Escape Lines

In The Beginning:  MI9 – IS9 – BAAG – 1Special Force

On the 23 December 1939 a top-secret minute was circulated amongst a limited group of intelligence agencies. The Minute officially announced the creation of MI9, which was to be located in Room 900 of the War Office. An ex regular soldier, Major Norman Crockatt was to be in charge. He had served in WW1 with the Royal Scots, earning both the DSO and MC and he had been badly wounded. Crockatt, bored with peacetime soldiering, left the army in 1927, but was recalled. He was given a room, 424, in the Metropole Hotel, Northumberland Avenue, a short distance away from the War Office.

Initially MI9a handled the detailed interrogation of enemy prisoners, and MI9b handled the collection of intelligence from POW, and escapers and evaders. Later in December 1941, MI9 became independent, and was divided into five areas of responsibility. Section b was for liaison and the interrogation of returned escapers and evaders; Section d was for training and lecturing; Section x was for the planning and the organisation of escapes; Section y was for secret coding systems; and Section z was for tools and equipment for use in escapes. In addition, a training centre was set up in Highgate, North London, called Intelligence School 9 (IS9).

In the spring of 1941 the Americans also organised a military intelligence service (MIS), within their Military Intelligence Department (MID), to liaise with the British regarding POWs and escapers and evaders. On the 06 October 1942, a more secretive organisation was formed to deal with escape and evasion, both the training and the debriefing of escapers and evaders, and was set up similar to MI9. Known as MIS–X, it worked closely with MI9 until the end of the war.

Early on, MI9b had acquired a floor of the Grand Central Hotel in London to debrief returning escapers and evaders; most at this early stage were soldiers. The Metropole Hotel in Northumberland Avenue was becoming very difficult to work in, very cramped, and too near the War Office for comfort. On the 13 September the hotel was bombed, and a decision was taken to move into the country.  Wilton Park, on the outskirts of Beaconsfield was chosen, and a wooden-hutted camp was built near to the Georgian manor, known as Camp 20. MI9 remained at Wilton Park until the end of the war. Later the Park also held high-ranking German POWs.

In the Far East, the British Army Aid Group (BAAG) was formed by Leslie Ride. Ride was a doctor and the officer commanding the Field Ambulance Unit of the Hong Kong Volunteers. Following a fierce fight with the Japanese, Hong Kong fell on Christmas Day 1941 and Ride, together with his men, found themselves incarcerated in Shamshuipo POW Camp, formerly a British Army barracks. The Hong Kong Volunteers were local people who knew the colony well, and were well integrated into the life of Hong Kong. Using the local knowledge and contacts of his men, Ride arranged for smart civilian clothing to be brought into the camp; then looking totally different from the rest of the prisoners he walked out of the gate with four other escapers. He quickly found help amongst the local Chinese in the back streets of Hong Kong and also received support from the Chinese Communists in the New Territories. Ride eventually had contact groups on the Chinese mainland and around Hong Kong and Canton. He assisted many escapers from the camps and managed to get food and assistance into the camps. Assistance was also given to the Americans working in China, and on 38 occasions Ride’s organisation rescued shot-down American aircrew. Ride was officially appointed the MI9 contact in Hong Kong on 16 May 1942.

In Italy, SOE often operated under the title of 1 Special Force. Originally controlled by Algiers, it became so large that it eventually became independent. A base was set up at Monopoli near Brindisi, which eventually became an STS in its own right, with parachute training school, signals centre, and admin base. Specialising in long range, and long term penetration, the unit became involved with many escapers on the run together with resistance groups from all over Italy. However, its primary role was intelligence gathering for the main army groups. 1 Special Force had a number of aircraft at its disposal, including Italian heavy bombers and transport aircraft. It also used British Lysanders and American Dakotas for pickups behind the enemy front line. The bombers were used to supply Resistance groups. On many occasions ‘A Force’ agents [MI9, which operated under the auspices of SIS, often within 1SF] were used for the recovery of escapers and to guide them to Allied lines. One of the most successful pick-ups of escapers took place on the night of 24/25 May 1944, when a British Landing Craft and a US Patrol boat took part in Operation Darlington II, which collected 127 escapers from the mouth of the River Tenna near Porto san Giorgio. Most had escaped from the POW camps along the Tenna valley.