Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
The Hidden Army
MI9’s secret force and the untold story of D-Day
By Matt Richards & Mark Langthorne
John Blake / Bonnier Books, 30th May 2019
Often, selecting the right man for the job can make an enormous difference to the success of a project. After Airey Neave returned to the UK following his astonishing escape from Colditz (the supposedly escape-proof German PoW camp deep in East Germany), he was asked to head an embryonic department of the British security services. MI9 was set up to facilitate the escape of captured soldiers, sailors and airmen. Its means partly included the training of serving men in elementary escape and evasion techniques, but the bulk of its role was in liaising and abetting local resistance groups in Europe, to aid British servicemen in their return home. Neave was in the right place at the right time, and by all accounts performed his task very well. (One is left rueing his early death at the hands of Irish terrorists).
Richards’ and Langthorne’s book focuses on one episode of Neave’s work. As the Allies achieved greater air supremacy in 1943, the RAF and USAF stepped up the level of their European raids. The number of evaders rose markedly ahead of D-Day. Neave decided it would be great to secure as many of these as possible, and try to return them to Great Britain. The authors stress that the aim was to return them to active duty, but fail to point out that most successful returners were not posted to frontline positions – having had first-hand experience of escape lines, they would be in danger of compromising those were they to be shot down and captured again. Hence most went to instructional duties or ground tours.
The book focuses on Neave’s creation of a sanctuary for over one hundred escapers in the Foret de Fréteval, near Chateaudun, South West of Paris. Close by were several German ammunition dumps: the escapers had to remain very quiet, particularly at night.
It is an interesting episode, but it does not make for a complete book. There is a lot of padding in this volume, with digressions into the D Day strategy, for example. The book has numerous references to its sources; but then these suddenly peter out when the Fréteval story starts. The reader is left wondering where the story comes from. The acknowledgments suggest that the major source was Ray Worrall, the last survivor of the troupe incarcerated in the forest. But Neave’s many autobiographical books will already have covered the ground too.
This book’s blurb says: “The previously untold tale of one of the greatest escapes from occupied Europe ever committed by Allied forces.” “Untold”?, hmmm. The title is misleading too – this was no army – the men were all unarmed, and they were mostly airmen anyway. The intention was never to use them as a fighting force, simply to return them to Great Britain as soon as possible.
So overall it is a book that, in my view, does not quite deliver. Written in an accessible style, (typical of this publisher), it might just qualify as a holiday yarn.
Colditz Castle 2018