Sunday, 29 December 2013

Long Tunnel Schemes - Part One

B A 'Jimmy' James - IWM

Great Escaper B.A. ‘Jimmy’ James once described himself as ‘just a young man who wanted to get home.’ This modest and succinct statement was typical of the generation thrown into a conflict where ordinary men and women often did extraordinary things. James was one of them.  Behind the wire in POW camps across occupied Europe, his constant involvement in escape work became a regular nuisance to the enemy. (See previous post for one of his short tunnel attempts)
Following recapture after the Stalag Luft 111 Great Escape breakout in March 1944, James was held and interrogated in a transit prison before finally being taken to Sachsenhausen. This was a Nazi concentration camp, but SS activities there had already extended to the military during 1941 when thousands of Russian POWs were executed. The Germans considered the whole place escape proof, which may have guided their thinking around James. Given his history, it is surprising that he survived at all after recapture. He could easily have ended up as one of ‘The Fifty’ Great Escapers who were executed by the Gestapo. 

Guards at Sachsenhausen - 
James was placed in a small Sonderlager compound surrounded on all sides by high walls. Inside this was a smaller area containing two barrack huts and a tall electrified wire fence around the whole perimeter. Fellow officers from Stalag Luft 111, Wing Commander Harry ‘Wings’ Day and Major John ‘Johnny’ Dodge (both Great Escapers) were already there, along with SOE agent Peter Churchill and around 18 other prisoners. The Sachsenhausen diagram relates to the autumn of 1944, but it is relatively unchanged from when James arrived earlier in the year. He mentions no Americans and initially refers to the 18 other prisoners in the Sonderlager compound as largely Russians, Poles and four Irishmen from the British Army.
Peter Churchill SOE

Major John 'Johnny' Dodge
Wings Day summarised the set up to James as soon as he arrived:

‘This is Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and the only way out of here is up the chimney. This is Sonderlager ‘A’ and over there is the main compound.’ He pointed to the ten foot wall outside the window of the barrack hut. ‘Sometimes you can hear the screams of the poor devils when they are being beaten up. Here, we are treated as political prisoners and are not allowed to write home or receive letters. They count us morning and evening; otherwise, they seem to leave us alone’

 Flight Lieutenant Sydney Dowse
After about a week, the men in the compound were joined by another recaptured POW from the Great Escape, Flight Lieutenant Sydney Dowse. The chances of getting out were slim. James had paced endlessly around the small compound, weighing up the options:
1) There were two watches of nine guards covering their compound with each commanded by an Unterscharfuhrer. With the ratio of one guard per prisoner, the mathematics around escaping were self explanatory.

2) Getting out through or over the wire was not possible and a gate walkout scheme looked a non-starter.

3) Security also seemed a fragile area in view of the diverse band of POWs in the compound. A Russian was thought to be unpredictable and suspicions existed that one of the Irishmen might be an informer. It was decided that any escape plan would have to be kept ‘in house’ between Churchill, Day, Dowse, Dodge and James, with work being carried out in total secrecy, which could be difficult to maintain.

The men decided on a tunnel as the only realistic option for an escape attempt:
1) The RAF boys and Dodge had past experience and James’s practical expertise in the kind of digging and construction required would be essential.
2) The compound was relatively close to the outer wall of the camp.
3) The sides of the huts were enclosed below floor level on the outside. This had not been the case at Sagan 111 and opened up the possibility of storing soil from the tunnel underneath floorboards inside the hut.
‘Wings’ Day made the decision they should initially observe the other inmates in the compound for a few weeks and wait to see if the Germans made any searches before committing themselves to further action.   
During the waiting time, grim sounds of life in the main camp regularly came from the other side of the compound wall – shouts, screams, bursts of machine gun fire and the smell from the smoking chimney of the crematorium. Once a week, James was taken into the main compound for a shower. This involved walking down the road running parallel to the camp wall, turning around the corner to the administration block and passing through the dreaded main gates. He described what he saw on that first sighting as something he would never forget. A large semi-circular Roll Call area (Appell Platz) lay in front of a curved spread of around 20 huts. Others were laid out behind in a similar way and a set of gallows was positioned at the front, just inside the entrance gate.

