Monday, 27 January 2014

Oflag XX1B - The Other Escapes Part Two

Camp Latrines - Wally's War

Oflag XX1B was a POW camp run by the Wehrmacht, and military politics dictated that the army would show they could manage the operation far better than the Luftwaffe. The POWs began tunnelling began soon after they arrived and ‘The Asselin Tunnel’ under the latrines (see post ‘Long Tunnel Schemes Part Three’) joined a number already in progress. Blitz tunnels had been started and discovered, whilst others were abandoned. But at one point during the latter stages of 1942, six tunnel projects were still operational and working towards the perimeter wire.

Flight Lieutenant Alastair Panton led his team on a working which had to be abandoned after encountering solid rock. Another frequent difficulty encountered by diggers was flooding and this resulted in numerous projects in POW camps being abandoned. Undeterred, Panton switched his attentions to a latrine tunnel, working along similar methods to the ‘Asselin’ project.  The RAF Flying Officer had been captured after his Blenheim aircraft was shot down on 14 July 1940 whilst carrying out an attack on an oil depot in Ghent. On 3 September 1940 whilst in captivity, he was promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant and had become an experienced escape worker.  A natural sportsman who played cricket and rugby, he was an ideal man to lead a tunnel dig with all its demands.  Lieutenant Charles Bonington (early SAS recruit and father of British climber Chris Bonington) worked in Panton’s team alongside B. A. ‘Jimmy’ James on both schemes. The versatile Panton also filled in his time with a number of camp activities including writing the Christmas pantomime for 1942.

POW Camp Ablutions - Wally's War

Gradually the Blitz tunnels were discovered, leaving three long term projects undetected. These were targeted for completion by the spring of 1943. Once the thaw started  to set in, the improving weather would give escapers better chances once out of camp. ‘Asselin’ continued to head west as did another tunnel from a barrack building. This was run by Squadron Leader David ‘Dim’ Strong and ‘Dickie’ Edge and went out from a night latrine at the end of the block near the west wire. Electric lighting was eventually tapped in from the camp’s main supply, with the tunnel being well shored by the usual bed boards.

Squadron Leader David 'Dim' Strong pictured after the war

As the work progressed, a number of American aircrew officers arrived at the camp. They were soon launching into enthusiastic and sometimes ‘gung-ho’ attempts to escape. One American was found entangled in the wire with a pair of homemade wire cutters. These actions had not been authorised by the Camp Escape Committee and cut across established escape practices. The more 'time served' POWs found this frustrating, but it is not difficult to understand why some of the Americans reacted as they did. Early British POW escape attempts took time to become organised and as with any new young prisoners, the men simply wanted to break out and escape as soon as they could.
Senior British Officer ‘Wings’ Day struck up a rapport with his respected American equivalent Colonel C G Goodrich and the two men successfully combined their efforts into organising and steering more productive results. A part of this would have been to increase the forgery, clothing and support work already in full swing behind the scenes. The Polish underground were also quick to assist by linking in with workers coming into the camp every day. The workers at great risk to themselves would regularly lend their passes and other documents for copying. Camera and film were also smuggled in and out, with the developing being done outside of the camp. Forged documents and passes were hidden in numerous locations by the POWs, including being buried in a tin in the garden and sewn into a medicine ball.    

Colonel C G Goodrich - US Air Force Academy

The Asselin tunnel was the first to reach completion on 3 March 1943 and a date was set for the break. The evening of 5 March was ideal as there was little moon. Panton’s tunnel had been abandoned due to excess moisture and work on Strong’s project out of the Barrack block still continued steadily. By this time  the first successful ‘Home Run’ from Oflag XX1B had occurred, and it came from an NCO.  In the late afternoon of 16 December 1942, Battle of Britain Fighter Pilot Sergeant Philip Wareing was out of the camp on a work detail. He managed to slip away and reach the port of Danzig, sneaking on to a Swedish ship and reaching Halmstad (more on this remarkable escape in a dedicated post soon)

Another escape plan had been put to the Committee. It was considered so dangerous for the Polish worker who had agreed to help (certain execution if discovered), that the attempt must be made on the afternoon of the Asselin tunnel break. If successful, the Germans would assume that the escapers had also made their exit via the tunnel, therefore diverting any suspicion from the worker. More on that and what happened to 'Dim' Strong’s tunnel in the next post.

