Sunday, 29 December 2013

Long Tunnel Schemes - Part One

B A 'Jimmy' James - IWM

Great Escaper B.A. ‘Jimmy’ James once described himself as ‘just a young man who wanted to get home.’ This modest and succinct statement was typical of the generation thrown into a conflict where ordinary men and women often did extraordinary things. James was one of them.  Behind the wire in POW camps across occupied Europe, his constant involvement in escape work became a regular nuisance to the enemy. (See previous post for one of his short tunnel attempts)
Following recapture after the Stalag Luft 111 Great Escape breakout in March 1944, James was held and interrogated in a transit prison before finally being taken to Sachsenhausen. This was a Nazi concentration camp, but SS activities there had already extended to the military during 1941 when thousands of Russian POWs were executed. The Germans considered the whole place escape proof, which may have guided their thinking around James. Given his history, it is surprising that he survived at all after recapture. He could easily have ended up as one of ‘The Fifty’ Great Escapers who were executed by the Gestapo. 

Guards at Sachsenhausen - 
James was placed in a small Sonderlager compound surrounded on all sides by high walls. Inside this was a smaller area containing two barrack huts and a tall electrified wire fence around the whole perimeter. Fellow officers from Stalag Luft 111, Wing Commander Harry ‘Wings’ Day and Major John ‘Johnny’ Dodge (both Great Escapers) were already there, along with SOE agent Peter Churchill and around 18 other prisoners. The Sachsenhausen diagram relates to the autumn of 1944, but it is relatively unchanged from when James arrived earlier in the year. He mentions no Americans and initially refers to the 18 other prisoners in the Sonderlager compound as largely Russians, Poles and four Irishmen from the British Army.
Peter Churchill SOE

Major John 'Johnny' Dodge
Wings Day summarised the set up to James as soon as he arrived:

‘This is Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and the only way out of here is up the chimney. This is Sonderlager ‘A’ and over there is the main compound.’ He pointed to the ten foot wall outside the window of the barrack hut. ‘Sometimes you can hear the screams of the poor devils when they are being beaten up. Here, we are treated as political prisoners and are not allowed to write home or receive letters. They count us morning and evening; otherwise, they seem to leave us alone’

 Flight Lieutenant Sydney Dowse
After about a week, the men in the compound were joined by another recaptured POW from the Great Escape, Flight Lieutenant Sydney Dowse. The chances of getting out were slim. James had paced endlessly around the small compound, weighing up the options:
1) There were two watches of nine guards covering their compound with each commanded by an Unterscharfuhrer. With the ratio of one guard per prisoner, the mathematics around escaping were self explanatory.

2) Getting out through or over the wire was not possible and a gate walkout scheme looked a non-starter.

3) Security also seemed a fragile area in view of the diverse band of POWs in the compound. A Russian was thought to be unpredictable and suspicions existed that one of the Irishmen might be an informer. It was decided that any escape plan would have to be kept ‘in house’ between Churchill, Day, Dowse, Dodge and James, with work being carried out in total secrecy, which could be difficult to maintain.

The men decided on a tunnel as the only realistic option for an escape attempt:
1) The RAF boys and Dodge had past experience and James’s practical expertise in the kind of digging and construction required would be essential.
2) The compound was relatively close to the outer wall of the camp.
3) The sides of the huts were enclosed below floor level on the outside. This had not been the case at Sagan 111 and opened up the possibility of storing soil from the tunnel underneath floorboards inside the hut.
‘Wings’ Day made the decision they should initially observe the other inmates in the compound for a few weeks and wait to see if the Germans made any searches before committing themselves to further action.   
During the waiting time, grim sounds of life in the main camp regularly came from the other side of the compound wall – shouts, screams, bursts of machine gun fire and the smell from the smoking chimney of the crematorium. Once a week, James was taken into the main compound for a shower. This involved walking down the road running parallel to the camp wall, turning around the corner to the administration block and passing through the dreaded main gates. He described what he saw on that first sighting as something he would never forget. A large semi-circular Roll Call area (Appell Platz) lay in front of a curved spread of around 20 huts. Others were laid out behind in a similar way and a set of gallows was positioned at the front, just inside the entrance gate.

Main Gates at Sachsenhausen  - Martha Boxley

A group of emaciated prisoners in striped suits marched around the roll call area carrying heavy packs (James says they were full of 30 pounds of bricks). Guards with truncheons applied encouragement when necessary to keep them going. The prisoners were testing out boots for the Russian front and had to cover around 25 miles daily. This sight must have had a huge effect on James and his comrades in the Sonderlager.
Tensions had been building in the compound. Following an incident between Sydney Dowse and a German Unterscharfuhrer, where Dowse had reversed all of the skull and crossbones signs so that they faced the guards on the other side of the wire, ‘Wings’ Day as Senior British Officer was summoned to the Camp Commandant, SS Standartenfuhrer Anton Kaindl. The Wing Commander was put in his place, lectured on the futility of attempting to escape and reminded of superior measures in force around the camp which made escape impossible. Threatened with severe disciplinary action if Dowse’s behaviour continued, Day was dismissed with none of the military courtesies being observed. On his return to the Sonderlager, the Great Escapers were called together and whilst pacing around the compound the men were updated.  It was time to show they could get the better of the SS. ‘Wings’ Day gave the order to start work on a tunnel.
The Plan

Dowse and James had already formed an escape plan. They shared a room in the hut and the tunnel trap would be made there by cutting through floorboards in the corner section which was  nearest to the wire (under James’s bed). The total tunnel length was calculated at 120 feet. This would take the diggers under the wire and wall, with a planned exit across the far side of the road. Whilst difficult and risky work to carry out, the location of the hut and exit point was some way from the main activity areas of the camp such as the guard room and entrance.

