The German Jew Who Bombed Berlin

by Marc H. Stevens
A true tale of escape, evasion and revenge

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 that cover story. What I didn’t know, and only discovered in 1996, was that my father was Jewish.

My wealthy German-Jewish 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 my grandfather died, my grandmother sent Dad away to a boarding school in Bavaria, keeping her other two children at home with her.

In those early days of 1926, few realized that Bavaria was a powder keg that would spawn the Nazi party. 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 uncle, 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.

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.

Outbreak of the War

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.

With no close adult supervision and a fierce independent streak – no doubt due to his rebellion at being sent away from his family at age 6 – 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 1, 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 stole the identity of a London schoolmate who had died

Dad's forged identity papers

Dad’s forged identity papers

But Dad – whose name was Georg Franz Hein – never reported to the London police station, and a manhunt was organized. Instead, Dad 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 3 – 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 18 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.

Dad qualified as a bomber pilot and joined a frontline squadron in April 1941. On one mission, he had to bomb his own hometown. 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.

High-risk Missions

Dad as an RAF pilot during the war

Dad as an RAF pilot during the war

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.

They ran out of fuel and crash-landed near Amsterdam

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 defenses 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’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 one fuel tank. 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, he was without any protection whatsoever under the Geneva Convention.

Daring Escapes

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. He was able to make it to the forest before they perfected their aim. The guards searched the area, but did not find him.

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 had the opportunity to get any forged identity papers, he admitted to being an escaped British officer, and he was sent back to a POW camp.

Dad disguised himself as a German guard and led prisoners out

With his German language skills, Peter Stevens became a key participant in escape schemes – either 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.”

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 week trying to persuade them that he was not a spy, but in reality an escaped British Air Force pilot. They eventually bought his story and sent him back to another 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 filled by my father.

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. During his captivity, he had made eight 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 II’s greatest escape artists.

In 1946, he was awarded Britain’s Military Cross for extreme bravery. He then 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.

Secrets Revealed

Dad with me (left) and my brother in 1961

Dad with me (left) and my brother in 1961

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. 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.

About 1986-87, 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, I finally tracked down his sister in London. It was then that I learned the truth, and that our family had lost some 10-15 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.

This story is so unique that I was determined to write a book about it. Escape, Evasion and Revenge was published in 2009. It is written by the proud son of the bravest man I’ve ever met.

__________________

Editor’s note: When trying to choose categories for this article, it was difficult to pigeonhole Mr. Hein aka Mr. Stevens. I added his story not only to those of Holocaust survivors – which he clearly was – but also to Jewish resistance. Technically he may not have lived and worked within Germany to overthrow Hitler’s regime. But I doubt anyone will grouse too much about his inclusion in that category!

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5 responses to “The German Jew Who Bombed Berlin

  1. Thank you for sharing your dad’s (and your’s) amazing story. It made me remember the first time my dad told me about the story relating to my grandmother and her family’s struggle to survive in Japanese-occupied Philippines. Whenever I think about how she struggled at such a young age during the war (being forced to hide out in the mountains, living off of whatever food they could find, and without her mother, too), it makes me extremely sad…But…After reading your article, I think I feel less sad…I think your story reminds people that what we find in our family’s past makes us stronger and more determined to make this world a better place. How did you feel when you began delving into your father’s history? Or is that in your book? In which case, I should probably just go buy it. You probably do not want to give away any spoilers. It must have been somewhat exciting though (completely epic…I had to throw my catch phrase in here somewhere).. What do you think is the message of your piece and what do you want readers to get out of it? Again, thanks for the story. It was well-written and definitely worth reading. I am not going to lie.. you pulled at my heart strings a couple times while I was reading it.
    Signing off,
    Baylee

  2. Hi Baylee,

    Many thanks for taking the time to read and comment upon my father story.

    You may be disappointed to learn that I deliberately left most of my own part of the story out of my book, so as not to detract from the magnitude of my father’s accomplishments. I have had a few comments like yours, wishing to learn more about how my discovery of such an incredible story affected me personally. Perhaps I should have written more about this in my book after all.

