On this day in 1945, Soviet fighter pilot Mikhail Devyatayev and 9 others escaped from a Nazi labour camp located in the Baltic Sea. Shot down over the Eastern Front in 1944, Devyatayev was captured by German troops and quickly stole the identity of a Russian infantryman (Red Air Force pilots were usually executed immediately upon capture). After bouncing from camp to camp, experiencing the very worst the German Army had to offer, Devyatayev was transferred to a camp on the island of Peenemünde. There, he and his fellow Soviet prisoners were viciously overworked and antagonized by Nazi guards and their dogs. Devyatayev knew that an escape attempt would likely result in death, a preferable alternative to imprisonment on Peenemünde.
At lunchtime on February 8th, Devyatayev’s work gang were labouring on the camp runway when one of the men, Ivan Krivonogov, turned and killed the lone German guard with a crowbar. Krivonogov struggled into the dead man’s uniform and led the work gang to the camp commandant’s personal plane. The 10 men bundled into the Heinkel HE 111 and, with Devyatayev at the controls, took off. During their flight, the plane was targeted by German and Soviet air defenses, but later that day, the men landed safely in Russia.
Expecting a hero’s welcome for their daring escape – and the valuable information they shared about Germany’s V-1 rocket program – the men were accused of being Nazi spies and branded as criminals. The enlisted men were immediately sent to the front (where most of them were killed), and the officers, branded as criminals, struggled to find work. Mikhail Devyatayev was eventually given the Order of the Soviet Union in 1957, however, for his heroism. Devyatayev’s experience of risking his life to escape German captivity, and his subsequent mistreatment at the hands of his own government (a result of the Stalinist paranoia sweeping the country) was common for the few Russian survivors of German captivity during WWII.