Monday, 15 December 2014

The Biberach Tunnel Break - Part Five

German Patrols on bicycles would have been looking for the escapers -

Duncan recorded on September 15 1941 that the previous night ‘was as bad as any I could remember, made worse by the pouring rain.’ His diary of the escape kept whilst on the run provides a fascinating factual account and has brushstrokes of detail which are often missed from work written after events took place. Many of the problems encountered by the two men were typical of a cross country escaper during the war, although the search and ‘lockdown’ by the Nazis did not seem to have quite the same trawl and intensity as in the years which followed.

Hitler Youth would be engaged on search duties -

The men left their hide in the forest at 19.00 to continue a strategy of travelling at night and lying low during the day. The sole soon came off O’Sullivan’s shoe resulting in a stop every few minutes to tie it back on with a mackintosh belt and a piece of string. Duncan describes them at the time as being ‘a pretty crippled pair.’ Open to the elements, physically exhausted and with wet clothing and poor footwear, it is easy for us today to totally underestimate the sheer hardship and mental battle experienced by these men, despite the tough and menial existence in a POW camp, which would have afforded them some resilience.  

The fine balance between keeping going and giving up was constantly tested, and examples and hints of this percolate through Duncan’s narrative. The problems with O’Sullivan’s shoe and deteriorating mobility of the men forced them to deviate from their plan and take the risk of using roads. The dishevelled limping pair would be instantly recognisable and the Saulgau road which was their objective would almost certainly be guarded at some points. The men’s luck held as they only ‘actually saw one motor cyclist and one cyclist’. After deviating north and then west, they hid in a forest for the night. Duncan’s words need no qualification:

‘We are both worn out, absolutely drenched and rather miserable and I for one am beginning to wonder how long I shall be able to stick it. The wood is soaking and there is nowhere dry to lie down, so we are lying on my sodden coat and huddling together to try and keep warm.’ They made a rough shelter of fir branches which made minimal difference. Duncan’s mental state at this low point was quite stark. ‘All last night I was convinced that there were three of us instead of two.’
He describes how when they restarted after a stop, he found himself waiting for the third person. It was only after O’Sullivan asked what he was doing, that after some thought he realised there was no one else there. Duncan recorded that after this point he felt the ‘third presence’ to varying degrees throughout his escape journey. Whether this is a spiritual phenomenon or simply a human state borne out of physical and mental exhaustion is debatable. Other fugitives have reported similar experiences. 

At 20.00 on September 16 the diary notation began ‘very bad’. They left their hide at 20.00 moving west through pine forest in the direction of Hohentingen and Hausen, eventually reaching a large river which they assumed to be the Danube. After following the line for about two miles they struck south and reached the main road which ran parallel with the river. The time was noted as 02.30 and estimated distance covered 20 kilometres. Tired and fully visible under a bright moon, it was not surprising that Duncan favoured moving towards a wood on the horizon and hiding out for the rest of the night. O’Sullivan was typically insistent they pressed on. The diary recorded that he had no sole on one of his shoes and his solution for being restricted and lost, as they were at this point was to ‘go faster.’  

Terrain around Hohentingen - wikipedia 

They walked a good way down the main road without being spotted. There were no road signs to get their bearings, but at 03.30 O’Sullivan agreed that that they should look for shelter. Traffic would soon be using the main road and they must stay out of sight during daylight hours. The pair walked south west crossing a railway line and heading uphill for a solitary wood in the distance. It was the first of a string of apple orchards and hills. The first group of trees was near a large town and the rest were too sparse for hiding out.

The night temperature had dropped to below freezing. Sodden clothes and wet feet were slowing them down. Duncan described their feet as ‘rapidly becoming lumps of ice.’ After an hour of walking they saw a thicker wood on the horizon and decided to make for it.
‘On the way we came to a small river, which we waded, then a wider river which we waded and finally a third river at which we gave up and lay down totally exhausted under a bush where frozen as we were, we went to sleep.’

At first light the men could see the whole countryside covered in a thick frost. 
‘Our clothes had frozen stiff on us and we decided that we must either give up or move, so we waded the third river and continued to the wood which we eventually reached.’

