Friday, 22 February 2013

Escape Aids and Codes

Canadian Chess Set

German Reichmark in Gramaphone Record

Playing Cards With Maps

Magnetised Razor Blades

Christopher Clayton Hutton

Under the Geneva Convention rules of war, POW’s had the right to receive recreational devices approved by the holding power, in parcels that would be carried postage free by all nations. The Allied and Axis powers adhered strictly to this protocol and German POW’s held in Britain, Canada and the United States received the same privileges. This provided an ideal outlet for MI9 (Britain and Commonwealth Secret Branch) and MIS- X (The American equivalent) to conceal escape aids in items shipped out to prisoners in German POW camps.

Such practices were never used by the Allies within Red Cross parcels, as these contained food and provisions which were the POWs lifeline, supplementing inadequate German rations. Instead, fictitious humanitarian societies were created, and under these guises, secretly marked parcels and items would contain concealed escape aids, often in sports equipment, games or everyday items such as shaving brushes and razor blades. The POW’s would often be aware in advance of what was arriving by way of a system of coded messages contained in correspondence between the prisoner and home. Some POWs were known code users and information would be slipped into an innocently written letter to a friend, wife, sweetheart or family member.

Red or purple German postmarks with an accompanying swastika signified an incoming letter from a POW. MIS-X had a record of known code users and relevant addresses which they used. Sorters on the fifteenth floor at 90 Church Street New York (censoring department for all mail to or from American POW’s in Europe) sifted the letters from these individuals out, diverting them to MIS-X where they would be decoded, stamped with a censor’s stamp and routed on to the destination address. This process was double edged as the decoders also wrote back to the POW’s posing as fictional family members and friends etc. Each decoder had up to twenty POW’s to correspond with and a separate set of stationery for separate prisoners to avoid suspicion from the German censor.

British practice in MI9 went along similar lines and had first been in operation on a smaller scale in 1940 courtesy of a code developed called ‘HK.’ Simple to use, and in skilled hands difficult to detect, the user had to initially complete two prerequisites. They would indicate by the fashion in which they wrote the date on a letter that a code would be used and then show by the opening words which part of the code they were using.  After this a normal chatty piece of correspondence would be written, which was subsequently then decoded by the cryptographers. (more on MI9 and MIS-X in future posts)

The names of fictional humanitarian societies created by MI9 and MIS-X to ‘sponsor’ and despatch the parcels were interesting in themselves. MIS-X primarily used The War Prisoners Benefit Foundation, whilst MI9 had up to thirty six national bodies including, The Licence Victuallers Sports Association, The Prisoners Leisure Hours Fund and The Welsh Provident Society. Great care was taken to ensure that authentic post marks were used, and that newspaper which formed part of the wrapping material was printed near the parcel’s origin.

The Germans became experienced in detecting suspicious objects and once an item containing a hidden aid was deemed to have been discovered, it was withdrawn and a fresh approach made. The POW code writers would inform home if they had not received specifically marked items, or found out they had been located by their captors, although a five week delay existed between despatch of a letter and arrival.

Parcels were usually opened and examined in the camp Vorlager by the German censor or often a Feldwebel with POW witnesses, who would be there to carry out the necessary administration for their own purposes. Often sleight of hand or diversion was used to sneak a parcel through without full check or an item that might be spotted or X-rayed. As the war progressed and the numbers of prisoners grew, so did the parcels. German manpower sometimes had difficulty coping and items got through.  

After the Great Escape and the execution of ‘The Fifty’, items continued to arrive, but with Hitler’s new orders on dealing with servicemen who broke out of POW camps in Europe, getting under the wire or through a tunnel had become a greater risk to life. With the course of the war changing after D Day, escaping decreased and the angle on getting back home or at the very least tying up enemy resources in searching for missing POW’s had changed. At one point in 1943, an American officer sent a coded message back to request that no more aids were sent in the immediate future because the prisoners had run out of space to hide them.

A dedicated team of American experts worked on creating ingenious ways of concealing escape aids. In Britain, the leader in this field was Christopher Clayton Hutton (known as ‘Clutty’ who was also instrumental in aids for evaders. The RAF Escape Kit is a good illustration of this. (See 13 March 2012.)

