One of the Lucky Ones
Mikhail Devyataev’s story is like something out of a hero movie.
Devyataev was piloting a Bell P-39 when he was shot down near Lviv, Ukraine. As he landed, Nazi troops immediately seized him and he was taken to prison. The Nazis weren’t particularly welcoming when it came to Russian military officers. According to him, there was even an official policy to exterminate Russians.
His first attempt at escape failed and he was relocated to another prison at Sachsenhausen. He had to assume the identity of a dead infantryman called Nikitenko to avoid brutality. Devyataev was later sent to a labor camp on the island of Peenemünde.
Prisoners there were forced to work in gruesome conditions. They cleared unexploded bombs with bare hands, build runways, assembled explosives, and were ruthlessly tortured by the guards.
“One punishment was called ‘Ten Days of Life.’ It meant that a prisoner was beaten for 10 days solid, in mornings, afternoons, and evenings. If he didn’t die on his own during this time, they would kill him on the tenth day.” – Mikhail Devyataev
Soon after, Devyataev found a Heinkell 11 that belonged to a German officer. He studied it for weeks while he convinced three other prisoners to help him.
On February 8, 1945, they finally pushed through with their escape. An accomplice killed a guard and wore his uniform, making him able to lead the men inside the plane without arousing any suspicion.
There was just a small problem with his plan, he was not trained to fly the Heinkel 11. To put it mildly, the startup and takeoff were very rough. It caused a commotion that alerted the Germans of suspicious activity. As the plane sped down the runway for takeoff, German guns were fired at the escapees. When they crossed the border, they were also greeted by the Soviet AA guns until they finally landed on the runway.
Unfortunately, the escapees were met with hostility and were jailed, thinking they were German spies or deflectors. Devyataev spent months inside prison until he was released – albeit presumed as a criminal for years. It wasn’t until 1957 that he was recognized as a Hero of the Soviet Union.
He was thankful for finally receiving the recognition he deserves. His story is truly one of the best escape stories in WWII.