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

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  1. Seismographic microphones - very interesting concept.

  2. When I looked at my post Sally, 'seismographic' jumped out as one of my invented adjectives. It is listed in the dictionary and I think it sounds much more grand than it really was for the Germans. Not exactly inspiring to sit with a set of headphones on, listening all day for the sounds of digging . What is interesting is that it formed a key reason for Big 'X' Roger Bushell deciding that the three tunnels on The Great Escape should go straight down to a depth of around 30 feet, so as to avoid detection by the microphones.