Main Gates at Sachsenhausen  - Martha Boxley

A group of emaciated prisoners in striped suits marched around the roll call area carrying heavy packs (James says they were full of 30 pounds of bricks). Guards with truncheons applied encouragement when necessary to keep them going. The prisoners were testing out boots for the Russian front and had to cover around 25 miles daily. This sight must have had a huge effect on James and his comrades in the Sonderlager.
Tensions had been building in the compound. Following an incident between Sydney Dowse and a German Unterscharfuhrer, where Dowse had reversed all of the skull and crossbones signs so that they faced the guards on the other side of the wire, ‘Wings’ Day as Senior British Officer was summoned to the Camp Commandant, SS Standartenfuhrer Anton Kaindl. The Wing Commander was put in his place, lectured on the futility of attempting to escape and reminded of superior measures in force around the camp which made escape impossible. Threatened with severe disciplinary action if Dowse’s behaviour continued, Day was dismissed with none of the military courtesies being observed. On his return to the Sonderlager, the Great Escapers were called together and whilst pacing around the compound the men were updated.  It was time to show they could get the better of the SS. ‘Wings’ Day gave the order to start work on a tunnel.
The Plan

Dowse and James had already formed an escape plan. They shared a room in the hut and the tunnel trap would be made there by cutting through floorboards in the corner section which was  nearest to the wire (under James’s bed). The total tunnel length was calculated at 120 feet. This would take the diggers under the wire and wall, with a planned exit across the far side of the road. Whilst difficult and risky work to carry out, the location of the hut and exit point was some way from the main activity areas of the camp such as the guard room and entrance.

A table knife with a serrated cutting edge
Tunnel Trap

Once the wooden floorboards near the wall under James’s bed had been cut, a cover could be constructed and pushed fractionally under the skirting where the boards had been cut. Brushing dust into the cracks would conceal what had been done.
Security and Watches

The problem of security still remained, as up to twelve people lived in the hut and some were not classed as trustworthy. In addition two Italian orderlies cleaned the rooms, and whilst James felt that they might not say anything, the plan was looking less than watertight.

‘Wings’ Day was to keep watch whilst the tunnel trap was made. After this only a single person would work on the tunnel at any one time and the watch would be a ‘moving’ one, acting as naturally as possible, but never static. Anyone standing around regularly would be too obvious and  arouse suspicion.

