be stabbed or his throat to be cut. With one swift, unexpected move, Bernstein sliced at the SAS insignia on the captain’s shoulder. When two threads held the badge in place, the lieutenant ripped the insignia off with his fingers. With a smirk, he stuffed it into his pocket.
“For my son! He’ll appreciate it one day. Thanks for the nice souvenir,” he told Foot.
The captain could hardly believe his stroke of luck—on two counts.
I’m still alive! And you just saved my life, old Jerry! Without knowing it, you removed the one visible piece of evidence linking me to the SAS.Now, if you don’t see the SAS cheque book in my pocket . . . Foot struggled to hold back a smile of relief.
Bernstein then added: “I have decided to let you live. For the moment.”
Just like I thought—all mouth and no trousers! Well, Bernstein, you’ve lengthened my life much longer than you know! And thank you for not checking my clothes. Had you searched me, you’d have found my compass and MI 9 hacksaw. Now you think you can imprison me? I’ve got news for you, mate. I’ll escape! The SAS has taught me well!
The Germans hauled Foot to their POW prison camp, Camp Franco, a former French Air Force facility in the Fortress St. Nazaire. Michael told no one of his membership in the SAS. To the Germans at the prison camp, the young captain was no one special, just another captured Tommy.
• • •
Brigadier Foot received the SAS’s telegram one evening in early September 1944, advising him that his son, Michael, had been reported “missing in action, and believed killed.” He fell back into a chair and read the telegram again.
Missing in action?Maybe.But I refuse to believe my son is dead.
Brigadier Foot stood, walked to his dresser, and picked up the framed photograph of his son. A friend had snapped the shot the spring before, as Michael stood in full uniform in the brigadier’s garden in Hampstead. Young, tall, dignified, his hands clasped together in front of him, Michael fit like the perfect puzzle piece into the long line of military heroes that had so elegantly graced the Foot family tree.
I hope this won’t be the last snapshot of Michael I will ever see.
Even though the hour was late, Foot telephoned the SAS commander. Positioning his stiff-upper-lip military British posture, in a well-controlled voice he explained the telegram, and after a while ended the conversation:
“I know Michael is alive. I don’t care what it takes, find my son.”
The commander informed Foot of Michael’s last mission and the delicate war situation in France.
“Brigadier Foot, we believe Michael was captured by the Germans on 24 August on a mission in France—in the St. Nazaire sector. As you know, the enemy still holds a total of eight hundred square miles there—the Atlantic coastal ports: Fortress St. Nazaire and Fortress Lorient. The Americans have sealed more than sixty-six thousand Germans within those ports. The enemy is highly trained and well equipped. The Allies are frequent targets of their ambushes around those areas.”
“Do you have any evidence Michael could possibly be imprisoned in the St. Nazaire area, in a German POW camp?” Foot asked.
“We have no way to confirm that.” The commander paused. “Let me be frank with you, sir. After the incident at Poitiers, we must expect and prepare for the worst. You and I both know the Germans do not imprison SAS members. They usually . . .”
“Sir,” Foot interrupted: “My son has been shot at, parachuted over enemy lines, helped plan raids, taken part in air operations and in sea commando attacks, and organized daring escapes. I cannot believe he is dead. He’s too smart to get himself killed!”
“I am sorry for your loss, Brigadier Foot. Michael was one of our best. He will be greatly missed.”
Richard Foot coldly and formally expressed his gratitude for any offered help from the SAS commander, and said a proper British goodbye. But inside his gut, a volcano rumbled and threatened to erupt.
I’m sorry for your loss?! Michael WAS one of our best? He will be missed?! That idiot talks as if Michael is dead! Did he not hear a word I said?! It certainly sounds like I can expect little or no help from the SAS to find and rescue my son!
The brigadier poured himself a drink from his small sterling silver flask, plunked down in his chair, and tapped his right foot hard on the floor. Late that night, three whiskeys later, Foot lay in bed and thought about his son. He envisioned the sparkle in his eyes; his love for learning, for education; the intense way he conversed with others about stimulating ideas; his remarkable fund of anecdotes, his quick wit; his dreams of great things he hoped to accomplish in life. But he forbade himself to shed a tear. Proper British military fathers did not cry when an heir fell on some distant battlefield—no matter how loved. They understood the risks of duty, of serving one’s beloved country. They knew the many generations of blood sacrifices that had been paid—and would yet be required—by Britain’s native sons.
