Friday, 25 January 2013

The Three Who Got Away – Ten Facts

Per Bergsland (left) and Jens Müller (right) in Sagan 111   (Jonathan Vance, University of Western Ontario)

Bob Vanderstok after capture (

Bob Vanderstok false ID photo (

1  All three were RAF fighter pilots shot down in 1942 whilst flying Spitfires.

Bram ‘Bob’ Vanderstok (Dutch) RAF 41 Squadron took off from Tangmere 12 April 1942.

Lt. Jens Müller (Norwegian) RAF 331 Squadron North Weald 19 June 1942.

Sgt Per Bergsland  (Norwegian) RAF 332  Squadron North Weald 19 August 1942.

2  Bergsland joined the RAF under the English name of 'Peter Rockland' to protect his family in Norway if he was captured.

3  Jens Müller largely designed the famous air pump assembly for tunnels ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’ which revolutionised the digging operation in Sagan 111. Air was drawn in via an inlet pipe, pumped into the tunnel and stale air taken out through an exhaust line. The pipes were made by joining empty powdered milk tins from Red Cross parcels, resulting in tunnellers staying underground for longer and in far better conditions.

4  Although not needed in his escape Bergsland was highly proficient in orienteering, finishing second in the Norwegian Championships of 1939.

5  All three escapers spoke good German with traces of their native accents and were multilingual. The two Norwegians also spoke excellent Swedish. This enabled a clear strategy for their escape routes and feasible cover stories for their forged papers.

6  Bergsland and Müller were to catch a train at Sagan and journey via various rail links to the port of Stettin. There they would attempt to board a Swedish ship. All of their papers needed to be excellent forgeries and back up their reasons for travel. Bergsland expanded:

 ‘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 Bürgermeister of Stettin.’

7  Vanderstok’s false identity was Hendrik Beeldman, a Dutch draughtsman taking home leave from the electronics firm Siemens. He was to try and reach Holland, make contact with the Resistance and then journey south through Belgium, France and Spain to Gibraltar.  

8  The three escapers were familiar with how to behave when on the run. Vanderstok had lived under occupation in Holland, Bergsland had been a student in Germany in 1938 and witnessed the ‘Nazi way.’ They were all wary of mistakes and signs that escapers could make to give themselves away, including never sitting in a waiting room at a railway station unless a ticket had already been purchased, blending in without attracting attention, walking with a purpose and behaving with confidence when holding out and presenting papers for inspection.

9  Vanderstok was early in the tunnel sequence at number 18 and the two Norwegians although 43 and 44 on the list took only three minutes to travel from end to end.

10  Despite being made from service uniforms and other ‘accessories, the escapers’ clothes appeared inconspicuous to the general eye. Vanderstok describes in his escape report how he was dressed:

‘I was wearing the following articles of clothing which had been altered in camp, Naval jacket and trousers, an Australian greatcoat, RAF escape boots with the tops cut off, and a beret which had been made in the camp.’

Next Week – The Journeys

The Great Escape  - Paul Brickhill
The Great Escapers – Tim Carroll
War Pilot of Orange – Bob Van der Stok
Article on ‘The Longest Tunnel’ by Alan Burgess
MI9 Escape Report – National Archives

©Keith Morley

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  1. Interesting facts about the airman Keith - thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks Maria. The characters and their journey are also an interesting comparison against the Hollywood film.

  2. I'm looking forward to reading next week's post about these brave men and their journey.

    1. Thanks Sally. They are two contrasting stories.

  3. The 75th anniversary of the first flight of the Spitfire was on 5 March, 2011. Nigel Drever, who lives in Reading, was a pilot in the Battle of Britain but spent much of war interred with prisoners planning the Great Escape. He also survived the sinking of the Lancastria and the infamous Long March at the end of the war. Mr Drever was forced to march from Poland to Germany in freezing conditions in January 1945, as the retreating German army force-marched thousands of prisoners of war, resulting in the deaths of 200 men. His daughter Clair Drever said her father was flying his Spitfire early in World War II when he was brought down by enemy fire. "He was shot down by the Messerschmits," she said. "He landed on a tree and then was frogmarched over by the Germans to the local Gestapo officer. He didn't like the way they treated him. They paraded him around because they were so pleased they had captured him." Speaking about his crash landing, Mr Drever said: "I knew I'd had it. I landed in a great big tree." Mr Drever said he was never scared while flying in the Battle of Britain. "You're not scared," he said. "You don't have time for that nonsense. You're going like hell and you don't have time to start thinking anything like that. The aircraft became part of your body. It's a lovely aircraft." Mr Drever was taken to the Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp on the Polish border and about 100 miles south east of Berlin. It later became known for the Great Escape, in which 76 Allied prisoners tunnelled out of the camp in 1944. The prisoners drew lots to decide who would try to escape, and Mr Drever was unsuccessful. However, he helped dig the tunnel which aided the escape. Adolf Hitler personally ordered the execution of 50 of the escapees in order to deter other prisoners of war from doing the same. "All of us were working on ways of getting out," said Mr Drever. "I was there for four years. You're just thinking about how to get out and see a few women." Of the 76 men who left the camp, only three made it to freedom who are documented in this informative post by Keith, look forward to the next one.
    ‘Many have puzzled themselves about the origin of evil. I am content to observe that there is evil, and that there is a way to escape from it, and with this I begin and end.’
    John Newton.

  4. Just caught the movie on The Military Channel, which stirred in me a renewed interest in the escape. I am so pleased to have happened upon your blog and will be bookmarking it for future reference.

  5. Many thanks for your message. Escape and Evasion is such an under represented area of World War 2. I hope that the Escape Line can do something to redress that imbalance and draw in new readers to the subject. The Great Escape will always remain a classic.