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

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  1. Claustrophobia must have been another side issue for these brave men trying to tunnel their way out of imprisonment along with the physical demands on bodies that weren't being fed properly, sheer will and determination is evident from the stories. Bill Holder's drawing is very evocative.

  2. It must have been grim in those tunnels Sally. I can't help thinking about the hundreds of POWs who did the support work, such as false papers, tailoring of clothes, digging, hiding the soil,, stooges (lookouts) diversions etc. Some were happy to help even though they had no desire to attempt an escape themselves, but for many who were desperate to get home, they carried out tasks in the full knowledge that they were not among the chosen escapers to attempt the break.