Michael had such a promising future. And . . . and now this tragedy. My only son. So young. Such great potential lost. Lost . . . forever.
Foot stared at the bedroom ceiling for the rest of the night. He dared not admit it, not even to himself, but his old, tough warrior heart was broken.
A WARM SEPTEMBER MORNING
13 September 1944, St. Nazaire Sector, France
Sergeant Harold Thompson and his twelve-man patrol were returning from an intelligence mission behind German lines in Festung St. Nazaire. Thompson, the young Gary Cooper look-alike from Alabama, and his comrades laughed and joked as they enjoyed the warm September morning. Thompson wished the girls back home could see him now—handsomely uniformed, solely responsible for the lives of a dozen men, and, at the early age of eighteen, already leading an important, dangerous mission.
Suddenly the quiet moments were rent by the zipper-like sounds of enemy machine guns. Thompson gasped as he watched his men drop like ninepins, their bodies ripped apart. He heard their cries and calls for help, and saw German soldiers take them prisoners. Then Thompson caught a glimpse of one of his most courageous men, Corporal Onald Nelson, throwing down his rifle and quickly raising his arms.
In the midst of the melee, Thompson, and one of his infantrymen, scampered to an old rotting woodshed nearby.
“We’ll hide here till dark,” Thompson whispered to his frightened comrade. “Then we’ll sneak back to Allied lines.”
Huddling down behind a stack of long-forgotten firewood, Thompson closed his eyes and shook with fear. Failure! Failure! Failure! As hard as he tried, he couldn’t shut out the devilish voices that condemned him for his lack of caution, and for the deaths and capture of his men.
You just couldn’t wait until you turned eighteen to join the army!You think this is a game? It’s not! It’s war and it’s serious. You think you’re a man? Ha! Don’t fool yourself! You’re still a boy—and a murderer. Those men are dead because of you!
Thompson thought about the day he arrived in Normandy, less than two months before—on July 4, 1944. He was filled with excitement, and ready for battle. He had hoped the war wouldn’t end before he could join up, see some front line action, and make his mark as a war hero. Not much happened back home in Mobile, Alabama, and at eighteen, he was ready for some real adventure.
Assigned to the 31st Regiment, 83rd Infantry Division, Thompson wasn’t satisfied to be one GI among many infantrymen stationed in France. He yearned for a front row seat in the European theater of war. So when his CO asked for volunteers to lead a dangerous information-gathering assignment at enemy front lines near the St. Nazaire pocket, Thompson’s hand shot up first. Only a few other hands followed.
“Thompson,” his commander told him, “this is a dangerous and extremely important mission. Be on your constant guard. You and your men try to find out what kind of soldiers and artillery the Germans have in the St. Nazaire sector, whether the bridges and roads are mined, and anything else you can bring back.”
“Yes sir,” Thompson said and saluted.
The CO continued: “Try to locate the U-boats at the Keroman sub base. We think they have thirteen or fourteen U-boats. We’ve bombed St. Nazaire to bits, but we haven’t been able to touch those subs they’ve hidden beneath twenty feet of reinforced concrete. See if you can find a way we can get at them in their pens—assuming you can get that close. That’s all, Sergeant, give it your best shot.”
That morning Thompson’s patrol sneaked single file through the quiet French countryside. The temperature reached a pleasant seventy degrees as they stayed close to the woods, trying to avoid hidden and ever-watching enemy eyes.
Thompson and his men had gathered some useful data, and had somehow gone unseen. But as they headed back to base, the Germans spotted them and attacked. Now half his men were dead or captured, and the sergeant and his comrade were hunkered down in hiding, waiting for dusk, and hoping to escape with their lives.
Thompson heard a slight noise outside the woodshed.
He sucked in his breath and grasped his rifle tighter. The footsteps were followed by men’s whispers.
The enemy! They know we’re in here.
Before Thompson could decide whether to fight or flee, he heard a deafening blast, felt a searing hot pain in his shoulders, and saw black.