It is incredible that neither man developed pneumonia, nor suffered the effects of exposure. If they did, Duncan never mentioned it. Outside the shelter of the thick wood, the sun shone and the temperature began to rise. Neither of them could leave their hiding place in the thickest part of the wood for risk of discovery. Duncan recorded that there were people working in the fields just below and they were forced to lie shivering in wet clothes in the cold and damp. Their hands were so cracked that it was agony to get anything out of their pockets.

Early picture of Krauchenwies -

The weather improved overnight, and walking along by the railway the men reached Krauchenwies. Duncan twisted his knee again which severely affected his walking. They were forced to struggle up to the top of a hill and rest in a fir wood with a clearing in the middle. In the sunshine their clothes began to dry. Duncan wrote that they were a mass of aches and pains and looked like a couple of tramps, but apart from his boots which he kept wet on purpose to stop them going hard, they began to feel warmer for the first time. He added ‘I’m afraid Barry has a very poor opinion of my powers of endurance. For the last two nights he has walked barefoot. It must be agony at times, but he keeps going at a tremendous pace.’
O’Sullivan must have been impervious to pain, but on September 18 the foot started to seize up. Despite this, Duncan with his injured leg was still unable to keep up. Three times they were nearly seen by cyclists and managed to take cover. Much of the journey continued through pine forests but there were stints along roads where as Duncan wrote ‘watchfulness and good luck saved us.’

Sipplingen on the shore of Lake Constance. This may be what Duncan refers to as Lipplingen - Wikipedia 

What he wrote next shaped the rest of the journey and gives the reader a further glimpse of O’Sullivan’s single focus and Duncan’s own inner mental state and dogged determination.
‘At about 03.00 my leg finally seized up and as we were passing a forest hut full of hay, we climbed in for three hours sleep. Poor Barry is trying had to be patient but he doesn’t understand the word and at last has agreed to go on and leave me – much against his will. So at 07.00 this morning, we split, Barry going on through the forest to try to find Lipplingen, before dark, while I made myself a hide in the woods to rest my leg. I’ve at least a week’s food left, especially if I keep on finding apples, and, if I can keep up seven or eight kilometres a night, I shall just about do it. I must say one feels rather lost being alone in the middle of the forest and it will be probably worse at night. However no doubt I shall manage.’  

Final part next week

Sources and Additional Reading
Underground From Posen - Michael Duncan  Highly recommended read and it is much more than one man's escape story. A detailed account of the Glosters' stand at Cassel in 1940 is well documented.
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  

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Biberach Tunnel Break - Part Four

Duncan’s leg was painful, but at least he could stand and walk. The other side of the ditch was almost vertical and he struggled to climb out of it. T/Captain Barry O’Sullivan would already be at the rendezvous by now and growing impatient. Time was vital and every delay meant less distance between the escapers and camp before the alarm was raised. As Duncan scrambled out and limped towards the meeting place, he must have speculated on the leg injury and cursed his carelessness in allowing the fall to happen. Most of the journey would be on foot. A leg or foot injury was every escaper’s nightmare.

‘Heinrich, Heinrich, where the hell are you?’ (As neither man spoke German, O’Sullivan called out his fellow escaper’s agreed code name {See earlier post} ). Duncan recounted what happened next.

‘I’m terribly sorry Barry. . I fell down a ditch and damaged my leg. You’d better go on by yourself and I’ll follow in my own time. I’ll make it alright, slowly.’
O’Sullivan ignored this. ‘We must get cracking’ he said leading off into the forest. ‘Half the others have gone already.’ Duncan limped after him.
The agreed plan between the two men was to journey entirely on foot, keeping away from all contact with others if possible. Trains or any other form of public transport were to be avoided as neither man spoke German. They had agreed to travel their prearranged route together for the first three days and then go their own ways. This largely fitted into the overall strategy of all twenty six escapers. They had  chosen their own  routes into Switzerland to avoid the whole party travelling in exactly the same direction. The paths varied, ranging from travelling around the east of Lake Constance or east of Schaffhausen, to moving west. Some were making for points as far away as Basle.

Schaffhausen -

Lake Constance - present day
We’ll go north for the first night’ said O’Sullivan. ‘They’ll be expecting us to go south, so if we go in the opposite direction, we’ll fox them. Then we can turn west and finally south. It’ll make the journey a lot longer, but I think it’ll be worth it….we must move in the dark and avoid contacts.’
They hurried along the forest tracks for the first two hours, reaching the road from Biberach to Attenweiler .  O’Sullivan always strode on ahead and the psyche of the two men is well illustrated during the early stages of their escape. Duncan observed that his travelling partner had a formula if he were not quite sure of where he was. ‘We must keep cracking on old boy. We can get our direction tomorrow.’