Sources and Additional Reading

Under the Wire – William Ash with Brendan Foley (highly recommended read)

Moonless Night – B A ‘Jimmy’ James (highly recommended read)

A Crowd is Not Company – Robert Kee (Highly recommended read)

The Tunnel – Eric Williams

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, 20 January 2014

Oflag XX1B - The Other Escapes Part One

Entrance to Oflag XX1B - IWM

The Asselin Tunnel was not the only focus for escape at Oflag XX1B. In late 1942 and the initial part of 1943, numerous schemes were put to the Camp Escape Committee and Senior British Officer (SBO). After the first few groups of POWs moved in and took in the structure and geography of their surroundings, numerous possibilities for fresh escape plans presented themselves.
This was standard form when occupying a new camp. Options inevitably lessened as escape attempts were discovered or failed. This did not appear to affect the POWs at Oflag XX1B. Despite a hard regime amongst some of their captors, the usual scant rations, poor living conditions and sanitation; the camp had an enviable high morale amongst the prisoners. Good camaraderie showed itself - with a hard core of men remaining focused on escape, and at the very least tying up substantial enemy resources in the aftermath.
When RAF Wing Commander H.M A. ‘Wings’ Day arrived in the camp, he took over the SBO role on seniority from Wing Commander  ‘Hetty’ Hyde. Day’s first meeting with the Camp Commandant went badly from the start. Having introduced himself as Senior British Officer, he stood at ease whilst the Army Colonel began to bark out a list of instructions. Day’s stance was correct in accordance with accepted military protocol and the Geneva Convention, as both men were of equal rank.
When the Commandant saw what had happened he flew into a rage, commanding Day stand to attention. The RAF man looked sternly down. He reminded the Colonel of the correct drill and that as Senior British Officer in the camp, he had conducted himself correctly. The Commandant thumped his desk, yelling that he was not to be spoken to by any prisoner without permission. Day told him not to shout at an officer of equal rank, saluted, turned and left the room. From that moment the battle lines were drawn. Future meetings between the two men remained no more than coldly civil and any requests by the SBO on behalf of the POWs were usually denied. There are reports of the Commandant supplying a number of old Polish greatcoats (to help the prisoners keep out the winter), passing on a consignment of ill-fitting Dutch clogs and allowing a visiting priest into the camp weekly so that Catholic POWs could have Mass.   

'Hetty' Hyde & 'Wings' Day - Unknown 

Day’s determination to get significant numbers of men out of the camp stiffened. He would do everything possible now to ruin the Commandant. It is interesting to note what he said when addressing the POWs after a performance of the camp pantomime on New Year’s Day 1943.
‘I have asked you to stay because I have a New Year’s message for you. I’ll make it short. You are aware that it is everybody’s duty to escape if possible. I have been accustomed to polite and correct treatment by Luftwaffe Commandants. Here I have not received this courtesy, in fact this Wehrmacht Commandant has been damned rude to me. He hopes to retire as a General. He won’t. I intend to get people out in large numbers. So get busy. Happy escaping and a Happy New Year.’ 
An early attempt to break out came via a scheme to clear the wire at night by the use of ladders. It is certain that The Warburg Wire Job (see a previous post) was the root of this idea, as a number of POWs from that escape had come into the camp.
The Oflag X11B version, named Operation Forlorn Hope aimed to storm the wire at night with wooden ladders once the camp lights had been deliberately fused in a similar way to Warburg. Lieutenant Commander Norman Quill of the Fleet Air Arm began training two teams ready for the operation. Whilst the selected men prepared for the escape, a couple of wooden ladders were secretly constructed.
The plan was for the teams to hide after lights out, one in the barrack area near the huts and one in a blind spot between the guards machine gun posts. The perimeter lights would be deliberately fused and the teams would go hell for leather towards the wire ready to push up the ladders and climb over.
On the night, the plan began well when the lights were sabotaged by throwing a wire cable over the lighting cables. With a loud bang, the camp was pitched into darkness and the two teams raced off with their scaling ladders. It must have looked like the old annual Devonport versus Fleet Air Arm Field Race at the Royal Tournament in Earls Court. Both ladders were up against the wire when the lights came on again. The Germans had an emergency backup which had not been spotted, so the teams frantically withdrew the ladders, beetling back to the huts before discovery. Despite the serious nature and risks around the escape attempt, it is difficult not to see the humorous side when imagining the scene.  
The operation could be classed as a partial success, although it was not a comfortable night for the POW’s. Amazingly, no one was seriously hurt or discovered, but the guards having found the ladders were convinced some of the prisoners had managed to get away. Everyone got turfed out of their barracks for a cold night of counting and recounting. The POWs always made this process as difficult as possible for the enemy.
Spitfire pilot William Ash tried a different tactic in one of his chain of escape attempts. After putting on a long coat to conceal his uniform, he stood alongside a group of Russian prisoners and non-officers who were waiting to be led out of the camp on a working party. Seizing the moment he stepped into the column without the guards noticing. The party left the camp and arrived at the local railway station to help unload a goods train.
There were possibilities of making a break here if he could get to the blind side of the wagons without being seen. As the prisoners began to unload the train, Ash took advantage of the guards momentarily looking the other way and rolled under one of the wagons. He slipped out the other side, checking the immediate area. There was at least half a mile of open ground to a line of trees. The chances of getting there were slim, as a solitary figure in the open could easily be picked off with a rifle, even if they were running in a zigzag pattern.
Ash made a run for it, but was spotted within a few seconds. Shots whistled over his head, but he kept going. The next sequence of events was hardly out of Hollywood. Instead of firing further shots, a group of soldiers got on bicycles and rode after him across the flat  ground. They soon overtook the RAF man on both sides, comfortably reaching the trees first and cutting off his escape route. Ash kept going, even though the soldiers had been able to dismount in good time and train their rifles on him. At the last moment he tried to rush them in a desperate attempt to get to the trees. In some instances this would have been a fatal action, but the soldiers chose to bring him down with a rifle butt in the face and administer a beating for failing to halt when ordered.
The inevitable solitary confinement in the camp cooler followed, with a further extension to the spell after Ash had sawed through one of the bars on the cell window with a tiny home-made file he had kept hidden.