    My first incredible discovery came about 1987/88, when I visited England’s National Archives for the first time and learned that my father had brought home a badly damaged plane with injured crewmen on board. I must say that this came as a complete surprise, and left me wanting to learn so much more. Meeting two of his three crewmen from that flight (and later, the children of the third), I learned that they each credited Dad with saving their lives, and that one had named his only son after my father. That gave me an immense feeling of pride. It would take me almost 20 years after that to discover the whole story. But each new fact brought about a growth in pride and amazement, along with a desire to find more. Suffice to say that, by the end of my research, I determined that here was a story that begged to be told. You see, my father is mentioned in about 10 other books, but mostly in passing, as most of his story was contained in a National Archives file that was marked “Secret”, and was sealed until the year 2051. I was only granted access in late 2006, and it was then that I learned just how unusual my father’s life had been, and I decided that I would have to write a book about him.

    The real message of my book is that so-called “heroes” are not necessarily perfect. In today’s society, we are all too quick to call sporting stars “heroes”, but I have learned that true heroism requires offering your life for a valid and justifiable cause, with no expectation of anything in return. Have you ever seen the wonderful TV miniseries, “Band of Brothers”? If not, I can recommend it. You might also read ‘The Greatest Generation’, by TV journalist Tom Brokaw. You will find it at your local library. It gives many stories of people like my father. Another lesson learned was why my father seemed incapable of love, both for his wife and his children. While he was a good provider, he was not a great father, and was a poor husband. But, knowing his life history, I now understand why he was the way he was, and do not blame him for these shortcomings. In other words, I wanted to show that real heroes may not necessarily be perfect in every aspect.

    I am very glad to know that you found my father’s story interesting, and I hope that it spurs you to perhaps become the recorder of your own family’s history. It sounds as though it might well contain some very interesting parallels!

    Marc Stevens
    Toronto

    • Thank you for replying to my comment and for providing such detailed answers to my questions. I honestly was not expecting that. Thank you! The reason I wanted to know more about your story was because it gives a more well-rounded and fuller image of the story, if that makes any sense.I love it when writers put everything out there (especially their connection to the story). I think it gives readers, like me, an opportunity to really “travel back in time and follow your dad around” through the words but most importantly through your eyes, so…If you wish to write an book accompanying the book you wrote about your father, that would be great, and I would buy it, but you obviously do not have to if you do not want to. Can I ask some more questions? (You are not obliged to answer them!) Why do (whomever it is that is that is doing this) keep the archives sealed? Where do you find these “super-secret” archives? I mean…I feel like the information is out there, but I do not know exactly where to look and the internet is, at times, untrustworthy. Are these type of records donated somewhere and then sealed, or are were they kept there and sealed for privacy issues? Also, what was it like (the experience of it) traveling around and sifting through your father’s history? Again, thank you. Your father’s story is really and incredible one, so thank you, also, for posting. Always remember that a history teacher can provide us with the facts, but you always have a unique perspective on such matters (truly unique)!
      Signing off,
      Baylee

  3. Hi again,

    Thanks for your very interesting and insightful comments, Baylee.

    I’ll take your suggestion about another book under advisement. In fact, my nephew has already asked me for exactly the same thing. Since I have a real day job (other than writing), it may have to wait until after I retire…

    Now, on to your question about “Secret” documents in Britain’s National Archives. Firstly, the National Archives retains possession of all government documents that are deemed worthy of being kept. How that is decided is anyone’s guess. But you can imagine that this must mean a huge quantity of paper. It’s a bit easier today, as most government files are originally generated on computer rather than paper, and hence take up much less space. But that has only been true for the past 25 years or so. Anything prior to 1985 is almost guaranteed to have originated on paper. And since the National Archives’ collection goes back hundreds of years, you can imagine the volume of records…

    As I understand it, all wartime documents were automatically classified Secret for 35 years. You have to understand that, immediately following the end of World War 2 was the beginning of the Cold War. Former allies (the Soviets) were suddenly dire enemies, from whom secrets needed to be kept. Whether there was any real need for this time period is not certain, but I’m guessing they chose to err on the side of caution. When I began my research about 1986/87, most wartime documents of interest to me had already been declassified.