Attenweiler -

O'Sullivan had shown numerous instances in the past of his desire to forge on first and let the rest take care of itself. A typical example was during the tunnel excavations, when in the middle of August he returned from a spell in the camp hospital and as Duncan noted at the time:

' breathing fury at being kept away from the work so long and determined to do twice as much as anyone else.'

On the first occasion O'Sullivan went down the tunnel, large amounts of earth came back in double quick time. It was only after he was finally persuaded to come out for the next man to take over that his over zealous digging with a poker was discovered. O'Sullivan had lost direction and hollowed out a large dome in the roof of the tunnel. This became known by the diggers as 'The Cathedral' (see Part One)
As the two men journeyed, Duncan seemed to assume a more cautious, ordered and less hopeful approach. At this stage he was prepared to let O’Sullivan take the lead.
‘I had decided to keep a diary of our wanderings with the rather pessimistic idea that, if we were captured, the information on the country might be useful to subsequent escapists. To start with, it was concerned mostly with comments on roads, types of country and water points, but as time went on and I gained confidence, it became more and more of a narrative.’
The escapers needed to achieve maximum distance from the camp before daylight, whichever route they had chosen. Although it had been agreed to avoid all roads and to travel across country at night, both men were sure that taking the highway in the direction of Attenweiler was worth risking under cover of darkness as the breakout was unlikely to have been discovered yet. The road was also lined with apple trees which helped add to their rations.
By 04.30 Duncan was exhausted and struggling with the pain in his leg, but O’Sullivan insisted on continuing for a further hour before hiding up in a wood for the day. Although the date was 14 September, the weather had already started to deteriorate, with temperatures dropping at night. Description from the diary gives a vivid picture of how uncomfortable conditions were for the escapers. They lay all day in a spruce wood, lying in wet clothes on a bed of branches and surrounded by a camouflage screen. The damp had ruled out any chance of drying the clothes and during the afternoon a group of men and boys had beaten their way through the wood. Pestered by mosquitoes, the escapers lay still and were left unsure whether the party had worked their way through to flush out game or were searching for escaped POWs. Fortunately the dogs had been left outside and the pair remained undiscovered. In a single sentence in his diary Duncan’s thoughts encapsulate the mind of a POW fresh on the run:

‘It’s almost impossible to believe we’re free – if only for the moment.’

To be continued

Sources and Additional Reading
Underground From Posen - Michael Duncan  (Highly recommended read)

Author's Notes
* I would like add some photographs of any of the 26 men from the Biberach Tunnel escape. If anyone can help on this, I would hugely grateful if they could contact me.  

©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

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Biberach Tunnel Break - Part Three

Typical German Guard Tower
Continued from previous post

The plan for leaving the tunnel stipulated that each man should go out at five minute intervals. This would minimise the amount of movement visible from the towers, searchlights and guards patrolling the perimeter fence with their dogs. It also gave each man a chance to get away in the event of the person following being discovered. No more than two personnel would be moving across the open ground at any one time.
Many of the escapers applied crude forms of camouflage – some by sewing grass on their clothes, others darkening their outfits and covering faces and hands with blacking. Michael Duncan had obtained a large net big enough to cover his whole body. To this he attached tufts of grass. The POWs involved in the escape had prepared their maps, compasses and clothing long before the tunnel was completed. Red Cross parcels were arriving with some regularity and it had been easier to accumulate food suitable for long term storage. Duncan described his rations for the journey as:

‘4.5 lb of chocolate, 2.5lb of cheese, 1lb German ration biscuits, 1.5lb mixed dry oatmeal, glucose and a water bottle.’
Red Cross Parcel - Daily Telegraph

The final exit order from the tunnel was decided by drawing lots. Each one related to a pair of escapers, whether or not they would be travelling together once the break was made. The only predetermined positioning was that of Duncan who exited first, followed by Temporary Captain Barry O’Sullivan. Neither of the two men wanted this, as despite the amount of work they had carried out in leading, planning, digging and shoring the tunnel project, they sought no privilege. The rest of the party insisted that the two men went first and O’Sullivan was adamant that Duncan should exit before him.
It is strange that that some escapers had never set foot in the tunnel before the night of the breakout because they were members of the other tunnel project which had not yet been completed (see previous post). Also certain POW’s had been solely involved in other areas of the ‘end to end’ process:

Passing up soil into the hut from the tunnel entry shaft (This had usually been excavated at the tunnel face and ‘trollied’ down in half a biscuit tin mounted on wheels.)