When the young sergeant regained consciousness, he painfully opened his bloated eyes. His comrade was gone. Standing on all sides of him he saw gray-clad helmeted Germans pointing rifles with bayonets. He tasted blood and saw torn flesh on his chest. Pain overwhelmed him as he was loaded onto a litter and taken to a makeshift first aid station. After German medics removed some of the largest pieces of shrapnel from his face, neck, shoulders, and chest, they trucked him to the St. Nazaire POW camp. At first glance, Thompson thought it looked like an abandoned aircraft factory.
One of his captured men, Corporal Nelson, saw Thompson arrive at the camp.
“Sergeant, we didn’t know if you had survived or not,” Nelson said. “They killed six of our men. I am one of the four men from our mission they captured and imprisoned here.”
“What is this place?” Thompson asked.
“It’s a compound with about a dozen Americans and several British prisoners,” Nelson said. “I’m told it’s completely surrounded by barbed wire and located between a large swamp and the Loire River. The water here is undrinkable, and they say the chow’s pretty bad, too. So far we’ve had some soup, black bread, a bit of cheese, and ersatz coffee—that’s about the size of it.”
“Any way to escape from this place?” Thompson asked.
“Must be,” Nelson said. “I heard someone got away about a week ago.”
Late that night, Thompson lay flat on his back, trying to sleep, writhing in pain. He put his hands to his face. No longer did his fingers feel the smooth youthful skin of a teenager. The finely tuned features that had once turned girls’ heads and made him the most sought after guy in Mobile, had swollen to a monstrous size.
After several days of limited food, Thompson noticed his weight dropping. He found some scraps of paper and wrote in his makeshift diary:
“A typical day’s rationing: weak coffee for breakfast, a cup of thin clear liquid soup—filled with sawdust—for lunch, and a piece of black bread, about the size of a small paperback book, that had to be divided by five men.
“The camp: a narrow building that includes bunk beds with bug-infested straw mattresses and a thin blanket.
“The latrine: a shared bucket.”
Thompson put down his pencil, hid the diary under the straw mattress, and thought about the men killed on the mission he had led. And, for the first time in his young life, his heart’s feverish yearning for adventure and action seemed to lose its tight grip, arousing little, if any, stirring in his soul.
19 September 1944, St. Nazaire Sector, France
Ground flak hit the Massachusetts-born pilot’s P-51 Mustang over Paimboeuf, some five thousand feet above northwest France on the Loire River. From the cockpit, Second Lieutenant James L. Silva saw coolant spewing from the plane’s tail. The ear-deafening engine overheated, sputtered, then stalled. Smoke filled the cockpit, so thick that Silva could no longer see the instrument panel. Caught in a high-speed stall, he tried unsuccessfully to turn the plane around. He was falling, losing altitude. Fast.
The twenty-year-old Northeastern University freshman held his breath. His first solo mission, he’d never bailed out of a plane before. Not even a practice jump. He struggled to remember the proper procedures.
Shot down. Gotta cross over. Upper left for a turn down the coast. Like thrown rod. No other flak. Ugh, rough. Less throttle. I’m okay. Increase a little. OKAY. White smoke. Other flak low and right. Climb and turn. Stall. Dark brown smoke. Gotta turn, stall and . . . whoa . . . half spin. Something’s broke. Smitty cross bow. Here we go. Turn north. Stall. Broke. See nothing. Gotta bail. Now.
He had had nightmares about this situation—alone in a plane, an inexperienced pilot, shot down, having to parachute out for the first time ever.
Silva jerked back the canopy of his cockpit and prepared to bail out. But . . . he couldn’t move. He was leashed to the panel. Stuck! Brilliant! He had forgotten to disconnect his head-and-throat radio set. Still losing altitude, he tried frantically to free himself from the tangle of cords. Finally free! Just as he started to exit, his knee hit a pin—the pin that held back the canopy. It closed as Silva, halfway in and halfway out, got caught in the middle and tried not to panic.
Climb half out. Canopy closed. Free cords. Squeeze out little more.
The ground came closer.
Too close. Seconds count now. Too late! Less than one thousand feet from ground. Too close to bail out. Going down with plane.
In a second of renewed strength, he forced back the canopy and jumped out.
Dive. Slipstream dragged out. Plane lower left in eye. Rip cord.