A table knife with a serrated cutting edge
Tunnel Trap

Once the wooden floorboards near the wall under James’s bed had been cut, a cover could be constructed and pushed fractionally under the skirting where the boards had been cut. Brushing dust into the cracks would conceal what had been done.
Security and Watches

The problem of security still remained, as up to twelve people lived in the hut and some were not classed as trustworthy. In addition two Italian orderlies cleaned the rooms, and whilst James felt that they might not say anything, the plan was looking less than watertight.

‘Wings’ Day was to keep watch whilst the tunnel trap was made. After this only a single person would work on the tunnel at any one time and the watch would be a ‘moving’ one, acting as naturally as possible, but never static. Anyone standing around regularly would be too obvious and  arouse suspicion.

Work on the tunnel was to last for no more than four hours in a day, so the digger would not be missing for too long.
Peter Churchill did not want to get involved. As an SOE agent who had been lucky to survive until now (his claim to be related to Winston may have saved him) he would almost certainly be shot if discovered. James and Dowse would become the actual tunnellers because ‘Wings’ Day as Senior Officer and Johnny Dodge (who was in another hut) could not afford to be absent for long. Day also had a knee injury which would never stand up to tunnel work.
False Papers
Once the gap between the floorboards and the ground below was known, the amount of free space to deposit soil into from the tunnel excavations could be calculated. After a few floorboards had been carefully lifted, it became clear that only a six inch gap existed between floor and ground. Some narrow inspection trenches were run out underneath which confirmed the available space would be insufficient to hold much of the excavated soil. A further problem existed around a wooden beam which ran down the centre of the hut. In conjunction with the concrete base of the washhouse in the middle it prevented effective dispersal of soil. The problem was solved by pushing wire through cracks in the wooden floor of the passageway running past the washhouse. James reported:
‘It went down about a foot, and there was our bypass to the other side of the hut. We were now assured of sufficient dispersal space to take the soil from the tunnel. With an average cross section of two feet, there would be at least 400 cubic feet to be dispersed.’
Digging would be difficult. There was little space in which to work, no fresh air or proper light. James described what happened:
‘Working shifts of about two hours at a time while the other kept watch, we laboured on our bellies clad only in underpants with a knotted handkerchief on the head and another one tied around mouth and nose as a mask against the dust which hung in clouds in this dim, constricted world as we scooped the soil out and packed it each side of the trench beneath the floor boards.’
Work on the initial part of the tunnel was slow and they were almost discovered on a number of occasions. The men's routines around the camp whilst they were not involved in digging had to appear normal. Adjustments in shift patterns had to be made to accommodate changes that the camp made. 
In June 1944 after the good news of D-Day which did reach the prisoners, events took a darker turn. ‘Wings’ Day was reading a copy of the ‘Voltkisher Beobachter’ the official Nazi party newspaper, when he spotted a paragraph reporting a speech by Anthony Eden in the House of Commons condemning the brutal massacre of fifty RAF POWs who had taken part in the mass escape from Sagan 111 in March. Once Day had checked that his translation was correct he summoned the others, as this raised the stakes around escaping. To break out of a concentration camp and be recaptured could mean death. The group decided unanimously to continue with their plans. Anyone fortunate enough to get home could relay what was happening in Sachsenhausen and also how military personnel were being imprisoned there which contravened the Geneva Convention.
In July 1944, Commando leader Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Churchill MC, DSO and bar arrived in the Sonderlager (again no relation to the PM). Known as ‘Mad Jack’ he was a man hell bent on continuing the fight against the enemy in any way possible. Placed in a room in the same hut as James and Dowse he immediately joined the escape team.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Churchill MC, DSO and Bar
By the end of July, dispersal trenches had been dug to help accommodate the soil. Churchill helped on this and work speeded up. The tunnel shaft in the corner of the hut had been sunk to a depth of around five feet. As the soil was firm, no shoring up was necessary. James and Dowse remained as the diggers, but conditions in the tunnel deteriorated as it pushed out towards the wire. James described what it was like:
‘We had to work alone and in complete darkness. The ‘mod cons’ of POW camps were simply not available. Air holes could not be made for security reasons and so fat lamps would not burn; there was just enough air to sustain one sweating digger, ventilation got worse and dispersal more difficult as the tunnel lengthened. When sufficient earth had been loosened by our knife and pulled away from the face, we could slither backwards scrabbling the pile of earth along with arms extended in front until we reached the shaft, where the soil was thrown up to Jack who did sterling work pulling down the trenches with his steel helmet.’
As the tunnel approached the wire, there was a danger of seismographs, alarms and electrified wire below the surface. Johnny Dodge had been told that wires existed which would trigger a light in the guard room if disturbed. The tunnel depth was increased to eight feet to guard against potential obstacles. It is difficult to fully imagine the conditions.

Camp from the air

Around the second week in September it was calculated that the tunnel had extended outside the main wall with a length of about 110 feet. Any further excavations to dig under the road were not an option as all available space for storing soil had been used. The exit point would be close to the guards and dogs patrolling on the inside of the perimeter wall, but a decision was made to push the tunnel up and go from where they were. September 23rd was chosen as the date to break out, it would be the darkest moonless night. ‘Wings’ Day would travel with Sydney Dowse and Jack Churchill with James. Johnny Dodge would travel alone. All had very basic escape plans.
On 23rd September the tunnel was broken and all five escapers got clear of Sachsenhausen. A national alert was issued, so the whole country began searching for the escapers. James and Churchill lasted over a fortnight and were not far from the Baltic ports when they were picked up and taken to the local police. The rest had already been recaptured earlier. It is possible that the men avoided an SS bullet because they had been detained by the local police and consequently their existence had become more widely known amongst the police and population. Eventually, James and the others were returned to Sachsenhausen and after a spell in the punishment block returned to the same Sonderlager they had escaped from.  


