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.

Sources
 
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
   

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2 comments:

  1. Good to see these lesser-known stories of escape attempts here, enjoyed them and was amused and enlightened in equal measure. Told, as we have come to expect, with a deft touch and great wealth of knowledge and research by Keith. I had a smile over the Operation title of ‘Forlorn Hope’- showed that they still retained their sense of humour which was a godsend in those times. One wonders what other Ops might have been called...It must have looked indeed like the field race from The Royal Tournament as they ran with their ladders.
    The origin of Royal Navy Field Gunning dates back to the Boer War, when ship’s guns were put onto carriages and pulled overland by Royal Navy sailors to relieve the town of Ladysmith which was besieged by the Boers. Out of this grew the Field Gun Competition which ran annually at the Royal Tournament in London.
    I’m looking forward to reading more about the thorn in the enemy’s side namely William Ash if he crops up again.

    “Never walk away from failure. On the contrary, study it carefully and imaginatively for its hidden assets.”
    Michael Korda


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  2. Korda's quote fits the tone of the post very well Helen and Ash will be featured again in the future, as he went on to Stalag Luft 111 and was involved in The Great Escape.

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