Lifting the cardboard box containing soil up to a POW standing on a locker, who would then pass it to the man inside the roof space for stowing.

Acting as a lookout or stooge and assisting with the rapid cover up operation in the hut in the event of a guard, ferret or search party approaching.
On the night of the escape, four men were to be in the tunnel at any one time. One waited at the exit, one at the Cathedral (see previous posts re The Cathedral), one in the chamber and one at the entrance. Duncan had taken up position at the exit ready to break through and O’Sullivan was in the Cathedral. The two men had planned to meet half a mile from the camp where a road entered a wood. If it became necessary to call to establish contact, Duncan would be ‘Heinrich’ and O’Sullivan ‘Karl’. Neither man spoke any German.     
‘As soon as I had made a small hole the cold night air gushed in…and the rain which had started to fall splashed on my face.’
Duncan accidentally dropped his knife during trying to make the exit hole larger, which slowed the whole operation. The men down the tunnel grew impatient as he tried to tear away tufts of grass with his hand. O’ Sullivan arrived behind him, and by chance in the total darkness Duncan’s hand located the knife and work began  at full speed again. It took two hours to get the exit hole wide enough for a man to get through.
He described what happened as he made his move:
‘I wormed my way out and lying flat, I crawled away from the hole. After a few yards I stopped, spread my camouflage net over me and looked around to get my bearings.’
The tunnel had exited right on top of the crest of an incline which had blocked the view from inside the camp as to the state of the ground beyond. The terrain was open and level rather than the decline that the escapers had predicted. Duncan calculated that there would be a good hundred yards to crawl before they were out of range from the searchlights.

Tunnel Exit as photographed in 1981 (larger than the original)

Opening the tunnel exit had taken more out of him than he realised. His arms were weakened and crawling became very slow and painful.
‘Once a searchlight came on, sweeping across the field. I lay still under my net and the light passed over me without stopping and went out. Soon I saw, away to my right a small light close to the ground. It was moving very quickly and soon passed by.’
He realised that it was the glow from a luminous watch and a further figure crawled past him. The five minute interval plan had clearly been ignored.
Eventually he reached the cover of a ditch and some bushes. Standing up to get some bearings, he calculated that he had strayed further to the left than planned which had cost valuable time. It was doubtful that O’Sullivan would wait for long at their rendezvous point, so Duncan got his bearings and hurried towards the location. Dogs began barking and he broke into a run across a field towards the wood.
‘Suddenly I felt myself falling and as I hit the bottom a sharp pain stabbed at my left ankle and knee. …I found that I had fallen down a large and deep irrigation ditch.’
To be continued

Sources and Additional Reading

Underground From Posen - Michael Duncan  Highly recommended read

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

Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Biberach Tunnel Break - Part Two

Biberach Camp pictured later during the war -

Continued from previous post:

Lieutenant Michael Duncan was stuck fast between two boulders in the escape tunnel. He had led and driven this project, spending more time excavating soil, and shoring up the workings than any of the other diggers on the team. Panic set in as Duncan found he was unable to move forwards or backwards. He recalled:
‘…but at last I calmed down and by careful wriggling got free.’

The Biberach tunnel was less than half the width and height of The Great
Escape tunnel shown in this sketch -

It would be natural to assume that all 26 prospective escapers had been involved in the digging or tunnel project at some stage. This was not the case. The original team consisted of 10 men who formed the digging party. As the tunnel was very narrow, only limited numbers could work in it at any one time. At the beginning, there was room for only one person and throughout the project there was only one digger at the face. As the tunnel progressed, they had a small chain of support coming from behind.  It was decided that personnel on the team not involved in the digging work at any given time would act as ‘stooges’ (look outs).
Soil from the tunnel was stored in the roof space of the hut. The heat was so excessive in that space that a team of men had to take it in turns working short stints. An additional four POW’s joined the group to work solely on the stowing operation. They did not dig in the tunnel, as this work was too exacting on top of what they were already doing. The stowing group functioned as a three man operation, with the fourth acting as lookout or general support whilst not engaged in the physical work:
Man One would collect the cardboard box containing the soil, which had already been passed up into the hut from below. He passed the box to Man Two standing on top of a locker.

