We recently honored D-Day and it brought to mind the life of my father-in-law, who was on the run from the Nazis and eventually captured by them. His name was Thomas Alfred Boyd Parselle (known as Tabs), and he was a Royal Air Force (RAF) officer. Tabs was a brave and tenacious man who survived much of the war in a POW camp.
It all started in 1943 when my husband’s family received a letter stating that Tabs was missing and presumed dead. He had circled back from a raid on Dusseldorf, Germany when his Lancaster W5001 aircraft was attacked by enemy fire.
The plane had been operating as normal. The eight-man, British crew had been bundled in thick jackets and gloves inside the cold and noisy fuselage. But suddenly at 2:08 am, Nazi canon shells bombarded the plane. The communication system went kaput and the port engines burst into flames. The plane split apart and plummeted toward the ground, eventually exploding 2000 feet above the city of Nijmegen, Holland. Aircraft parts fell onto the Dutch farmland, landing in gardens, in orchards, on rooftops, and in streets.
Only two men parachuted to the ground safely; the others perished. One survivor was Tabs. Although he had lived through the air attack, he had descended into dangerous Gestapo territory. There was no way for him to alert the military or his family that he was alive, and he immediately began a fight for survival.
To avoid detection by the Nazis, Tabs slept in bushes and a hole in the forest floor. He was on his own; he had not come into contact with the other RAF airman who had ejected from the aircraft. Area residents provided Tabs with civilian clothes, food, a Dutch/English dictionary, and a little money. One man even put him in touch with the Dutch Resistance.
About this time, future actress and then-teenager Audrey Hepburn was assisting the Dutch Resistance. She lived only 15 miles from where Tabs’ plane had come down. She had suffered the trauma of seeing Jews corralled into train cars, and her home had been bombed. In order to raise money for the cause, she danced at concerts. In addition, she acted as a courier, delivering messages and money to on-the-run Allied airmen and she often sneaked food to them. It is unclear whether Hepburn met Tabs, but it is possible.
Tabs’ contact with the Dutch Resistance led to his capture. There was a traitor named Prosper DeZitter who looked like a stereotypical villain. He had close-set eyes, bat-black hair, a pencil-thin moustache, gold fillings, a limp, and a missing a finger joint like the nefarious spy in Alfred Hitchcock’s play 39 Steps. DeZitter had joined forces with the Gestapo after serving prison sentences for rape, embezzlement, and fraud, and he was responsible for the capture of at least 70 RAF airmen.
Tabs found himself in a safe house at Rue Forestiere in Belgium, but it was not actually safe. It was a trap devised by DeZitter. Tabs was quickly handed over to the Nazis and transported to a French prison called Fresnes where he was interrogated and tortured for a month.
The rough treatment and harsh conditions at the French prison were only the start of the arduous ordeal that Tabs would endure. He was transferred from one POW camp to another, sometimes hiking for miles through snow to reach the next destination. Death was on his mind; thousands of POWs perished in captivity during World War II.
The 1963 Steve McQueen film The Great Escape describes the secret tunnels at Stalag Luft III and the POWs’ attempt to crawl through them on March 24, 1944. Tabs arrived at this camp on January 16 of that year, and he was informed of the digging efforts. He was also present during the escape although he was not one of the men who tried to flee. This was lucky because only three men reached freedom. Most were killed by the Germans. In fact, Hitler personally ordered Himmler to execute more than half of the attempted escapees in order to deter any future escape plans. A fellow RAF officer and friend of Tabs kept a diary of the horrors in that POW camp. The diary recently sold at auction for $17,827.
Stalag VII A was Tabs’ final POW camp. It was located north of Moosburg and known for its overcrowding and grim conditions. The structure had been built to accommodate 10,000 people, but when Tabs arrived, there were at least 80,000 prisoners. Bed bugs, fleas, and lice were common. Temperatures were often below zero, and many men had to sleep on the ground because there were not enough gunnysack mattresses. The daily food ration consisted of three pieces of bread, a few potatoes, and watery vegetable soup. There was only one water spigot in each building and an insufficient number of bathrooms. Although the surroundings were severe, Tabs was hopeful because he could sense an end to the war.
Nine days later, Tabs and the other POWs were liberated by the American 14th Armored Division of the U.S. Third Army. Tabs returned to England, but did not discuss his experiences with his family. He died of a heart attack in 1979. He is a hero who will forever be missed.
Article published in Head Stuff magazine on June 21, 2019.