    In the 1980’s and ’90’s, all National Archives were catalogued manually, making it extremely difficult to discover the existence of certain files. It was only in the 2000’s that I noticed they had computerized their catalogue, and then in 2006 learned of the existence of my father’s “Secret” file. But there was no mention on the computer catalogue that this file was unavailable, and I requested it. It was then that I found that the file was classified, and I asked why. They could not give me specifics, but they did tell me that, typically, such files were closed for 100 years after the last entry because the file contained material that could be construed as being harmful to the man’s family. I told them that I was an immediate relative, and that I had a good idea what was in the file (which I had learned from my Dad’s younger sister before she died in 2004). I asked if there was any way possible for me to see the file, and was told that I could apply under the Freedom of Information Act to have the file opened early. I did so, and was successful a few months later. That file contained a veritable treasure trove of information (basically Dad’s entire story from the time he arrived in England as a 14-year-old boy in 1934 until the end of his military service in 1947). It was only after I was able to see this file that I was able to finish writing my book. Without it, there would have been only half a story.

    Interestingly, my father served as a British spy in MI6 from 1947-52, and I contacted them to see if it might be possible to view his records there. At first, they disavowed any knowledge of his existence (i.e. that he had ever worked for them). When I sent them proof ( a copy of their 1952 letter accepting Dad’s resignation), they then said that his records would have been destroyed on his 65th birthday (February 15, 1984). This always sounded to me like a brush-off, but I realized that it was unlikely they would ever relent, and I gave up my search.

    What was it like travelling around Europe and digging into my father’s past? A total and complete joy! At times I felt like a detective, at times like a spy. Completely exhilarating…

    The easiest place to begin is with your own relatives. Interview them as soon as possible, and record those interviews. Also, there are many genealogical sites on the internet that are worthwhile, and they can put you in contact with relatives you never knew existed. That was the case with me.

    I have had a very quick look at your blog, and I am pleased that you seem destined for a writing career. While it is true that staring at a blank computer screen may be the scariest thing in the world, it is only scary until you begin typing. So, type away!

    Marc

    • I apologize for not having replied sooner, but my short break from school had ended, and normal life started up again. You probably know the feeling. Thanks a whole lot for the information pertaining to the documents which allows me to have a great deal more insight into the post-war scenario regarding documentation, filing and the like. Thanks, also, for the advice regarding interviewing my family. I will bear that in mind when I see them the next time. If my memory serves me correctly, you are right in that they have a lot of interesting stories to tell. I was actually born in the Philippines and meeting friends like my friend, Melody who also grew up in a different country allows me to feel like different cultures have a lot more similarities than differences. As you grow older, you begin to understand the struggles and the expectations more clearly. Growing up, did you feel like there was a huge secret that your father was keeping from you or you just thought that that was how your dad was? (I apologize for my curiosity.) Why did your father choose to leave England? What historical impact do you think spying has in a historical context, and how do you think spying programs of different countries impact today’s society? Did your mother know about everything relating to your father’s past, or were there some things that even your mother was surprised by? What do you think is the best method to approaching an interview with anyone? Oh…and…Are you going to continue posting new articles on this blog along with the other bloggers? I very much look forward to reading new articles on the blogs of the Center for White Rose Studies. I made sure to have notifications when new articles sent instantly to my email. No one has written in a while…Also, how do you think your writing style impacts the story you are telling? Do you feel as if writing styles should be more straightforward when they are talking about historical events or if it is okay that a writer uses his/her own style to portray the story? Or rather…Do you feel as if writers sometimes have writing styles that make it difficult to understand the historical context underneath it all? I think I have bombarded you with enough questions for today, a day which I hope you are enjoying…
      Signing off.
      Baylee
      P.S. Thanks again for all the information, and thanks for checking out my blog!

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