Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Nathan “Nat” Harold Leaman World War II Escaper Extraordinaire

(1917 - 1982 )
By Martin Sugarman

Nat (born Nathaniel) Leaman was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants Sarah (nee Muscovsky) and Morris (Moshe) Leaman, also known as Leman, who were tailors from Odessa (now Ukraine). Leaman was born on September 30, 1917, at 103 Rutland Street off Sidney Street (this is now Ashfield Street, near the Royal London Hospital, today in Whitechapel) where the family were living according to the 1911 census and his Royal Air Force (RAF) record. Later the family moved to Hackney (to 236 Evering Road in Clapton). Leaman had an older sister Hilda. The family were members of the Nelson Street (Federation) Synagogue (still in use today in the heart of the old Jewish East End) where it is likely Leaman was also bar mitzvah when he was 13 years old, in 1930. Morris and Sarah are buried at Edmonton (Federation) Jewish cemetery [1]

A pre-war ladies fashion manager and salesman, Leaman originally joined the RAF on June 13, 1940,[2] and was trained initially as a Wireless Operator (WO) and Air Gunner (AG) at RAF Uxbridge, Blackpool, Hooton Park (Wirral), Topcliffe (North Yorks), Cranwell and Pyle (near Bridgend); he stated in his liberation questionnaire that he was also at RAF Kinloss where the recruits were lectured on how to behave if captured. Finally, on December 25, 1941, Leaman was based at Middleton St George aerodrome near Darlington with 76 Squadron, Bomber Group 4.[3] The Commanding Officer during his time there was Wing Commander D.O. Young. Leaman saw RAF Jewish Chaplain Goldman on February 26, 1941, and was given a Hebrew prayer book. The same month he was promoted Sergeant.

Sadly, while at Middleton, Leaman heard through the Red Cross that his mother had died in London at the end of March. He was on duty and unable to get home, so he carried out the Jewish mourning period of Shiva (from the word seven in Hebrew, as it lasts for seven days) whilst on base.[4]

War Diaries of 76 Squadron (also known as Operations Records Books) are kept at TNA in Kew and two excerpts reveal Leaman’s movements. On February 11, 1942, in Halifax R9373 W, with pilot Sgt. Roberts, Leaman was the radio operator and took part in a raid on Mannheim, with five other aircraft. They left base at 18.01 and returned safely at 01.55, successfully bombing the target from 14,000 feet.[5] It was a freezing cold night with snow on the ground over the target which helped the crew identify the exact spot.[6]

On April 10, 1942, in Halifax R9487 X, with Pilot Fl Lt Warner, he attacked Le Havre docks, taking off at 20.05 and returning safely at 01.19. The Diary says the aircraft attacked at 22.25 at 12,500 feet and the target was seen exploding. In the absence of Leaman’s logbook, these are his two recorded raids until the fateful third mission.

At 2255 hours on the night of May 3-4, 1942, his 76 Squadron Handley Page Halifax II Bomber R9451, took off for a raid on Hamburg on the aircraft’s 6th operation, and after their bombing run,[7] was shot down by a German night-fighter,[8] crashing at Ottensen near Buxtehude. A shell had gone straight through the petrol tank. As Leaman tried to bale out, his Mae West lifejacket inflated, and he could not get out of the aircraft escape hatch. He was choking from the smoke, his trousers caught fire, and he could smell his burning flesh; he had no memory of pulling his parachute cord, but only of hitting the ground hard and seriously damaging the cartilages in both knees, on which he hobbled for weeks afterwards (RN April 19, 1959, p. 4). Only two of the six crew survived and Leaman and one other man were captured.[9] Leaman had collapsed after landing and was found by a German farmer. He was taken to a military hospital in Hamburg and treated there until May 15, 1942.

According to his Jewish Chaplain card, Leaman was reported missing by the Air Ministry on the May 5, 1942, and the Jewish Chaplains informed the family and the Jewish Chronicle newspaper on May 8. His RAF Record states he was missing on May 3. The War Diary merely says the aircraft was missing. On June 15 he was reported as a Prisoner and “Safe” (RAF Record) and this was also reported, according to his Chaplain card, in the Jewish Chronicle.