Work on the tunnel was to last for no more than four hours in a day, so the digger would not be missing for too long.
Peter Churchill did not want to get involved. As an SOE agent who had been lucky to survive until now (his claim to be related to Winston may have saved him) he would almost certainly be shot if discovered. James and Dowse would become the actual tunnellers because ‘Wings’ Day as Senior Officer and Johnny Dodge (who was in another hut) could not afford to be absent for long. Day also had a knee injury which would never stand up to tunnel work.
False Papers
Once the gap between the floorboards and the ground below was known, the amount of free space to deposit soil into from the tunnel excavations could be calculated. After a few floorboards had been carefully lifted, it became clear that only a six inch gap existed between floor and ground. Some narrow inspection trenches were run out underneath which confirmed the available space would be insufficient to hold much of the excavated soil. A further problem existed around a wooden beam which ran down the centre of the hut. In conjunction with the concrete base of the washhouse in the middle it prevented effective dispersal of soil. The problem was solved by pushing wire through cracks in the wooden floor of the passageway running past the washhouse. James reported:
‘It went down about a foot, and there was our bypass to the other side of the hut. We were now assured of sufficient dispersal space to take the soil from the tunnel. With an average cross section of two feet, there would be at least 400 cubic feet to be dispersed.’
Digging would be difficult. There was little space in which to work, no fresh air or proper light. James described what happened:
‘Working shifts of about two hours at a time while the other kept watch, we laboured on our bellies clad only in underpants with a knotted handkerchief on the head and another one tied around mouth and nose as a mask against the dust which hung in clouds in this dim, constricted world as we scooped the soil out and packed it each side of the trench beneath the floor boards.’
Work on the initial part of the tunnel was slow and they were almost discovered on a number of occasions. The men's routines around the camp whilst they were not involved in digging had to appear normal. Adjustments in shift patterns had to be made to accommodate changes that the camp made. 
In June 1944 after the good news of D-Day which did reach the prisoners, events took a darker turn. ‘Wings’ Day was reading a copy of the ‘Voltkisher Beobachter’ the official Nazi party newspaper, when he spotted a paragraph reporting a speech by Anthony Eden in the House of Commons condemning the brutal massacre of fifty RAF POWs who had taken part in the mass escape from Sagan 111 in March. Once Day had checked that his translation was correct he summoned the others, as this raised the stakes around escaping. To break out of a concentration camp and be recaptured could mean death. The group decided unanimously to continue with their plans. Anyone fortunate enough to get home could relay what was happening in Sachsenhausen and also how military personnel were being imprisoned there which contravened the Geneva Convention.
In July 1944, Commando leader Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Churchill MC, DSO and bar arrived in the Sonderlager (again no relation to the PM). Known as ‘Mad Jack’ he was a man hell bent on continuing the fight against the enemy in any way possible. Placed in a room in the same hut as James and Dowse he immediately joined the escape team.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Churchill MC, DSO and Bar
By the end of July, dispersal trenches had been dug to help accommodate the soil. Churchill helped on this and work speeded up. The tunnel shaft in the corner of the hut had been sunk to a depth of around five feet. As the soil was firm, no shoring up was necessary. James and Dowse remained as the diggers, but conditions in the tunnel deteriorated as it pushed out towards the wire. James described what it was like:
‘We had to work alone and in complete darkness. The ‘mod cons’ of POW camps were simply not available. Air holes could not be made for security reasons and so fat lamps would not burn; there was just enough air to sustain one sweating digger, ventilation got worse and dispersal more difficult as the tunnel lengthened. When sufficient earth had been loosened by our knife and pulled away from the face, we could slither backwards scrabbling the pile of earth along with arms extended in front until we reached the shaft, where the soil was thrown up to Jack who did sterling work pulling down the trenches with his steel helmet.’
As the tunnel approached the wire, there was a danger of seismographs, alarms and electrified wire below the surface. Johnny Dodge had been told that wires existed which would trigger a light in the guard room if disturbed. The tunnel depth was increased to eight feet to guard against potential obstacles. It is difficult to fully imagine the conditions.

Camp from the air

Around the second week in September it was calculated that the tunnel had extended outside the main wall with a length of about 110 feet. Any further excavations to dig under the road were not an option as all available space for storing soil had been used. The exit point would be close to the guards and dogs patrolling on the inside of the perimeter wall, but a decision was made to push the tunnel up and go from where they were. September 23rd was chosen as the date to break out, it would be the darkest moonless night. ‘Wings’ Day would travel with Sydney Dowse and Jack Churchill with James. Johnny Dodge would travel alone. All had very basic escape plans.
On 23rd September the tunnel was broken and all five escapers got clear of Sachsenhausen. A national alert was issued, so the whole country began searching for the escapers. James and Churchill lasted over a fortnight and were not far from the Baltic ports when they were picked up and taken to the local police. The rest had already been recaptured earlier. It is possible that the men avoided an SS bullet because they had been detained by the local police and consequently their existence had become more widely known amongst the police and population. Eventually, James and the others were returned to Sachsenhausen and after a spell in the punishment block returned to the same Sonderlager they had escaped from.  


