By Victor Schutters
Starting in December 1944, the British authorities put up offices in Paris, in Brussels, in the Netherlands (in 1945), in Italy, in Greece and in the Balkans. Those were meant to interrogate the individuals who had helped British and American airmen in their evasion in order to collect testimonies pertaining to such aid that had been given. This happened with the approval of the "Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force" (SHAEF) in arrangement with the secret services of the occupied countries concerned.
Many thousands of "questionnaires for helpers" were thus filled in by former members of evasion networks. The term “network” appeared only at the time the conflict had ended, replacing the former term “organization”. In cases where “helpers” had been executed by the occupying force or had died during their deportation, the rightful claimants (spouse or other member of the family) were solicited to render an account of said helper’s activities.
Those questionnaires reproduced the individual’s basic data, familial status, profession, the Résistance (underground) group or groups he/she had belonged to. Were then added the names, addresses and functions filled by the persons he/she had worked with in the frame of the help given to evading airmen. The form was completed with the individual’s own explanation of his/her role as well as with the identity of the airmen he/she had taken in charge.
As far as possible, all that information was then cross-checked with the statements of other members of particular networks said individual had said he/she had worked for. As we’ll see further along, reports from airmen reportedly helped will either confirm or not those declarations.
One must also take into account the fact that, as well airmen as their “helpers” had some trouble to remember names and addresses in question, and, furthermore, to spell or write them correctly. For security reasons, many of them had objected to put down any note or to try to remember some names. None of course could know in advance if they would be able to keep silent under torture and that’s the reason why many preferred not to memorize certain pieces of information.
It must also be stated that such security measures were officially known by the crews, while the lodgers themselves were repeatedly warned of the dangers.
The interviews made in the Paris and Brussels offices were meant to allow adequate and fair reimbursement of the costs involved with help given to the evaders : clothing, food, lodging, transport, etc. The cost estimates were made on the basis of prices in force at the time in the regions concerned.
Of importance also was to be able to determine if said claimant’s activities were particularly hazardous and meritorious, in order to make a proposal in view of awarding honours
In cases where the head of family had died, the British and American authorities bound themselves to make a payment to his widow of a value approximately corresponding to that which was allotted to the widows of Allied servicemen who had found death in combat. The sums could vary, according to the particulars of each case.
From 1941 to 1944, the British and American services put up a list of some 8000 « helpers », this on the basis of reports made by those of their nationals who managed to evade.
The reports mentioned were the “SPG” (Special report, Prisoner, Germany) for the British and the “E&E” (Escape and Evasion reports) for the Americans.
In the case of the SPGs, the use of the terms “Prisoner” and “Germany” didn’t of course concern all evaders, as not all of them had first been captured as prisoners of war. This is most certainly due to the fact that the same form of report was used for evaders as for prisoners of war (“PoWs”).
As for the denomination of the American reports, an explanation can be found in the difference the British make between an “escaper” and an “evader”. The former is one who has managed to evade after having been made prisoner by the enemy, the latter having never been captured.
The airmen’s reports could allow a verification of the declarations of people who mentioned having helped them and/or find those who had helped them but hadn’t made themselves known.
In the many cases where “helpers” had been active as well in Belgium as in France, only the respective secret services of the individual’s nationality were able to determine for which country he/she had worked. The payments were made by the governments of Great Britain, of the United States and of that of the country of the “helper” in question, to the rate of a third each. Before making any financial compensation, all declarations had to be jointly examined and approved by the British, the Americans, the French, the Belgians, etc.
The gathering of information as to the activities of those who had given help made possible the creation of a retribution scale made of five groups or grades corresponding to services rendered with the aim to reward each one in a relatively equitable way.
It is to be noted that the numbers mentioned hereunder in the different groups are relevant to all evasion networks and are thus not limited to Comète.
The five groups or grades are the following :
Grade 1 : Awarded to the persons who particularly distinguished themselves by their courage or who were managing an evasion network. There were probably only from five to ten individuals included in that Grade for Western Europe.
Grade 2 : Awarded to the chiefs of organizations or to key individuals who made a return to England possible for at least forty to fifty evaders. It could also concern persons who acted in a particularly heroic way. Seventy-five individuals, at the most, have probably been rewarded with this Grade.
Grade 3 : Awarded to persons who had given shelter to from twenty to forty evaders or who had guided a large number of evaders. Also awarded to some chiefs of sections or of small organizations. Some two hundred to four hundred individuals are probably concerned.
Grade 4 : We find here the individuals who had sheltered, for more than one night, from eight to twenty evaders or who had assumed accompaniment of evaders over long distances or in particularly dangerous zones.
Grade 5 : This Grade covers the majority of “helpers” such as the ones who had helped just one airman, who had given shelter to an airman shortly after his landing or who had given help to six or seven men during short periods of time.
Also taken into account were the cases where the “helper” had been arrested or deported, as well as the duration of his/her captivity. According to the case, this allowed the individual to reach an upper Grade, passing for example from Grade 5 to Grade 4. In each and every case, priority was given to the importance of the help given.
It was up to each country concerned to deliver the distinctions and awards that it deemed deserved. This resulted from an agreement between the British and American offices and their French, Belgian, Dutch or other, counterparts. The Grade awarded often corresponded to the national honors awarded in each country.
Besides the individuals to whom one of the five Grades was bestowed upon, there was another “helper” category of individuals who had been active in a more modest way and having run few or practically no risks. Such were for example the case of a hairdresser who had visited a house to dress the hair of evaders who were sheltered there; or from some neighbor bringing a pound of butter. In such cases, a letter expressing the gratitude of the three awards offices was sent by one of these.
That kind of award, taking the form of some sort of diploma is also called “Letter of Thanks” (“Lettre de Remerciement”), of which there were many sorts.
Our thanks to Peter Verstraeten who forwarded to us some documents coming from the National Archives of the United Kingdom, located in Kew, England, and which helped us in the writing of this article.