Friday, 3 January 2014

Long Tunnel Schemes - Part Two


Oflag V-B  - www.prisonerofwar.org.uk

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  www.pegasusarchive.org
 
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  www.pegasusarchive.org

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 - www.prisonerofwar.co.uk

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.
Sources

Author's Notes
Conscript Heroes - Keith Janes www.conscript-heroes.com

 Captivity Flight and Survival - Alan J Levine

©Keith Morley
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1 comment:

  1. Another well-drawn post by Keith which was involving. The camp theatre activities were interesting and provided many forms of help for the prospective escapees. It gave a future television actor a taste for the stage.
    Rupert Davies, who later would play ‘Maigret’ the famous detective, was born in Liverpool. After serving in the British Merchant Navy, during the Second World War he served as a Sub-Lieutenant Observer with the Fleet Air Arm. In 1940 the 'Swordfish' in which he was flying ditched in the sea off the Dutch Coast. Davies was captured and interned in the famous Stalag Luft III POW camp. He made three attempts to escape. All failed. It was during his captivity that he began to take part in theatre performances, entertaining his fellow prisoners. He also played a role in the Great escape from Stalag Luft III by giving cover to the tunneling activities. The prisoners soon ran out of places to hide the sand coming from the tunnels and snow cover made it impractical to scatter it over the ground. Underneath the seats in the theatre was a huge enclosed area, but the theatre had been built using tools and materials supplied on parole and the parole system was regarded as inviolate - such equipment was never used for other purposes. Internal "legal advice" was taken, and the SBOs decided that the theatre itself did not fall under the parole system. Seat 13 was hinged and the sand problem solved. The theatre team had to cover these activities and therefore rehearsed daily for new shows. On his release, Davies resumed his career in acting almost immediately, starring in an ex Prisoner Of War show, 'Back Home', which was hosted at the Stoll Theatre, London. Looking forward to the next post and more insights soon.
    “Many candles can be kindled from one candle without diminishing it.”
    (Midrash.)

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