Sagan – Stalag Luft III

Leaman appears to have first been taken from the hospital to Dulagluft RAF POW clearing camp at Oberursel and kept there till the end of May, and then to the NCO compound at Sagan, Stalag Luft III (as opposed to the Officers compound which was in the same camp); he was certainly there in January 1943 (RN April 19,1959, p. 3) and already part of the Escape Committee (known as “The Tally Ho Club”).

In file WO208/5443 – and dated April 1945 - at The National Archives, Leaman’s six-page liberation questionnaire with its attached longer version of his time as a POW, makes it very clear he was from the start a major player, closely involved in escape plans and a senior member of the escape committee. At Sagan, he had spent 21 days in the “cooler” for (according to the RN account) trying to cut himself out of the camp with homemade wire cutters alongside friend John Warrender. As they were worming their way through, an Alsatian guard dog sank its fangs into Leaman’s shoulder, and they were trapped. However, in WO208/3326 Leaman says this escape attempt was over a fence during fog with Warrant Officer J Austin, RAF, and that the dog had bitten Austin after it found him hiding in a latrine. It is possible, however, that these were two separate escape attempts by Leaman, that have been conflated in memory by the witnesses.

Not fazed by these failures, Leaman was soon helping the famous and heroic RAF escaper George Grimson, who was planning to leave with colleague Allan Morris during a performance of a pantomime, “Aladdin,” being put on by the POWs. Leaman and fellow POW Jock Alexander were lookouts hiding in the shadows, as Grimson and Morris, dressed as guards, and speaking German, simply walked out of the gate chatting away, pretending to have left the pantomime early. They showed their forged passes to the Germans, who were too cold and tired to bother inspecting them. The two escapers made it to the Swiss frontier before they were captured and returned to spend time in the “cooler.”

Soon after, during the summer, Leaman was designated as lookout near the washhouse whilst Grimson planned to take a ladder from the theatre and dressed as an electrician guard, nonchalantly scale the double wire fence – pretending to be checking it – whilst the Germans were distracted by a POW football match and offers of cigarettes from other POWs. He got away with it in fifteen minutes, which Leaman described as the longest fifteen minutes in his life. However, Grimson was again recaptured after five days.

Just before one of Grimson’s escapes, he told Leaman he would “never forget” Leaman for the work he had done (RN April 19, 1959, p. 3).

Described as “self-effacing” by fellow POW and author John Dominy,[10] Leaman was given the job on the Escape Committee of controlling the “trading” with German guards, knowing that if he were caught a special fate may await him because of his religion. His instinct for trading and his knowledge of several languages, including perfect German, were his stock in trade. His greatest asset, however, was a valiant heart and unswerving loyalty to the goal of escaping).[11]

Whilst a POW, Leaman was promoted Flight Sergeant on May 1, 1943.

(In one camp Leaman met pilot Harry Batchelder from Loughbrough.[12] Leaman had promised Harry that if they survived, Leaman (a tailor in civilian life) would make Harry’s first daughter’s wedding dress for free; Harry’s daughter Lynne still has that dress to this day).

Stalag Luft VI - Heydekrug

From June 1943, Leaman and his fellow POWs were moved to the RAF NCO camp at Heydekrug (Stalag Luft V1) near Memel on the Baltic coast, close to the Lithuanian border. Leaman was Prisoner No. 68. This was the most northerly of all the German POW camps. Here, he again joined the Escape Committee led by the Senior NCO and Man of Confidence Jimmy “Dixie” Deans, MBE, and his assistants “Wings” Day and George Grimson. This made Leaman a member of the famous and heroic “Sergeant Escapers” group.[13] It is believed that the character played by actor James Garner in the iconic film The Great Escape (from Stalag Luft 3, Sagan) was loosely based on Leaman’s exploits.