The list of concealed aids is ingenious and extensive. I have listed below ten favourites of my own:

1) Canadian ‘Ajax’ Chess Set (see picture) – Ajax alludes to The Trojan Horse. Compass contained in the white bishop when prized open , silk map concealed in the cardboard tube which has a coded message written on the outside. ‘Many Happy hours. All my love Dorothy xxx.’ (Possible clue that there is something concealed within the third piece – bishop is third position on a chess board). Also the phrase ‘Patent applied for’ with a large full stop indicated an aid inside.

2) Playing cards which contained a map inside when peeled apart. (see picture)

3) Gigli saws (minute strong fine wire with a serrated edge used by surgeons) concealed inside a bootlace.

4) German Reichmarks inside a gramophone record. (see picture)

5) A quarter inch brass cylinder which had a luminous needle balanced within it under a protective transparent cover. This was hidden in a small object such as a tobacco pipe, fountain pen or behind a cap badge. 

6) Magnetised razor blades to be adapted as compasses. (see picture)

7) Maps and money inside chess or Monopoly boards.

8) Compasses and two part files in game playing pieces such as Monopoly.

9) Blankets for adapting into civilian clothes. These would be impressed with cutting patterns or invisible ink, the latter showing once soaked in water.

10) The publication of an RAF pamphlet announcing a new mess dress which was to be worn once supplies became available. With the aid of the Wool Association, a cloth was used that would convert to a Luftwaffe dress.

Escape and Evasion – Ian Dear 

The Escape Factory – Lloyd Shoemaker

MI9 Escape and Evasion 1939-1945 – MR D Foot & J M Langley

©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 it to appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed

Friday, 15 February 2013

What Went Wrong in the Tunnel

Exit Tunnel 'Harry' -

'Harry' -

The set of Sagan 111 as portrayed in 'The Great Escape' - United Artists

‘Big X’ Roger Bushell planned to get 220 men out of Sagan 111 via the escape tunnel during the night of 24/25 March 1944. With the exit calculated to come up just inside the wood and out of sight of camp sentries, men needed to climb out and leave at no longer than two and a half minute intervals. With prisoner appell at 9.00 am the following morning, it was essential to minimise risk of discovery until then, giving the escapers maximum time to get clear before searches began.

Despite a meticulously planned operation, unexpected delays occurred. 76 men managed to escape before the tunnel was discovered. This was an amazing achievement, but more could have got out. So what went wrong?

1) Final preparations to the tunnel were made during the day and after the five o’clock appell. It was ready at 20.45, 15 minutes later than scheduled.

2) Getting the first 17 men into position along the tunnel took longer than anticipated. Once down the entry shaft, travel involved lying on the stomach on a trolley positioned on wooden rails and being pulled along the tunnel by rope. There were two ‘half way’ houses (Piccadilly and Leicester Square ) where changing to another trolley was necessary to negotiate another stretch.

3) It was 21.30 when Bushell, positioned near the exit shaft gave the order for Johnny Bull to remove the roof boards that had been put in to shore up the last foot of soil. They were wet from the build-up of early winter rain and melting snow and had expanded. Valuable time was spent trying to loosen them. The tunnel should have opened at 21.00 hours and it was 22.00 when they began to loosen.

4) At around 22.10 Bull poked his head out of the hole he had made and looked around. The exit should have been a few yards into the woods near the camp – it was out in the open, at least ten feet short of the line of trees and only fifteen feet from a sentry tower. Fortunately the guard had his back turned, sweeping his searchlight beam across the camp. The surveyors had underestimated the distance to the trees, which now invalidated the planned method of departure.

Bull was supposed to lie outside the hole in the trees to control the first people out. They were to climb up the ladder and stop just below the top so he could feel their head in the darkness. He would give them a gentle tap when it was all clear and they would be up and running.  This would lead to certain discovery.          

5) A decision was made to continue with the escape. Over 600 men had worked for a year towards it, the Germans were close to discovering the tunnel and the escaper’s travel papers were dated for the day. More time slipped past. An alternative system for departure had to be worked out, as despite the darkness, anyone lying on the snow outside the hole would be spotted by the sentries patrolling the perimeter fence. A decision was made to attach a rope on the top rung of the ladder in the exit shaft and then the first man to climb out would trail the rope across the snow to a ‘ferret hide’ that had been set up by the Germans so they could spy on the POWs from outside the camp. This ‘hide’ was a few feet outside of the trees.

