Friday, 29 November 2013

‘X’ and the Tunnel Schemes

POW Emerges From a Tunnel at Night - Bill Holder

Tunnelling out of German POW camps in occupied Europe during World War Two brought a mix of advantages and disadvantages over other escape schemes. In an ideal camp organisation, these would all be considered by the Camp Senior Officer, Camp Intelligence Officer, ‘X’ and the rest of the escape committee before a decision was made. If agreement to proceed was reached, ‘X’ would assume overall control for the tunnel scheme and appoint his subordinates. (See cross section of the diagram for an ideal camp organisation)

Advantages of Tunnelling

Work in a tunnel could be carried out without being on view, and providing the exit point had been calculated properly, there was a chance at night of crawling away undetected on the other side of the wire. (The ‘escape season’ usually  ended at the onset of winter and began at the first signs of a thaw and spring.)
Statistically the chance of getting shot whilst preparing for an escape via this method lessened dramatically.  If the tunnel was discovered, those caught working on it would be sent to solitary confinement for a specified period and various privileges for the rest of the camp removed.
During the day, the diggers were out of sight and not exposed to the risks of stepping into restricted areas, which was often necessary for reconnaissance/planning purposes in some surface escape plans.
As a tunnel attempt was usually made at night, no one was potentially on view until they came up outside the wire. This part was still risky because of guards and dogs patrolling on the other side, but searchlights were usually trained over the huts and inside the camp.
Tunnelling also required less from an individual than most methods of escape. The designers and planners did the skilled work; the rest was carried out by teams of men who with sheer hard graft and persistence worked together as a well drilled unit in difficult conditions to dig out the soil and shore up the tunnel . A positive sense of camaraderie and focus grew amongst the men whilst working on these projects which helped the days to pass.   

Digging tunnels could be slow and dangerous work, with collapses a constant risk.
Being injured or buried alive in a fall was always in the back of the POW’s mind.
Wood was required to shore up the roof and walls. These came from bunk bed boards which depleted the POW’s supply and comfort.
Groups of men were tasked with disposing the surplus soil without it being discovered, which added to the physical labour of the project. Not easy when the rations were 800 calories a day – half the minimum requirement. Red Cross parcels arrived once a week and these became the lifeline for the POW, who was always hungry and tired easily.

German Guards Destroying a Tunnel -

Tunnelling fell into two types, each highlighting the different strategies for escape:

Long Tunnel

These went from one of the barrack huts or a building in the camp which was sufficiently distanced from the perimeter wire. The tunnel would usually exit at a point well outside the wire. They were designed and constructed with mass breakouts in mind.  As few POWs stood a realistic chance of making it back home, the escapers could tie down large numbers of enemy personnel in looking for the fugitives. There was always still the chance that someone would make it on a ‘Home run’  - every POW with serios designs on escaping believed it would be him.
Short Tunnel

This would start at a point close to the wire, often inside/ hidden by an outbuilding or structure e.g. shower block, incinerator, store room etc. These schemes were suited for two or three man breakouts which stood a better chance of success. If the men were well prepared and equipped with the necessary false papers, they could get clear of the area and quickly utilise the transport systems of trains or buses, even for short journeys. Their absence at the next appel(s) stood a greater chance of being concealed by other POWs which gave the escapers more time to put a distance between themselves and the camp. Dummies or groups of POWs working as a team were known to bamboozle the Germans carrying out the headcounts.
Once the enemy had discovered the escape, full alerts would be instigated, but because of the small numbers of men missing, huge manhunts involving thousands of personnel would not be triggered. statistically this increased their slim chances of a 'home run.' 
Some tunnels were very close to the wire and classed as ‘dig as you go’. The POW would try to hide after evening appel in a building close to the perimeter fence or stay concealed during the day. Once the lockdown had been implemented, the prisoner would dig around two feet below the surface , then using a pipe for air, would push the soil behind him and endeavour to get under the wire and away without discovery by searchlight, guards or dogs.

*The vaulting horse in the famous ‘Wooden Horse’ escape was also technically a ‘structure’ even though men carried the horse out daily, positioning it over the concealed tunnel entrance and returning it to store later. Whilst it was in position and vaulting exercises were being run, tunnelling work was carried out underneath. Two men were concealed inside the horse. (Work for tunnellers and 'gymnasts' alike must have been difficult, given the low energy levels of prisoners)

*Future post will feature this escape in more detail using information from the actual IS9 files for the Wooden Horse escapers

The Wooden Horse - Still  from the 1950 Film

Next week’s post will look at some of the classic and lesser known ‘Short Tunnel’ Escape attempts.


