Great escapes by soldiers who lived to tell the tale

PUBLISHED: 12:00 08 May 2008 | UPDATED: 15:02 07 September 2010

THE daredevil stories of Allied soldiers downed behind enemy lines and making their way home have been collected by author Tony Rennell and former RAF airman John Nichol. Nichol, shot down, imprisoned and tortured during the Gulf war, knows only too well

THE daredevil stories of Allied soldiers downed behind enemy lines and making their way home have been collected by author Tony Rennell and former RAF airman John Nichol.

Nichol, shot down, imprisoned and tortured during the Gulf war, knows only too well the fear and bewilderment of being trapped in hostile territory.

Rennell, a former Fleet Street executive, worked alongside Nichol to turn his revealing interviews with WWII veterans into a book.

He says the material in Home Run (Penguin, £8.99) has been collected via interviews, military archives, memoirs and diaries.

They include the extraordinary story of Joseph Sankey, shot down before he could marry his pregnant girlfriend. It took him six months to get home, only to be put off by reports that his lover didn't want to see him. In fact her meddling mother had told her he was dead, something she continued to believe until their grown-up daughter tracked him down in a nursing home decades later.

"John has been through the sort of experiences these men have endured and they look on him as a hero, which is helpful for him to get that extra insight and sense of being there," says Rennell of Lyndhurst Gardens, Hampstead.

It is their third collaboration, and focuses on the evaders who managed to get home via a tortuous and dangerous route that included being sheltered by the local resistance in safe houses, travelling on false papers and trekking over the Pyrenees to Spain.

These men may feature prominently in WWII films, but Rennell points out they were an elite bunch.

"The chances of being caught were high and the vast majority of the 250,000 men who went missing in enemy territory ended up in POW camps. Only perhaps 3,000 to 5,000 evaded capture and made it back to Britain. They had a very different sort of war to everyone else. It was intensely personal and incredibly dangerous."

Rennell says he wanted to capture the drama and fear of their situation. "To convey that incredible feeling of having been in a plane then suddenly finding yourself on the ground in a hostile country at night, freezing cold, you don't speak the language, you are young and frightened and having to rely on your courage and resilience."

Bravery, cunning, coolness and sheer luck played a part in their survival - they would pose as deaf mutes to avoid questioning, swim rivers, sneak past frontier posts and hide in hovels or chateaux.

During their escape, they remained in constant danger for months until they reached home.

"I don't think they had any idea it would take so long, the quickest got back in a few weeks but the more usual experience was six or seven months. They were always on the alert, never knowing whether the sound of a lorry coming to the farmhouse was going to be friendly. If not, do you run or hide in the straw? We have written about cases where the bayonet came within inches of their nose."

Rennell pays tribute to the bravery of French, Dutch and Belgian resistance fighters who helped the Allied airmen home.

"I think a lot of them did it out of guilt and to regain national pride, because they were ashamed of their country for giving in and collaborating with the Nazis. For many, helping escaping evaders was one of the positive ways they could make a stand without risking the awful reprisals that came with attacking German soldiers."

And for the relatives at home, there was the agony of not knowing what had happened to their loved ones. "Someone disappeared and you got a telegram saying they were missing and if you were lucky you might later get something from the Red Cross saying he was in a POW camp. People live on hope throughout wars and it's hard for us today to understand what it was like before instant communication."

Rennell, who returned to writing after 30 years as an executive on the Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday, is now researching his fifth book on medics in World War II, who often bravely opted to stay behind at places like Dunkirk.

"History has always been my interest and I think people are still fascinated by World War II. Today we are completely bewildered by the war but that was a moral battle you could understand, with proper heroes who, like many of these evaders, were ordinary blokes in extraordinary situations.

"It makes me wonder how I would react in similar circumstances and in my heart of hearts I fear I would not come up to the mark that they set.

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