Sunday, 25 August 2013

Stalag Luft 111 - Senior Officer & 'X'

Stalag Luft 111 had close to the perfect template for an escape organisation in an Allied POW camp in Europe during WW2. (See flowchart in previous post)

Situated in Sagan Silesia, 100 miles south-east of Berlin, it was deep in occupied territory and was considered an ideal location to become the main POW camp for British and American Air Force officers. Contrary to the compact self-contained portrayal in The Great Escape film, it was in reality a very large camp. As the air war over Europe intensified, larger numbers of aircraft were shot down and the count of aircrew being taken prisoner crept up. In the early stages, Germany had not fully envisaged a concentrated Allied bombing strategy nor its consequences; hence the building and subsequent expansion of Stalag Luft 111.
Initially the camp had two compounds holding 2,500 officers, which expanded to six with 10,000 officers and their orderlies. At its peak, the total distance around the outer perimeter fence was alleged to be five miles and NCO’s were transferred into their own camp because of the increasing numbers of officers arriving.
Despite the huge numbers of POWs in Stalag Luft 111, it was well run by the prisoners within the confines placed upon them by their German captors and the escape organisation reflected this. One advantage of the size of the camp was in concealing activities in progress, especially forgery, carpentry and tailoring. Guards and German personnel in smaller camps were at such close quarters with their prisoners, that any clandestine work was difficult to undertake without discovery.
The Senior British or American Officer in the camp was the head of the prisoners and direct liaison with the Camp Commandant. The Senior Officer (SO) also had the final say on all escape attempts, as once a plan had been discussed at Escape Committee level (headed by ‘X’) it was ultimately decided by the SO. The SO could sometimes merely be a figurehead regarding escape matters, with the main work being handled by ‘X’ and his organisation. This was the largely the case at with Group Captain Herbert Massey who became SO at Stalag Luft 111.
It is important to remember that whilst virtually all POWs would be willing to assist with escape attempts in varying degrees, only around one third were seriously interested in breaking out themselves. One third of men simply preferred to sit out the war and finish their education, whilst others were happy to do nothing except read, exercise and sit around.

Squadron Leader Roger Bushell

Just after Squadron Leader Roger Bushell arrived at Stalag Luft 111 in October 1942, he took over the role of ‘X’. Wing Commander Harry Day of RAF 57 Squadron (k/a ‘Wings’ Day) the main lead behind escape operations and Lieutenant Commander Jimmy Buckley of the Fleet Air Arm had been transferred with other prisoners to another camp at Schubin in Poland due to overcrowding soon after Bushell arrived.  It was no surprise Buckley and Day had been selected; both having previously escaped from secure locations on a number of occasions. They were also good proactive organisers and already had operations at Sagan 111 in full swing.  Buckley had the role of ‘X’ (the term was used to help security and provide anonymity from the Germans) and both men left a solid escape structure in place when they moved on.

Wing Commander Harry 'Wings' Day - IWM
Believed to be Group Captain Herbert Massey
 at Stalag Luft 111 in 1943 - pt of orig photo-
Graham Brett
Group Captain Herbert Massey, an injured veteran from both World Wars had already arrived and assumed the role of Camp SO before Day and the others departed. He was the highest ranking officer, but had taken a step back, allowing Day’s escape operation work to continue much as before. Massey became more of a figurehead on escape matters, whilst still retaining the final word as SO. Camp Intelligence Officer and ‘X’ were the two heads below the SO. The whole escape organisation branched off them.

Next week:
Camp Intelligence
The Great Escape – Paul Brickhill

National Archives

MI9 Escape and Evasion 1939-1945 – M.R.D. Foot & J.M.Langley
©Keith Morley
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Sunday, 18 August 2013

Stalug Luft 111 - The Escape Organisation

Stalag Luft 111 - IWM

Stalag Luft 111 is arguably the most well-known Allied POW camp of World War 2. Its association with The Great Escape is the primary reason for this, but it also has a well-documented history from official files, diaries, memoirs and eyewitness accounts.
The camp was heavily guarded, well secured and located deep in occupied territory, which made it very difficult for escapers to reach safety once they had had broken out. The sandy soil below ground level made cave-ins a frequent possibility during tunnelling attempts and the earth was a different colour to that of the compound. One positive was that initial digging although still difficult, could be quicker and less labour intensive because of the constitution of the soil.
These fundamental issues have been covered in literature and film and they did not deter tunnelling attempts. Between sixty and seventy were attempted in the camp during the war, the other famous one being ‘The Wooden Horse’ escape with Eric Williams, Oliver Philpott and Codner.  A three hundred foot tunnel, plus a hundred footer for sand and storage was also dug, which the Germans discovered in October 1942. Three Flight Lieutenants dug their way out in the summer of 1942 soon after the camp opened, managing to escape and reach the port of Stettin (boats from neutral Sweden docked there) before being caught.
Stalag Luft 111 was a huge camp and much larger than most. It had a good escape organisation under Lieutenant Commander James Buckley, but in November 1942, he and other known 'trouble makers' were sent by the Germans to Oflag XXIB in an effort to deter and disrupt further attempts to break out of the camp. Squadron Leader Roger Bushell who had arrived at the camp only weeks earlier became ‘ Big X’ the head of all escape matters. It was Bushell who hatched the plan for a mass escape and was instrumental in racking up the infrastructure to implement it.
Other camps had a basic front end organisation of a Senior Officer and Escape Committee and something of the ‘setup below, but the escape organisation of Stalag Luft 111 under Bushell was remarkable and took on new levels. It is best illustrated in the flow chart below, which has been constructed from original documents (National Archives) and literary sources.
It must also be remembered that the personnel instrumental in organising and operating ‘the model’ were skilled military officers with time to think about things over the long days and nights. A number were habitual escapers; already in the mind-set and were an invaluable asset.
A series of short posts will extract and examine component parts of the organisation, how it fitted together, who was involved and in some instances what happened. On the full model, the Senior British/American Officer was the figurehead and point of contact with the German camp hierarchy. He had the final word on main issues around escape matters. The two leads immediately below him were the Camp Intelligence Officer and Big X - everything initially came through there.
National Archives WO 208 series
MI9 Escape & Evasion 1939-1945 M. R. D. Foot & J.M. Langley
©Keith Morley

