Jewish teenager Georg Hein, sent to England to escape certain death in a concentration camp, changed his name to Peter Stevens and became a decorated RAF pilot. This daring young man was shot down, captured, and spent four terrifying years as a German POW.
When I read a book recently called Escape, Evasion and Revenge, written by Marc H. Stevens of Toronto about his father, I was fascinated by this unique story, and I asked Marc if he would write a guest column for me. I’m sure you will be as mesmerized as I was by his father’s courage and daring. For the whole story, however, you should really read the book! Following is a very condensed version of events.
(Note: After this was originally posted, a boyhood friend of Peter Stevens named Hank Herzberg read this blog post and contacted me by email. To read his incredible story, click here: From Nazi Prison Camp to P.O.W. Interrogator.)
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Written by Marc H. Stevens
My father died in 1979, when I was 22 years old. We lived in Toronto, Canada, where I still live today.
As far as I knew, Dad had been born in Hanover, Germany to Christian parents – though that information was a highly-classified secret, and I was warned at an early age to tell no one.
Since my mother was a French-Canadian Catholic, my older brother and I were raised in that faith. Dad spoke with a highly-cultured British accent, and passed himself off as an Englishman. The fact that he had served as an RAF bomber pilot only helped to reinforce his cover story.
What I didn’t know until 1996 was that my father was Jewish.
Dad’s childhood in Germany
My father was the middle child in a wealthy German-Jewish family. Here is a pre-war photo of the Hein family at the seashore. The nanny is on the left, and my father is the little boy who is holding a pinwheel.
My grandfather died in 1926 when Dad was only six years old. That was the beginning of a long and sad period. Dad had some kind of medical problem (supposedly migraines) that caused him to be a very fussy child who was difficult for my grandmother to manage. When his father died, his mother sent my Dad away to a boarding school in Bavaria, about ten miles from Berchtesgaden, keeping her other two children at home with her. Here’s a photo of the rather grim boarding school.
In those early days of 1926, few realized that Bavaria was a powder keg that would spawn the Nazi party. Suffice to say that by 1929, Dad’s teachers and classmates began to treat him badly. As the only Jewish student at the school, he was the object of increasing derision, and he left that school for another in northern Germany in 1929.
By 1933, things were already getting quite bad for German Jews. My father’s older brother, now 17 years old and the “man of the house,” persuaded his mother to let him go to England and prepare a safe haven for the family. He went to London that summer and found an apartment and a high school he could attend.
My father followed in January 1934, just before his 15th birthday. Their little sister went to Switzerland and then made her way to England in 1938.
Sadly, with the Depression and Nazi economic persecution, much of the family fortune had gradually disappeared over the 1930s. When the time came, there was no money left for my grandmother to buy her way out of Germany and get to safety in England to be with her three children.
Here’s a photo of my father in 1933, at the age of fourteen.
Dad’s troubled teenage years
In England, the two brothers did what they could to learn English and complete their education. They attended a London high school and became friendly with the headmaster, a childless Englishman who agreed to adopt my father when his student visa ran out after graduation in 1936. This allowed Dad to stay in England and get a job.
Unfortunately, with no close adult supervision and a fierce independent streak – no doubt due to his rebellion at being sent away from his family at the age of six – Dad got into trouble.
In late 1938, his mother sent the remainder of the family fortune to England, which was to be used to care for the three siblings for the duration of the war that everyone knew was imminent. Somehow, Dad (now 19 years old and working in advertising), got his hands on the money and gambled away the entire sum. With not enough to support himself, he resorted to petty theft, and was eventually arrested.
During the summer of 1939, Dad was sentenced to three months in prison. On September 1st, the day that Germany invaded Poland, many British prisoners were released, since cells would be needed for enemy aliens once war was declared.
Ironically, my father was released, even though he was one of the enemy aliens in question. Taking the train back to London, he was given strict instructions to report to a police station.
Dad steals another boy’s identity
Dad – whose name was Georg Franz Hein – never reported to the London police station, and a manhunt was organized. Instead, he obtained identity documents for a London schoolmate who had died several years earlier, a boy named Peter Stevens. Using those documents, Dad presented himself at an RAF recruiting station on September 3rd – the day war was declared – and enlisted as Peter Stevens.
So while the British police were busy searching for a potentially dangerous German named Georg Hein, Peter Stevens spent eighteen months being trained as a bomber pilot.
Two tips helped the police realize that Dad had joined the RAF, but they did not figure out that he had become Peter Stevens. Had they tracked him down, Dad would have been arrested and interned for the duration of the war.
Here’s a 1940 photo of him on parade with his fellow airmen.
