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
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  1. Blimey Keith, theres a lot more to this tunnelling than meets the eye. You can see how much they had to focus on it, and keep their wits about them too.

    A great post! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thanks Maria. I'm amazed every time I read an account of breakout schemes and how they were put together. So few British POWs managed to escape from inside the wire and get home. Will be blogging on some of their stories in future posts.