Moonless Night  - Jimmy James (recommended read)
Author's notes
POW - Adrian Gilbert

©Keith Morley
THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and you do not wish for it appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Short Tunnel Schemes - Part Two

Flight Lieutenant Jimmy James

In September 1941 B A ‘Jimmy’ James was approached by POW Flight Lieutenant John Shore of RAF 9 Squadron. He asked James to take part in digging a short tunnel to escape from Stalag Luft 1 Barth. It involved tunnelling from a small brick built structure standing near the perimeter wire in the officer’s compound. The structure was known as the incinerator, although there are only accounts of rubbish being stored there, rather than burned. A shaft had already been dug inside the incinerator on a previous project, but the scheme had been abandoned due to the high risk of discovery during digging.

The Escape Committee and Camp Senior Officer had been approached by Shore for permission to make another attempt. He felt that if the diggers could get in and out of the incinerator on a daily basis without being seen, then once the tunnel had reached under the wire and into the football field area, it might be possible on a moonless night to get across the ground to the outer area without being seen from the two guard towers. 

Fencing at Stalag Luft 1

A plan was formed to try and conceal any suspicious activity. The incinerator had a low roof which gradually sloped towards the wire separating the compound from the football field area. A small square cut out existed in the roof, where rubbish could be thrown through. As spectators always stood on the roof to watch football matches on the field, it might be possible to use them as a ‘blind’ to conceal entry and exit through the gap.   

Football matches were organised for the morning and late evening to shield the two tunnel diggers, James and Shaw. It was still a risky manoeuvre, as the watchtower and guard on the gate were very close.  On day one, the two men stood on the roof of the incinerator surrounded by fellow POWs who were all watching the game that had started on the field. The ‘crowd’ was compact and thickly clothed in army greatcoats and other bulky attire. As soon as the guards were distracted watching the football, Shore and James dropped into the incinerator and the ‘crowd shuffled the cover over the gap in the roof with their feet, leaving a small part uncovered for air.

Once inside, the diggers could see enough through the crack of light to make out a compartment around six feet square and three feet high. A brick wall separated it from the other half of the incinerator. Arrangements had been made for the outer door to be kept closed, with all rubbish being deposited in the adjoining compartment, the other side of the brick dividing wall. James and Shore located and lifted the trap in the concrete floor, examining the entrance shaft underneath, which had already been dug on the previous attempt to a depth of five feet. The calculation for the tunnel length was twenty five feet in total to the football field, which left a problem of where to disperse excavated soil. The men decided to make a small hole in the brick dividing wall and hide the soil in the other compartment.   
James said that it took about an hour to scrape enough mortar out from between the bricks to loosen them and make a small hole in the wall. Digging began with both men taking it in turns on the two roles. At the base of the entrance shaft, the tunneller would loosen the earth with a knife, pulling out the soil. The disperser scooped it into a bowl before throwing it out of the shaft and then later disposing of it through the hole in the brickwork.  The men were stripped to the waist in the hot stale air and worked silently and carefully for seven hours. The result was a six foot tunnel just big enough for a man to crawl into.

At five o’clock, the ‘crowds’ returned for the next football match. An exhausted James and Shore continued working until well into the second half of the game. They put overcoats back on so as to hide their dirty bodies and waited below for the signal. The incinerator cover was gradually eased aside and amidst the cheering and shouting; the ‘OK to come up’ was given. The men climbed out under cover of the tightly packed crowd and saw out the last few minutes of the match.
The same procedure was followed on a daily basis, except when it was not possible to stage a football match in the evening. This created a problem around the men  getting out of the incinerator unnoticed. It was arranged for a number of POWs to arrive at an appropriate time and empty rubbish in. The POWs then blocked the view so that James and Shore could squeeze out of the incinerator door and merge in with the group, who then walked back together to the central block. Because the diggers were wearing identical overcoats to the other POWs they managed to merge in without being noticed by the guards.

Prisoners at Stalg Luft 1  John Shore is crouching front row on the left -

Pressure was constant. Holding twice daily football matches had a limited life span of a few days before suspicion would be aroused.  The further the tunnel went in, the slower the progress. Soil had to be moved back from the face and this was done by a small sledge construction with a piece of rope at either end to manoeuvre it forward and back. As the operation was classed as a blitz tunnel, the two men needed to reach the other side of the wire very quickly.  
They made good progress, and were aided by the tunnel not requiring any wood to shore it up.  At the end of day four on the eve of the latest football match, a thin stick was pushed up and just poked through the ground above.  Alastair Panton, one of the key players on the escape committee, identified it as being about five feet outside of the compound wire. All the diggers had to do next was burrow their way up to within around six inches of the surface in readiness for a suitable night to escape.  The best opportunity would be during an RAF raid on the surrounding area, as all of the camp lights were switched off, but the Germans always trebled the numbers of guards during air raids.

James and Shore had made their own exit traps in readiness to get across to the incinerator. This was a necessary part of the plan because a full lockdown of the huts took place every night. On the 19th October 1941 a chance came when all of the perimeter lights suddenly went out. James got ready, but there was no air raid siren. This had never happened before. He hesitated, not knowing whether it was a temporary electrical fault.
The lights stayed off, so he decided to make his move. Some of the other men in the hut opened the exit trap in the floor for him. As the huts were raised marginally above the ground it was possible to drop down the short distance. Shore was waiting underneath near the exit trap. James took his homemade haversack with a supply of hard rations and whispered down that he would follow.  It was a moonless night, but in the darkness nearby shapes were still vaguely discernable. Crawling clear of the huts he remembered seeing Shore’s vague figure disappear into the incinerator.  