National Archives
Under the Wire – William Ash with Brendan Foley (highly recommended read)
Moonless Night – B A ‘Jimmy’ James (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.


Sunday, 12 January 2014

Long Tunnel Schemes - Part Three

Oflag XX1-B  photographed in 1945 after it had been reopened as Oflag 64 and prisoners had left - Robert Keith  

Tunnel Asselin
In the final post around Long Tunnel Schemes, the Asselin tunnel (sometimes named after POW French Canadian Eddy Asselin who was in charge of the operation) could easily be described as ‘the pits.’ It is not a good mealtime read, but illustrates just what lengths POWs were prepared to go in order to try and break out of captivity. 

As per photo 1 - Robert Keith

Oflag XX1-B in Szubin Poland was a POW camp for officers and had been built in the grounds around a former school. Six brick barrack huts were positioned on either side of what used to be the playing fields. In September 1942, British and Commonwealth Officers of the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm were transferred in from Oflag VI-B at Warburg following its temporary closure (see post ‘X and the Wire Schemes’). The POWs also included airmen from Poland, Czechoslovakia and other occupied countries serving in the RAF, as well as flyers from the Allied Air Forces - RAAF, RNZAF, RCAF, SAAF, USAAF. In October and November 1942 more British RAF Officers and NCOs arrived from Stalag Luft III to help relieve overcrowding there. As the war in the skies intensified, the inevitable steady stream of newly captured British, American and Allied Air Force Officers also arrived from Dulag Luft.
A hard core of regular escapers were soon in situ and began absorbing the geography and structure of the camp. They had no intention of staying. Just a few of them have been listed below. The names are formidable:
Lt Commander Jimmy Buckley - Had been Big-X

‘Wings’ Day, B A 'Jimmy' James and John ‘Johnnie’ Dodge - See previous posts

Flt Lieutenant B A 'Jimmy' James

RAF Sgt Per Bergsland - One of the three Great Escapers to later make a successful home run (see previous posts) - (Jonathan Vance, University of Western Ontario

Flt Lts Oliver Philpott and Eric Williams - Later escaped from Stalag Luft 111 via ‘The Wooden Horse’ and made it to Sweden

William Ash RAF 411 Squadron - American born pilot who relinquished his citizenship to join the RCAF and fly Spitfires. An iron willed and repeated escaper with unshakeable resilience and determination. Had endured numerous beatings and interrogation by the Gestapo. Later became a journalist and writer.


Flt Lt Peter Stevens RAFVR 144 Squadron - Habitual escaper and nuisance to the enemy - Claire A Stevens

PO Jorgen Thalbitzer RAF 234 Squadron - A Dane who had joined the RAF and changed his name to John Thompson to protect his family still living in Denmark.

RAF Pilot Robert Kee - In the thick of escape work. Historian and future author.

