FOR Second World War airmen who survived being shot down, baling out, crashing aircraft into the ground, ditching into water and evading the enemy on the run, life or death was a lottery.

Coming down by parachute, some airmen were machine-gunned. Many taken prisoner on the ground were executed. Yet amidst the chaos and misery of war, the kindness of strangers was found in unlikely places. Aircrew brought down in enemy territory could only survive with assistance from either local civilians or enemy forces.

In his new book Airmen’s Incredible Escapes (Pen and Sword), Bryn Evans presents dramatic accounts of survival by British, Commonwealth and American airmen who avoided or escaped capture and endured extreme elements, life-threatening wounds and starvation.

Says Bryn: “Allied air power made a major contribution to victory in the war. The cost in men and machines was horrific, with Bomber Command suffering 50per cent casualties. While many perished, others shot down over enemy territory or water overcame extraordinary danger.”

In one of the stories, a US fighter pilot bales out into dense jungle in New Guinea. After wandering for days lost and near delirious, Flight Lieutenant Gene Rehrer reached the point of collapse, when tribesmen carried him to their village, gave him water and food and, after a few days of rest, put him on a donkey and guided him to a European settlement.

Shot down over Japanese territory, into the mangrove swamps of a Burmese jungle, Flying Officer Barney Barnett wandered on ripped and ragged bare feet. After four days without food or water he was found by local villagers. At risk of certain death and their village being destroyed by the Japanese, they gave Barnett water, bathed him, then carried him across a river and handed him to an advance party of British troops.

Having parachuted down near the Dortmund-Ems canal in Germany, Flight Sergeant Harry Howard lay bleeding in a ditch. With a near severed arm, hip and back injuries, he was likely to bleed to death. A German farmer took him to his farmhouse and arranged for his transport to hospital.

Says Bryn: “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of these stories is that so many airmen owed their survival to perfect strangers. Civilian ‘Helpers’ of shot-down airmen risked their lives and families. If caught, in Nazi-occupied Europe, it meant torture at the hands of the Gestapo to provide information on resistance members, and being sent to a concentration camp or executed. Helpers in all countries knew the risks they were taking. Their courage was just as incredible.”

Bryn attended Belle Vue Boys Grammar School in Manningham and trained in accountancy at Bradford City Treasury. He has worked around the world. Now living in Australia, he’s the author of books including The Decisive Campaigns of the Desert Air Force 1942-1945 and Air Battle for Burma.

“My father served in RAF Bomber Command and spoke of looking at empty chairs in the mess each morning, of those lost during the night’s operations. My mother told me of lying in bed in the months before I was born, listening to Luftwaffe bombers overhead. My mother-in-law worked in an ammunition factory in London and one night was blown off her feet into the road by an exploding bomb. For six years no-one knew when the war or their lives would end. Recalling my childhood in the late 1940s and 50s, it’s clear why there was so little talk of the war. It had been a nightmare everyone wished to forget. But we must not forget. The greatest generation left us a legacy; they found within themselves a resilience to live each day as if it were their last. It is an example we must emulate. The stories in Airmen’s Incredible Escapes are an inspiration for us all, and future generations.”

* Bryn is researching a second book of survival stories. Email him at