Fl Sgt Nat Leaman RAF – escaper extraordinaire

930291,Warrant Officer /Radio Officer Nathan ‘Nat‘ Harold Leaman, RAFVR – heroic Jewish escaper extraordinaire

By Martin Sugarman, Archivist of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women (AJEX) of the UK

(The author is grateful to Nat’s daughter Sharron Benaich of London, for her superb efforts in providing information about her father’s story. Nat Leaman was also a first cousin of the author’s uncle, Tony/Archie Leaman, and so related by marriage. Some of Nat’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).

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). Nat was born on 30th September 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 RAF Record. Later the family moved to Hackney  (to  236, Evering Road in Clapton). Nat 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 Nat was also barmitzvah 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, Nat Leaman originally joined the RAF on 13th June 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 25/12/41, Nat 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.  Nat saw RAF Jewish Chaplain Goldman on 26/2/41, and was given a Hebrew prayer book. Later he met the Rev. Isaacs on 14/7/41 and Rev. Joseph on 21/4/42. Nat’s RAF Record shows he was promoted Sergeant on 2/8/41.

Sadly whilst  at Middleton, Nat 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 Nat’s movements. On 11th February 1942, in Halifax R9373 W, with pilot Sgt. Roberts, Nat was the radio operator and took part in a raid on Mannheim, with 5 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 and this greatly helped the crew identify the exact spot [6]. On 10th April 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 Nat’s log book, these are his two  recorded raids until the fateful third mission.

At 2255  hours on the night of 3rd/4th May 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 Nat tried to bale out, his Mae West life jacket inflated and he could not get out of the aircraft escape hatch. His trousers caught fire and he could smell his burning flesh and felt he was choking from the smoke; he had no memory of pulling his parachute cord, but only of  hitting the ground hard and damaging seriously the cartilages in both knees, on which he hobbled for weeks afterwards (RN 19/4/1959 p.4). Only two of the 6 crew survived and Nat and one other  man were captured[9].  Nat  had collapsed after landing and was found by a German farmer  and then taken to a military hospital in Hamburg and treated there until 15/5/42.

According to his Jewish Chaplain card, Nat was reported missing by the Air Ministry on the 5th May 1942 and the Jewish Chaplains informed the family and the Jewish Chronicle newspaper on the 8th May.  His RAF Record states he was Missing on 3rd May. The War Diary merely says the aircraft was missing. On 15th June 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

Nat 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 19/4/1959 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, Nat’s POW 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 main player, closely involved in escape and a senior member of the escape committee.  At Sagan he had himself spent 21 days in the ‘cooler’ for (according to the RN account) trying to cut himself out of the camp with home made wire cutters alongside friend John Warrender. As they were worming their way through, an Alsatian guard dog sank its fangs into Nat’s shoulder and they were trapped. However, in WO208/3326 Nat 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 in fact these were two separate escape attempts by Nat, that have been conflated in memory by the witnesses.

Not fazed by these failures, soon after Nat was 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. Nat 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 much  about inspecting them.  The two escapers got a long way but were sadly eventually re-captured at the Swiss frontier and returned to spend time in the ‘cooler’.

Soon after, during the summer, Nat was designated as lookout near the wash-house  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 cigarettes from other  POWs. He got away with it in fifteen minutes, which Nat described as the longest fifteen minutes in his life!  However, Grimson was again recaptured after 5 days.

Described as ‘self-effacing’ by fellow POW and author John Dominy [10], Nat was given the job, on the Escape Committee, of controlling the ‘trading’ with German guards ‘with great distinction, knowing that if he were caught a special fate may await him because of his religion. His natural trading instinct 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 cause ‘(of escaping) [11].

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

(In one camp Nat met pilot Harry Batchelder from Loughbrough [12]. Nat had promised  Harry that if they survived , Nat (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 Nat (and his fellow POWs) was moved to the RAF NCO camp at Heydekrug  (Stalag Luft V1) near Memel on the Baltic  coast, close to the Lithuanian border. Nat was Prisoner No. 68. This was the most northerly of all the German POW camps. Here, he again took up his role as an important  member of the Escape Committee,  led by the Senior NCO and Man of Confidence,  the indefatigable Jimmy ‘Dixie’ Deans, MBE and his assistants ‘Wings’ Day, and once again, the amazing George Grimson. Nat was thus one 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 Nat Leaman’s exploits. The heroic Grimson told him, just before one of Grimson’s escapes, that he would ‘never forget’ Nat for the work he had done (RN 19/4/1959, p. 3).

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

Flight Engineer Fred Maltas (35 Sqdn. shot down in June 1943) was a fellow POW with Nat and testified in his IWM tape (33043) how they first met. One day Nat 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 themselves may never get the chance to actually be an escaper. Security was paramount and they would only be told what they needed to know. Fred said , ‘Nat was Jewish and very proud of it and was a smashing chap who spoke good German’. Fred joined at once.

