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

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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



1 comment:

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this post crafted by Keith. This did show the lengths that POW including higher ranking officers went to attempt escapes. It may have been what kept them going during captivity.
    Airey Neave was a famous example of one of the Colditz escapees. It showed the enemy as fallible as there were many holes in their routines and even their buildings themselves. This had been very risky since they could have been shot at any time. It was tragic that Airey was killed by a car bomb having managed to escape Colditz, but at least he survived to enjoy many post-war years.
    The Germans were not adverse to a little recreational ad-hoc killing. I had read Thomas Keneally's 'Schindler's Ark' novel and these incidents I thought were perhaps author-invention but actually if a watchtower guard was feeling bored he might just take a shot at a prisoner. When other inmates saw this and they rushed at the guard he simply swung around his machine gun and trained it on the angry mob. So it did go on and much more. One such 'gate' escape was sad as the POW had tried to run for safety through the gates but he was so weak from malnutrition that he collapsed and was subsequently beaten to death. So much for the Geneva Convention......look forward to next posting.
    "War is only a cowardly escape from the problems of peace...."
    Thomas Mann.