Two guards came around the corner of Centre Block just as he was about to creep across and follow. They passed and he tried again. This time, more guards appeared on the path which led from the gate to the Centre Block. The line of approach was cut off.  James waited for a break in the activity before crawling out again. As he reached the edge of the path, a dark shape appeared directly in front. A torch picked him out, and as he scrambled back under the hut the alarm was raised. The game was up, but James played  it a little longer, hoping that he could hide and make another attempt. The dogs followed his scent and he was hauled out by the guards.
John Shore had managed to exit the tunnel and make his way across the field undetected. It is likely that Jimmy James bought him time by his actions. Shore got clear of the camp and became the only man to make a successful home run from Stalag Luft 1.  More about his journey in a future post.

Moonless Night  - Jimmy James (recommended read) The Great Escape - Paul Brickhill  (ditto)
Author's notes
©Keith Morley

THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and you do not wish for it appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Short Tunnel Schemes - Part One

Short tunnel schemes (often known as ‘Blitz Tunnels) were used for escapes made by smaller numbers of POWs. In the summer of 1942 at Stalag Luft 111 the first of series of escape attempts digging short tunnels using the ‘mole’ idea was attempted.

At that time, a consensus had been reached amongst many potential escapers, that digging successful tunnels from the barrack block buildings to the wire was not possible because of the distance involved, difficulties around the sandy soil and the various anti escape measures in place.

A suitable piece of land had to be located sufficiently close to the wire for a shallow tunnel to be dug. The work had to be concealed/hidden from view via a trapdoor or an alternative. If this was possible, a few men might then be able to escape by being sealed in and digging their way through like moles. The last few feet of the tunnel under the wire could be moved once the camp had locked down for the night. 
Flt Lt Henry Lamond - RNZAF Museum
Flt  Lt 'Bill' Goldfinch

Henry ‘Piglet’ Lamond a New Zealander and his co-pilot when they were captured 'Bill' Goldfinch teamed up with Jack Best to put the idea to the Escape Committee. It is likely that the ‘Wooden Horse’ idea later came from the essence of this plan. The proposal was agreed in the usual way (see previous posts) assuming that a suitable location close to the wire could be found.     
The washhouse was only around five or six yards from the perimeter fence at that time , so the prisoners decided to flood  it and blame the problem on inadequate drainage. The Germans would have to act because pools of stagnant water in the summer were potential breeding grounds for disease, especially typhus.

Camp Hauptmann Hans Pieber was not prepared to release any of his own personnel for obvious reasons. German guards doing labouring work in front of POWs was bad form. It would also compromise security and running of the camp. ‘Wings’ Day, British Senior Officer volunteered the prisoners for digging the necessary deep drainage ditch, providing they could have tools for the job. Shovels were reluctantly provided under strict control and the POWs began work under close supervision.
The digging progressed slowly over the next few days with a casual unrushed air. This might convince the Germans that nothing untoward was taking place. Time was also needed a tunnel to reach the vicinity of the perimeter fence.  Helped by Best and Goldfinch, Lamond started a tunnel towards the wire in the side of the ditch about seven feet from the washhouse. He managed to cover the entrance during the day with his coat and progressed to making a narrow passage about four feet deep and twenty feet long. The strategy was then to burrow  the last few yards and get to the surface just clear of the wire.

The night for the breakout was set. After evening appel, the three men managed to crawl unseen into the tunnel. They were naked and carrying their clothes in a bundle. There was just enough room for one to lie behind the other, with a few feet spare behind the last man. The entrance was filled up with rocks and gravel by the other POWs as they continued working.  Lamond began the last stint of tunnelling at the front of the team, with the other two men shoving the sand back and filling the gap behind them.
They pushed pointed sticks up to the surface to make tiny breathing holes. This was risky because of detection by the hundfuehrer and his Alsatian dog patrolling the compound at night. It must have been grim in the pitch darkness and foul air. The strategy had not been tried to any degree before and the men would not have known whether enough air could filter down to keep them alive. Loss of consciousness and suffocation was a real possibility.

Prisoners looking on from the nearest hut could see steam rising from the air holes. The diggers eventually lost track of time and insufficient air meant there was no possibility of burning a match to check their watches. This would have been pointless anyway because they had stopped due to the sand. Eventually a decision was made to dig up to the surface, as enough distance had probably been covered. Before they could commence work on this last phase, tiny chinks of daylight began to filter down the air holes. The choices now were simple:
1) Break out to the surface and be shot at from the guard towers/ hope that a ‘hands up’ surrender might avoid bloodshed. Prepare for a long spell of ‘solitary’ in the cooler.  

2) Stay where they were in the stifling air and heat and try to cope with not being able to move (The tunnel was only as wide as their shoulders). Wait for darkness again , hoping that the air holes were not discovered and someone had covered the airmen's absence at appel.
Sketch of Guard Tower at Stalag Luft 111 - Bob Neary 
Sketch of Stalag Luft 111 by Alex Cassie
When night came, they waited a few more hours for the camp to settle and then dug up to the surface. The breakthrough came just outside the wire and the men managed to make off through the woods after cleaning up and donning their clothes. They reached the River Oder and found a rowing boat, setting off towards the Baltic coast which was hundreds of miles away. Within a few hours the boat was reported missing and a policeman looking out for it  downstream arrested them at gunpoint. Goldfinch and Best were sent to Colditz where they built their famous glider - Lamond remained at Stalag Luft 111.
The Germans took action to prevent further ‘mole’ escape attempts by digging an eight foot trench between the warning wire and the fence. The POWs response was for three men to crawl out of their hut one night, dodge the searchlight beams, scramble under the warning wire and roll into the trench. They could not be seen from the guard towers, so began to dig a ‘mole’ tunnel like Lamond’s.

