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

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1 comment:

  1. I was interested to read this post concerning the escape efforts of the POWs. Well structured and imparted expertly as ever by Keith. Some great characters emerging again here. I found out some early background of one of the tunnel masterminds…
    David Malcolm Strong, known throughout his life as “Dim” was born in Cardiff on September 30 1913 and went to Cardiff High School, where he excelled at sport. In 1936 he entered the RAF on a short-service commission and trained as a pilot before joining No 166 Squadron to fly the antiquated Heyford biplane bomber. In April 1940 he became an instructor on a bomber training unit, and at the end of the year was mentioned in despatches. During the spring of 1941 Strong was returning from a seven-hour navigation exercise when one of the two engines of his Whitley bomber caught fire. He would have been justified in bailing out, but instead he made an emergency landing at an airfield in Oxfordshire, an action for which he was awarded an AFC. In May 1942 he was one of a party of 50 “hardcases and troublemakers” sent to the new camp at Sagan, Stalag Luft III. His stay there was brief, and he was moved to Oflag XXXIB at Schubin, where he was again put in charge of digging a tunnel….although not always triumphant the point was to boost morale and take away as much of the enemy’s resources as possible. It also helped the POWs to have something to get up for in the morning…. Always look forward to the next posts and learning more.
    “Your present circumstances don't determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start.”
    Nido Qubein.