The second man would then take the other end of the rope and tie it to a tree trunk about sixty feet inside the woods. This would act as the rendezvous tree for escapers to be led out of the woods in a party before splitting up. The first man would act as controller from behind the hide, and when it was all clear, he would give two tugs on the rope and the next escaper would exit and crawl through the snow, following the rope past the controller into the woods. Each controller would get twenty men out before being relieved to make his own escape. This process would be infinitely slower and also spasmodic because of sentries patrolling the perimeter fence. The controller (first one was Johnny Bull) had to wait for both sentries to be out of sight before pulling on the rope.

6) Only six people were called in the first hour and further delays occurred in the tunnel with escapers having difficulties with carrying their attaché/ suitcases on the trolleys.  Most of the train travellers carried these made from cardboard or plywood and rubbed with boot polish. Some dropped them in transit down the tunnel or they became wedged against shoring frames. Trying to hold the cases out in front as they were pulled down the tunnel caused a few men to overbalance and derail the trolley. Because of the lack of space, it was impossible for the traveller to put the trolley back on the rails again. The man hauling them up with the rope had to crawl back, get the man on the trolley to take the weight on his hands and toes, while he put the trolley back on the rails. He then returned to the original hauling point before the journey could recommence.

7) Just after midnight, the air raid sirens sounded and the tunnel was plunged into darkness as power to the camp was switched off. The RAF were bombing Berlin. Fat lamps which had been used before the escapers had managed to tap into the camp’s power supply had to be utilised. These were taken up the tunnel and positioned at strategic intervals. The escape operation began again. Another thirty five minutes had been lost, but there was a positive. Without any lights in the camp, and with all attention being focused on the huts and the wire, departures speeded up.

8) A tunnel fall occurred between Piccadily and Leicester Square when Tom Kirby-Green tried to lever himself up from a derailed trolley and caught a damaged box frame bringing three feet of sand down on him. He was pulled out, but the tunnel had to be cleared and repaired before anyone else could pass through. The surplus sand was spread gradually along towards Leicester Square. Another hour disappeared. The road was ready to go just as the all clear sounded outside and power was restored.   

9) At about two forty five the last of the suitcase carriers went through and the exits began to speed up with escapers carrying only a single blanket. It was rolled and tied tightly and slung on a string around their necks. Unfortunately some of the men had tied their blankets incorrectly and not how they had been shown, which meant the roll was too wide and kept jamming on the sides of the tunnel. Others had the string tied too loose resulting in the blankets dangling under the trolley and getting caught in the wheels.

10) Some escapers were too bulky as they had packed excessive spare kit and provisions around them, resulting in removal of some items before they would be admitted to the tunnel.  

11) Another roof fall occurred causing a further half hours delay and a rope used to haul one of the trolleys broke losing further time whilst a replacement was fitted. In the end a decision was made for those travelling on foot to go without their blankets in order to speed up the operation. Their chances were slim in the snow, even though a slow thaw had started.

12) Twenty more minutes were lost with another cave in, but by four o’clock sixty men had got out. At this time the camp guards started to change shifts causing a further twenty minute delay before the departures began again. Two sentries came very close to the hole and failed to spot the trail of slush towards the trees. These close calls meant no exits were possible during that time.

13) Around 04.55 hours, the first hints of daylight were showing. A decision was made in the tunnel to get three more men out then shut down. In the ‘ferret hide’ outside the woods Roy Langlois had pulled on the rope again and signalled out number 79 Len Trent.  Lawrence Reavell Carter had already passed the controller and reached the woods. He was to lead the party of ten out from the rendezvous tree deep in the woods.

Canadian Keith Ogilvie had just crawled past Lang ready to make the last few yards towards the trees, with New Zealand Spitfire pilot Mick Shand a few feet behind, when the sentry who had been patrolling the east side along the wire came into view again. This time he was walking on the near side of the road along the edge of the wood straight for the hole. It was amazing that he failed to see the rising steam hitting the cold air and the trail of slush across the snow where the escapers had crawled to the wood. Langois had already tugged sharply on the rope making Trent and Shand freeze on the ground where they lay. The sentry got to a foot from the hole before he spotted the tunnel exit. He was about to shoot at Shand lying on the ground when Reavell Carter jumped into sight by the trees waving his arms ‘ Nicht schiessen Posten. Nicht schiessen.’ (Don’t shoot sentry. Don’t shoot). The bullet fired into the air. In the confusion, Shand and Ogilvie made a run for it into the woods. The sentry blew his whistle and the game was up at shortly after 05.00 hours.