The distance to the wire was around twenty feet, but they failed to push enough sand out of the entrance hole into the trench. No matter how tightly sand is packed in, any that is dug out fills up a third as much space again in its loose form. Before the men had reached the wire, the sand passed back had filled in the entire tunnel behind them. There was now nowhere to put any more sand, and they were trapped, unable to go forward or back. The only choice was to dig straight up, by which time dawn had broken and they were apprehended in the area between the warning wire and perimeter fence.

This time the Germans filled in the trenches and buried seismographic microphones all around the wire. A team of men with headphones listened in twenty four hours a day.


The Great Escape - Paul Brickhill
POW - Adrian Gilbert
Author's notes
©Keith Morley

THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and you do not wish for it appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed.


Friday, 29 November 2013

‘X’ and the Tunnel Schemes

POW Emerges From a Tunnel at Night - Bill Holder

Tunnelling out of German POW camps in occupied Europe during World War Two brought a mix of advantages and disadvantages over other escape schemes. In an ideal camp organisation, these would all be considered by the Camp Senior Officer, Camp Intelligence Officer, ‘X’ and the rest of the escape committee before a decision was made. If agreement to proceed was reached, ‘X’ would assume overall control for the tunnel scheme and appoint his subordinates. (See cross section of the diagram for an ideal camp organisation)

Advantages of Tunnelling

Work in a tunnel could be carried out without being on view, and providing the exit point had been calculated properly, there was a chance at night of crawling away undetected on the other side of the wire. (The ‘escape season’ usually  ended at the onset of winter and began at the first signs of a thaw and spring.)
Statistically the chance of getting shot whilst preparing for an escape via this method lessened dramatically.  If the tunnel was discovered, those caught working on it would be sent to solitary confinement for a specified period and various privileges for the rest of the camp removed.
During the day, the diggers were out of sight and not exposed to the risks of stepping into restricted areas, which was often necessary for reconnaissance/planning purposes in some surface escape plans.
As a tunnel attempt was usually made at night, no one was potentially on view until they came up outside the wire. This part was still risky because of guards and dogs patrolling on the other side, but searchlights were usually trained over the huts and inside the camp.
Tunnelling also required less from an individual than most methods of escape. The designers and planners did the skilled work; the rest was carried out by teams of men who with sheer hard graft and persistence worked together as a well drilled unit in difficult conditions to dig out the soil and shore up the tunnel . A positive sense of camaraderie and focus grew amongst the men whilst working on these projects which helped the days to pass.   

Digging tunnels could be slow and dangerous work, with collapses a constant risk.
Being injured or buried alive in a fall was always in the back of the POW’s mind.
Wood was required to shore up the roof and walls. These came from bunk bed boards which depleted the POW’s supply and comfort.
Groups of men were tasked with disposing the surplus soil without it being discovered, which added to the physical labour of the project. Not easy when the rations were 800 calories a day – half the minimum requirement. Red Cross parcels arrived once a week and these became the lifeline for the POW, who was always hungry and tired easily.

German Guards Destroying a Tunnel -

Tunnelling fell into two types, each highlighting the different strategies for escape:

Long Tunnel

These went from one of the barrack huts or a building in the camp which was sufficiently distanced from the perimeter wire. The tunnel would usually exit at a point well outside the wire. They were designed and constructed with mass breakouts in mind.  As few POWs stood a realistic chance of making it back home, the escapers could tie down large numbers of enemy personnel in looking for the fugitives. There was always still the chance that someone would make it on a ‘Home run’  - every POW with serios designs on escaping believed it would be him.
Short Tunnel

This would start at a point close to the wire, often inside/ hidden by an outbuilding or structure e.g. shower block, incinerator, store room etc. These schemes were suited for two or three man breakouts which stood a better chance of success. If the men were well prepared and equipped with the necessary false papers, they could get clear of the area and quickly utilise the transport systems of trains or buses, even for short journeys. Their absence at the next appel(s) stood a greater chance of being concealed by other POWs which gave the escapers more time to put a distance between themselves and the camp. Dummies or groups of POWs working as a team were known to bamboozle the Germans carrying out the headcounts.
Once the enemy had discovered the escape, full alerts would be instigated, but because of the small numbers of men missing, huge manhunts involving thousands of personnel would not be triggered. statistically this increased their slim chances of a 'home run.' 
Some tunnels were very close to the wire and classed as ‘dig as you go’. The POW would try to hide after evening appel in a building close to the perimeter fence or stay concealed during the day. Once the lockdown had been implemented, the prisoner would dig around two feet below the surface , then using a pipe for air, would push the soil behind him and endeavour to get under the wire and away without discovery by searchlight, guards or dogs.

*The vaulting horse in the famous ‘Wooden Horse’ escape was also technically a ‘structure’ even though men carried the horse out daily, positioning it over the concealed tunnel entrance and returning it to store later. Whilst it was in position and vaulting exercises were being run, tunnelling work was carried out underneath. Two men were concealed inside the horse. (Work for tunnellers and 'gymnasts' alike must have been difficult, given the low energy levels of prisoners)

*Future post will feature this escape in more detail using information from the actual IS9 files for the Wooden Horse escapers

The Wooden Horse - Still  from the 1950 Film

Next week’s post will look at some of the classic and lesser known ‘Short Tunnel’ Escape attempts.