Dad bombs his own home town
Dad qualified as a bomber pilot and joined a frontline squadron in April 1941. On one mission, he had to bomb his own home town of Hanover. Because he had disgraced himself by gambling away his family’s money, he had lost contact with his mother and remaining aunts, uncles and cousins in Germany. It was with a very heavy heart that he dropped high explosives in the direction of his own flesh and blood.
On August 7, 1941, Dad and three crewmen bombed a military target in the heavily-industrialized Ruhr valley. They were on their way back to England in the middle of the night, when they were attacked by a JU-88 German night fighter. Despite all evasive action, the two rear gunners were hit by machine gun fire, while the navigator, hit in the thigh by a 20 mm cannon shell, almost bled to death.
Fortunately, one of the rear gunners reached up and grabbed the trigger of his guns, and by sheer blind luck, managed to blow the fighter out of the sky. The other gunner used the coffee from his thermos to put out a small fire, then went forward to help the navigator.
Eventually, they made it back safely to England, only to realize that the plane’s landing gear and flaps had been destroyed in the attack. Dad performed a flawless belly landing, and all crewmen recovered from their wounds. One of the gunners later named his only son Peter, after my father.
My father flew a Handley Page Hampden Bomber, similar to the one in this painting by Keith Woodcock.
Dad bombs Berlin, then crashes
A month later, on September 7, 1941, Dad and his crew were ordered to bomb Berlin, the capital of Nazi Germany and the target with the best defences in Europe. They made it to Berlin and dropped their bombs, but the aircraft was damaged by artillery fire, and Dad ordered his crew to bail out. Both gunners did, and it was later determined that one man’s parachute had failed to open. Sadly, his body was never found.
Dad realized that his plane was marginally flyable, and the navigator stayed with him as he turned back to England. But there was a hole in each of the two fuel tanks. They ran out of fuel and crash-landed near Amsterdam. Captured a day later, Dad and his navigator were eventually sent to separate POW camps.
Of course, it was critical that the Germans never realize his true identity, as they would have immediately executed him as a traitor. For the next three years and eight months, he was without any protection whatsoever under the Geneva Convention.
Dad escapes from prison camp
Dad made escape his first priority, and he had a massive advantage. He was, after all, a native German. The month after his capture, in October 1941, he was sent with hundreds of other British POWs from one camp to another, locked in a cattle car with two armed Nazi guards. Using other prisoners to arrange a distraction, Dad jumped off the moving train through a ventilator shaft.
Unfortunately, another prisoner had done the same thing, and was noticed by the guards. Looking out, they saw Dad running for some nearby woods, and started shooting. Fortunately he was able to make it to the forest before they perfected their aim. The guards searched the area, but did not find him.
Dad learns the truth about his mother
Sleeping by day and traveling by night, Dad made his way to Hanover, determined to go to his mother’s house to get food, money and civilian clothing. Knocking on the door of his own home, he was told that his mother had committed suicide in July 1939 rather than submit to the Nazis.
Despite the immense shock of that news, he went to see an aunt and uncle, and obtained what limited help they could offer. He headed south toward Switzerland and got as far as Frankfurt before being challenged. Not having any forged identity papers, he admitted to being an escaped British officer, and he was sent back to a POW camp.
Dad disguised as German guard
With his German language skills, Peter Stevens became a key participant in several escape schemes – either through direct involvement, or helping to prepare false documents in German.
On two separate occasions in December 1941, Dad disguised himself as a German guard and escorted a group of British prisoners out the camp gate. Both times they had to turn back, but a London newspaper called it “The Boldest Escape Attempt of the War.”
Dad escapes yet again
Another time, in 1943, a tunnel was built out of a camp latrine in rural Poland, and Dad managed to travel over 300 miles in 24 hours, before being captured by the Gestapo in Cologne.
He spent a very unpleasant few days trying to persuade them that he was not a spy, but in reality an escaped British air force pilot. The Luftwaffe (which was responsible for captured airmen) eventually came looking for him, and persuaded the Gestapo to send him back to a POW camp.
Dad became one of only two Allied prisoners authorized by the Escape Committee to trade with the Germans at the massive Stalag Luft 3, home of the Great Escape (March 1944). Fans of the movie will recognize the James Garner character as “the Scrounger,” a job that was partly filled by my father.
Here’s his original Stalag Luft ID card.
While at Sagan, a fellow prisoner named Tom Slack made these sketches. I found them in my father’s belongings.
Dad receives Military Cross
By war’s end, Dad, like all POWs, had lost over 50 pounds. But he was one of the lucky survivors, and after a horrible march westward from Poland in February-March 1945, he was liberated in April near Berlin.