Nat 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 26/4/1959. Page 4). Nat 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 Nat what he must do. He asked Munkert to join the British Forces and one day, an extraordinary ceremony took place. Munkert, was taken to a secret meeting and bare-headed in the barber shop, was formally introduced by Nat to the Escape Committee and  swore allegiance, in an elaborate ceremony,  to His Majesty King George VI on an English bible; the oath thus witnessed by the Committee, they 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 often came to the barracks wearing several layers of civilian clothes beneath his uniform to supply the POWs with clothes for escaping (RN 3/5/1959, page 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. Nat then explains that on 4th September 1943 he was 33rd in a tunnel ready to escape under the wire, when the 9th man out was seen and the escape foiled. Nat – on yet another escape attempt - was thus sent to the “cooler” cells for 21 days. Again, Nat was promoted by the RAF, this time on 1st November 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 6th and last escape in January 1944 and remained at large. 

It was at about this time that  the German Kommandant 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 Nat Leaman  and others’ [17]

By  6th April 1944, Nat (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 Nat’s forged papers were not yet ready and so the attempt was postponed till midday on April  13th instead .

Nat 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 12th Munkert had escorted Nat to hide in the adjoining American compound  and at noon next day he sat waiting in a barrack room. Given the all clear, Nat 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), Nat showed his pass to the guard, and later stated, “ I believe the guard recognised 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, 17/5/1959, page 4, Nat 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 Nat  obeyed). Nat 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, Nat claimed his name was Karl Schmidt from Dresden, a genuine ID Munkert had arranged for Nat 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. Realising 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 Nat smashing  him in the mouth with the butt, whilst screaming at the others for letting him near the stove. Nat fell backwards, his mouth oozing blood and shattered teeth  [21].

Some charred papers were retrieved before they were totally consumed. Nat , who had  also badly burnt his right hand in the stove, was dragged, with twisted arm behind his back, to be questioned by a Major Peschel, the Abwehr Commander. He was strip searched and then he asked to rinse his mouth but was refused, being first interrogated for an hour by Peschel. 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. Nat refused to answer any questions. He was put into the ‘cooler’ still wearing his civilian clothes.

Nat said, “Some time 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 jack boots (Reynolds News 24/5/1959, p4). 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, 14th April, The Kommandant himself , Oberst Von Norberg, asked Nat to make a statement. Again Leaman refused, but realising the seriousness of the situation, requested the return of his RAF uniform in order to remove the threat of being shot for being found in civilian clothes . But this, he was told, was a matter for the Abwehr. Next day, though, Nat 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 Nat his vital RAF uniform, with the toilet items, after which Nat felt, ‘just that teeny bit more secure’ [22].

Nat 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 whilst in his 6 feet by 4 feet cell he heard the bolt on his door draw open and the night guard fell into his cell claiming to be ill. But Nat realised 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!

Nat 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 Kommandant 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 Kommandant 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”.

Munkert meanwhile 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 Nat say he was able to hang himself to avoid torture); others were tortured, tried and shot , including Munkert. Nat 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 Nat and friends had once been prisoners.


After  some 4 weeks of further interrogations, Nat was released from the cells on May 11th, 1944. Soon the men were all moved west by foot and then rail to Stalag 357 (Kopernikus) in appallingly crowded trucks guarded behind wire by heavily armed sentries. The Russians were closing in from the east. After 6 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, Nat typed an eight page, liberation document, with a very detailed description of the bad conditions at Fallingbostel – poor huts, poor food, massive over-crowding, bad health and hygiene conditions, few Red Cross parcels and brutal guards  [26].

Though Nat did not mention it anywhere, it was in October /November 1944 that a Flt. Sgt. Geoffrey W. Hall wrote in his diary on November 7th  [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 of course among military POWs. Nat and of course many other Jewish air crews, seem to have ‘slipped through the net’ with regard to this typical barbaric German order, on this occasion (see above).

On 15th January 1945 [28], over 6 months after his escape attempt at Heydekrug, Nat  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 Nat say it was South African barrister Sgt Meskin and yet a third source  claims it was escaper Peter Thomas, later an MP [30]. Nat was given 3 months hard labour but in the chaos of the last weeks of the war, he never served it and was sent back to camp.

Nat’s  cousin Harold who at time of writing is 90 years old and himself a WW2 Army veteran, and being nearer in age to Nat, worked for him after the war and Nat occasionally told  him stories about his captivity . He said that during this period Nat was stood before a firing squad as he had previously got away dressed in a mock German officer’s uniform – a potentially capital offence . But at the last moment  the Germans decided not to execute him as the Allies were so close.