The Great Escape - Paul Brickhill
POW - Adrian Gilbert
IS9 Files
Author's notes

©Keith Morley

THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and you do not wish for it appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed.




Friday, 22 November 2013

'X' and the Wire Schemes

Stalag Luft 1V -

Wire escapes from POW camps in occupied Europe during World War Two were high risk, and statistically very few were successful. Tall barbed wire fencing (single and double), specific exclusion zones in front of these, guard towers, sentries and open areas beyond the wire were all obstacles to be overcome before a POW could even think about clearing the surrounding camp area.

The biggest deterrent to this kind of escape was being shot by the sentries who were under orders to fire at anyone in the prohibited zone without permission or attempting escape through/over the wire. A night escape via this method might have the cover of darkness, but would encounter ‘lock ins’, searchlights, sentries and dogs.

The viability of any wire escape plans would be considered by the Camp Senior Officer and ‘X’ in the normal way.  Even though the odds were remote, if the plan was sound, authority and support was usually given.

In the early months of Stalag Luft 111, Ken Toft an Irish pilot in the RAF and Bill ‘Nick’ Nichols a Californian serving with the RAF’ s American Eagle Squadron  formed a plan of escape. They had walked every inch of the camp’s east compound and spotted a potential blind spot halfway between two of the sentry towers on the east perimeter fence facing the woods.
Members of RAF American 71 Eagle Squadron (Nichols is far right) -  Unknown
They calculated that two men lying or crouching down could remain out of view from the guard towers in a small area by a line of thick coiled barbed wire near the perimeter fence. It might then be possible to cut through the perimeter and make a run for the woods a few yards away. The initial problem was reaching the blind spot without being seen. To get there, they had to cross the lethal area beyond the warning wire. Anyone encroaching into this territory without permission would almost certainly be shot by the guards. If Toft and Nichols had miscalculated the field of vision from the towers and they were seen, the same outcome was likely.
The plan was risky, but they took it to the camp Senior British Officer, Wing Commander Harry ‘Wings’ Day ,who called in Jimmy Buckley (Big X). ‘Wings’ Day was a ‘hands on’ experienced escaper, so rubber stamping of escape schemes as the Senior Officer was not in his nature. Day and Buckley discussed the mechanics in detail, then gave it the all clear with appropriate back up for false papers and concentrated escape rations to be prepared.

Jimmy Buckley*

'Wings' Day

As four of the sentry towers had a view of the area around the blind spot, Buckley organised four separate diversions to give the men a chance to get over the warning wire and reach the line of coiled barbed wire. The date was set and on a given signal, the distractions started in front of the towers:

Tower One – A prisoner shouted up to the sentry to telephone for an interview with the Kommandant.
Tower Two - Two men staged a sham fight and one of them was knocked out. (some accounts refer to it as an impromptu boxing match)

Tower Three – Another prisoner called to the sentry to ask permission to get a ball which had been thrown beyond the warning wire.
Tower Four – A man has a bucket of water thrown over him.

It took five seconds for the diversions. During that time Toft and Nichols had reached the perimeter fence and were out of sight from the towers. Nichols had a pair of wire cutters made from two rough pieces of metal, but the cutting was not straightforward because of the makeshift tool. At another signal, a further set of diversions were repeated in front of the guards and the men slid unnoticed through the perimeter fence and across the short distance to the woods. 
The actual escape plan was a success. Regrettably, although the men got clear of the area, they were later recaptured after a German official questioned their papers. 

*Jimmy Buckley was sadly later killed after successfully breaking out of the camp in a separate escape. 

Arguably the most successful ‘wire scheme’ was an escape from Oflag V1B Camp, Warburg in Germany which became known as ‘The Warburg Wire Job.’ On the night of 30 August 1942, forty one men in four teams rushed the wire with ladders.

It was an ingenious and bold attempt which had been meticulously worked out. The plan would have been vetted by the Camp Senior Officer and ‘X’ and the necessary teams put in place with the accompanying security umbrella to aid preparation. 
Royal Engineers officer Jock Hamilton-Baillie was instrumental in the design and build of a set of four ‘hinged’ ladders to lean against and straddle the two barbed wire perimeter fences at the edge of the camp. The escape attempt would begin at the same time as the camp search and perimeter lights were fused. A way to control this had been discovered by Major B D Skelton ‘Skelly’ Ginn, who had considerable knowledge of electrics. In the darkness, away from the escape location, a noisy diversion would also be created by around fifty other prisoners.

Jock Hamilton-Baillie - SWNG

The double perimeter fence of barbed wire was constructed around wooden frames,  set about 8 feet apart and around twenty feet in height. At the bottom of the gap in between the fencing, a thick tangle of more barbed wire had also been positioned.

The ladders were ingenious in both construction and improvisation of materials. The apparatus was in two halves which fitted together – the first a simple ladder with widely spaced rungs and a hook at the top to engage the overhang of barbed wire, and the other part a basic running board with duckboards and a swing bar at the far end for the men to hang on to and drop off. The two parts fitted neatly together one on top of the other whilst they were hidden away.

Scale model built by Jock Hamilton-Baillie and demonstrated by Ben Hamilton-Baillie

When the lights were fused and distractions began, the ladders were slid out and run up against the top of the wire. The running board section which fitted over the basic ladder was pushed up and slid across, until it cantilevered to rest on the top of the outer fence. The base part hooked into place over the inner fence. Short ropes on either side of the ladder and duckboard section were suitably  tensioned preventing the two sections from further movement.
As previous picture. Shows how apparatus cantilevers to rest on opposite fence

Shows how apparatus locks with the rope attachments preventing further movement
As the two joined sections slotted rigidly in place, the plan was for a team of fifteen men to run up the ladder, down the duckboard and jump off after swinging on the trapeze bar at the other end, so they were close enough to the ground to drop without injuring themselves. (About a 6-8 foot drop.)