THe Great Escape - Paul Brickhill
The National Archives

©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 it to appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed.

Friday, 8 February 2013

The Three Who Got Away - The Journey Part Two

Main Stettin Bridge

View of Stettin Port -
Lt Jens Müller
Sgt Per Bergsland

(Jonathan Vance, University of Western Ontario

Continued from last week

Jens Müller and Per Bergsland, the two Norwegian escapers had their papers checked in daylight for the first time at Frankfurt railway station. Providing the forgeries stood up to scrutiny, their cover was feasible as both spoke good German with a Norwegian accent, but by then a Grossfabndung had been ordered, triggering the highest search order in Germany.

The first set of papers showed them as Norwegian electricians from a labour camp in Frankfurt working in the vicinity of Sagan. These had been enough to get them through the initial part of the journey, as the hue and cry had not yet developed. For the second leg from Frankfurt on Oder to Stettin, as the same electricians, Müller and Bergsland produced different documents which ordered them to change their place of work from Frankfurt to Stettin, and to report to the Burgomeister of Stettin. 

At 08.00 hours they caught the train to Küstrin and after a wait at the station,boarded the 10.00 hours service to Stettin, where they planned to stow away on a ship leaving for neutral Sweden.

Müller described what happened after arriving at Stettin:

"We walked around the town, visited a cinema and a beer hall, and after dusk went to an address given to us by the Escape Committee. It was a French brothel bearing the inscription 'Nur fur Ausländers—Deutschen verboten' (Only for foreigners—Germans forbidden.) We knocked on the door. As we did so a Pole who was standing on the street approached us and asked us if we had any black-market wares for sale. We asked him if he knew any Swedish sailors. He fetched one out of the brothel. We made our identity known, talking in Swedish, and he told us that his ship was leaving that night and to meet us at 20:00 hours outside the brothel."

Bergsland and Müller made the rendezvous with the Swede. Both escapers spoke Swedish so there were no difficulties with communication. They followed the man to the docks and waited whilst he reported to Docks Control. The plan was to sneak aboard at a given signal by the Swede.

No signal was seen and the ship left without them. They lay low for a while and decided to backtrack to the same brothel to look for another Swedish sailor. This was dangerous as they were now trapped inside the dock area and could expect intense scrutiny, as the Kriegsmarine would be co-operating with the Gestapo to prevent escapees slipping aboard ships to Sweden. The Officer at Control did not question their papers and they returned to the brothel which had closed for the night as it was well into the early hours of the next morning.  

Stettin like many ports had insalubrious quarters with seedy cafes, bars and hotels which stayed open, so the two escapers had a meal and paid for a room in one of the hotels with Reich marks they had been given by the camp Escape Committee.  They slept until the next afternoon and at 18.00 hours arrived back at the brothel and met two more Swedish sailors. The men agreed to help them get past the harbour authorities and stow away on board their ship which was due to leave at 07.00 hours the following morning.

The plan worked, as Bergsland and Müller were smuggled aboard the ship. They hid in the anchor locker concealing themselves as far away from the hatch as possible. Shortly before departure the next morning, the Germans searched the ship and found nothing.

The ship arrived in Gothenburg, where the two Norwegian pilots quickly sought out the British Consulate. They were sent by train to Stockholm and then flown to Scotland from Bromma airport. From there they were escorted to London by train and after  debriefing were posted to Canada. Bergsland and Müller had reached the safety of a neutral country in a matter of days – two of the seventy six who escaped from the tunnel and cleared the camp.

Flt Lt Bob Vanderstok  (
Dutchman Bob Vanderstok would continue to journey in a different direction to the Norwegians and be on the run for months. After arriving at Dresden station at 10.00 hours on 25 March(see last week’s post) he described what happened next:

‘I spent the day in two cinemas and in the evening took a tram to the main station where I got a train for Bentheim (Germany). My papers were examined on four occasions during the journey. I arrived in Bentheim at 09.00 hours on 26 March.’

Vanderstok already knew the procedures for escalating a search for escapers. The repeated checks of his papers confirmed that the search had been intensified, but as he neared Holland there were three factors in his favour - he had good false papers, a sound cover story and he was a native Dutchman:

‘My papers were examined at the frontier control and I was passed through without incident. All my magazines and newspapers were confiscated. I purchased a ticket and travelled by train (third class) to Oldenzaal (Holland). On arrival in Oldenzaal I purchased a ticket and travelled by train (third class) to Utrecht where I contacted a man. This man provided me with Dutch identity papers and ration cards, and gave me food and shelter for three days.’   

