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

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  1. Quite ingenious to use the football matches as a cover for their digging...

    1. It was a good idea Maria and an excellent example of how most POWs would help in an escape plan even though they would not be breaking out themselves.

  2. Kees van Everdingen24 December 2013 at 16:09

    Shore's escape took place in 1941.
    In March 1941 his bomber (Wellington R1335) crashed in The Netherlands near the town of Heusden.
    Co-pilot 'Cookie' Long was murdered after the " Great Escape".

  3. Many thanks for your reply Kees. I have corrected the error in the post. It was September 1941 when Shore approached Jimmy James not September 1943. Jimmy's book has an incorrect date, which I should have noticed because James had been inside Stalag Luft 111 since April 1943. The night of the breakout from Stalag Luft 1 was 19 October 1941. A tragic end for 'Cookie' Long as one of the 'Fifty.'