Close up of rope assembly and outward hang of barbed wire
The ladder apparatus could be assembled in about fifteen seconds and fifteen men could get over in ninety seconds. It was very light and constructed of approximately ‘five by two inch’ timbers taken from a ceiling Bed boards were used for the duckboards and swing bar at the end. During the escape attempt, one of the ladders failed as it was not sufficiently reinforced in the middle and the ropes broke so that the duckboard became loose and ineffective.   

Accounts vary on how many POWs managed to get over the wire and clear the camp. It is likely that it was twenty one. What is certain is that three made it back home after finally crossing the Pyrenees via the Comete Escape Line. They were Major Albert Arkwright, Captain Rupert Fuller and Major Francis Edwards. (More about their escape in a future post)  

To watch the full clip of how the superb escape ladder apparatus worked as shown by Ben Hamilton Baillie click on:

The Great Escape - Paul Brickhill
POW - Adrian Gilbert
Author's notes
Warburg Wire Job scale model (You Tube) - Ben Hamilton Baillie

©Keith Morley
THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and you do not wish for it appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed. 


Sunday, 17 November 2013

'X' and Gate Walk Out Schemes

Entrance to Stalag 1V B -  LutzBruno

Main Gate to Stalag XV111B in Krems  Austria
Escapes from POW camps in occupied Europe were not confined to tunnels and cutting through barbed wire. It is easy to conjure up these stereotypical images, but an area for regular escape attempts were the gates into camps.
Observation, intelligence, organisation and planning around any break out attempts via these locations would generally  be subject to the same management structure as outlined in previous posts (see diagram). Depending on the individual camp set up, the Senior Officer, ‘X/Big X’, Intelligence Officer and Security Officer (if security was not X’s responsibility) would be key stakeholders. Support via forged papers, rations, maps, compasses, civilian clothing etc was provided in the usual way.  ‘X’ would always be the main player around the mechanics of the escape.

Squadron Leader Roger Bushell who masterminded the Great Escape had his own perception of running the show as ‘Big X’, described in Paul Brickhill’s must read book ‘The Great Escape’.
‘Roger controlled every phase of the growing organisation holding daily conferences with the departmental chiefs, presiding over them as a charmingly incisive but slightly sinister chairman. He had a mind like a filing cabinet and that was one of the reasons why he was so brilliant at organisation. Once he’d chosen his man for a job he never roughly interfered with him. He listened to their problems made suggestions and when they’d thrashed it out and a decision was made he gave the man concerned full brief to carry it out. …Every day he went to Massey (Camp Senior Officer) and they talked over the master plan.’

Gate walk out schemes provided excellent examples of bluff, timing and opportunism. Some attempts were foolhardy and stood little chance of success, but ‘little’ was better than ‘none’, and for the POW, the resultant solitary confinement after discovery/ recapture was considered well worth the risk.  
Bob Van der Stok
Great escaper Bob Van der Stok made numerous attempts before becoming one of the three to make a successful home run after The Great Escape. He outlined his third unsuccessful attempt in his IS9 debriefing report:
‘On 11 Jun 1943 a mass escape from the North Compound was organised. There were two parties.  A delousing party had been arranged, and an hour before this party was due to leave the compound, a similar party was formed up and they walked through the gate with two Gefreiters (escapers in German uniform) in charge.*

A few moments later a party of six senior officers walked through the compound gate with me. I was dressed as an Unteroffizier. The six senior officers with me were Col Godrich, Lt Col Clarke (both of the USAAF), W/Cdr Day, W/Cdr Tuck, S/Ldr Jennings and F/Lt Kuczginsky.
The fake delousing party succeeded in getting clear of the camp, but were all re-captured later. My party was stopped at the second gate, as the guard recognised me.** I was able to hide my German money, but my false German papers were found. The senior officers were punished with seven days in the cells. I was held pending enquiries for 48 days and then punished with ten days ‘hard’.

*Twenty four men fell in outside hut 104 carrying bundles wrapped in towels, (to be put in the steam delousers). If the guards had inspected the bundles they would have seen uniform jackets and trousers converted to look like civilian clothes and little packets of food made from oatmeal, breadcrumbs, milk powder, chocolate and sugar.

** Only recognised after the pass that Van der Stok had been carrying was checked on the back by the sentry. The Germans had introduced a new mark on the back the week before. Van der Stok’s forgery did not have the mark. It was only then that the guard realised he had seen him walking about in the compound. The Chief Security officer Major Broili congratulated the guard on his vigilance. The guard replied with some self-satisfaction that he thought it unusual for two parties to leave the camp so close together.  ‘Two parties?’ exploded the Security Officer. As the guard tried to explain, Broili ran for the guardhouse phone.
A few days after the failed attempt, just before lock up time at dusk, three men in German uniforms with ‘rifles’ showed their passes and walked through the compound gates. All was in order - the passes had the requisite mark on the back. The men were on their way to Sagan station when they ran into camp Feldwebel Hermann Glemnitz who recognised and arrested them. 

An early attempt at Stalag Luft 111 was made by W/Cdr Day and two others dressed up in RAF uniforms they had converted to look like German Luftwaffe uniforms (all the guards were Luftwaffe)They tried to bluff their way through the gate and were marched off for 14 days solitary in the cooler.’

