In the Shadows of War: An American Pilot’s Journey Through Occupied France and the Camps of Nazi Germany, by Thomas Childers (Henry Holt; 464 pages; $27.50, $16 paper)
I have little, if anything, in common with Oprah Winfrey. And that’s too bad for Thomas Childers, for it means that this column will probably not result in a wave of interest in his extraordinary book, In the Shadows of War (2003). I purchased this book using the same method I often use to buy wine — it was on sale and has an interesting cover. This method (for both books and wine) is perilous, but in this instance it turned out well.
Appropriate to the season, with Memorial Day, the dedication of the WWII memorial in Washington, D.C., and the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, In the Shadows of War is a factual account of three people whose paths cross during the Second World War. Histories often serve to remind us of things useful to current situations, and sometimes they just remind us of things that are good to be reminded of. Thomas Childers’ tale does a bit of both.
The Second World War, for instance, was far different from our more recent war experiences. The opposition political party did not publicly question the Roosevelt administration for wasting resources and attention on Nazi Germany — which posed no immediate threat to America — when it was the Empire of Japan, not Germany that attacked us. The American news media did not think it necessary to produce special magazines or programs to talk about all the U.S. war dead in order to “remind” us of the cost of war. And people in oppressed occupied lands seeking reliable war news would strain to get the radio signal of the BBC.
The main characters in Childers’ book are Lt. Roy Allen, an American B-17 pilot, Colette Florin, a young teacher in a French town southeast of Paris called Jouy-le-Chatel, and Pierre Mulsant, a member of the French resistance, recruited and trained by the British to help organize French resistance forces in preparation for the approaching Allied invasion. The stories are true, based on interviews, correspondence, and war archives. But the narrative reads more like an historical novel and is, to use a cliché, hard to put down.
Lt. Allen’s B-17 is shot down over France on June 14, 1944. He is assisted by the family of Colette Florin and is hidden away in the rooms occupied by Colette in the school where she teaches in Jouy-le-Chatel, and later in the Florins’ house outside of town. Weeks after Allen was shot down, the allied invasion force was still bogged down in Normandy (in what today might be called a “quagmire”). Allen, restless to get back in the fight (and to make contact with his pregnant wife back in the U.S.), against the Florins’ advice decides to take advantage of an offer by the local resistance to connect him to an underground pipeline to smuggle him out of occupied France. Allen makes his way to Paris, but the pipeline had been infiltrated by the Germans and he is delivered into the hands of the Gestapo.
After being beaten senseless by the Gestapo, Allen is transferred to a cramped, dirty prison outside of Paris. But with the Allied forces now advancing on Paris, he and the rest of the inmates are loaded into freight cars and make a hellish trip to a concentration camp outside of Weimar — Buchenwald.
ARRIVING AT BUCHENWALD, the prisoners are sheered and then swabbed with burning disinfectant (though, as Allen would learn, the camp was nonetheless crawling with lice, fleas, and bed bugs that would leave large welts all over the bodies of the prisoners), and issued used ragged prison uniforms. Allen noticed that his had large stains in the crotch area, a reminder that dysentery was rife in the camp, and that the morning and evening roll calls, in which the prisoners had to stand in formation, often took hours. Buchenwald was filthy. The starvation rations of watery soup and stale moldy bread were barely edible, and death from disease, infection, or starvation was a daily occurrence.
Buchenwald was a labor camp of 60,000 inmates (at the time of Allen’s arrival). There was a compound for Russian POWs, but most of the prisoners were common criminals, religious prisoners (including Jews), and various political prisoners, mostly from Germany, France, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Allen was among a group of 168 Allied airmen who maintained organization led by the ranking officer of the group, an RAF pilot from New Zealand named Phil Lamason. Lamason demanded an interview with the commandant at Buchenwald, which he was granted, and insisted that the airmen be treated as POWs under the Geneva Conventions and be sent to a POW camp. The commandant agreed that their arrival at Buchenwald was a “mistake” but they stayed, nonetheless.
The airmen did hear that there was another group of Allied personnel (parachutistes, they were called, because they were special operations forces flown or parachuted into occupied France) in another section of the camp. There were 37 of these parachutistes, mostly British and French, including Pierre Mulsant, who met briefly with Lt. Allen when he was cooped up in Colette Florin’s rooms.
Mulsant, along with his British wireless operator, were arrested while trying to find some British SAS forces that they had heard had been dropped into their zone, and needed assistance. Mulsant was beaten and tortured for days. Among other injuries, Mulsant had both his shoulders separated. He finally gave his SS captors some old and useless information. He was then allowed to eat for the first time in days as he was further questioned by a more polite official who indicated that he would be treated as a POW and accorded the protections of the Geneva Conventions (though he obviously had not been to this point). Though not in uniform, Mulsant was, technically, a British officer. Most members of the French resistance, after being tortured for information, were summarily executed.
Mulsant then endured his own horrific train journey to Buchenwald. Any hope the parachutistes had that they might be transferred to a POW camp was dashed when they learned that 16 members of their group taken away a few days prior had been beaten and hanged by the SS. On October 5, 1944, Pierre Mulsant, his wireless operator, Denis Barrett, and eight other parachutistes were executed by firing squad at Buchenwald. Five of the 37 parachutistes would survive the war.
THOUGH TOO LATE FOR SOME of the Allied airmen who died at Buchenwald, in mid-October the Luftwaffe finally got around to transferring the remaining airmen out of the SS’s control at Buchenwald and to a Luftwaffe POW camp. Allen at the time was in the notorious Buchenwald infirmary (which had no medicine, and the head doctor’s main job was to determine each day which patients should be killed) and had to wait several weeks for his transfer.
The Luftwaffe camp outside of Sagan (now in western Poland) was known as Stalag Luft III. Earlier in 1944 a group from one of the compounds at Stalag Luft III made a breakout made famous by the film The Great Escape. When Allen, who stood over 6 feet tall, checked into the camp he weighed 110 pounds. The barracks were almost clean, the food, though only moderately better in both quality and quantity than what was at Buchenwald, was supplemented by regular shipments from the Red Cross, and the Luftwaffe captors had a military honor and humanity missing in their SS counterparts.
The relative paradise at Stalag Luft III, however, would be short lived. With the Soviet army closing in, the POWs made a 60-mile forced march in the snow and freezing temperatures to a rail yard in Spremberg for another train trip to another POW camp outside of Nuremberg, and then to another outside of Moosburg where the American Third Army finally liberated them on April 29, 1945.
Childers’ tale is well written, engrossing, and important. It’s worth buying and reading, even if you can’t find it on sale.