He began the 350-mile-an-hour dive, and not a second too soon. Pulling his rip cord, he waited for the expected jerk he’d been told would happen when his parachute opened.
At least, I hope my chute will open.
Jerk. Chute opens. OKAY. Look up. Beautiful canopy. Strange, quiet, heavenly sensation.
Silva exhaled a breath of relief when the chute opened and slowed his dive. I’m still alive! As he drifted down, he looked at the ground. Oh no! The burning plane lay just beneath him. Plane burning center of field. To his horror, he saw he was positioned to land right on top of it.
He watched the burning plane as it, and the ground, raced closer and closer to him.
No! No! No! I’ll burn alive. Not death by fire!
Seconds before he landed on the burning wreckage, he felt a slight wind blow in from the Atlantic. It blew him a few yards off course, and beyond the flames. He missed the burning plane, hit the ground hard, rolled over, and stood up.
OKAY! Safe. Don’t believe it! Alive! Unhurt!
The sound of gunfire blasted nearby. He turned his head to figure out its location.
He ducked and looked around.
No Krauts within sight. Who’s shooting at me? Pucker factor very high!
He glanced at the nearby burning plane.
For crying out loud! It’s the ammunition exploding in my own plane!
He wiped the sweat from his face.
Now take off chute. Carry canopy and drag shrouds.
Silva wrestled with his chute. It tangled up in the thick bushes beside him. He struggled to free the chute, and then quickly balled it up, knelt down, and hid it under some branches.
Chute under leaves. Well hidden. Good. Now, where am I?
As Silva stood up, German soldiers sprang from the hedgerows, surrounded him, and aimed their rifles at his chest. Suddenly the young pilot was living the second part of his nightmare: capture by the enemy. Silva raised his hands high in surrender.
German guards placed him in a car and drove to a nearby anti-aircraft station in the St. Nazaire sector. On the way, as he traveled through small villages, Silva saw French citizens walking down the roads, farmers working in fields, and women shopping in outdoor markets. Each time French civilians saw the handsome young Yank, and recognized his American uniform, they held up their hands and, with two fingers, secretly flashed the “V” sign, as if encouraging him to victory. Silva, somewhat surprised at their friendly gestures, gave them a nod. To the pretty young French girls, who swooned at his movie star looks, he gave a wink and an Elvis half smile.
Silva wanted to shout out loud to the French citizens: We’re winning this war!It’s just a matter of time!
But instead he kept his words hidden in his heart and his gaze glued on the girls.
When he arrived at the station, Silva noticed a huge-bellied German corporal wearing a decorative pin on the left upper pocket of his uniform—an oval-shaped silver wreath of oak leaves, crowned by a flying eagle clutching a swastika. Beneath it an 8.8 cm anti-aircraft gun pointed skyward, its barrel breaking through the top right of the wreath. Silva had never before seen such a pin.
Impressive! I wonder what it means!
Noticing Silva’s admiration of his badge, the well-fed corporal approached him, pointed to the pin, and boasted in limited English: “It . . . the Luftwaffen Kampfabz. I am . . . the one . . . that shoot you . . . down.” The German smiled and, with his meaty fingers, patted the silver wreath pinned to his pocket.
Silva acknowledged the corporal with a nod. Enjoy your fancy pin now, Kraut. It won’t mean much after Germany loses the war.
German guards delivered Silva to an old stone warehouse near the St. Nazaire submarine pens.
I joined up for some adventure! I think I’m getting it now!
Guards searched him thoroughly. Somehow they overlooked the French one-hundred-franc-bill he had hidden deep in his pants’ secret pocket. They took him to an English-speaking Hauptmann for interrogation. Silva towered over the short, slight German, and even offered him a smile. The German ignored him.
Silva gave his name, rank, and serial number. Nothing else.
“I can take you out and shoot you if I want to,” the Hauptmann told Silva, and tapped a gun hard on the table.
This guy’s not kidding around. He’s little, but he’s deadly.
“I know you can,” the pilot responded, erasing his smile and swallowing hard. My award-winning smile doesn’t work with short, mean Krauts. Silva refused to give the German any additional information.