Vanderstok had memorised the address of a man in Utrecht who was in the Dutch underground and he made the contact. From purchasing the first train ticket to Breslau which was in the opposite direction to where he wanted to go, until he reached Utrecht, it is interesting to note the strategy of how he journeyed and purchased his tickets along the way.

The clerk at Breslau may have remembered the ticket to Alkmaar Holland being purchased if questioned by the Gestapo. This could have resulted in further checks and interrogation on all trains to that destination or the Gestapo waiting for Vanderstok at Alkmaar station. The two further purchases made for shorter journeys to Oldenzaal and Utrecht may have been a deliberate attempt to make the trail more difficult to follow.

It is also possible that his travel options had become more limited as the documents used at Breslau and the Urlaubsschein (permit) no longer fitted Vanderstok’s current location and circumstances. (The permit indicated that he was going to Alkmaar). He gives no reason for the strategy in his Escape Report but he does make reference in his book to leaving the train before Alkmaar for obvious reasons.  

Once in hiding in Utrecht it must have been hard to resist making even the most fleeting of contacts with his family, but Vanderstok knew that the Gestapo would be watching his home. On day four of his shelter it was time to move south on a journey towards Spain and Gibraltar:

‘On 29 Mar I travelled by train (third class) to Amersfoort where I contacted a man. I stayed with this man at his home until 14 April when I travelled by train (third class) to Maastricht. I had an address where I stayed for two days and on 16 April Itravelled by bicycle to Echt where I stayed at a house for four days. On 19 April I went by bicycle to Geulle and crossed the river Maas into Belgium at Uykhoven escorted by a Belgian.’ This Belgian gave me a Belgian identity card and a bicycle.’

The river crossing was made at around 3.00am, and Vanderstok’s journey via the underground movement had now taken on the pattern of an organised escape line:

‘I used the bicycle to travel to Hasselt where I stayed one night. On 21 April I travelled by train (third class) to Brussels. On arrival in Brussels I went to a house where I remained until 24 May. On that day I travelled by train (third class) to Paris where I arrived the following day and continued by train (second class) to Toulouse where I arrived on 26 May.’

A Dutch girl working for the Dutch underground in Brussels had given Vanderstok the address in Toulouse, where he stayed until 9 Jun. He was still a distance from safety and it had been over two months since the tunnel exit at Sagan 3 on 24 March.

On 9 June he travelled by train with two Dutch agents and a guide to Boulogne sur Gesse in Southern France. By now he would have learned of the Allied invasion in Normandy. They stayed at the ‘Hotel Moderne’ overnight and the following day were taken by car to a farmhouse where they remained overnight again. On 11 June they travelled by car to another farmhouse near Vignaut where they met two RAF and two USAAF evaders, a French officer, a Russian and French girl who had acted as guide to some of the evaders since Paris. Given the small numbers of non-military vehicles used at the time, the patriots must have been confident to have used cars on two separate occasions, but on the 14 June their local guide was shot dead whilst returning to the farmhouse to obtain food.  

 On 16 June the Maquis supplied another guide and the party began their journey towards the Spanish frontier. They were apprehended by Spanish Police on 18 June where all but the two Dutchmen declared themselves to be British. The group began a protracted journey via the Spanish authorities. They reached Lerida, making contact with the British Consul on 23 June. The Dutchmen were imprisoned by the Spanish and the rest of the party stayed at a hotel until 29 June when they were taken to Alhama until 5 July.

Vanderstok describes the final part of his epic journey. (It was in Madrid that he first learned from the British Consulate General of the fate of the fifty):

‘We were then taken by Embassy car to Madrid where we stayed at a hotel until 7 July. On that day we travelled by train to Gibraltar escorted by a British padre. We arrived in Gibraltar on 8 July.’

It had been one hundred and six days since Vanderstok escaped from Sagan 111. He was flown to Britain on 11 July.  Three of the seventy six had reached freedom.


The Great Escape  - Paul Brickhill

MI9 Escape Reports – National Archives at Kew

War Pilot of Orange  - Bob Vanderstok

 Next week –  22o were scheduled to escape in a meticulously planned operation. 76 got clear – What went wrong?  

©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 it to appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed.