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Saturday at M.I.9: History of Underground…

Saturday at M.I.9: History of Underground Escape Lines in N.W.Europe in… (1969)

by Airey Neave

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Subtitled 'The Inside Story of Underground Escape Lines in Europe in 1940-1945' - this pretty much tells you what to expect. This is an enjoyable and interesting read, if written in a somewhat staid writing style. The opening chapters see the author (a future Conservative MP & shadow minister in the 1970s under Thatcher - before being assassinated by an IRA bomb in 1979) - explain a little of the setting up of, or rather the lack of, an organised escape coordination unit in London at the war's start. Neave then subsequently covers, in the most modest of ways, how he managed along with a Dutch officer, to become the first successful British escapee from the notorious Colditz Castle.

After briefly enjoying his freedom in Switzerland and being told by the British Legation there that he is to jump the queue (there were nine other successful British escapees from assorted POW camps ahead of him!) and 'escape' again - this time to Gibraltar, via neutral Spain and unoccupied Vichy France - in order to rendez-vous in London.

Safely home he is assigned to British Intelligence School Number 9 (the IS9(d) team within MI9 referred to thereafter in the book as "Room 900"). MI9 was tasked with aiding resistance fighters in enemy occupied territory and recovering Allied troops who found themselves behind enemy lines. It also communicated with British prisoners of war. IS9(d)was its more secret and executive branch. Based in two rooms at the War Office in Whitehall - including Room 900 - it was concerned chiefly with facilitating escape and evasion.

Neave tells of his first meeting with MI9's commander Brigadier Crockatt:

"...friendly and relaxed. I could imagine him twenty years earlier. He was of the generation of 1914 and Mons. Behind his smile, there was a look of resignation I had seen before.
He asked me for stories of life in prisoner-of-war camps.
I told him eagerly that in one camp, so it was said, the prisoners tunneled and emerged by mistake in the Kommandant's wine cellar, which was full of rare and expensive wines. The Kommandant was a connoisseur and often asked the local nobility to dinner.
The prisoners managed to extricate over a hundred bottles, drank them, put back the corks and labels after refilling them - I paused - with an unmentionable liquid.
Crockatt laughed. 'We must tell that to Winston'."

Codenamed 'Saturday', the author recollects how he was tasked with co-ordinating the various means of briefing and training new agents with their missions of establishing escape routes across the Pyrenees to Spain, or through occupied France or Belgium to the coast where clandestine return to England could be arranged.
The book is full of tales of extreme bravery on the part of those resistance workers and all sorts of civilians who regularly would risk their lives to aid the Allied cause. There are episodes of betrayal and deception galore, and Neave includes several helpful footnotes to highlight other relevant books to refer to covering similar material (many sadly now out of print, but not all).

Despite the exciting and fascinating subject matter, Neave's writing style is a little understated and rather dry. The book actually became a less interesting read to me on occasions, and I couldn't help but feel somewhat guilty at reading so casually about the immense acts of courage being described. Overall though a book well worth reading if you have any interest in this lesser known subject area within Second World War history. ( )
1 vote Polaris- | May 5, 2013 |
Written by Airey Neave who was one of the organisers of M.I.9's escape lines in Western Europe during WWII. It gives numbers of how many escaped and how many died helping the escapers, but it is primarily about the helpers and the escape lines they set up and ran. The first escape lines were organised by civilians within occupied Europe and only in the last 2 or 3 years of the war were they organised from London. You really get the feel of how courageous you needed to be in this line of work. The book is well written and it's easy to understand whats happening and a tribute to the helpers. ( )
  bookmarkaussie | Jul 30, 2012 |
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Fifteen years ago, I described how, disguised as a German officer, I escaped from Colditz castle near Leipzig, and reached neutral Switzerland in January 1942.
...To enliven the lecture period true and sometimes amusing, stories were told of the adventures of others. One, which may be apocryphal, was always a success. A sergeant pilot in the RAF was shot down close to a French convent. Before the Germans could catch him, a number of nuns appeared and spirited him inside. Walking in the convent garden, the sergeant, dressed in the habit of the Order, found himself beside a beautiful nun. After he had made shy advances, she turned and replied in masculine English:
"Don't be a bloody fool, I've been here since Dunkirk."
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Inside story of the underground escape lines in occupied North-West Europe which brought back to Britain, over 4000 allied servicemen during World War II.

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