The first week Silva stayed at the warehouse in solitary confinement. He slept on a pile of straw in one corner of the cell. Rats gnawed nearby. He lay awake at night watching the rodents, making sure they kept their distance.
Rather rats than Krauts. Rats are safer.
He heard taps coming from the other side of the wall and assumed they were POWs like himself trying to communicate with him. But he wasn’t sure.
Might be a trick.
He decided not to respond. In the morning, someone shoved his breakfast through a small opening in the door—a bowl of thin soup mixed with straw, and a slice of dark, coarse bread.
Not exactly Boston’s Parker House. What I’d give for a bite of their Boston cream pie right now.
Day after dreary day passed in solitary confinement. Silva began to lose weight. His once strong, muscular frame became weaker and thinner. After one lengthy interrogation, he gave the German officer his parents’ names and home address. He saw no harm in it. It seemed to satisfy the interrogator. In appreciation, the German released him from solitary confinement. In his new quarters, he met other allied POWs, including Harold Thompson, a mysterious English captain named Foot, and a reclusive prisoner who introduced himself as Frenchman Lieutenant Léon Rollin. Within Silva’s first few days there, he heard Spanin speak several different languages, all with flawless accents: English, German, French, and Russian.
Thompson seems normal enough. But a weird accent. Southern, I think. Can’t understand half of what he says. Seems kind of sad. Face swollen; black and blue, but healing. Hard to believe he’s only eighteen. Seems much older.
But Foot and Spanin? Foot’s English. Seems educated. Arrogant bird. Proud, too. Looks lots like nobility. Blue blood, for sure. No doubt from a long line of redcoats—probably fought my ancestors during the Siege of Boston.
Spanin? Not sure where he’s from. He’s strange. Punchy. Distrusting. Dangerous? Maybe. Think I’ll keep my distance.
Silva noticed that Foot and Spanin spent a lot of time conversing together secretly. They spoke in whispers, discussed nothing with anyone else, and remained distant, private, and aloof. Once Silva thought he overheard Foot say the word “escape.” But he couldn’t be sure. And he dared not ask.
2 October 1944, Lorient Sector, France
Second Lieutenant David Devonald briefed K Company’s Third Platoon on their assignment that day.
“Pack some rifles and cartridge belts,” he said. “No need to take mortars, machine guns, steel helmets, or combat boots. We have orders to go to a meadow in the Lorient vicinity, near German lines, pick up some deserting German soldiers that want to surrender, and bring them back to headquarters. We expect no enemy resistance.”
Devonald led the fifty-four men as they marched toward the French village.
“Harden, Brady, Trachtenberg!” he called. “Stay alert! Watch for snipers behind these bushes.”
Devonald had warned his men many times about the dangers posed by the hedgerows that lined both sides of the roads.
“Great for farmers,” he had told them. “Protect their animals, mark their property lines, keep their farm soil from eroding. But,” he cautioned, “deadly for allied patrols. Give the enemy ideal cover for surprise ambushes.”
Privates First Class Kermit Harden, George Brady, and David Trachtenberg trained their eyes on the tangled branches and watched for the slightest movement. Private First Class Thomas Richards walked ahead, scouting the area a few yards in front of the others.
“I’m glad this mission will be uneventful,” Sergeant Roy Connatser said to Devonald. “And I hope this will be one of my last assignments.”
“The war can’t last much longer, Roy,” Devonald said. “Surely we’ll all be home by Christmas.”
“I’ve seen about as much action as I can take,” Connatser continued. “Two-and-a-half years of constant combat with General Patton, and I’m ready for it to end!”
Devonald wasn’t too keen on marching into the no-man’s-land—the border between Allied and Axis boundaries near the German-manned Fortress Lorient. He knew how well Hitler had equipped the seaport: twenty-five thousand German troops and some five hundred pieces of artillery.
En route, Devonald turned to radio operator Private Harry Glixon. He liked Glixon, the quiet, respectful young man who left a good-paying job at New York’s Brooklyn Navy Yard to join the army. He appreciated the way Glixon took orders, got along with others, and never made waves.
“Harry,” he said. “I haven’t seen a single French civilian on the streets since we started out. I find that highly unusual.”
“Yes, sir,” Glixon said. “That is kinda spooky. They’re usually on the roads and in the villages this time of day. I don’t understand it either.”