Monday, 5 August 2013

Priests and the Evaders - Part Four

Rev Donald Caskie
The Reverend Donald Caskie and the Seamen's Mission

The Reverend Donald Caskie had been Minister of a Scottish Kirk in Paris, since leaving St Andrews Gretna in 1935 and was well known there for expressing anti-Nazi sentiments from the pulpit. In May 1940 he made hasty preparations to leave his church. France lay on the verge of capitulation and the British Expeditionary Force was in ruins on the beaches of Dunkirk. After making one last visit to the aged members of his congregation who could not escape with him, Caskie joined the columns of refugees and personnel travelling south away from the advancing German Army. It was a slow and dangerous journey with the haphazard columns being exposed to regular attack by Stuka dive bombers and shelling. France was slipping to defeat and the French government relocated to Bordeaux on 10 June to avoid capture. In the chaos of war Caskie found himself amongst a diverse band of humanity including: 
Civilian refugees

French, Polish, Belgian and Dutch troops who had avoided capture in their own battles against the Nazis.

Convicts who had escaped from bombed prisons or been left behind when the guards deserted before the arrival of the enemy.

Frenchmen trying to stay one step ahead of the invader by avoiding the inevitable German forced labour drafts to mines, factories and farms

Men and women who knew they would be on the Nazis Wanted list.

Jews desperate to escape the Occupied and Vichy Zones of France.

British troops separated from their units during the mass retreat to Dunkirk. 
Each harboured their own threads of hope, ranging from climbing the Pyrenees into neutral Spain or getting a boat out of Marseille, to making for North Africa, the Middle East or the Americas.


Caskie eventually arrived in the densely populated back streets of Marseille, before the French-German Armistice had been signed. The place was disorganised, politically in limbo and a world away from the life around escape and evasion which would develop as the war progressed. The unfolding Marseille situation would be key in forming the shape of escape and evasion in the town and the very earliest seeds of the Pat O’Leary Escape line.

The old port was a cosmopolitan place with different quarters and cultures from its international trade. Displaced British servicemen had arrived there by hitching on trains and trekking south across country. The remnants of the British Expeditionary Force were trickling in for months after Dunkirk. Men without documents or ration cards, struggling into the town weary and hungry. The early arrivals still found refreshment at the main railway station Gare St Charles, where a government funded canteen operated for a while, being manned continuously by Red Cross volunteers.

Marseille 1939

Some servicemen had obtained second hand civilian clothes on their journey and walked the streets, relying on charity and hiding at night to sleep rough. It was a difficult time because anti-British feeling ran high in some quarters. The evacuation at Dunkirk had gone ahead and the French felt betrayed by the British. In the days before the Armistice whilst France was still fighting, the radio and press news were fortunately unreliable which added to the confusion, making it easier for the soldiers to be absorbed into the Marseille back streets.  
Apart from the humanitarian angle of aiding the soldiers, Caskie spotted amongst the chaos that with increasing numbers of men arriving with no one to feed or organise them, it would be only a matter of time before the French surrender came and they would be picked up, imprisoned or sent to POW camps under the new regime.
He mustered support from the experienced Mr Dean a British Consul in Nice and approached the local police to see what could be done about the problem of the number of stranded British ‘nationals.’ (Although the Armistice had been signed by this time, British civilian nationals were still allowed to leave France.) The local police were in the very early stages of trying to cope with a new Vichy government, plus the Malice (paramilitary body of Fascist Frenchmen.) The traditional Gendarme had already been relegated to more menial work such as traffic duties/ minor offences and they faced a totally different style of policing. Unsure of their ground, the police referred Caskie to the Special Branch who with similar difficulties tried to sidestep the issue by offering to arrange his passage home. He refused as there was important work to be done.
It was therefore carefully suggested by the authorities that Caskie might wish to reopen the old Seamen’s Mission building in Marseille at 46, Rue de Forbin. This was on the proviso that his activities would be watched closely, no military personnel would be hiding there and he could expect raids on the premises with no prior warning.