Moonless Night  - Jimmy James (recommended read)
Author's notes
POW - Adrian Gilbert

©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.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Short Tunnel Schemes - Part Two

Flight Lieutenant Jimmy James

In September 1941 B A ‘Jimmy’ James was approached by POW Flight Lieutenant John Shore of RAF 9 Squadron. He asked James to take part in digging a short tunnel to escape from Stalag Luft 1 Barth. It involved tunnelling from a small brick built structure standing near the perimeter wire in the officer’s compound. The structure was known as the incinerator, although there are only accounts of rubbish being stored there, rather than burned. A shaft had already been dug inside the incinerator on a previous project, but the scheme had been abandoned due to the high risk of discovery during digging.

The Escape Committee and Camp Senior Officer had been approached by Shore for permission to make another attempt. He felt that if the diggers could get in and out of the incinerator on a daily basis without being seen, then once the tunnel had reached under the wire and into the football field area, it might be possible on a moonless night to get across the ground to the outer area without being seen from the two guard towers. 

Fencing at Stalag Luft 1

A plan was formed to try and conceal any suspicious activity. The incinerator had a low roof which gradually sloped towards the wire separating the compound from the football field area. A small square cut out existed in the roof, where rubbish could be thrown through. As spectators always stood on the roof to watch football matches on the field, it might be possible to use them as a ‘blind’ to conceal entry and exit through the gap.   

Football matches were organised for the morning and late evening to shield the two tunnel diggers, James and Shaw. It was still a risky manoeuvre, as the watchtower and guard on the gate were very close.  On day one, the two men stood on the roof of the incinerator surrounded by fellow POWs who were all watching the game that had started on the field. The ‘crowd’ was compact and thickly clothed in army greatcoats and other bulky attire. As soon as the guards were distracted watching the football, Shore and James dropped into the incinerator and the ‘crowd shuffled the cover over the gap in the roof with their feet, leaving a small part uncovered for air.

Once inside, the diggers could see enough through the crack of light to make out a compartment around six feet square and three feet high. A brick wall separated it from the other half of the incinerator. Arrangements had been made for the outer door to be kept closed, with all rubbish being deposited in the adjoining compartment, the other side of the brick dividing wall. James and Shore located and lifted the trap in the concrete floor, examining the entrance shaft underneath, which had already been dug on the previous attempt to a depth of five feet. The calculation for the tunnel length was twenty five feet in total to the football field, which left a problem of where to disperse excavated soil. The men decided to make a small hole in the brick dividing wall and hide the soil in the other compartment.   
James said that it took about an hour to scrape enough mortar out from between the bricks to loosen them and make a small hole in the wall. Digging began with both men taking it in turns on the two roles. At the base of the entrance shaft, the tunneller would loosen the earth with a knife, pulling out the soil. The disperser scooped it into a bowl before throwing it out of the shaft and then later disposing of it through the hole in the brickwork.  The men were stripped to the waist in the hot stale air and worked silently and carefully for seven hours. The result was a six foot tunnel just big enough for a man to crawl into.

At five o’clock, the ‘crowds’ returned for the next football match. An exhausted James and Shore continued working until well into the second half of the game. They put overcoats back on so as to hide their dirty bodies and waited below for the signal. The incinerator cover was gradually eased aside and amidst the cheering and shouting; the ‘OK to come up’ was given. The men climbed out under cover of the tightly packed crowd and saw out the last few minutes of the match.
The same procedure was followed on a daily basis, except when it was not possible to stage a football match in the evening. This created a problem around the men  getting out of the incinerator unnoticed. It was arranged for a number of POWs to arrive at an appropriate time and empty rubbish in. The POWs then blocked the view so that James and Shore could squeeze out of the incinerator door and merge in with the group, who then walked back together to the central block. Because the diggers were wearing identical overcoats to the other POWs they managed to merge in without being noticed by the guards.

