On 11 May 1944 – just four weeks before D-Day – 67 American heavy bombers dropped 168 tons of bombs on the sunlit French town of Épinal on the Moselle river. Unbeknownst to the aircrew of the ‘Mighty Eighth’, this was the temporary home of over 3,000 Indian prisoners of war, brought there by the occupying Germans a few months before, from camps across the Third Reich.
The bombs pierced the camp wall in places, and the prisoners – many of whom had made escape attempts previously – grabbed food and clothes and headed off, dodging German bullets. They knew that the Swiss frontier was just 100 kilometres away to the south, and that, if they could cross the border, they would be safe. Having been inside for up to four years, they were eager to get home.
For the next few weeks, the fields, mountains and forests of eastern France became the hiding place for hundreds of Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Gurkhas. By the end of June, a staggering figure of 500 had arrived and were being housed in camps in northern Switzerland by a nation with long experience of looking after those escaping from conflict.
This was the largest successful escape of the Second World War.
All of this took place just six weeks after the famous ‘Great Escape’ from Stalag Luft III. In that escape, 76 men got out, 50 were shot by the Gestapo, and just three (two Norwegians and a Dutchman) made it back to Britain. In contrast, the 500 Indian POWs who escaped from Epinal in that same season are completely unknown. No film has been made, no book written of this astonishing feat.
Tracing the paths of 8 individuals who were at Epinal, this book tells the incredible true story of those 500 and the greatest escape of the Second World War.