About noon, when they reached a high plateau, Devonald told several men to walk ahead and scout out the meadow below them, the designated meeting place for the surrendering Germans.
“Richards, Rader, Boyd, Shulman, Stewart,” he ordered. “Check out the meadow. We’ll come along behind you.”
Privates First Class Richards, Rader, and Boyd, along with Privates Shulman and Stewart, walked down the plateau. They arrived at the bottom and looked around the large, open meadow.
“Sir! There’s no one down here,” Richards shouted.
“Glixon, set up the radio, call headquarters, tell them our situation, and ask for instructions,” Devonald said.
“Yes, sir.” Glixon set down the forty-pound field radio, raised the antenna high, put the receiver to his ear, and talked to Colonel Hagerty, the regimental commander. After a few minutes of conversation, Glixon reported the conversation to Devonald.
“Sir,” Glixon said, “Colonel Hagerty ordered us to keep going until we find the surrendering Germans.”
“That’s all?” Devonald asked. “Just ‘keep going’?”
“Yes, sir, that’s all he said.”
Devonald ordered the men to walk deeper into the meadow.
“Something’s just not right here,” he told Glixon at 1255, after his men had spent several more minutes inspecting the area. “Something’s going on. I don’t like—”
Devonald heard the first shot. He saw Richards crumple to the ground, blood flowing from the hole in the center of his forehead.
“Take cover!” Devonald shouted. The soldiers hit the ground and scrambled into the twisted hedgerow branches for protection from flying bullets. The Germans opened up their machine guns.
“We’ve been tricked!” Devonald screamed. In the distance, he saw hundreds of German soldiers dressed in full combat gear, firing as they advanced toward them.
Bullets tore into three more K Company men.
“We’re outnumbered!” Devonald shouted. “We’re not prepared to fight them! Let’s go back! There’s no place to go but back!”
The patrol turned around at their leader’s command. But Devonald and the men saw that they couldn’t retreat. The Germans had surrounded them, firing from all sides. They scurried back into the bushes and returned fire.
Seeing they were surrounded, Devonald shouted to Glixon: “Radio headquarters. Ask for reinforcements!”
Devonald waited for Glixon’s report as he dodged bullets and counted the passing minutes. Men are dead and wounded. Ammunition is running low. If we don’t get help, and fast, we’re all dead!
“Glixon!” he shouted. “What’s the dope?! Are they sending reinforcements?!”
“They said they’ve sent them, sir!” Glixon shouted back.
Devonald looked east, west, north, and south. He saw no reinforcements.
“Then where are they?” he shouted.
“Wait, sir!” Glixon called out. “They are telling me the reinforcements can’t get through German lines! That we are completely surrounded!”
Devonald watched his men drop all around him, victims of German bullets. Trachtenberg was hit. He saw George Boyd, backed deep into a tangled hedgerow, trying to dodge the bullets that bounced off the ground around his lanky legs.
“The Kraut’s gonna cut off my legs!” he heard Boyd scream out.
He watched the steady barrage of mortars, grenades, and bullets bombard his men. He heard explosions, mixed with shouts and screams of pain—the deafening noise of combat he knew so well.
“Sir!” Brady shouted from a nearby hiding spot deep in the bushes. “We have four men down: Rowe, Button, Dyer, and Richards.”
Devonald looked around him and saw the four dead, as well as dozens of his men unconscious and wounded, sprawled on the ground. He also watched hundreds of fresh, strong reinforcements join the German troops as his men tried in vain to hold their small circle of ground.
Time to make a decision. Hagerty won’t like it. We’ve got to surrender. We have no choice.
He glanced at young Glixon, still manning the radio and squatting behind a thin tree now fewer than one hundred yards from the advancing enemy.
“Glixon!” he shouted. “Call Hagerty! Tell him—”
Devonald felt a sharp intense pain in his forehead.
A mortar explosion. I’m hit. Hurt. Hurt bad.
He felt his knees weaken and bend. Desperately trying to hold on to consciousness, he slowly sank to the ground. He saw Glixon leave the radio and run to his side.
“Glixon,” Devonald whispered. “Before I lose consciousness . . . tell Harrington to take over. Give him my permission to surrender if he thinks the situation calls for it. . . .”