Prisoners at Stalg Luft 1  John Shore is crouching front row on the left -

Pressure was constant. Holding twice daily football matches had a limited life span of a few days before suspicion would be aroused.  The further the tunnel went in, the slower the progress. Soil had to be moved back from the face and this was done by a small sledge construction with a piece of rope at either end to manoeuvre it forward and back. As the operation was classed as a blitz tunnel, the two men needed to reach the other side of the wire very quickly.  
They made good progress, and were aided by the tunnel not requiring any wood to shore it up.  At the end of day four on the eve of the latest football match, a thin stick was pushed up and just poked through the ground above.  Alastair Panton, one of the key players on the escape committee, identified it as being about five feet outside of the compound wire. All the diggers had to do next was burrow their way up to within around six inches of the surface in readiness for a suitable night to escape.  The best opportunity would be during an RAF raid on the surrounding area, as all of the camp lights were switched off, but the Germans always trebled the numbers of guards during air raids.

James and Shore had made their own exit traps in readiness to get across to the incinerator. This was a necessary part of the plan because a full lockdown of the huts took place every night. On the 19th October 1941 a chance came when all of the perimeter lights suddenly went out. James got ready, but there was no air raid siren. This had never happened before. He hesitated, not knowing whether it was a temporary electrical fault.
The lights stayed off, so he decided to make his move. Some of the other men in the hut opened the exit trap in the floor for him. As the huts were raised marginally above the ground it was possible to drop down the short distance. Shore was waiting underneath near the exit trap. James took his homemade haversack with a supply of hard rations and whispered down that he would follow.  It was a moonless night, but in the darkness nearby shapes were still vaguely discernable. Crawling clear of the huts he remembered seeing Shore’s vague figure disappear into the incinerator.  

Two guards came around the corner of Centre Block just as he was about to creep across and follow. They passed and he tried again. This time, more guards appeared on the path which led from the gate to the Centre Block. The line of approach was cut off.  James waited for a break in the activity before crawling out again. As he reached the edge of the path, a dark shape appeared directly in front. A torch picked him out, and as he scrambled back under the hut the alarm was raised. The game was up, but James played  it a little longer, hoping that he could hide and make another attempt. The dogs followed his scent and he was hauled out by the guards.
John Shore had managed to exit the tunnel and make his way across the field undetected. It is likely that Jimmy James bought him time by his actions. Shore got clear of the camp and became the only man to make a successful home run from Stalag Luft 1.  More about his journey in a future post.

Moonless Night  - Jimmy James (recommended read) The Great Escape - Paul Brickhill  (ditto)
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.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Short Tunnel Schemes - Part One

Short tunnel schemes (often known as ‘Blitz Tunnels) were used for escapes made by smaller numbers of POWs. In the summer of 1942 at Stalag Luft 111 the first of series of escape attempts digging short tunnels using the ‘mole’ idea was attempted.

At that time, a consensus had been reached amongst many potential escapers, that digging successful tunnels from the barrack block buildings to the wire was not possible because of the distance involved, difficulties around the sandy soil and the various anti escape measures in place.

A suitable piece of land had to be located sufficiently close to the wire for a shallow tunnel to be dug. The work had to be concealed/hidden from view via a trapdoor or an alternative. If this was possible, a few men might then be able to escape by being sealed in and digging their way through like moles. The last few feet of the tunnel under the wire could be moved once the camp had locked down for the night. 
Flt Lt Henry Lamond - RNZAF Museum
Flt  Lt 'Bill' Goldfinch

Henry ‘Piglet’ Lamond a New Zealander and his co-pilot when they were captured 'Bill' Goldfinch teamed up with Jack Best to put the idea to the Escape Committee. It is likely that the ‘Wooden Horse’ idea later came from the essence of this plan. The proposal was agreed in the usual way (see previous posts) assuming that a suitable location close to the wire could be found.     
The washhouse was only around five or six yards from the perimeter fence at that time , so the prisoners decided to flood  it and blame the problem on inadequate drainage. The Germans would have to act because pools of stagnant water in the summer were potential breeding grounds for disease, especially typhus.

