Estelle stood in the darkness beneath the trees, watching the surrounding fields. Her heart was pounding from her frantic cycle ride and from the fear of being caught. But she had heard the bomber go by overhead and seen the flash as it crashed in the distance. If any of the crew had survived, they would have landed somewhere around here. If she was to save them from the Nazis, she had to act quickly.
It was a cloudy night, as it usually was when the British sent out a raid. It was almost impossible to make out shapes in the darkness. If she hadn’t been so familiar with these fields, she might never have noticed the movement by a hedgerow. As she peered more closely a shape emerged – a man, made bulky by his thick jacket, a bundle in his arms.
As she approached, the man dropped his burden, parachute silk tumbling across the stubble of this year’s corn. He pulled out a pistol and pointed it at her.
“Friend,” she said, trying to sound reassuring despite her fear. “You understand?”
He said something in English – she had no idea what – then put his pistol away.
Estelle grabbed the parachute and thrust it into the depths of a haystack.
“I’ll come back and bury it later,” she said. “You understand?”
The airman stood staring.
“Never mind,” Estelle said. “I can take you to-”
Engines roared through the silent countryside. Cars coming this way along the winding road, their lights just bright enough to see a few feet in front of them.
Only the occupiers and their pet authorities drove at this time of night.
She grabbed the airman’s arm and pulled him after her, running up the hill toward the trees. He stumbled, found his footing, and kept moving, even as one of the cars moved off the road and headed across the field, slowing as they bounced across rough ground.
The Germans must have seen a parachute coming down and come to look. She prayed that they were too busy driving to spot her in the darkness.
She flung herself behind one of the trees. The airman did the same. As Estelle peered out, she saw that the car had stopped less than two hundred yards away. Four flashlights blinked on, their bearers spreading out to scour the area. Two were heading this way.
She looked at the airman, barely visible in the shadows and the night. There was still time for her to get away on her own – to grab the bicycle and ride to safety. She had come out here to help this man, but if he was clumsy or stupid then he could get them both caught. For him, that would mean a prisoner of war camp, for her torture and death.
He didn’t try to look out from behind his tree. Instead he looked at her, waiting for her next move, trusting her to make their choices.
That was enough.
She moved deeper into the trees, going slowly and carefully to avoid making noise. She waved to the airman to follow. As he did, he seemed to imitate her movements, taking the path she had picked out, one that avoided dense undergrowth and places where she knew dead wood and dried leaves fell.
The beam of a torch flashed into the woods. Estelle scrambled beneath a thicket of dense, low-lying bushes. The airman followed her. As they lay in the darkness she could hear him breathing inches from her face.
The torch shone above their heads again. Footsteps approached, breaking twigs underfoot and crashing through the undergrowth. The man called out in German and someone replied.
He was less than twenty yards from them now and still coming closer. He held his torch in one hand, a light machine-gun in the other. All he had to do was look down and they would be caught. Taken away to a dank cell and a man who knew all about questions and about pain.
The airmen shifted beside Estelle. She heard the faint sound of something being drawn from a pouch at his belt. Then he reached out past her, moving with terrible slowness, pointing a pistol at the German.
Horror gripped Estelle. Was he mad? Didn’t he understand that there were other soldiers around, that they would close in the moment they heard the shot? What good was shooting this one man if it got them caught?
Silently, she placed her hand on the airman’s arm and pushed down. For a moment he resisted, but then he gave way, letting her lower his weapon.
The man with the torch kept walking, past them and away into the night.
They lay there until the Germans were long gone. Then Estelle led the airman out of the darkness and down the winding, narrow roads to her family’s farm.
Dawn was breaking as they entered the kitchen. Papa was up, cooking breakfast with his one good hand. He greeted the airman in broken English, and the airman responded in a rush of words, a smile of relief filling his face.
“I think he says to thank you,” Papa said. “For saving him from the Nazis.”
Estelle shrugged and sat down at the table, waiting for the eggs to be served. She was tired and needed the energy to help her think. Already she was considering when and where to contact the escape line, how they would get the airman to people who could start his journey home.
“Tell him he’s not safe yet,” she said. “His journey has only just begun.”
* * *
The work of the escape lines during World War Two was truly remarkable. Civilians risked their lives to get stranded airmen, soldiers, and spies out of Nazi-occupied Europe. Many lost their lives in the process or suffered imprisonment and interrogation at the hands of the Nazis’ brutal security services. If you want to know more, I recommend Ian Dear’s book Escape and Evasion, which also covers other escapes of the Second World War.