Man Two would pass the box up to Man Three who was waiting in the roof space to spread and store the earth.
When the tunnel was finished, the team waited for a suitable cloud covered or moonless night. It was then that Duncan suddenly remembered an agreement made at the beginning of the project which had been forgotten.
They had obtained permission from the Escape Committee to start their tunnel whilst another was already under way. The agreement had been that whoever completed first must then allow the men working on the other tunnel to leave in line before them.  Looking back at events, this seemed a strange arrangement. Duncan’s co-leader, Temporary Captain Barry O’Sullivan advocated that they should not be held to that agreement as their team had started work after the other tunnel project and yet still completed first.
Duncan went to the head of the Escape Committee.
‘We’re all ready to go sir, as soon as we get a decent night. You’re not going to hold us to our promise to let the others go first are you?’
‘I must’ said the Head. ‘I gave them my word. But I’ll have a talk with them.’
The Biberach tunnellers worked from underneath the location of  a stove in
hut 6 - 

The other tunnel was nowhere near completion and a compromise was reached. Duncan’s party had increased over time to nineteen, but one of those was in the camp hospital and not fit enough to take part in the escape. The Head advised that if Duncan was ready he could go, but would have to take the ten leaders of the other tunnel project with him. Duncan suggested that once his team were out, anyone could make use of the tunnel. The head was unmoved.
‘I don’t think that’s wise. If too many try to get out, someone’s sure to be spotted and that’ll spoil the chances for everyone. …I think twenty five should be the maximum number. If they leave at five minute intervals, it’ll take just over two hours to get them all out – say two and a half to allow for accidents. That’ll give them a chance to get clear by daylight.’
Duncan queried that if ten of the other team were included in this number, it would mean three of his own men would miss out on the escape, which was unfair. He suggested that the number be increased to twenty six, as there was no little chance of the other tunnel being completed before all of the POWs were transferred to a new camp, which was imminent.      
This must have been bitterly disappointing for Duncan and the men. They had worked so hard as a team and had completed before the other tunnel. They now faced the prospect of two of their own not being able to leave. Duncan had also envisaged larger numbers escaping by way of other POWs using the tunnel after their party had exited. He could however see the head of the Escape Committee’s logic.
The next problem was how to arrive at the two POWs who would not be going. Drawing lots amongst the whole team was unfair as some had completed huge amounts of work and would then run an equal chance of not being selected. Conversely, to select a given number of men from within which the lots would be drawn was equally unjust. A secret ballot amongst the whole team was taken where everyone voted on the two who should be excluded. The lot fell on a member of the guard party and one of the men who stowed the soil. They were given the bad news and told they would become members of the other tunnelling party and leave by that exit once it was completed. In reality this seemed an empty compensation which was unlikely to materialise. 
As Duncan reached the end of the tunnel and the final shored up exit point, he had been forced to accept the way things were. The whole focus now was on pushing through the last few inches of grass and breaking out for freedom.

 To be continued
Sources and Additional Reading

Underground From Posen - Michael Duncan  Highly recommended read

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

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Biberach Tunnel Break - Part One

Oflag Vb - www.prisonerof

At 8.45 pm on September 13th 1941 the POWs planning to escape from Oflag Vb, Biberach met in hut 6. Recent nights had seen a full moon with clear skies and almost floodlight visibility. This ruled out any possibility of a breakout, but towards the evening of the 13th a strong breeze had started to bluster around the camp. Thick black clouds gathered and now the men mulled over whether this would be the night to make their move.
An escape tunnel had been completed a few days before this, after months of work. Only the last nine inches of earth to the surface remained at the exit end. The men had shored up this part with a one inch thick piece of plank, but a neighbouring farmer had decided to cut a second crop of hay in the field near to the camp, including the edge where the final section of the tunnel was situated. Initially, this suited the men, as the swathes of grass would give extra cover when they moved across open ground and any cut areas would make crawling easier.

Diagram of Oflag Vb - M Duncan.