The Great Escape - Paul Brickhill
POW - Adrian Gilbert
IS9 Files
Author's notes

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




Friday, 22 November 2013

'X' and the Wire Schemes

Stalag Luft 1V -

Wire escapes from POW camps in occupied Europe during World War Two were high risk, and statistically very few were successful. Tall barbed wire fencing (single and double), specific exclusion zones in front of these, guard towers, sentries and open areas beyond the wire were all obstacles to be overcome before a POW could even think about clearing the surrounding camp area.

The biggest deterrent to this kind of escape was being shot by the sentries who were under orders to fire at anyone in the prohibited zone without permission or attempting escape through/over the wire. A night escape via this method might have the cover of darkness, but would encounter ‘lock ins’, searchlights, sentries and dogs.

The viability of any wire escape plans would be considered by the Camp Senior Officer and ‘X’ in the normal way.  Even though the odds were remote, if the plan was sound, authority and support was usually given.

In the early months of Stalag Luft 111, Ken Toft an Irish pilot in the RAF and Bill ‘Nick’ Nichols a Californian serving with the RAF’ s American Eagle Squadron  formed a plan of escape. They had walked every inch of the camp’s east compound and spotted a potential blind spot halfway between two of the sentry towers on the east perimeter fence facing the woods.
Members of RAF American 71 Eagle Squadron (Nichols is far right) -  Unknown
They calculated that two men lying or crouching down could remain out of view from the guard towers in a small area by a line of thick coiled barbed wire near the perimeter fence. It might then be possible to cut through the perimeter and make a run for the woods a few yards away. The initial problem was reaching the blind spot without being seen. To get there, they had to cross the lethal area beyond the warning wire. Anyone encroaching into this territory without permission would almost certainly be shot by the guards. If Toft and Nichols had miscalculated the field of vision from the towers and they were seen, the same outcome was likely.
The plan was risky, but they took it to the camp Senior British Officer, Wing Commander Harry ‘Wings’ Day ,who called in Jimmy Buckley (Big X). ‘Wings’ Day was a ‘hands on’ experienced escaper, so rubber stamping of escape schemes as the Senior Officer was not in his nature. Day and Buckley discussed the mechanics in detail, then gave it the all clear with appropriate back up for false papers and concentrated escape rations to be prepared.

Jimmy Buckley*

'Wings' Day

As four of the sentry towers had a view of the area around the blind spot, Buckley organised four separate diversions to give the men a chance to get over the warning wire and reach the line of coiled barbed wire. The date was set and on a given signal, the distractions started in front of the towers:

Tower One – A prisoner shouted up to the sentry to telephone for an interview with the Kommandant.
Tower Two - Two men staged a sham fight and one of them was knocked out. (some accounts refer to it as an impromptu boxing match)

Tower Three – Another prisoner called to the sentry to ask permission to get a ball which had been thrown beyond the warning wire.
Tower Four – A man has a bucket of water thrown over him.

It took five seconds for the diversions. During that time Toft and Nichols had reached the perimeter fence and were out of sight from the towers. Nichols had a pair of wire cutters made from two rough pieces of metal, but the cutting was not straightforward because of the makeshift tool. At another signal, a further set of diversions were repeated in front of the guards and the men slid unnoticed through the perimeter fence and across the short distance to the woods. 
The actual escape plan was a success. Regrettably, although the men got clear of the area, they were later recaptured after a German official questioned their papers. 

*Jimmy Buckley was sadly later killed after successfully breaking out of the camp in a separate escape. 

Arguably the most successful ‘wire scheme’ was an escape from Oflag V1B Camp, Warburg in Germany which became known as ‘The Warburg Wire Job.’ On the night of 30 August 1942, forty one men in four teams rushed the wire with ladders.