Seamens Mission Marseille - C Long

Caskie took up the challenge and when he arrived to take possession of the Mission, three sailors were already waiting outside. The word must already have spread via the underground networks of town and the American Consul who under international law had taken on responsibility for British affairs after the Armistice.
The sailors helped him put up a notice above his door ‘NOW OPEN TO BRITISH CIVILIANS AND SEAMEN ONLY’ and the Mission was operational by mid-July 1940. The priest hired beds and blankets with what money he possessed and simply opened the place up, welcoming his visitors in a straightforward Christian way. Those who were fit enough he set to work helping to clean the rest of the building, the men received care and food and also had visits from a Doctor (Rodachani see later). Caskie managed to obtain English reading material, packs of cards, dart boards and even billiard tables. It soon became a destination for evaders, initially in civilian clothes, then others began arriving still in their uniform.
By the time Caskie was operational, the old fort of Saint Jean in Marseille had been utilised by the Vichy administration as a temporary prison to hold officers and men from all three British services. Officers were allowed out ‘on parole’ and providing they returned to the fort weekly when ration cards were issued, they were free to move around outside the prison.  Consequently it was common to see commissioned ranks in uniform walking around the town, and many lodged there, selling or negotiating deals with their ration cards as food was scarce.

Fort Saint Jean - J P Dalbera
The fort was not designed as a prison and escape attempts soon began. In the town, Captain Freddie Fitch (working with Lt William Sillar ) had already taken charge of escape and evasion matters there. He was active in organising and getting men across the Pyrenees to Spain where they could make for Gibraltar. Details around Caskie’s initial involvement in any escape operation (ad hoc or otherwise) are sketchy and most of the source material comes from Caskie himself. In the author’s view, there must have been some early contact between him and Fitch, either directly or indirectly through third parties in order for the evaders in the Mission to be able to move on with some sort of plan after their stay.
The Mission was an ideal place to the fugitives. It had a tough construction with robust fittings and good washing facilities. The need for the occupants inside to reduce movement and camouflage any sound became unnecessary, the frequent use of the lavatory/pulling of bath plugs was not a problem as in many safe houses. There was no need to conceal the increase in refuse either. The big difficulties were:
Security of the Mission - Best Described as Low

Little attempt seems to have been made externally to conceal activities. When a knock at the door came, Caskie would check up and down the street and usher the callers in.
Obtaining Civilian Clothes and Documentation for Evaders

These were acquired from various sources including the Arab quarter of Marseille, British civilians and other locals. The effect of the new Vichy authority was being felt already, raising pro-British sympathies again amongst some areas of the population. Caskie’s role as a priest also appealed to charitable instincts. He tried to keep a bank of surplus clothes in the Mission, hiding them under piles of coal in the basement.

The American Consul acting under international law became responsible for dealing with British affairs after the Armistice. Replacing ‘lost’ identity documents was one of his duties.
Hiding Evaders Who Were Still in Uniform and Without Appropriate Documentation

Evaders in uniform and with no appropriate documentation were briefed where to hide in the Mission should a visit or raid by the authorities occur. A series of concealed places existed, under floorboards, behind cleverly disguised doors or alcoves/false walls , all of which could be made available immediately.
Lack of Food

There were constant shortages and most evaders had no ration cards. Those who did, went to food queues. Caskie went out at 4.00am daily. He gradually built up a good relationship with the Greek and Cypriot merchants of the Vieux port.
Disposal of Uniforms

The uniforms were parcelled and weighted, then taken out at night to the docks area and carefully lowered into the deeper water where the ship came and went. This created more wash and movement.
The Vichy Observations of Arrivals and Departures and the Raids

The French authorities were watching the mission and initially appeared to do nothing. They began to carry out regular raids most mornings around 6.00am and it has been suggested that if further unscheduled searches were to take place, the Mission often knew in advance. As time went on the operation tightened, but one theory was that the French were convinced because of the blatantly obvious nature of the operation that it was a cover for something much bigger, so they held off, as the raids never produced anything.   

Captain Ian Garrow

In October 1940 Captain Ian Garrow a ‘South African born Scotsman’ arrived at the Saint Jean fort. He had been a POW at Monferran-Sav├Ęs near L'Isle-Jourdain and was soon on parole in Marseille building up his own experience and contacts. When Captain Fitch made his own move for Spain in December 1940, a good framework for escape and evasion was in already in place with Captains Leslie Wilkins, Charles Murchie and Ian Garrow continuing the work. These men began to work with a Canadian civilian Tom Kenny and a number of local Marseille residents including Louis Nouveau and Dr Georges Rodocanachi (visited the Mission to treat the men staying there) who operated their own safe houses. Donald Caskie had built up a liaison with these players and continued his vital role of running the Mission until his eventual arrest in April 1942.


Safe Houses Are Dangerous - Helen Long
Thanks to Keith Janes for information and a fresh look on Garrow, Fitch and the early days etc. For a full account and recommended reading visit:

©Keith Morley