RAF Pilot Anthony Barber - Future politician and Lord Chancellor.

RAF Officer Aidan Crawley - In charge of security at Oflag X11-B. Author, County Cricketer and future MP -

RAF Squadron Leader Dudley Craig (left) - A number of breakouts resulting in recapture. Involved in ‘The Wooden Horse’ and Great Escape. One of the regular POWs using the vaulting horse whilst the digging went on below. Unable to get out of the tunnel in the Great Escape before it was discovered.

Conditions in the camp were grim, with poor rations apart from the lifeline of Red Cross parcels. There was jaundice, lice and the prisoners had minus 15 degrees of Polish winter to look forward to. Tunnelling during the main winter months was often restricted because of the weather, frozen ground near the surface and the chances of survival in the cold once out of the camp.
On the approach towards Christmas 1942 the POWs decided that possibilities existed for a tunnel to begin from the latrines, which were in a terrible state. The thinking focused around the guard’s likely reluctance to search and poke around to any degree in an open sewer that served the whole camp. The latrine building was around 150 feet from the wire, which meant a long tunnel. The practicalities and effects of working in the latrine area were less than palatable, but a decision was made to start the digging.
German microphones positioned in the ground to detect underground workings were not seen as a huge obstacle. The POW’s camp intelligence system had ascertained that any sounds of excavation during the daytime merged into the sound of POWs walking around above, because the microphones were too sensitive. It was decided to have regular groups of POW’s pacing about above and stamping their feet to try and get warm.

 Tunnel Method

 1) Sunk to a depth of seventeen feet below ground.

 2) Entrance made under the end toilet hole of the communal latrine. The last seat was beside a wall that divided the latrine building in two. This wall continued down under the concrete floor and separated an underground sump on one side from a huge sewage pit on the other.

 3) The diggers chipped away around the toilet base until the whole unit could be removed and put back quickly. It concealed the initial entrance which led to the main tunnel workings. The entrance hole was fashioned out to be just large enough for a man to crawl through.

4) A false section was created to the hole and disturbance in the dividing wall. This was removable and could be put in to conceal any activity if the Germans came in to the latrines.
5) In the underground sump, a large working chamber was excavated and the dirt pushed through into the latrine pit on the other side of the wall. This avoided the usual methods of disposing of tunnel dirt. Once the chamber was big enough for a man to work in, the tunnel proper was started. 
6) To enter the workings it was first necessary to squeeze through the hole where the toilet seat was, come within a few inches of the lake of sewage, wriggle through the hole in the wall and reach the chamber and tunnel entrance.

Working in virtual or complete darkness and barely being able to move in the stink and cling of clay or the filth which sometimes washed in from the latrines was hideous in itself, but William Ash described how the taste of the tunnel also filled the mouth when earth fell from an unshored part of the roof and the digger’s mouth was already open gasping for air.

Tunnel Size
Two feet square
Stooges (Lookouts)
1) General lookout system outside the latrines and tapered away to a suitable distance.
2) Stooge sitting authentically on the toilet seat guarding the tunnel entrance and ensuring no one used it whilst workers were below.
Digging Tools
1) Scoops made out of old tins
2) Home-made knives

Shifting the Dirt down the Tunnel
Large bag tied to a long piece of string. This was hauled back to the disposal team who scooped out the dirt with cans, throwing the soil into the main latrine, then prodding the contents around to mix them in. As the tunnel distance increased, men were positioned mid-way to take the bag and reposition it before being hauled back by a man at the entrance.
Bed boards from around the camp. Cave ins were frequent and POWs were approached to give up a bed board or more.


Thirty men on the project working in three shifts of eight. First shift would dig, second shift dispersed earth, (mostly in the latrine pit) and the third shored up and secured tunnel after the digging session. Progress was hindered by additional Appels from the usual two a day, which meant diggers often had to come to the surface and get cleaned up as best as they could to be ready for the ‘parade’ and checking off of names. Despite this, the team managed to hack out a few feet on some days. Diggers worked naked whilst in the tunnel.
Air for the Tunnel
1) An old army kit bag converted to bellows.
2) The air pipeline was made of dried Klim milk tins from Red Cross Parcels joined together (method later used in the Great Escape.)

Lighting long tunnels was always a problem as the length increased. Lamps fuelled by margarine were used with the wick from a boot lace.
Geography outside the Camp

1) Constructed and mapped as per standard systems covered in previous posts. E.g. views from inside the wire, camp intelligence information, specifics given by anyone who had escaped and been recaptured (after release from solitary confinement) and also details from new POWs coming into the camp.