It was an ingenious and bold attempt which had been meticulously worked out. The plan would have been vetted by the Camp Senior Officer and ‘X’ and the necessary teams put in place with the accompanying security umbrella to aid preparation. 
Royal Engineers officer Jock Hamilton-Baillie was instrumental in the design and build of a set of four ‘hinged’ ladders to lean against and straddle the two barbed wire perimeter fences at the edge of the camp. The escape attempt would begin at the same time as the camp search and perimeter lights were fused. A way to control this had been discovered by Major B D Skelton ‘Skelly’ Ginn, who had considerable knowledge of electrics. In the darkness, away from the escape location, a noisy diversion would also be created by around fifty other prisoners.

Jock Hamilton-Baillie - SWNG

The double perimeter fence of barbed wire was constructed around wooden frames,  set about 8 feet apart and around twenty feet in height. At the bottom of the gap in between the fencing, a thick tangle of more barbed wire had also been positioned.

The ladders were ingenious in both construction and improvisation of materials. The apparatus was in two halves which fitted together – the first a simple ladder with widely spaced rungs and a hook at the top to engage the overhang of barbed wire, and the other part a basic running board with duckboards and a swing bar at the far end for the men to hang on to and drop off. The two parts fitted neatly together one on top of the other whilst they were hidden away.

Scale model built by Jock Hamilton-Baillie and demonstrated by Ben Hamilton-Baillie

When the lights were fused and distractions began, the ladders were slid out and run up against the top of the wire. The running board section which fitted over the basic ladder was pushed up and slid across, until it cantilevered to rest on the top of the outer fence. The base part hooked into place over the inner fence. Short ropes on either side of the ladder and duckboard section were suitably  tensioned preventing the two sections from further movement.
As previous picture. Shows how apparatus cantilevers to rest on opposite fence

Shows how apparatus locks with the rope attachments preventing further movement
As the two joined sections slotted rigidly in place, the plan was for a team of fifteen men to run up the ladder, down the duckboard and jump off after swinging on the trapeze bar at the other end, so they were close enough to the ground to drop without injuring themselves. (About a 6-8 foot drop.)

Close up of rope assembly and outward hang of barbed wire
The ladder apparatus could be assembled in about fifteen seconds and fifteen men could get over in ninety seconds. It was very light and constructed of approximately ‘five by two inch’ timbers taken from a ceiling Bed boards were used for the duckboards and swing bar at the end. During the escape attempt, one of the ladders failed as it was not sufficiently reinforced in the middle and the ropes broke so that the duckboard became loose and ineffective.   

Accounts vary on how many POWs managed to get over the wire and clear the camp. It is likely that it was twenty one. What is certain is that three made it back home after finally crossing the Pyrenees via the Comete Escape Line. They were Major Albert Arkwright, Captain Rupert Fuller and Major Francis Edwards. (More about their escape in a future post)  

To watch the full clip of how the superb escape ladder apparatus worked as shown by Ben Hamilton Baillie click on:

The Great Escape - Paul Brickhill
POW - Adrian Gilbert
Author's notes
Warburg Wire Job scale model (You Tube) - Ben Hamilton Baillie

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


Sunday, 17 November 2013

'X' and Gate Walk Out Schemes

Entrance to Stalag 1V B -  LutzBruno

Main Gate to Stalag XV111B in Krems  Austria
Escapes from POW camps in occupied Europe were not confined to tunnels and cutting through barbed wire. It is easy to conjure up these stereotypical images, but an area for regular escape attempts were the gates into camps.
Observation, intelligence, organisation and planning around any break out attempts via these locations would generally  be subject to the same management structure as outlined in previous posts (see diagram). Depending on the individual camp set up, the Senior Officer, ‘X/Big X’, Intelligence Officer and Security Officer (if security was not X’s responsibility) would be key stakeholders. Support via forged papers, rations, maps, compasses, civilian clothing etc was provided in the usual way.  ‘X’ would always be the main player around the mechanics of the escape.

Squadron Leader Roger Bushell who masterminded the Great Escape had his own perception of running the show as ‘Big X’, described in Paul Brickhill’s must read book ‘The Great Escape’.
‘Roger controlled every phase of the growing organisation holding daily conferences with the departmental chiefs, presiding over them as a charmingly incisive but slightly sinister chairman. He had a mind like a filing cabinet and that was one of the reasons why he was so brilliant at organisation. Once he’d chosen his man for a job he never roughly interfered with him. He listened to their problems made suggestions and when they’d thrashed it out and a decision was made he gave the man concerned full brief to carry it out. …Every day he went to Massey (Camp Senior Officer) and they talked over the master plan.’