It was soon clear that there were too many individual freelance POWs at Heydekrug making personal profit by trading with the guards. Deans decided it should stop and that all effort should be directed to carefully targeting the bribing of guards for the common good of organizing centrally controlled escapes. Leaman was put in charge of this trading, using the contents of Red Cross parcels, such as coffee and cigarettes and chocolate to obtain clothes, badges, radio parts, cameras, and other supplies from guards who craved these items (rare in war-torn Germany), or who were simply not Nazis.[14]

Flight Engineer Fred Maltas (35 Sqdn. shot down in June 1943) was a fellow POW with Leaman and testified in his IWM tape (33043) how they first met. One day Leaman came into their barrack and asked to speak to all the new POWs. He explained what the Escape Committee was and how they needed help from everyone to assist in escape attempts even if they never got the chance to join one. Security was paramount and they would only be told what they needed to know. Fred said, “Leaman was Jewish and very proud of it, and was a smashing chap who spoke good German.” Fred joined the committee at once.

Camp Guard Joins the British

Leaman was now ordered to persuade a German guard who was an anti-Nazi Christian, and the Commandant’s clerk, Edouard Adolf Munkert, to “assist” them. He was a small, slim man, about 50 years old, who wore thick rimless glasses and used perfume. (RN April 26, 1959, p. 4). Leaman got to work on him and described him to the Escape Committee as “weak, uncertain, a bit apprehensive, but certainly anti-Hitler. This one could be our man. The one we have been waiting for.” Munkert took a lot of persuading, as his mind-set was that he was a German soldier, and as much as he would like to help, he had to be loyal to Germany. Then it occurred to Leaman what he must do. He asked Munkert to join the British Forces. One day, Munkert was taken to a secret meeting in the barber shop and formally introduced by Leaman to the Escape Committee. In an elaborate ceremony, Munkert swore allegiance to His Majesty King George VI on an English bible. The committee then promised to “look after” Munkert when the war ended.[15] Saluting his “English comrades,” he henceforth freely supplied information about the camp to the POWs.[16]

From this time onwards, Munkert warned the POWs of any impending searches. He also often came to the barracks wearing several layers of civilian clothes beneath his uniform to supply the POWs with clothes for escaping (RN March 5, 1959, p. 3).

Another Jewish POW – Jack Gilbert (see below for his true ID) who spoke perfect Polish, meanwhile worked on a Polish guard called Sommers (see below) who had contacts among the Polish resistance and could help escapers find safe houses once they were free. Leaman then explains that on September 4, 1943, he was 33rd in a tunnel ready to escape under the wire, when the ninth man out was seen, and the escape foiled. Leaman – on yet another escape attempt - was thus sent to the “cooler” cells for 21 days. Again, Leaman was promoted by the RAF, this time on November 1, 1943, to Warrant Officer.

There were many failed escape attempts among the POWs, but now the Grimson-Leaman Escape Committee were pressed to get someone home, as they had noticed vertical vapour trails in the air from what they believed to be (V2) rockets further up the Baltic coast. They realised that RAF intelligence needed to know this. So, Grimson made his sixth and last escape in January 1944 and remained at large.

It was at about this time that the German Commandant ordered the segregation of all Jewish personnel into a separate barrack; Deans angrily refused, and the Germans gave in. However, this incident may have occurred later at Fallingbostel Camp, according to another source (see below).

Meanwhile, the POWs noticed the increased presence of the Gestapo and Kriminalpolizei in camp searches, but none took the men by surprise because “of the magnificent contact work (with the guards) put in by Leaman and others.”[17]

By April 6, 1944, Leaman (also known as Ned Leeman in some sources, possibly to hide his Jewish identity), was up for another turn to escape. His aim was to link up with the resistance network (now formed by escaper Grimson, outside the camp and who had established an escape line with the help of the Polish underground). But Leaman’s forged papers were not yet ready and so the attempt was postponed till midday on April 13.

Leaman was to be dressed as a “ferret” (Abwehr camp security guard) in overalls and a forage cap (though Fred Maltas says it was as a Luftwaffe serviceman), worn over a civilian suit provided by Munkert and carrying an iron spike like the ferrets used to prod for tunnels.[18]

On April 12, Munkert had escorted Leaman to hide in the adjoining American compound and at noon next day he sat waiting in a barrack room. Given the all clear, Leaman walked in his disguise towards the gate in the north fence.[19] However, he cleverly walked first through four huts to give the guards the impression he was on security duty and the American POWs were so convinced that he was a real German, that they even warned that ferrets were on the loose! Soon he approached the warning wire, beyond which no POW could go without being shot at. He called out in German to the tower guards that he was crossing over and made his way along the wire corridor towards the north gate, acting his part perfectly, loudly muttering insults about Americans for good effect, whilst probing for pretend tunnels.