2) Additional information was obtained following the death of one of the officer POWs. Wings Day as Camp Senior Officer was allowed to attend his funeral held with military honours in the nearby village. He memorised the surrounding area, passing the intelligence on to the escape committee and rest of the team.  

By the beginning of March 1943 the tunnel was almost ready, but reliable intelligence had been received that there were plans to move the prisoners to Stalag Luft 111. (some had been there before they were sent to Szubin). It made immediate completion of the work essential. The tunnel was completed by 3 March and a decision was made to move on the 5th as there was not much moon that night.
Numbers to Escape
As many men as possible to fit in the tunnel ‘head to toe’ for a few hours after evening Appel without suffocating. Given the physical numbers,  proximity to the main sewage pit, cess pool, latrines and size of the tunnel, there was no margin for error. Thirty three men would have to lie there in terrible conditions (half in the tunnel and half jammed into the cavern area near to the entrance), the only light being from margarine lamps if they managed to burn in the foul atmosphere.

Any cave ins would almost certainly  result in fatalities.
Those involved on the team would go plus John ‘Johnnie’ Dodge, 'Wings' Day and security chief Aidan Crawley. The men had all been equipped with various ‘civilian’ clothes and forged papers.

'Wings' Day- IWM

Major John ‘Johnnie’ Dodge - IWM
On 5 March after the last Appell at around five pm, the escapers gradually wandered towards the latrines either singly or in a gradual straggle. A rugby match was taking place as cover on the exercise ground nearby and none of the guards seemed to notice that fewer men were coming out of the latrine than went in. The men crawled into the two foot square tunnel wedged one after another in the darkness. The air being pulled in by the bellows came from the stinking latrine pit nearby and must have been indescribable. As the escapers lay waiting in the tunnel, the camp cesspool began leaking over them.

The final opening of the tunnel and fresh air must have been indescribable to the first few POWs waiting at the far end.


The tunnel opening came up clear of the wire, exactly where they had calculated. All thirty three prisoners got out and clear. An additional escaper followed in broad daylight the following morning before Appel when Squadron Leader Don Gericke a South African, noticed there were no signs that the tunnel had been discovered. He quickly located some escape rations, crawled down the tunnel and walked casually away trying to look like a local. He was soon recaptured. Thirty one of the thirty three were also captured, but some of the good German speakers covered significant miles before being apprehended. Two escapers were never taken. Former Big- X Jimmy Buckley and the Danish pilot Jorgen Thalbitzer were the two escapers not recaptured. The two men travelled together and managed to reach Denmark. Having been unable to board a ship, they were lost trying to paddle across to Sweden in a canoe on 29 March 1943. Thalbitzer’s body was later washed ashore, Buckley was never found. It is possible that they were struck in the dark by another vessel. 

Lt Commander Jimmy Buckley 
PO Jorgen Thalbitzer

An estimated 300,000 personnel were out searching for the escapers; soldiers, militia, police, Hitler Youth and civilians. In terms of disruption to the enemy, that tells its own story.
National Archives

Under the Wire – William Ash with Brendan Foley (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, 3 January 2014

Long Tunnel Schemes - Part Two

Oflag V-B  -

The Biberach Tunnel was arguably the most successful mass breakout of Allied POWs from a German camp during World War Two.  One of the architects was Michael G Duncan a Lieutenant in the Territorial Army. He had been captured near Watou in France on 30 May 1940 as his unit fell back towards Dunkirk along with a large part of the British Expeditionary Force. Oflag VII C/H (Laufen) was his first prison camp until March 1941 when he was moved to Stalag XXID at Posen. Although conditions had improved in the fort before his arrival, they were still classed as poor.
Duncan met Captain H Barry O'Sullivan of the Royal Tank Regiment there. O’Sullivan had been second in command of a squadron of tanks guarding the approaches to Calais around the same time. The unit’s equipment was destroyed during action with the enemy and the survivors were captured by German armoured units near to Guines as they attempted to get back to Calais on foot. O'Sullivan arrived at Oflag VII C/H (Laufen) in early June 1940, and following a failed escape attempt he was moved to Stalag XXID (Posen) in March 1941 where he teamed up with Duncan. The two men began planning an escape, but three months later they were transferred to Oflag VB (Biberach).