Gate walk out schemes provided excellent examples of bluff, timing and opportunism. Some attempts were foolhardy and stood little chance of success, but ‘little’ was better than ‘none’, and for the POW, the resultant solitary confinement after discovery/ recapture was considered well worth the risk.  
Bob Van der Stok
Great escaper Bob Van der Stok made numerous attempts before becoming one of the three to make a successful home run after The Great Escape. He outlined his third unsuccessful attempt in his IS9 debriefing report:
‘On 11 Jun 1943 a mass escape from the North Compound was organised. There were two parties.  A delousing party had been arranged, and an hour before this party was due to leave the compound, a similar party was formed up and they walked through the gate with two Gefreiters (escapers in German uniform) in charge.*

A few moments later a party of six senior officers walked through the compound gate with me. I was dressed as an Unteroffizier. The six senior officers with me were Col Godrich, Lt Col Clarke (both of the USAAF), W/Cdr Day, W/Cdr Tuck, S/Ldr Jennings and F/Lt Kuczginsky.
The fake delousing party succeeded in getting clear of the camp, but were all re-captured later. My party was stopped at the second gate, as the guard recognised me.** I was able to hide my German money, but my false German papers were found. The senior officers were punished with seven days in the cells. I was held pending enquiries for 48 days and then punished with ten days ‘hard’.

*Twenty four men fell in outside hut 104 carrying bundles wrapped in towels, (to be put in the steam delousers). If the guards had inspected the bundles they would have seen uniform jackets and trousers converted to look like civilian clothes and little packets of food made from oatmeal, breadcrumbs, milk powder, chocolate and sugar.

** Only recognised after the pass that Van der Stok had been carrying was checked on the back by the sentry. The Germans had introduced a new mark on the back the week before. Van der Stok’s forgery did not have the mark. It was only then that the guard realised he had seen him walking about in the compound. The Chief Security officer Major Broili congratulated the guard on his vigilance. The guard replied with some self-satisfaction that he thought it unusual for two parties to leave the camp so close together.  ‘Two parties?’ exploded the Security Officer. As the guard tried to explain, Broili ran for the guardhouse phone.
A few days after the failed attempt, just before lock up time at dusk, three men in German uniforms with ‘rifles’ showed their passes and walked through the compound gates. All was in order - the passes had the requisite mark on the back. The men were on their way to Sagan station when they ran into camp Feldwebel Hermann Glemnitz who recognised and arrested them. 

An early attempt at Stalag Luft 111 was made by W/Cdr Day and two others dressed up in RAF uniforms they had converted to look like German Luftwaffe uniforms (all the guards were Luftwaffe)They tried to bluff their way through the gate and were marched off for 14 days solitary in the cooler.’

German Ferrets
One man dressed himself as a ferret (German security guards dressed in overalls and armed with torches and steel spikes to probe for tunnels) and openly walked out of the gate at night. Others hid in trucks that had brought food into the compounds. A Swiss commission (The Protecting Power) came to inspect a camp, and while they were in the compound a number of POWs dressed in makeshift civilian clothes walked out in their place. POW Pat Leeson dressed himself as a German chimney sweep with a dirty face and a cardboard topper like they wear and walked out of the gate while the real sweep was in the compound. All were eventually recaptured.

As illustrated in the film The Great Escape, Russian prisoners were working in the new compound at Stalag Luft 111 clearing the remaining pine trees they had cut down and piling branches plus foliage into lorries.  The road out of the compound went past three huts. A number of figures crawled across the roofs, dropping into the back of the lorries as they drove by. Each vehicle was searched at the gate and the prisoners were found – except two who lay undiscovered having burrowed deep into the branches and got away. They were quickly recaptured which resulted in the Germans using pitchforks to probe any trees, foliage and vegetation leaving the camp.  

