MI9 is best known for the daring exploits of escape and evasion by soldiers and airmen in the Second World War. New research uncovered in declassified files by Eye Spy associate editor and historian Dr Helen Fry now adds to the superb histories of MI9 written after the war by Airey Neave, and Foot and Langley. It reveals just how important MI9 was for the wider wartime clandestine operations of the war and even places MI9 as a major intelligence-gathering organisation in its own right. Its operations were stretched from Western Europe to the Balkans, Greece, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Far East.
Formed by special charter on 23 December 1939, it was a branch of the British Secret Service responsible for gaining intelligence from prisoners, whether enemy prisoners-of-war or Allied personnel trapped behind enemy lines or in POW camps. Stories like Airey Neave’s escape from the infamous Colditz Castle in Germany – from which the Germans believed it impossible to escape – have become legendry. Historical examples of escapes, like prisoners tunnelling out of Stalag Luft III near Sagan or tunnelling under a wooden vault, have been immortalised in big screen films like The Great Escape and The Wooden Horse. Underpinning MI9 existence was a philosophy of ‘escape-mindedness’, a term first coined by its chief, Brigadier Norman Crockatt. Crockatt knew that techniques in escape and evasion might not come naturally to personnel in the moments immediately after capture and disorientation. Therefore prior to going into action, personnel were trained by MI9 in aspects of escape and evasion techniques.
The organisation’s role was broader and included the collection and distribution of information to British and Allied prisoners in POW camps via clandestine means, such as coded messages and smuggling escape and evasion devices into the camps. MI9’s officer Christopher Clayton Hutton designed many of the ingenious gadgets in which silk maps and miniature compasses could be hidden. The MI9 gadgets were an extraordinary success story. Between 1942 and 1945, MI9 organised the manufacture and issue of 1.3 million round brass compasses; 1.6 million maps concealed in purses and pouches, and over 7,000 flying boots that converted into civilian shoes for personnel on the run. The rapid production of devices in such large quantities was essential to successful escape and evasion and survival.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill, himself a POW and escaper in the Boer War, understood the difficulties which prisoners had to bear. He sent a rallying message to British POWs to boost their morale: ‘In this great struggle in which we are engaged, my thoughts are often with you who have had the misfortune to fall into the hands of the Nazi. Your lot is a hard one… never has the country been so completely united in its determination to exterminate Nazidom.’
If there is a strong theme which emerges in MI9’s history, it is the commitment and courage of thousands of helpers – women and men – who led the escape lines, and acted as couriers and guides across Europe. They were prepared to work in secret, for an unnamed organisation in Britain whose name they did not discover until after the war. All were united in their efforts to free Europe from Nazi occupation. Through simple and ordinary acts of resistance, they made a crucial contribution to saving Allied airmen and soldiers, often at great personal risk and with severe consequences if betrayed. The risks were increased if they smuggled intelligence to MI9’s agents or over the border from behind enemy lines. Although the escape lines were controlled by MI6’s man Claude Dansey, the daily coordination was delegated by Dansey to Jimmy Langley and Airey Neave. But as they later admitted, the real risks were taken in occupied Europe, the Middle East or Far East. Men like Harold Cole and Christiaan Lindemans (‘King Kong’) sabotaged the escape lines for their personal gain, often for money, which led to helpers and guides being betrayed, tortured and sent to concentration camps or shot by the Gestapo.
An inspirational part of MI9’s legacy are the new stories which have emerged about the women and men who displayed extraordinary acts of bravery, all trusted the mysterious organisation that they worked for and believed that victory over the Nazis was possible by their acts of resistance. They were the helpers – thousands of them defied the Nazis to save the lives of airmen and soldiers. I was inspired by one of the few surviving female helpers – now in her late 90s. I interviewed Elsie Maréchal, a few miles south of Brussels. Her interview was transformational for me and I was moved by her story. Elsie and whole family were betrayed in 1942 with devastating consequences. It became known as the Maréchal Affair. Her spirit of defiance against the Nazis was still evident today as I asked her why she risked her life at the age of only 16 to shelter Allied airmen whilst working for the Comet Line. She replied: ‘Under German occupation, our nation was being robbed of food and coal. I saw all the Jews with yellow stars – children taken from my school class to Auschwitz. We thought “out with the Nazis!’