Camp Hauptmann Hans Pieber was not prepared to release any of his own personnel for obvious reasons. German guards doing labouring work in front of POWs was bad form. It would also compromise security and running of the camp. ‘Wings’ Day, British Senior Officer volunteered the prisoners for digging the necessary deep drainage ditch, providing they could have tools for the job. Shovels were reluctantly provided under strict control and the POWs began work under close supervision.
The digging progressed slowly over the next few days with a casual unrushed air. This might convince the Germans that nothing untoward was taking place. Time was also needed a tunnel to reach the vicinity of the perimeter fence.  Helped by Best and Goldfinch, Lamond started a tunnel towards the wire in the side of the ditch about seven feet from the washhouse. He managed to cover the entrance during the day with his coat and progressed to making a narrow passage about four feet deep and twenty feet long. The strategy was then to burrow  the last few yards and get to the surface just clear of the wire.

The night for the breakout was set. After evening appel, the three men managed to crawl unseen into the tunnel. They were naked and carrying their clothes in a bundle. There was just enough room for one to lie behind the other, with a few feet spare behind the last man. The entrance was filled up with rocks and gravel by the other POWs as they continued working.  Lamond began the last stint of tunnelling at the front of the team, with the other two men shoving the sand back and filling the gap behind them.
They pushed pointed sticks up to the surface to make tiny breathing holes. This was risky because of detection by the hundfuehrer and his Alsatian dog patrolling the compound at night. It must have been grim in the pitch darkness and foul air. The strategy had not been tried to any degree before and the men would not have known whether enough air could filter down to keep them alive. Loss of consciousness and suffocation was a real possibility.

Prisoners looking on from the nearest hut could see steam rising from the air holes. The diggers eventually lost track of time and insufficient air meant there was no possibility of burning a match to check their watches. This would have been pointless anyway because they had stopped due to the sand. Eventually a decision was made to dig up to the surface, as enough distance had probably been covered. Before they could commence work on this last phase, tiny chinks of daylight began to filter down the air holes. The choices now were simple:
1) Break out to the surface and be shot at from the guard towers/ hope that a ‘hands up’ surrender might avoid bloodshed. Prepare for a long spell of ‘solitary’ in the cooler.  

2) Stay where they were in the stifling air and heat and try to cope with not being able to move (The tunnel was only as wide as their shoulders). Wait for darkness again , hoping that the air holes were not discovered and someone had covered the airmen's absence at appel.
Sketch of Guard Tower at Stalag Luft 111 - Bob Neary 
Sketch of Stalag Luft 111 by Alex Cassie
When night came, they waited a few more hours for the camp to settle and then dug up to the surface. The breakthrough came just outside the wire and the men managed to make off through the woods after cleaning up and donning their clothes. They reached the River Oder and found a rowing boat, setting off towards the Baltic coast which was hundreds of miles away. Within a few hours the boat was reported missing and a policeman looking out for it  downstream arrested them at gunpoint. Goldfinch and Best were sent to Colditz where they built their famous glider - Lamond remained at Stalag Luft 111.
The Germans took action to prevent further ‘mole’ escape attempts by digging an eight foot trench between the warning wire and the fence. The POWs response was for three men to crawl out of their hut one night, dodge the searchlight beams, scramble under the warning wire and roll into the trench. They could not be seen from the guard towers, so began to dig a ‘mole’ tunnel like Lamond’s.

The distance to the wire was around twenty feet, but they failed to push enough sand out of the entrance hole into the trench. No matter how tightly sand is packed in, any that is dug out fills up a third as much space again in its loose form. Before the men had reached the wire, the sand passed back had filled in the entire tunnel behind them. There was now nowhere to put any more sand, and they were trapped, unable to go forward or back. The only choice was to dig straight up, by which time dawn had broken and they were apprehended in the area between the warning wire and perimeter fence.

This time the Germans filled in the trenches and buried seismographic microphones all around the wire. A team of men with headphones listened in twenty four hours a day.


The Great Escape - Paul Brickhill
POW - Adrian Gilbert
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.