As described in Clutton-Brock’s book (pp.104-105), Leaman showed his pass to the guard, and later stated, “I believe the guard recognized me, but I cannot be certain of this. He allowed me to pass through the gate and then shouted at me that I must book out (sign out) at the nearby guardroom. I stated that this was not necessary, but he insisted.” (In the Reynolds News version, May 17, 1959, p. 4, Leaman explained that he feared the worst as there would clearly be no record that he had signed in – this was a new rule – and so it was inevitable they would discover who he was. Also, the guard was an NCO and not a regular private soldier. He had drawn his revolver, insisting Leaman obeyed). Leaman continued, “I then went to the guardroom and reported to the Feldwebel in charge. He asked whether I was new to the camp, and I replied in the affirmative. He then asked which Company I was attached to, and I stated I was with the 3rd Company. He then examined my gate pass.” (In the Reynolds News version, Leaman claimed his name was Karl Schmidt from Dresden, a genuine ID Munkert had arranged for Leaman to use ).[20]

The Feldwebel, who was not fooled by this performance, noted that there was no signing-in record and so telephoned to check on this “Karl Schmidt.” On replacing the telephone, he announced that there was no such person posted from the 3rd Company, and said, “I think you are an escaping prisoner of war.” He arrested Leaman and ordered a guard to fetch Unteroffizier Heinze of the Abwehr. Realizing that the game was up, Leaman valiantly tried as surreptitiously as he could to burn his incriminating documents in the guard room stove. He offered the Germans a cigarette and, pretending to get a light, he made for the stove and shoved his wallet in, pushing it as deep as he could into the flames. But he was foiled by Heinze’s untimely arrival.

Heinze smelt burning, drew his pistol, and rushed at Leaman, smashing him in the mouth with the butt, whilst screaming at the others for letting him near the stove. Leaman fell backwards, his mouth oozing blood and shattered teeth.[21]

Some charred papers were retrieved before they were totally consumed. Leaman, who had also badly burnt his right hand in the stove, was dragged with his arm twisted behind his back to be questioned by a Major Peschel, the Abwehr Commander. He was strip-searched and asked to rinse his mouth.

Peschel interrogated him for an hour. The Germans were rattled by the real Luftwaffe uniform and civilian suit he wore and the extraordinary authenticity of his papers. They were determined to discover how he got them. Leaman refused to answer any questions. He was put into the “cooler” still wearing his civilian clothes.

Leaman said, “Sometime later I was taken at night to the guard room and again interrogated for four hours, this time by members of the Criminal Police, large men with shaved heads, wearing breeches and jackboots (Reynolds News, May 24, 1959, p. 4). I refused to answer all questions or to make any statement. Whilst on my way back to the cell, I saw Sommers being arrested. We were asked if we knew each other, and we both denied it.

Later that day, Heinze came to my cell and stated that I was in a very dangerous position, that I was suspected of sabotage and espionage activities and could be sentenced to death. He asked me to make a statement about my intentions of leaving the camp. I refused to make any statement.”

The following day, April 14, The Commandant, Oberst Von Norberg, asked Leaman to make a statement. Again, Leaman refused, but realizing the seriousness of the situation, requested the return of his RAF uniform to remove the threat of being shot for being found in civilian clothes. But this, he was told, was a matter for the Abwehr. The next day, Leaman bluffed one of the guards into bringing him his toilet equipment, using a chit signed by Heinze, but Deans and Morris used the chit to send Leaman his RAF uniform with the toilet items after which Leaman felt, “just that teeny bit more secure.”[22]

Leaman remained in great pain; his fingers began to curl as the burnt skin contracted, and his mouth caused him great discomfort until the British MO – Captain Pollock RAMC[23] – was allowed to treat him. One evening, while in his 6 foot by 4 foot cell, he heard the bolt on his door draw open and the night guard fell into his cell claiming to be ill. But Leaman realized it was a trick to get him to try and run so they could shoot him “trying to escape.” He walked to the guard room and telephoned Heinze to tell him his guard was a very ham actor!