During his captivity, he had made eight or nine escape attempts, and actually got outside the wire fencing three times. Today, he is mentioned in numerous books, on record as one of World War Two’s greatest escape artists.
In 1946, he was awarded Britain’s Military Cross for extreme bravery. He was one of only 69 members of RAF aircrew to be awarded the Military Cross in World War Two. This unusual medal, the silver cross hanging from the purple and white ribbon, is for extreme bravery in the face of the enemy on the ground.
After the war
After the war, my father served five years in MI6, the British secret intelligence service, spying against the Soviets at the height of the Cold War.
In 1952, Dad immigrated to Canada and became a businessman. The following year, he married my mother, Claire Lalonde of Montreal.
While growing up in Canada, I was privy to only a few details of Dad’s story. Like most veterans of the war, he never spoke about his experiences.
My parents had two sons: myself on the left and Peter Junior on the right. Here’s a photo of Dad with his two boys, taken in 1961.
We did know that he was something of a hero, however. Sir Douglas Bader was famous as the British fighter pilot who had lost both legs in a pre-war crash. His story was told in the book and movie, Reach For The Sky.
My father met Bader when they were prisoners of war together. In the 1950s, Bader was working for Shell Oil and passed through Montreal on a press tour. During his stop, it was decided to offer Bader honourary membership in Dad’s RCAF Reserve squadron (401).
Since Dad was the only member of the squadron to know Bader, he was asked to make the presentation. My father is in the centre, with 401 Squadron Leader Mick Saunders on the left, and Sir Douglas Bader on the right.
On a family trip to Europe in 1967, we went to the Allied Forces Cemetery in Berlin, looking for the grave of Dad’s rear gunner. Sadly, no grave exists, and Dad shed many tears that day.
In 1979, at age 60, Dad died of a heart attack, as a consequence of chemotherapy. He took most of his secrets to the grave.
Family secret revealed at last!
About 1986, I was curious about what exactly Dad had done to be awarded the Military Cross.
I visited England to research his story. It took me many trips over 18 years – retracing Dad’s footsteps from Germany, to England, to Holland and finally to Poland – to piece it all together. I’d heard a couple of rumors that Dad was actually Jewish, but I had always discounted them.
It was only in 1996 that I finally tracked down his younger sister in London. It was then that I learned the truth, that our family had lost some ten to fifteen members to the Holocaust. It was a very emotional discovery for me, and it took me a few years to come to grips with the realization of my Jewish roots.
I believe that my father was likely the only German Jew to have piloted bombers against his own country in WW2. I have only come across two other German-Jewish RAF pilots (brothers Ken and Denis Adam), and they both flew fighters. They only got into combat in 1944, and neither was shot down or taken POW.
This story is so unique that I was determined to write a book about it. Escape, Evasion and Revenge was published by Pen & Sword in 2009. It is written by the proud son of the bravest man I’ve ever met.
About the Author, Marc Stevens
I was born in eastern Canada in the late 1950s and grew up between Ottawa and Toronto.
I have been involved in the wholesale food ingredient trade for most of my adult life, and today I travel the world selling processed cranberry products for a Quebec-based company.
Travel has been an important part of my life since the age of 10, when my parents first took me on the grand tour of Europe. I am very fortunate to have visited more than 65 countries to this point.
A few years after my father died, my older brother (Peter Junior) met and married a Jewish woman, and he later converted to that faith. It came as a welcome surprise to him and his family when I discovered the truth about our own Jewish heritage. Today, my adult niece and nephew both live and work in Israel. That is the “revenge” to which I refer in the title of my book.
When I began researching my Dad’s life, I had no intention of writing a book. But after 18 years of research, including finding and viewing a file on Dad at Britain’s National Archives marked “Secret – Sealed Until 2051,” I decided that this story was so fantastic and unique that it simply had to be told.
My only wish is that I could have known my father’s true story before he died, so that I could have told him to his face how grateful I am for his sacrifices, and how proud I am to be his son.
To visit my website, click: www.marchstevens.com.
Don’t Miss These Stories
Make sure to read the sequel to the Peter Stevens story here: Hank Herzberg Interrogated POWs.
Two more stories on my website about the fate of the Jewish people during the Second World War can be found here:
MY FAVOURITE VETERANS
The remarkable story of Peter Stevens, along with twenty-seven other original stories from Wartime Wednesdays, is available in printed book form. For more, see the book image at the bottom of this page.
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STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week. Here’s an image from June 13, 1942 showing the RAF blasting Nazi factories. To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, click Star Weekly at War .