POW Ian Cross saw another means of escape via a truck by hanging underneath on the chassis.  He was promptly raced around the compound at high speed, but managed to hang on. The truck pulled up where it started and Cross was ordered to come out before being marched over to the cooler for a spell in solitary confinement.  
Lieutenant Airey Neave
Although Lieutenant Airey Neave’s escape took place in Colditz Castle, which was not a standard ‘barbed wire’ POW camp, it can be classed as via a gate walk out scheme.  POW Major Pat Reid spotted a significant possibility for an escape whilst doing a period of solitary confinement in Colditz. From his cell window, he was only able to a single wall from the Saalhaus or theatre block. Reid, an engineer by trade, could visualise the skeletons of buildings. He realised that part of the theatre’s wooden stage extended over a section of the castle sealed off from the prisoners. This might lead to the German guardhouse immediately outside the secure courtyard.
Once released from ‘solitary’, he examined the stage and found he could crawl underneath by removing some wooden steps. He inspected the section of the floor which lay  above the sealed part of the castle. It was only straw and rubble lying on top of a lath and plaster ceiling.

Major Pat Reid
A minute hole was made through the ceiling which revealed an empty room, so Reid got help from POW Hank Wardle and they cut a hole in the ceiling just enough to squeeze through. He climbed down into the room via a rope of sheets knotted together and picked the lock to the door, making a reconnaissance down a corridor. There were possibilities for further exploration, so he returned to the room and climbed back through the point of entry, having relocked the door. Work began immediately on constructing a wooden frame and false ceiling to fit into the gap. After much effort , the gap was concealed so well after the frame had been inserted into position, that it was almost undetectable to anyone looking up at the ceiling from inside the room.
On a further sortie out of the locked room Reid picked the lock of another door in the corridor and found himself in the attic over the German guardhouse which was outside the secure courtyard. There was a spiral staircase leading from the attic directly to the guard’s quarters. A plan formed in his mind. Escapers dressed as German officers could use this route on two successive nights following evening appel. It could be carried out straight after there had been a change of guard stationed at the front entrance to the guardhouse. The new sentry would not know which officers (if any) might have entered the guardhouse in the previous two hours.
Colditz Castle
Lieutenants Airey Neave and John Hyde-Thompson were selected as the first British escapers, providing they could produce high quality imitations of German officer's uniforms. Impeccable papers and passes were also required and it was clear that the escape attempt would require help from their fellow Dutch officer POW’s. Dutch greatcoats with some modifications could pass under artificial light as German ones. The Dutch also had a quantity of lead piping which could be melted down to produce buttons, buckles, swastikas etc. (the British had used theirs earlier to make a distillery). Most Dutch officers also spoke perfect German. Holsters and belts could be made from linoleum, leggings from cardboard and the castle forgers would be able to replicate service caps.  
After evening appel on 5 January, Lieutenants Airey Neave and Tony Luteijn (Royal Netherland s Indies Army) made their escape under the stage, climbing down through the gap in the ceiling and slipping out via the attic, stairs and guardhouse. Everything went perfectly and they reached the bridge where there was a gate leading down into the dry moat. The pair did not encounter problems until Ulm railway junction where they had to change trains. Their request for tickets to Singen near the Swiss border meant producing the appropriate travel documents. The ticket clerk was unhappy with their papers and called a railway policeman. Neave explained in his account what happened next:

‘The policeman took us to an office in the goods yard where a thin tight lipped German railway police lieutenant sat at a desk. He examined our false papers with bewilderment. It appeared to me that the writing on it did not make sense to him. I could hardly stop myself from laughing as he lifted them to the light, looking no doubt, for water marks.  He was however impressed by Luteijn’s Dutch passport and there seemed no inkling in his mind that we were escaped prisoners of war.
‘I don’t understand these men at all’ he said helplessly. ‘Take them to the Labour Office. I wish someone would control these foreign workers more efficiently.’

Escorted to the Labour Office by another armed policeman, they escaped through a back door. After more scrapes and slices of luck they trekked in deep snow over the open country and forests near Singen to cross the frontier into neutral Switzerland.  Neave’s was the first successful British home run from Colditz.
The absences of Neave and Luteijn were covered at the two castle appels the next day by the POWs with a mix of bluff and use of a dummy which had been successfully hidden by one of the Dutchmen. The same tactic and route of escape was used that evening by John Hyde-Thompson and 2nd Lieutenant H G Donkers, but they were captured at Ulm railway junction. This time the Germans were ready when similar travel documents were presented.

©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 do not wish for it appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed.

Personal Notes

The Great Escape – Paul Brickhill

IS9 Files – National Archives
Colditz – The Full Story – Major P R Reid M.B. E. MC

Apologies for the late posting. Friday posts resume from this week