A problem arose on the morning of the 13th as heavy wagons were brought in to move the hay. These regularly trundled over the roof of the tunnel and the men watched anxiously from behind the wire. With the mountains of neutral Switzerland visible and only 68 miles away, these were tense times. Months of careful planning and work would be lost if the tunnel collapsed.
The entire operation had been a magnificent achievement. Oflag Vb was originally built as a barracks and consisted of long low brick huts built around a parade ground. At one end was an extra open space for exercise purposes and the whole area was surrounded by a standard double fence of thick barbed wire, ten feet high with a six foot gap between the two fences, filled with short lengths of the same type of wire. This created an impenetrable perimeter; although the construction was overcome with ladders in another camp (see earlier post on the Warburg Wire Job).
At every corner or bend in the fence, a raised sentry tower with machine gun and searchlight was strategically positioned. Three feet inside the main wire was a low single length of thin wire which was the closest that POWs were allowed to venture in terms of the perimeter. Anyone stepping over the wire risked being shot. At night, guards with dogs constantly patrolled around the fence.   
A road ran parallel with the outer barbed wire fencing and beyond this was a six foot rising bank where at the top the ground continued up less severely on to a crest. The POWs decided to tunnel down, before gradually angling upwards beyond the crest, as this would conceal any exit from the camp searchlights. The disadvantage was the lack of a proper view beyond the crest.  
The team decided this had to be the night. For the 26 escapers, everything rested on a getaway during the hours of darkness. (See earlier post ‘Long Tunnel Schemes Part Two’ on 03 January 2014 for a general account of the tunnel and breakout.) Scheme leader, organiser and main digger Lieutenant Michael Duncan, 4th Battalion Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry entered the tunnel for the last time at 9.15 pm.
One foot nine inches by one foot six inches were the absolute minimum dimensions which tunnellers could realistically hope to work in. The Biberach tunnel ran for around 145 feet with these measurements, apart from:
 ‘The Rocks’ - a gap of only a foot between two immovable boulders.
‘The Depression’ – where the floor sank into a short recess at the point where full boxes of earth were pulled back.
‘The Cathedral’ – a spot where Temporary Captain Barry O’Sullivan, (fresh from a stay in the camp hospital due to blood poisoning) had been over enthusiastic with his digging and unknowingly carved a small dome in the roof as he excavated with a poker.
‘The Chamber’ – a ‘room’ wide enough for a man to turn around and high enough for a man to achieve a sitting position. This became a ‘half way house’ and control area for tunnel work.

Diagram showing tunnel points, path and trajectory - M Duncan

Diggers had usually worn only vest and pants when working in the passage. Duncan now faced a problem. With all his clothes on, it was a tight fit. Dragging his kit behind him (tied to his foot) he reached ‘The Rocks’ and described what happened next:
‘I came to the Rocks and there I stuck. My kit prevented me from going backwards and I apparently could not go forwards. I was beyond the range of The Chamber light, and in the dark, I sweated in uncontrollable panic. For a moment I was in absolute terror and seemed to be suffocating…’
To be continued

Sources and Additional Reading

Underground From Posen - Michael Duncan  Highly recommended read

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

Friday, 8 August 2014

Oflag XX1B - A Home Run Part Two

Szubin Rail Station  Pictured Present day
In continuation from last week’s post - late on 16 December 1942, RAF POW Philip Wareing made his third trip under guard to the Szubin railway station to collect supplies off a train (four escorts to every party of ten POW’s). In a staged accident, one of his fellow POW orderlies dropped a load of bread creating a diversion. The guards were momentarily distracted and Wareing slipped between the lorry that had transported the POWs to the station and a goods wagon. In the fading light he crawled under the wagon, rolled across to the other side, then raced over two sets of tracks and platforms. As he made a run for it, the lorry driver, who was a German soldier, started up his engine, which drowned out any warning shouts from station or public personnel on the other side on the wagon. The guards were unaware of what had happened.

If Wareing could get away undetected from the station and reach the woods and marshes outside Szubin he could hide up before making his next move. The odds were slim, as once his absence was discovered, searches would begin, with the entire area being put on alert. But he had one thing in his favour - darkness was closing in. He managed to sneak out of the station without attracting attention, and night fell as he left the village to make for the woods.
In his pockets Wareing carried the day’s ration of hard tack biscuits plus items from Red Cross parcels - a small lump of cheese, Horlicks tablets, sugar and a piece of chewing gum.