As the Comet Line temporarily went down after a series of betrayals in 1942, Elsie spent 3 years of brutal treatment in prisons and concentration camps. Through all this she never wavered in her support for the Allies. Today, she remains humble about her wartime contribution but still displays the same fighting spirit as over 70 years ago. The Comet Line, which ran from Brussels to Paris and down to the Pyrenees, was led by two other inspirational Belgian women: Dedée (Andrée de Jongh) and Elvire de Greef. Dedée trekked hundreds of miles from Brussels to the Pyrenees with her ‘parcels’ [as the airmen and evaders were called]. Although young, Dedée led the Comet Line until her arrest in 1943. She also survived concentration camps. Elvire de Greef operated for MI9 with her family on the French side of the Pyrenees. She has been the unspoken heroine and leader in the south of France, instrumental in running Comet Line operations along the Pyrenees from 1940 until the end of the war. She arranged the shelter of escapers and evaders in safehouses in the region until they could be smuggled into Spain. Defiant in danger, she blackmailed officials to avoid arrest and organised for other members of the escape line to be broken out of prison. As the Comet ~Line went down, she continued to rescue airmen and smuggle vital intelligence, with other members of her family, to the Allies.
Another brave woman was a young 21-year old Italian aristocrat, Renata Faccincani della Torre. From the family home in Milan she ran a clandestine intelligence station for the Allies. She was instrumental in an escape line from Northern Italy into Switzerland with the help of the Italian resistance. As an expert skier, she accompanied escapers over treacherous mountain routes. And in spite of a period in Milan prison, she managed to escape to continue her work.
There was also Mary Lindell, a British woman married to a French aristocrat who operated for MI9 and SIS in France. With a steely and tenacious spirit she aided many escapers and evaders and risked her life on many occasions, including periods in prison run by the Nazis. Although seriously ill in hospital in 1942, she discharged herself to be able to save the Cockleshell Heroes – the only 2 survivors of the command raid Operation Frankton. Still wanted by the Nazis, she was arrested in 1943 and suffered torture in prisons and concentration camps. Her spirit unbroken, she was described as one of the most colourful agents for MI9.
These women, and thousands of male helpers and guides, all played their part in numerous escape lines that included the Pat Line, the Rome Escape Organisation, the Shelburne Line and other sea evacuations. Many did not survive and paid with their lives for helping the escape lines.
MI9 – THE LEGACY
Traditionally MI9 has been seen as an organisation that ran escape lines and agents, and this was indeed true and constituted a large part of its work. However, it is now clear from Helen Fry’s new research that MI9 was also engaged in intelligence and counter-espionage work – some of that along the lines traditionally thought of as the domain of MI6. It ran its own agents, but was also carrying out espionage and surveillance on German agents and spies. It leads to a new understanding of the relationship between MI6 and MI9.
MI9’s intelligence-gathering was vast and included debriefing returning airmen, soldier, agents and members of the escape lines who had to be exfiltrated back to Britain. They provided a vast amount of information from enemy territory that could be used in future training and printed in the MI9 bulletins. Amongst examples of intelligence gathered was that of a military nature on enemy defences, ports and sea defences, Axis fighting units, and general life and circumstances behind enemy lines. There had been no precedent for escape work combined with intelligence in the First World War. The official declassified history of MI9 in the National Archives states that ‘clandestine escape work as a specialist form of intelligence was an entirely new development.’
From its small beginnings in 1939, MI9 evolved into a highly efficient branch of military intelligence. The true success of the escape lines would only be realised at the end of the war when it became known that, in spite of the dangers and difficulties of German occupation, around 35,000 Allied soldiers and airmen made it back to Allied Lines because of MI9. MI9’s legacy deserves recognition as an intelligence organisation and should be placed alongside the wider intelligence operations of WWII.