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Wednesday, July 08, 2015

In the Shadows of War by Thomas Childers

Roy Allen was shot down over France in 1944.  He was taken by the French Resistance and "billeted" in the home of a French teacher, Colette Florin. Allen was hardly an easy captive.  He had a tendency to wander around, refused often to stay hidden, and finally, in a move that resulted in his capture, tried to escape back to England just as the Allies were about to invade Normandy.  Had he shown a little more patience he might have escaped capture by the Germans and not had to suffer a forced march in the winter to Buchenwald. I was surprised at the dedication of the partisans. Allen, who was secreted in Florin's upstairs apartment at the school where she taught, would sing and listen to the radio. At one point it became clear that despite Florins precautions, others in the school knew about the airman who was in hiding.  Allen had injured his back during the parachute jump out of his plane and, despite the extreme danger, Florin had the local doctor come treat it. The allies had landed in Normandy so all Allen really had to do was wait for their arrival.  By this time he was on the Florin farm, well-liked by the family, and reasonably safe.  He insisted on trying to escape to Spain. The network got him to Paris where again the back injury put the entire network at risk. They called in two different doctors to attempt a diagnosis for the extreme back pain and very high fever.​
Delivered into the hands of the Gestapo by some infiltrators of the resistance network, Allen was imprisoned first near Paris, and then, as the Allies got closer, was transferred by train to a concentration camp in the east.  The conditions were horrific and Childers describes them with great empathy and detail. Nothing like being strafed by your own side.

Allen’s suffering in the concentration camp at the hands of the SS was horrific.  Childers has gone to great lengths to be as accurate as possible, citing numerous interviews and documents, but the experiences of Pierre, who helped Allen get to Paris, clearly must have necessitated some invention of thought and deed, as he was executed at Buchenwald before the end of the war. He explains his technique and the basis for it in the postscript;  it’s only a short chapter in the larger story of Allen but feels slightly out of place.

But I quibble.  Childers, author of Wings of Morning, an excellent book from which Stephen Ambrose plagiarized,* has written an exciting and richly detailed account of the dangers and value of being in the French resistance as well as the horrors faced by those in concentration camps.​
When this book was written Allen's wife was still alive and living near Philadelphia.  She and Colette became fast friends after the war and still maintain cordial and frequent contact.​


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