Almost 40 years after the publication of the acclaimed Dutch version of the book, known Dutch historian and author Hans Onderwater MBE recently finished ‘JOURNEY TO THE HORIZON’, the epic story of Escape and Evasion during World War Two. This time he did more research, ably assisted by retired New Zealand police officer Brian Lissette, whose late uncle is one of the airmen mentioned in the book.
‘JOURNEY TO THE HORIZON’ tells the story of three fighter pilots and two Lancaster crews who were shot down by the Germans. It follows them on the run, hiding, in captivity and in some cases in death. They were Britons, Canadians, New Zealanders and Americans. Five of them met in Paris while being guided by members of the Comete Escape line, others evaded in different ways. Some endured the harsh life in a POW-camp, while in one case an airmen even ended up in Buchenwald concentration camp. Those who died now rest at various cemeteries in France.
Main character is Donald Kenyon Willis, an American pilot who fought with the Fins against the Russians in 1940, then joined the Norwegian Naval Air Arm against the Germans, escaped to the Shetlands, joined the RAF as one of the first Eagle Squadron pilots, until he joined the USAAF. After the war and a spell as a base commander in Austria and Germany he became a test pilot in JATO (Jet Assisted Take-Off) experiments from Wright-Patterson Air Base in Ohia.
He was one of the last five airmen to evade capture via de Pyrenees, the night before D-Day with American Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas H. Hubbard and 2nd Lieutenant Jack Cornett and Britons Pilot Officer Len Barnes and Sergeant Ron Emeny.
In the book Onderwater and Lissette also tell about the sometimes dreadful experiences of the fellow crew members of Barnes and Emeny after their two Lancasters crashed in France. In the course of the research Hans Onderwater followed the same evasion route, meeting the helpers who risked their lives, crossed the Pyrenees on foot with the Basque guide of 1944 until he too reached Gibraltar. He visited Stalag Luft 1 Barth on the Baltic coast and Stalag Luft 3 Sagan in Poland, Buchenwald near Weimar and Ravensbrück near Berlin. He spoke with the five airmen or their families and corresponded with the others. During the last forty years he interviewed over 100 people who were in some major or minor way connected to the airmen and their experiences.
Brian Lissette, being a policeman, managed to find relatives of all airmen involved in the three fighters and two bomber aircraft. Himself being connected to one of the airmen he followed an amazing trail which ended at the grave of his uncle Warrant Officer Leslie Lissette, who stayed behind the controls of his burning Lancaster until the living members of his crew had successfully jumped. When it was his turn the aircraft was too low for him to be able to take to his parachute and Skipper Lissette died in the aircraft.
The book is a rare example of intense research by two determined men, who visited each other and became friends. The book is the result of mutual interest, friendship and a quest for the truth and must be read to understand the experiences of the airmen, the resistance members and the families who had to wait for many months to know the fate of their loved ones.