German Ferrets
One man dressed himself as a ferret (German security guards dressed in overalls and armed with torches and steel spikes to probe for tunnels) and openly walked out of the gate at night. Others hid in trucks that had brought food into the compounds. A Swiss commission (The Protecting Power) came to inspect a camp, and while they were in the compound a number of POWs dressed in makeshift civilian clothes walked out in their place. POW Pat Leeson dressed himself as a German chimney sweep with a dirty face and a cardboard topper like they wear and walked out of the gate while the real sweep was in the compound. All were eventually recaptured.

As illustrated in the film The Great Escape, Russian prisoners were working in the new compound at Stalag Luft 111 clearing the remaining pine trees they had cut down and piling branches plus foliage into lorries.  The road out of the compound went past three huts. A number of figures crawled across the roofs, dropping into the back of the lorries as they drove by. Each vehicle was searched at the gate and the prisoners were found – except two who lay undiscovered having burrowed deep into the branches and got away. They were quickly recaptured which resulted in the Germans using pitchforks to probe any trees, foliage and vegetation leaving the camp.  

POW Ian Cross saw another means of escape via a truck by hanging underneath on the chassis.  He was promptly raced around the compound at high speed, but managed to hang on. The truck pulled up where it started and Cross was ordered to come out before being marched over to the cooler for a spell in solitary confinement.  
Lieutenant Airey Neave
Although Lieutenant Airey Neave’s escape took place in Colditz Castle, which was not a standard ‘barbed wire’ POW camp, it can be classed as via a gate walk out scheme.  POW Major Pat Reid spotted a significant possibility for an escape whilst doing a period of solitary confinement in Colditz. From his cell window, he was only able to a single wall from the Saalhaus or theatre block. Reid, an engineer by trade, could visualise the skeletons of buildings. He realised that part of the theatre’s wooden stage extended over a section of the castle sealed off from the prisoners. This might lead to the German guardhouse immediately outside the secure courtyard.
Once released from ‘solitary’, he examined the stage and found he could crawl underneath by removing some wooden steps. He inspected the section of the floor which lay  above the sealed part of the castle. It was only straw and rubble lying on top of a lath and plaster ceiling.

Major Pat Reid
A minute hole was made through the ceiling which revealed an empty room, so Reid got help from POW Hank Wardle and they cut a hole in the ceiling just enough to squeeze through. He climbed down into the room via a rope of sheets knotted together and picked the lock to the door, making a reconnaissance down a corridor. There were possibilities for further exploration, so he returned to the room and climbed back through the point of entry, having relocked the door. Work began immediately on constructing a wooden frame and false ceiling to fit into the gap. After much effort , the gap was concealed so well after the frame had been inserted into position, that it was almost undetectable to anyone looking up at the ceiling from inside the room.
On a further sortie out of the locked room Reid picked the lock of another door in the corridor and found himself in the attic over the German guardhouse which was outside the secure courtyard. There was a spiral staircase leading from the attic directly to the guard’s quarters. A plan formed in his mind. Escapers dressed as German officers could use this route on two successive nights following evening appel. It could be carried out straight after there had been a change of guard stationed at the front entrance to the guardhouse. The new sentry would not know which officers (if any) might have entered the guardhouse in the previous two hours.
Colditz Castle
Lieutenants Airey Neave and John Hyde-Thompson were selected as the first British escapers, providing they could produce high quality imitations of German officer's uniforms. Impeccable papers and passes were also required and it was clear that the escape attempt would require help from their fellow Dutch officer POW’s. Dutch greatcoats with some modifications could pass under artificial light as German ones. The Dutch also had a quantity of lead piping which could be melted down to produce buttons, buckles, swastikas etc. (the British had used theirs earlier to make a distillery). Most Dutch officers also spoke perfect German. Holsters and belts could be made from linoleum, leggings from cardboard and the castle forgers would be able to replicate service caps.  
After evening appel on 5 January, Lieutenants Airey Neave and Tony Luteijn (Royal Netherland s Indies Army) made their escape under the stage, climbing down through the gap in the ceiling and slipping out via the attic, stairs and guardhouse. Everything went perfectly and they reached the bridge where there was a gate leading down into the dry moat. The pair did not encounter problems until Ulm railway junction where they had to change trains. Their request for tickets to Singen near the Swiss border meant producing the appropriate travel documents. The ticket clerk was unhappy with their papers and called a railway policeman. Neave explained in his account what happened next:

‘The policeman took us to an office in the goods yard where a thin tight lipped German railway police lieutenant sat at a desk. He examined our false papers with bewilderment. It appeared to me that the writing on it did not make sense to him. I could hardly stop myself from laughing as he lifted them to the light, looking no doubt, for water marks.  He was however impressed by Luteijn’s Dutch passport and there seemed no inkling in his mind that we were escaped prisoners of war.
‘I don’t understand these men at all’ he said helplessly. ‘Take them to the Labour Office. I wish someone would control these foreign workers more efficiently.’

Escorted to the Labour Office by another armed policeman, they escaped through a back door. After more scrapes and slices of luck they trekked in deep snow over the open country and forests near Singen to cross the frontier into neutral Switzerland.  Neave’s was the first successful British home run from Colditz.
The absences of Neave and Luteijn were covered at the two castle appels the next day by the POWs with a mix of bluff and use of a dummy which had been successfully hidden by one of the Dutchmen. The same tactic and route of escape was used that evening by John Hyde-Thompson and 2nd Lieutenant H G Donkers, but they were captured at Ulm railway junction. This time the Germans were ready when similar travel documents were presented.

©Keith Morley

THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and do not wish for it appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed.

Personal Notes

The Great Escape – Paul Brickhill

IS9 Files – National Archives
Colditz – The Full Story – Major P R Reid M.B. E. MC

Apologies for the late posting. Friday posts resume from this week