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

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  1. It is just so difficult to imagine those times these days. I only hope the younger generation appreciate what these people did.

  2. Another fascinating account by Keith of the men who got away……I thought that a background of the man who masterminded the ‘Great Escape’ might be of interest. The following is taken from the books "The Great Escape", by Anton Gill, and "The Longest Tunnel", by Alan Burgess. They take up the narrative. ‘Roger Bushell was born in South Africa on the 30th November 1910. His father, a mining engineer, had emigrated to the country from England and he used his wealth to ensure that Roger received a first class education. He was first schooled in Johannesburg but was later moved to Wellington, in England, and in 1929 he spent his first year at Cambridge University, where he studied law. However, his talents extended far beyond a promising career in the legal profession. He furthered his interest in the theatre and was up there with the best of them when it came to a party, but he was also a profound athlete and had the honour of representing the University, both as a skier and rugby player. He excelled at skiing and during the early 1930's he was declared the fastest Briton in the downhill category. He became a member of the Kandahar Club, at Mürren, and had a black run at St Moritz named after him in recognition of his setting of the fastest time down it. During an event in Canada, however, he had suffered a fall which came within a whisker of tragedy when the tip of one of his skis narrowly missed his right eye and opened a gash in the corner of it. The resulting stitches left him with a slight droop in that eye, which proved to be a feature that he could use to sinister effect whenever the need came. Although he excelled as both an academic and a sportsman, Bushell yearned to fly and so in 1932 he joined the RAF Auxiliary and Reserve Volunteers. He was posted to 601 Squadron, which was commonly referred to as the "Millionaires' Squadron", because it was a unit in which wealthy young men paid their way in return for being taught how to fly Hurricanes on weekends and Bank Holidays. Bushell, meanwhile, pursued his legal career with vigour and from the handling of his first case in 1934 it was clear that he possessed a considerable talent to defend the accused. On the military side of the profession he also participated in courts-martial and prosecuted numerous RAF personnel, usually charged with dangerous flying, and such was Bushell's success rate that it has been suggested that his superiors acted to restrict the number of cases that he dealt with because he was inadvertently having a negative effect on the public relations effort. In 1939, Bushell defended a notorious London gangland boss on a charge of murder and he succeeded in securing a "not guilty" verdict. Delighted with the conduct of his defence counsel, the man in question offered his hand to Bushell only to be told in no uncertain terms that although he was happy do his duty and defend a blatant murderer, he would not shake his hand. Nevertheless, Bushell was promised that he would be helped if he ever got into trouble in London, though it is unlikely that he received this offer with any greater warmth.Roger Bushell stood at 5' 10", and he was a heavily built individual. He possessed a charismatic personality, and was warm and friendly by nature, but when the occasion called for it his deep voice and piercing eyes could make him an intimidating figure. Bushell was a natural leader and a bold organisational genius with a knack of making tough decisions in an instant, and so it is small wonder that he went on to mastermind the largest and most extravagant escape of Prisoners of War ever attempted.’
    ‘You will find peace not by trying to escape your problems, but by confronting them courageously. You will find peace not in denial, but in victory.’
    J. Donald Walters