Leaman wrote, “When Heinze saw me in uniform later that day, he became very angry. No attempt was made to take the uniform away from me. In the afternoon the Commandant came to my cell and asked how I had obtained my uniform. I stated that Heinze had given me permission, but that as he had spoken in English there must have been a mistake. The Commandant then said that he would sentence me, not for attempting to escape, but for wearing a German military uniform. I was sentenced to seven days in cells.”

Meanwhile, Munkert was told to get a message to Grimson to inform him of Leaman’s arrest but, tragically, soon after, Grimson was caught and murdered by the Gestapo (he has no known grave).[24]

As a result of this affair, the Germans knew unreliable and anti-Nazi guards must have been helping the escapers and several were arrested and tortured. Sommers asked the escapers for a pistol, and one was smuggled to him, and he committed suicide before they could execute him (this according to Fred Maltas; but Clutton-Brock and Leaman say he hung himself to avoid torture). Others were tortured, tried and shot, including Munkert.

Leaman was returned to the camp and kept permanently under strict supervision by armed guards.[25] A few days later came the terrible news of the murders of the “Great Escape” men at Sagan, where Leaman and friends had once been prisoners.

Moved West

After some four weeks of further interrogations, Leaman was released from the cells on May 11, 1944. Soon the men were all moved west by foot and then rail to Stalag 357 (Kopernikus) in appallingly crowded trucks guarded by heavily armed sentries. The Russians were closing in from the east. After six weeks they were moved again, this time to Fallingbostel near Hanover in July 1944, where conditions were also appalling. In WO 208/5443 at TNA, Leaman typed an eight-page, liberation document, with a very detailed description of the bad conditions at Fallingbostel – poor huts, poor food, massive overcrowding, bad health and hygiene conditions, few Red Cross parcels, and brutal guards.[26]

Though Leaman did not mention it anywhere, it was in October /November 1944 that a Flt. Sgt. Geoffrey W. Hall wrote in his diary on November 7[27] that “two Jewish (air) crews who arrived some weeks before had been allocated quarters in a separate hut from the main barrack block. This I suppose in accordance with the general official treatment of Jews by the Nazis……windows were unglazed and open to the weather. Also, there is no furniture nor beds (for them). A cowshed is better furnished. The camp leader, Dixie Deans, has asked us all to provide spare blankets and clothes for these unfortunate men.” This is yet another example of what awaited Jewish POWs – and indeed all Jews in other countries – had the Nazis won the war. The first step towards extermination was separation, including POWs. Leaman and many other Jewish air crews seem to have “slipped through the net” and were not segregated.

On January 15, 1945,[28] over six months after his escape attempt at Heydekrug, Leaman was taken by the Germans to face a court martial in Hanover and found guilty of having used forged documents in his last escape attempt the previous April at Stalag Luft VI. During the trial he was defended by Deans,[29] though Clutton-Brock and Leaman say it was South African barrister Sgt Meskin and a third source claims it was escaper Peter Thomas (later an MP).[30] Leaman was given three months hard labour but in the chaos of the last weeks of the war, he never served it and was sent back to camp.

Leaman’s cousin Harold, who at time of this writing is 90 years old and himself a WWII Army veteran, worked for Nat after the war and heard stories about Leaman’s captivity. Harold said that during one escape attempt Leaman got away dressed in a mock German officer’s uniform – a potentially capital offense. Leaman was nearly executed by firing squad but, with the Allies closing in, the Germans decided at the last moment not to shoot him.

Harold related that Leaman made it out of his last camp in the last few days of the war and reached American lines.[31] He and seven others slipped away on April 13, 1945, into the woods near Trauen[32] while on a march towards Lubeck. Leaman told Harold that he then guided the Americans back to the camp and that together they disposed of some of the more brutal guards before the main Allied force arrived to establish order.[33]

Daughter Sharron said Leaman had told her that he got to Sweden before the end of the war and was repatriated to Britain on April 22, 1945, according to his RAF record. However, there is no mention of this sojourn in Sweden in the sources.

The photo of Leaman – supplied by his niece Stephanie Taylor nee Leaman, who lives in Israel – shows Leaman with the RAF single-wing “S” (Signaller) badge, which indicates it was taken after Leaman’s liberation, when it seems he had become a Signals Officer (the badge was not issued until 1944).


Post-war, Leaman attended various RAF Escaper and Squadron reunions. Certainly, many of his comrades attended Leaman’s family functions including his own wedding and his son’s Bar Mitzvah and daughter’s wedding – where they always had a large table together and did some hard drinking! The former POWs were also frequent visitors to his home. They included among others the actor Peter Butterworth, the MP Peter Thomas (later Conservative Secretary of State for Wales and Baron Thomas), and, of course, “Wings” Day and “Dixie” Dean.

In March 1960, Leaman and other Jewish and non-Jewish escapers fought a campaign to stop the banning of Jews from joining local golf clubs in Britain. He and Cyril Rofe (a fellow Jewish escaper from the RAF – see below) appeared on the front page of the Reynolds News (March 20, 1960) where Leaman was quoted as saying, “Life in German prison camps taught us tolerance and we hope to get the backing of the RAF Escapers Society for our campaign.” Cyril Rofe added, “We cannot condemn Apartheid in South Africa and turn a blind eye on English golf clubs barring Jews.” They planned to propose a Jewish Victoria Cross (Britain’s most prestigious honor) holder for membership of a golf club practicing race discrimination, to see if even he would be rejected. The result of the campaign was not published in later editions but was apparently featured in the Jewish Chronicle.

Leaman worked in the fashion wholesale business in London, and married Evelyn Ziskind at the New West End Synagogue, Bayswater, in February 1947; they had two children, Sharron and Stephen and lived in Cricklewood, Willesden, St Johns Wood and later Bushey. Sadly, Evelyn died quite young and Leaman remarried, to Pamela, and then moved out to Sunningdale in Berkshire.

Leaman started writing his memoirs and called it “Appointment with Freedom” but, tragically, the manuscript was lost after his death.[34] His Mention in Despatches (MiD) was gazetted on January 31, 1947, for “Distinguished Service” (London Gazette, p. 559).

Leaman also became a Mason in 1952 and was a member of the Astral Seven Lodge in Great Queen Street, becoming its Master, as well as member of the Israel Lodge.[35] In the late1960’s, an American film producer met with Leaman at his home, to discuss a film about POW escapers. He was accompanied by actor Stephen Boyd, who played the Roman charioteer opposite Charlton Heston in Ben Hur, and was to play Leaman in the film. Sadly, nothing ever came of the project; however, Leaman was among the consultants to the producers of the famous film, The Great Escape, and was invited to the premier when it was released.

Leaman died too young in 1982 at age 64. Sharron said that many RAF Escapers Club and old Squadron comrades attended the funeral. Evelyn and Leaman are both buried at Bushey Jewish cemetery next to each other, in graves 6 J 326/327

Leaman was awarded the 1939-45 Star, War Medal, and the Air Crew Star. From 2013, he was also eligible for the Bomber Command clasp, worn on the 1939-45 Star ribbon.[36] Having escaped by parachute from a disabled or shot down aircraft, Leaman was a full member of the Caterpillar Club and received the club Badge, which is a small caterpillar shaped clip (informal issue) that was affixed to the Aircrew Star or 1939-45 Star ribbon (the caterpillar evoking silk thread from which parachutes were made).[37]

Appendix 1

It is interesting to note that out of approximately 10,000 RAF POWs, there were only 34 RAF escapers in WWII, who made “Home Runs” back to Britain, and at least three were Jewish. This is a huge proportion given the tiny Jewish population – and they won the attached awards for bravery and determination.

999513 Sgt Derrick David Nabarro DCM, 10th Squadron, escaped from Stalag IXC, Bad Sulza, November 1941 [38]. For details of this escape see “For Distinguished Conduct in the Field – the DCM 1939-92,” George A Brown, Western Canadian Distributors, 1993, pp 369-70. Also, his book, Wait for the Dawn, Cassell 1952 and web sites describe his story.

Sgt Yacov Gewelber/Gevelber aka Jack Gilbert, MM – an Israeli (Palestinian Jew), born in Poland where his parents had been murdered, escaped to Israel, joined the RAF and captured in Greece (Leaman was asked to check his ID by the Escape Committee, by befriending him – he could have been a German stool pigeon/plant - but Leaman was soon convinced after he tested him in Yiddish and Hebrew). Escaped from Hydekrug April 1944. His escape report is held at the Imperial War Museum Archives.

W/O Cyril Rofe, MM – born in Cairo, April 11, 1916, educated at Clifton College Bristol, and Switzerland, joined the Scots Guards and then the RAF; shot down with 40 Squadron on June 11, 1941 – switched ID with a soldier named Kacenelenbeigen, an Israeli (Palestinian Jew), at Stalag VIIIB, Lamsdorf, and joined the resistance with the Polish and Russian partisans till liberation, together with two Israeli/Palestinian Jewish soldiers, Cpl. Karl Hillebrand and Josef Luxemburg. Cyril met up with the two Israelis after the war, who were then serving in the Israeli Army.[39] Cyril’s book Against the Wind, (Hodder and Stoughton 1956), tells his story.

Appendix 2

Leaman’s daughter recalls that in the late 1970’s or thereabouts, Leaman took part in a discussion at the Oxford or Cambridge University Union on RAF Escapers and his own experience, chaired she thinks by the actor James Fox or Edward Fox. It was broadcast on BBC Radio. A family copy of the tape existed but disappeared in the house clearance when Leaman died. Searches by Archivists on behalf of the author, at the Unions, various University and City libraries, and the BBC and British Library sound archives, however, have failed to turn up any surviving copies of this tape.

The author would like to thank the following who also assisted him in this research:

Janet Adegoke of Hackney Central Library

The staff at The British Library in Euston, The National Archives at Kew, and the RAF Museum Reading Room at Hendon (especially Peter Devitt, RAF Museum Archivist)

Allison Cullingford, JB Priestley Library, University of Bradford

Leaman’s second cousins, Stephanie Taylor nee Leaman and her brother Mark Leaman, both of Israel

Second cousin Philip Leaman of Leeds, second cousin Susan Levinson of Leigh-on-Sea, and Ian and Harold Leaman of London

Jane Rosen and colleagues of the Imperial War Museum staff

Members of the amazing SOE chat room for the initial information on Jack/Jacob Gilbert/Gewelbar, MM[40]

(The author is grateful to Leaman’s daughter Sharron Benaich of London, for her superb efforts in providing information about her father’s story. Leaman was also a first cousin of the author’s uncle, Tony/Archie Leaman, and so related by marriage. Some of Leaman’s story is taken from interviews he gave to journalist George Pollock of the now closed Sunday newspaper, Reynolds News (abbreviated as RN in the references below), between April and May 1959).

Photo courtesy of the Leaman family


[1] My thanks as ever to Noson Kahler of the Federation of Synagogues grave records section.

[2] WO344/182/1.

[3] AJEX Jewish Chaplain card.

[4] Communication with Nat’s daughter Sharron in February 2017.

[5] AIR 27/650/18.

[7] WO208/3326/2993.

[8] W.R. Chorley, To See the Dawn Breaking: 76 Squadron Operations, (Chorley, 1981), pp. 37 and 228.

[9] Sgt C R Fox was captured with Nat; the remaining crew died, and Pilot Sgt J B Williams of Mauritius is buried at Hamburg. The other men have no known grave and were Sgt H E Owens, Sgt B Jackson and Sgt A W Jones (W.R. Chorley, RAF Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, Vol. 3 (Midland Counties Publications, 1994), p. 85.

[10] John Dominy, The Sergeant Escapers, (London: Ian Allan 1974), p 9 and passim.

[11] Dominy, p. 53.

[12] Loughbrough Echo newspaper, (August 2015).

