Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Three Who Got Away - The Journey Part One

Entrance to Tunnel 'Harry' -

Sagan Station -

Breslau Station During German Occupation-

Bram ‘Bob’ Vanderstok had made three unsuccessful attempts to get out of Stalag Luft 111 before he took part in the Great Escape. The first was in June 1942 and the last, a year later when he managed to reach the second gate of the camp dressed as a German Unteroffizier escorting six RAF senior officers through. They had followed a fake delousing party which had marched through and got clear of the camp. Unfortunately the guard at the gate recognised Vanderstok and the Germans quickly realised the first party was false . (The escapers were all recaptured, although Flt Lt. Johnny Stower crossed over an unguarded part of the border into neutral Switzerland, then inadvertently wandered back onto the German side and was arrested by a patrolling sentry.)
Vanderstok was one of about forty escapers who were designated to travel by train. This was based on the amount of German Reich marks that the escape committee had managed to accumulate and the escaper’s chances of success e.g. German and multilingual speakers, especially those native to occupied countries e.g Norwegians, Poles, French, Dutch etc. The rest would have ‘hardarse it’ on foot as the Kriegies termed it.

Vanderstok described what happened on 24 March 1944 in his secret MI9 Escape Report:
‘…a mass escape took place from the North Compound of Stalag Luft 3 by means of a tunnel, which had taken one year to construct. I was number 18 in the tunnel, priorities having been worked out by all the people taking part in the escape. Approximately 200 intending escapers were fitted out with clothing and papers, but I do not know how many of them were able to get out. …A rope was placed from the exit of the tunnel to a safe position in the woods about 15 yards from the exit, where a controlling officer gave the ‘all clear’ by a tug on the rope.
I got out of the tunnel without incident and made my way to Sagan station, where I had to wait for three hours as trains were delayed by a raid on Berlin. A timetable had been worked out and the controlling officer in the woods gave each man a definite train by which to travel. This plan was upset by the air raid.

On the way to the station I was accosted by a German civilian who asked what I was doing in the woods…. I was posing as a Dutch worker and carrying appropriate identity papers. I told this civilian that I was a Dutch worker and was afraid of the police arresting me for being out of doors during an air raid. He said ‘it is alright if you are with me.’ He escorted me to the railway station.

At the station, one of the German girl censors from the camp who was on duty there spoke to S/Ldr Kirby-Green’ (the girl had been routinely posted at the station to look for anyone suspicious). ‘This girl was suspicious of him and got a Hauptmann of the German Military police to examine his papers. While this was being done the girl spoke to me. She asked me a number of questions but I was able to satisfy her. The Hauptmann was satisfied with S/Ldr Kirby-Green’s papers. During the time I was waiting at the station at Sagan, I saw the officer who had been No 32 at the tunnel arrive.’
Vanderstok purchased a ticket for Breslau on the Polish border. It was east of Sagan and in the opposite direction of where he wanted to go, but a relatively short journey away. To buy a ticket straight to a place in Holland would be obvious to his pursuers once the breakout was discovered and the manhunt began.   

The MI9 Escape Report describes what happened next:
‘The train for Breslau arrived at approximately 03.30 hrs on 25 March. I travelled (second class) to Breslau where I arrived at 05.00 hrs. There was no control of papers. I saw about 8 of my fellow escapers there. They were  S/Ldr Bushell, Lt Sheidhauer, Lt Stevens, Lt Gouws,Flt. Lt Stower and at least three others whose names I do not know.

I purchased a second class ticket for Alkmaar (Holland). I had the necessary Urlaubschein (pass) to do this. I travelled from Breslau to Dresden where I arrived at 10.00 hours.’
The tunnel exit (with escapers still trying to exit) was discovered at 4.55am and by the time Vanderstock walked out of Dresden station the hunt was well under way.

The two Norwegians Sgt Per Bergsland and Lt Jens Müller came out of the tunnel at numbers forty three and forty four. They made their way through the trees to Sagan station without incident. Some escapers were unable to find the narrow station entrance in the dark and arrived late, consequently missing their trains.
Muller recounted his experience:

"It took me three minutes to get through the tunnel. Above ground I crawled along holding the rope for several feet: it was tied to a tree. Sergeant Bergsland joined me; we arranged our clothes and walked to the Sagan railway station.
Bergsland was wearing a civilian suit he had made for himself from a Royal Marine uniform, with an RAF overcoat slightly altered with brown leather sewn over the buttons, a black RAF tie and no hat. He carried a small suitcase which had been sent from Norway. In it were Norwegian toothpaste and soap, sandwiches, and 163 reichsmarks given to him by the Escape Committee.

We caught the 2:04 train to Frankfurt. Our papers stated that we were Norwegian electricians from the Arbeitslager [labour camp] in Frankfurt working in the vicinity of Sagan. For the journey from Frankfurt to Stettin we had other papers ordering us to change our place of work from Frankfurt to Stettin, and to report to the Burgomeister of Stettin."
The two Norwegians travelled third class, merging in with the civilians. Both were good German speakers and would have no problems in conversing. They arrived in Frankfurt at 06:00 hours and after a two hour wait at the station they caught the train to Küstrin.

A massive hunt was on for all of the escapers. Many were quickly captured, especially those on foot, but for the three that got away they faced the possibility of more detailed examination of their forged papers in full daylight, and the whole of Germany looking for the escapers. With the public’s feelings towards Allied flyers because of saturation bombing running high and SS General Mueller’s   Kügel Order* (Mueller was Gestapo chief in Berlin)  these were dangerous times.
*The Kügel Order (which the POWs did not have full knowledge of) stated that recaptured escapee officers other than British and Americans were to be taken in chains to Mauthausen Concentration Camp.  Mauthausen was instructed that prisoners transferred to them under the Kügel Order were not to be entered on the camp books, but taken to the underground cells and either gassed or shot, whichever was convenient.

To Be Continued Next Week
The Great Escape  - Paul Brickhill

MI9 Escape Reports – National Archives at Kew

©Keith Morley

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1 comment:

  1. Eva Nathan Clarke was born in the Mauthausen concentration camp on April 29, 1945, the day that her mother, Anka Nathan Bergman, arrived as a prisoner on a train from a labor camp in Freiberg, near Dresden, Germany. Her father, Bernd Nathan, had been shot in Auschwitz on January 18, 1945, the same day that 60,000 prisoners were marched out of the camp and taken to camps in Germany and Austria. Eva now lives in Cambridge, England and works for the Holocaust Educational Trust. She tells her story to students in order to remember and commemorate all those who died, but also to teach the lessons of the Holocaust. Eva and her mother, Anka Bergman, who is now in her 90s, are the only members of their family that survived the Holocaust; 15 family members were killed in Auschwitz, including 3 of Eva’s grandparents, her father, uncles, aunts, and her 7 year old cousin, Peter. In her talks to students, Eva says that there are two reasons why she and her mother survived – apart from her mother’s inherent toughness. “The first is that on the 28th April 1945 the Germans blew up the gas chamber at Mauthausen – this they were doing everywhere to try to conceal the evidence. My birthday was the 29th. The second reason is that three days after my birth the American Army liberated the camp.” (Actually, Mauthausen was liberated on May 5, 1945, which was 6 days after Eva was born.)Glad that our three escapees did not end up at this concentration camp and we eagerly await the next part of their journey in the well-documented and fascinating posts by Keith.
    ‘How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.’
    Anne Frank