Harold related that Nat did in the end make 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 13th April 1945, into woods near Trauen [32], whilst on a camp transfer forced march towards Lubeck.  Nat told Harold that he then guided the Americans back to the camp and it seems that together they disposed of some of the more brutal guards themselves before the main Allied  force arrived to establish order [33].  Daughter Sharron said Nat had told her that he actually finally got to Sweden before war’s end , from where he was repatriated to Britain.  This is given as 22nd April 1945 on his RAF Record. However, there is no mention of this sojourn in Sweden in the sources.

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


Post war, Nat attended various RAF Escaper and Squadron reunions but little is known of the detail according to his daughter. Certainly many of his comrades attended  Nat’s family functions including his own wedding and his son’s Barmitzvah 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, Nat and other Jewish and non-Jewish Escapers fought a campaign to stop the banning of Jews joining local golf clubs in Britain. He and Cyril Rofe (a fellow Jewish escaper from the RAF – see below) appeared in Reynolds News, front page 20/3/1960, where Nat 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 VC holder for membership of a golf club practising 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.

Nat 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. Evelyn sadly died quite young and Nat remarried, to Pamela, and then moved out to Sunningdale in Berkshire.  He started writing his memoires and called it ‘Appointment with Freedom’, but tragically the manuscript  was lost  after his death, in the  house clearance that inevitably follows such events [34]. His Mention in Despatches (MiD)  was gazetted on 31st January 1947, for “Distinguished Service” (page 559 London Gazette).

Nat  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 Nat at his home, to discuss a film about POW escapers, and with him came actor Stephen Boyd (who played the Roman Charioteer opposite Charlton Heston in the famous film, ‘Ben Hur’)  who was to play Nat in the film; however, nothing  sadly ever came of the project. However, Nat and others did act as consultants to the producers of the famous  film, ‘The Great Escape”, and were invited to the Premier when it was released.

Nat died too young in 1982 aged only 64 years. Sharron said that a large number of RAF Escapers Club and old Squadron comrades attended the funeral. Evelyn and Nat are both buried at Bushey Jewish cemetery next to each other, in graves 6 J 326/327

Nat’s medals were 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, Nat 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 WW2, who made ‘Home Runs’ back to Britain, and three at least 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 (Nat Leaman was asked to check his ID by the Escape Committee, by befriending him – he could have been a German stool pigeon/plant - but  Nat 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, 11/4/16, educated at Clifton College Bristol, and Switzerland,  joined the Scots Guards and then the RAF ; shot down with 40 Squadron on 11/6/41 –  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

Nat’s daughter recalls that in the late 1970’s or thereabouts, Nat 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 Nat 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

Nat’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]


[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

[6] ‘Into the Night Sky; RAF Middleton St George’, P. Tweddle, Sutton Books, 2007 page 45

[7]  WO208/3326/2993

[8] ‘To see the dawn breaking; history of 76 Squadron”, W Chorley, 1981, pages 37  and 228 (privately published)

[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 B Jackson and Sgt A W Jones (W R Chorley, “Bomber Command Losses of WW2’, Volume for 1942, Alden Press, 1994, p85)

[10] “The Sergeant Escapers”’ John Dominy, Ian Allan, London 1974, page 9 and passim

[11] Dominy page 53

[12] Loughbrough Echo newspaper Aug 2015

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

[14] “Under the Wire”, William Ash, Bantam Books 2005, London, pp280-81

[15] Dominy page 83

[16] “Footprints on the Sands of Time”, Oliver Clutton-Brock, Grubb Street , London, 2003, p 100

[17]  Dominy page 100

[18] ‘The Cooler King “ by Patrick Bishop, Atlantic Books, 2015 London pp237-8

[19] Dominy page 102

[20] Nat’s escape is described in the exact same way in the book, ‘Escape from Germany’,  By Aidan Crawley, Collins 1956,  page 130,  BUT he does not name Nat 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 Nat had to have all his teeth removed as a result of this brutal attack on him , and 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 page 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 pp104-105

[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 Nat 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’ – 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 over 6000 volumes and 3000 enrolled ‘students’.

[27] IWM reference Microfilm copy PP/MCR/340, un-numbered page but around page 300

[28] Daughter Sharron says Nat attempted  escape on three occasions and this is confirmed in Nat’s 2nd debrief account in WO344/182/1 at TNA in Kew, made in April 1945.

[29] Dominy page 119

[30] “No Flight from the Cage” by Calton Younger, Sentinel, 1995, p.167

[31] Clutton-Brock page 497, note 17

[32] Clutton-Brock page 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 Nat was a member (telephone conversation 14/4/17).

[38] See ‘Free to Fight Again’,  by A Cooper, William Kimber, London 1988 pp37-43

[39] Paul Brickhill, ‘Escape or Die’, London 1952, pp183-203