Devonald felt his body go limp. He closed his eyes, and his world went dark.
• • •
Sergeant Ames Harrington, upon receiving Glixon’s message from Devonald, assumed immediate charge of the patrol.
“Glixon,” Harrington said. “Go ahead like Devonald advised and radio Hagerty. Tell him we must surrender.”
Glixon obeyed orders and ran back to the radio. A minute later, he shouted back: “Sergeant! Hagerty said NO! NO surrender! Keep fighting!”
Harrington watched German soldiers advance forward, coming closer and trying to tighten and choke off the circle around K Company’s men. He saw a mortar shell hit the ground beside Bernie Rader, a short distance away. Rader fell backward and lay bleeding, faceup in the dirt. Another shell followed, hitting George Boyd, who fell down beside Rader.
Harrington turned to Corporal John Atkinson, who crouched down beside him.
“Atkinson! Take a message to Glixon. Have him radio Hagerty again. Make sure Glixon tells Hagerty we have no choice but to surrender, we’ve got four men dead, a dozen or more wounded, we’re running out of ammo, and we’re surrounded by the enemy! Tell Glixon not to take no for an answer!”
“Yes, sir,” Atkinson responded. He spread-eagled his body on the ground and crawled to Glixon, who was now fewer than fifty feet from the advancing enemy.
From the distance, Harrington watched Atkinson give Glixon the message, and then saw Glixon shouting into the radio, an angry frown on his face.
What’s taking so long? Is Glixon arguing with Hagerty? Mild-mannered Glixon? Is the colonel refusing to allow us to surrender?
Harrington saw a frantic expression appear on Glixon’s face, and a hurried attempt to reconnect the radio call.
Oh no! The radio went dead! I hope Hagerty said “surrender” before . . .
Harrington saw Atkinson signal back to him the hand sign “okay to surrender.” Harrington motioned for Atkinson to raise the white flag.
Atkinson pulled a white bandage from his first aid pack. Harrington took a deep breath of relief when he saw the young corporal attach the large bandage to the tip of his bayonet, stand up, and wave it high in the air.
Now maybe I can get the rest of these men out of here alive and back to their families.
For a split second, Harrington envisioned the face of his wife at their home in Wisconsin.
Excerpted from "Behind Nazi Lines"
Copyright © 2016 Andrew Gerow Hodges.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1 The First Exchange 1
1 A Cross, a Flag, and a Dangerous Journey 3
2 The Spy 8
3 A Warm September Morning 15
4 The Pilot 19
5 Ambush! 24
6 The Firing Squad 31
7 The Letter 45
8 The Enigma 51
9 The Meeting 57
10 The Agreement 60
11 The Dentist 66
12 Gifts from the Heart 73
13 All Hallows' Eve 78
14 The Outrageous Idea 83
15 The Conditions 91
16 On the Eve of the Exchange 94
17 The Exchange, Part 1 103
18 The Exchange, Part 2 107
19 The Exchange, Part 3 114
20 The Aftermath 120
Part 2 The Second Exchange 129
21 The "Tiger of the Channel" 131
22 The "Gooney Bird" Crew 138
23 Camp Franco 143
24 The Escape 148
25 The Court-Martial 153
26 The Second Escape 156
27 The Message 160
28 An Armistice Day to Remember 163
29 The Final Escape 166
30 The Pit of Despair 170
31 The Empty Farmhouse 173
32 The Decision 177
33 The Request 182
34 Dead Ends 188
35 Journey into Darkness 192
36 The Terms 196
37 "For One English Officer?" 201
38 The 1938 Michelin Map 206
39 The Dying Patient 208
40 Erntedankfest 212
41 The Ritterkreuz Search 215
42 Good News Travels Fast 219
43 The Disappointment 223
44 The Dilemma 229
45 The Pornic Exchange 232
46 The Report 240
47 Grounded Still 242
48 "Take Me Home" 244
49 The Warning 250
50 The Misunderstanding 256
51 The Long Trek 260
52 The Attack! 264
Part 3 The Rest of the Story 269
Postscript I The Hero Comes Home 275
Postscript II The Reunion: January 25, 2002 277
What Happened to the Men 315