Standard Hard Tac Biscuit

He hid overnight in the wood, trying to get some rest in the intense cold. The distance to Bromberg  (now Bydgoszcz) was around 24 kilometres, and at 09.30 the next morning he set out to make the journey on foot. It passed without significant incident apart from the effects of cold. In the town he managed to find a bicycle which had been left unattended.  Walking casually along, he pushed it for a few yards, then rode off heading north in the general direction of Danzig.  

Bromberg Streets in 1940 -

It is interesting how the lure of freedom shortened distances in the mind of the escaper. Wareing had a working knowledge of the area through camp intelligence and maps (see previous posts on how this operated). He had already walked 24 kilometres, and the journey ahead of him to Danzig was 166 kilometres. Travelling by public transport was to be avoided where possible because of checks and heightened security. He would cycle in the direction of Graudenz  (now Grudziadz) on the Vistula river and look for a ship flying the Swedish flag. 71 kilometres to Graudenz was a significant distance and the worn out machine had an uncomfortably hard saddle. Frequent dismounts were necessary on hilly sections and he had not reached his destination by nightfall. The moonlight was sufficient for him to continue travelling and Wareing took a chance, crossing a guarded bridge over the Vistula.  

Grudsiadsz -

At 08.00 hours on 18 December, he  reached Graudenz. It was light and he cycled towards the docks to find a Swedish ship.  With hindsight, the odds of finding a neutral vessel on an inland river port such as Graudenz were remote, but had to be investigated. There were none. Wareing needed to leave the dock area immediately. Anyone acting suspiciously would be stopped and questioned. There was no possibility of waiting around or loitering on the streets. He decided to cycle over to the railway station and look for a train to Danzig. Travel on this route was extremely risky as it led to a major port and would be closely monitored. For an escaper who was cold, tired and hungry, with a long distance to cover on a rickety old bicycle, this was the next best option.  Nothing showed up on the departure boards. There was no choice but to retrace his route back to the guarded bridge over the river and get on to the Danzig road. Wareing knew that neither he nor the bicycle would stand up to the journey.


Grudsiasdz Rail Station -

For an escaper or evader there were often watershed moments which shaped the pathway to either freedom or capture. Wareing soon spotted a man propping a pristine looking bicycle on a stand and seized the moment. The man had walked away leaving it unattended. There was no going back. Ignoring the risk of being seen and apprehended, the escaper took the new bicycle and rode off back in the direction of the Vistula bridge, leaving the boneshaker in its place. He crossed back over unchallenged whilst the guards were deep in conversation with two Germans in uniform.

It was still light when he saw a milk churn beside a farm gate and paused to take a drink. After snatching some sleep in a haystack, the journey restarted at 04.00 hours the following morning and continued throughout the day. He spent the night in an empty unfurnished house, narrowly missing the torch beam of a caretaker who was checking the premises.
The bicycle held up well. Despite surviving on minimal rations, Wareing reached Danzig the following day.  He slipped into the docks without being stopped by police or troops and spotted a Swedish ship being loaded with coal. Abandoning his bicycle, he hid by a timber pile before walking straight up the gangplank as if a member of the crew. Personnel on the ship seemed occupied with loading up the cargo and no one noticed him. Wareing found his way down into the hold unchallenged.

Danzig 1940 -

Port of Danzig -
Cranes were dumping more coal around him until the hold was three quarters full. Some Russian POWs under German guard came aboard to trim the cargo. Wareing was spotted by one of the Russians, but after saying quietly ‘ Angliski pilot’ he was left alone.

Gothenburg 1940

A two hour routine search of the ship began in the early morning of 21 December before it was allowed to sail at 09.00 hours. The stowaway remained in the hold for two days before venturing on deck. He was immediately seen by a member of the crew who returned him to the hold. For the following two days of the voyage Wareing survived on bread and water brought to him by the sailors. The captain was eventually informed and upon arrival at Gothenburg  handed him over to the Swedish police , who notified the British Consul. A full set of decent clothes was provided and he stayed at Police Headquarters, being allowed out in the day until a member of the British Embassy took him to Stockholm on 28 December. On 5 January 1943 he was flown back to Scotland. For his display of initiative, resourcefulness and courage he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.  

Sources and Additional Reading

Home Run - Richard Townshend Bickers
Author's Notes

©Keith Morley

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