It was a brick barracks behind a conventional barbed wire fence, but geographically the camp was realistically within reach of neutral Switzerland.  Duncan and O’Sullivan soon began work on an escape plan. One of the huts in Block 6 was just six feet from the wire and perimeter track. The idea was for a group of seven men to tunnel from the floor, with the entrance being hidden under a stove. The tunnel length had been calculated at a minimum of one hundred and forty five feet. It would have to be sunk to a depth of ten feet in order to pass under the road which carried heavy vehicles. The exit point was to be on open ground just over the crest of a small ridge.

Prisoners at Oflag VB - Marjory Wood
The Camp Escape Committee ordered the men to wait because there was already another tunnel underway which they did not want compromising.  During the delay, the team realised that three additional men would be required, making up the numbers to ten - six diggers, plus two for the soil and two lookouts. As the time without any action passed they also began to collect and improvise tools and materials for the job. 
Permission to go ahead was finally given, providing that the first tunnel remained the priority. Work began on 24 June 1941 and there were two immediate problems:

1) Initial digging through reinforced concrete would be difficult to do without attracting suspicion.
2) There was no open space under the hut to store soil and any initial concrete rubble.

In the early stages of work, it was reported that a number of tools had been discovered by the Germans, which set back operations, although the initial hole remained undetected.  The team could make little further progress anyway until the problem of hiding dirt was resolved.  An idea to conceal it between the ceiling and sloping roof of the hut seemed a good one, and work started  again with four further volunteers shifting the excavated soil and concrete.  The shaft was sunk to the required depth, but as they tunnelled outwards, the usual problems of being unable to see or breathe sufficient air had to be tackled.

Camp Theatre Stage Hands - Oflag VB - Marjory Wood

Their camp theatre group provided bulbs and sockets for the lighting, and wire was stolen from an unused hut. Electrical conduits were used as air pipes and a bellows made of wood and a ground sheet worked as a pump for fresh air.

Roof falls became a problem at one point, but a fortunate coincidence occurred, as the Germans began to change the single beds for timber two and three tier bunks. A small number of the old beds were secretly broken up and the material used for shoring up the tunnel where weak spots existed.
As the passage lengthened, moving sufficient quantities of soil quickly and efficiently back down to the entrance became difficult. To counter this, the men made two small trolleys out of large biscuit tins cut in half, mounted on wooden runners and pulled by string. There are distinct similarities in the various aids used to counter problems, as those utilised in the Great Escape three and a half years later. It is interesting in tunnel work how the ingenuity and improvisation required often led POWs along the same lines of thinking.

The electrical conduit used for air pipes ran out, so stiff paper was rolled into tubes and soaked in fat to protect against damp and retain its constitution. Small tins provided the connecting joins so that a pipe to the tunnel face was in place to supply the air generated by the pump. The diggers made a larger recess part way down the tunnel, so that ‘equipment’ could be stored in addition to men having an area for turning around and rest. The recess was fashioned out once calculations had indicated the tunnel was clear of the perimeter wire thus reducing the chances of detection. Further additions then had to be made to the manpower of the team. The men were tiring on their thin diet, and some had developed sores and angry abrasions on their arms and elbows.
In early September, information reached the Camp Intelligence Officer and Escape Committee that the prisoners were about to be moved to another camp. The tunnellers frantically attempted to finish the rest of the dig by ‘blitzing’ but still ran out of time. Luck was on their side; as the move was postponed for three weeks and they went on to complete the work.

The night of 13-14 September was set for the escape. Poor weather outside suited the twenty six men. They were ready to go. The Escape Committee had selected the participants, maps of the area had been smuggled in via MI9 (see previous posts on escape aids to POWs) and neutral Switzerland was the destination.
Most of the men planned to travel in pairs. Duncan and O’Sullivan were two of the early ones out of the tunnel and made the tricky crawl over the first hundred yards before breaking away without being detected. All twenty six men successfully got out. The tunnel had done its job. Duncan and O’Sullivan made it to Switzerland where they were eventually joined by 2nd Lieutenant Angus Rowan-Hamilton and Captain Hugh Woollatt.

Tunnel Exit as Discovered in 1981 -

The rest of the men were recaptured, but this escape is viewed by many as the most successful from a German POW camp during World War Two. It is significant that the camp was soon closed  to POWs with all prisoners being moved to other locations further away from the Swiss border than Oflag VB (only 110 km (68 miles))

More on the men’s individual escapes and how they reached safety in future posts.

Author's Notes
Conscript Heroes - Keith Janes

 Captivity Flight and Survival - Alan J Levine

©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.