MI9 Cover


A History of the Secret Service for Escape and Evasion in World War Two

Helen Fry

Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 2020, 352 pages

Book Review published on: May 21, 2021

Helen Fry’s MI9: A History of the Secret Service for Escape and Evasion in World War Two is the latest work describing England’s efforts to aid soldiers and airmen in enemy territory to get back to England, and in many cases, back into the fight. It is a fascinating story, drawing from many recently unclassified documents, that describes both sides of the story. First, the story is from England, and addresses the creation and operations of MI9 (the British Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 9) to aid English and American soldiers and airmen to get out of hostile territory. Second, and more fascinating to me, are the stories of the unknown people of France, Italy, Spain, and other areas who risked everything to participate in this operation.

Fry draws from a treasure trove of recently declassified files to chart the creation of MI9 in 1939. It was with superb foresight that, early in the war, Britain considered how to help escaped prisoners of war (POW) or servicemen hiding in occupied territory. Initial work started in escape aids to smuggle into POW camps and hidden maps servicemen could carry in case they were needed. As the bombing of France and Germany progressed, MI9 added training and additional aids to airmen to help them evade capture if they were shot down.

Compounding the problem for these individuals, Britain was an island, and its starting point for escape was Germany, France, or Italy. This means that escapees had to cover a lot of ground, sometimes including mountains and across the English Channel, for them to return to England. Enemy forces occupied most of the territory, but fortunately, most of the occupied population resented the occupying forces and were friendly to escaping servicemen.

After describing the creation of MI9, Fry starts from the big picture, Europe under occupation, and then brings the reader down to events in individual countries and then down to individual players operating escape lines, like the Comet line. These stories, drawn from debriefing files and eyewitness accounts, create an exciting read. The people helping British, and later American servicemen, for the most part, did not expect to be paid and risked their own lives and the lives of their families. German occupying forces would kill or send to a concentration camp anyone caught helping escapees. Fry details several harrowing tales of people risking all to help servicemen make it home, from crossing the Pyrenees to escorting them on trains through occupied territories.

Then there were the POW camps. Here, Fry recounts how MI9 mailed in devices to help with escape and travel through occupied territory. The British set up false charitable organizations to mail games and other items into the camps that contained miniature compasses, magnetized needs for compasses, maps, and other paraphernalia. The myriad and cleverness of devices developed from creative minds were astounding. These devices even made it into Colditz Castle, one of Germany’s most forbidding and “escape proof” POW camps.

Finally, the book examines the end of the war in Europe, briefly discusses MI9’s role in the Far East theater and MI9 following the end of World War II. Though not as active in the Far East, MI9 did find ways to help escaping servicemen. Fry details MI9’s postwar work in finding, rewarding, and/or awarding those civilians who helped the service members’ causes. Many refused financial compensation, saying they were pleased to have helped when needed.

Overall, I found the book to be an excellent read. The author’s writing conveys the suspense and danger those helping Brits or Americans faced from Germans and even from double agents in their organization. Given the trove of unclassified documents, Fry did a great job of scoping the book, but I still sometimes found it difficult to keep track of the many different names and organizations involved in the effort. This book has examples of extreme courage, changes occurring during a major war, and superb historical knowledge. It is an excellent read for those interested in World War II or escape and evasion stories.

Book Review written by: Mike Bizer, Fort Belvoir, Virginia