[13] Among the thousands of POWs in Heydekrug, an unsigned liberation report in WO208/3286B, describes Leaman as one of the top 25 most hardworking and successful escape planners and escapers in the camp.

[14] William Ash, Under the Wire, (London: Bantam Books, 2005), pp. 280-81.

[15] Dominy, p. 83.

[17] Dominy, p. 100.

[18] Patrick Bishop, The Cooler King: The True Story of William Ash, the Greatest Escaper of World War II, (London: Atlantic Books, 2015), pp. 237-8.

[19] Dominy, p. 102.

[20] Nat’s escape is described in the exact same way in the book, Aidan Crawley, Escape from Germany: True Stories of PoW Escapes in WWII, (Collins, 1956), p. 130, BUT he does not name Leaman as the escaper. Similarly, his escape is detailed in “RAF; Escape from Germany,” Air Ministry, 1951, pp. 293-297 passim, RAF Museum catalogue X001-4922. In the latter case, it is believed that it was security reasons that prevented the naming of surviving escapers at the time, early in the Cold War.

[21] Immediately after the war, Leaman had to have all his teeth removed because of this brutal attack on him, and he had to wear dentures all his life. His daughter remembers well also the severe burns scars on his hands, and he also had shrapnel in his feet from the incident when his plane was shot down, for the remainder of his life.

[22] Dominy, p. 105.

[23] Dr. Pollock was an Irish national and was offered repatriation by the Germans, as a neutral, but declined, saying he wished to stay with his patients (“Till Journey’s End,” E. Bates, unpublished manuscript, RAF Hendon, X004-6068).

[24] Clutton-Brock, pp.104-105.

[25] Fred Maltas taped testimony. Fred also mentions a Palestinian Jewish (Israeli) RAF man captured in Crete, who used the alias Jack Gilbert, who made a home run to Sweden with the help of Grimson’s escape line. His real Israeli name was Jacob (Yaacov) Gevelber/Gewelbar and he was awarded the MM for bravery. This is also substantiated in Clutton-Brock and Dominy in some detail and at TNA – see appendix 1.

[26] It was sometime in these camps that Leaman studied for a languages degree in French and German; many POWs took part in the so called “Barbed Wire University” schemes that had been agreed between the Germans, the Red Cross who supplied teaching aids and materials, and the British University Examination Boards who agreed to supply examination papers. These were then properly sat and invigilated in the camps, and then sent for marking to the UK so awards could be formally made (telephone conversation with Nat’s daughter in February 2017). The splendid book by Midge Gillies, The Barbed-Wire University: The Real Lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War (Aurum Books, 2012), gives chapter and verse on this subject. Heydekrug, for example, was known to have one of the most extensive POW camp libraries with more than 6,000 volumes and 3,000 “students” enrolled.

[27] IWM reference Microfilm copy PP/MCR/340, unnumbered page but around p. 300.

[28] Daughter Sharron says Leaman attempted to escape on three occasions, and this is confirmed in Nat’s second debrief account in WO344/182/1 at TNA in Kew, made in April 1945.

[29] Dominy, p. 119.

[30] Calton Younger, No Flight from the Cage, (Sentinel, 1995), p. 167.

[31] Clutton-Brock, p.497, note 17.

[32] Clutton-Brock, p. 120 and WO208/3326/2993 at TNA.

[33] Telephone interview with Harold in December 2016.

[34] Telephone and e mail exchanges with daughter Sharron Benaich nee Leaman in December 2016.

[35] Information from the Masons Archivist April 2017.

[36] MoD Medals Office letter of 22/4/2017 confirming these awards to the author. Also, on his Official RAF War Record from RAF Cranwell.

[37] The Club is now run by a private company that makes parachutes (Airborne Systems, in Bridgend, South Wales) who keep the records of membership, as most members have now passed away. Secretary Maureen Udy confirmed that Leaman was a member (telephone conversation April 14, 2017).

[38] See Alan Cooper, Free to Fight Again: RAF Escapes and Evasions 1940-1945, (London: William Kimber 1988), pp. 37-43.

[39] Paul Brickhill, Escape or Die: True stories of heroic escape in the Second World War, (London: 1952), pp. 183-203.