Monday, 24 February 2014

Stay with The Escape Line

The next two posts about the other Asselin Tunnel escapers from Oflag XX1B and 'Dim' Strong's tunnel will follow as soon as I am 'repatriated' from hospital.

Stay with The Escape Line. There's some fascinating posts on escape and evasion to come.

I will return soon.

Keith M.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Out of the Tunnel - The Asselin Escapers Part One

William Ash with Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King  - Flying for Your Life

‘Eddy’ Asselin and William ‘Tex’ Ash were first out of the latrine tunnel around 20.00 hours on 5 March 1943.  Asselin had dug away the last few inches of soil, peering out of the hole just as a guard passed by on patrol inside the wire. The exit point was exactly where the tunnellers had calculated, coming out in one of a row of ‘ditches’ that formed part of a potato field.

Asselin remained undetected, as the guard’s attention and security lights were focused on the inside of the camp. If the escapers could time their exits from the tunnel whilst the sentry was far enough away, they had a good chance of crawling unseen along the different ditches in the potato field. Once far enough away, the men could scramble across the open ground and reach the trees without being seen or heard from the ground or the towers.
Asselin went out first. Ash gave him enough time to make inroads on the crawl along the ditches before climbing up the vertical shaft and following.  Both men negotiated the potato field separately and quickly crept across the open ground in front of the trees. Asselin was already waiting and ready to go by the time Ash reached the woods.

The men set off together immediately as travelling across country would be difficult due to the marshy ground. Back at the entrance, escapers three and four were already be crawling through the field. Thirty one other men lay strung out in a head to foot chain along the tunnel or crammed into a holding chamber, with virtually no room to move and only sewage tainted air to breath. The margarine lamps lighting the narrow passage barely functioned because of the lack of oxygen, so anyone towards the middle of the chain was lying in total darkness. As each man left, the trail slowly wriggled a few feet further down and the odds of discovery narrowed with each exit made.

The POWs in the camp had an extra plan to coincide with the breakout. Ten of them had managed to hide in the attic of the main building ‘The White House.’ Once the tunnel break had been discovered, the Germans would attempt to reconcile names and total numbers of POWs. Providing the men could remain undiscovered for a while, the enemy would assume they had also escaped via the tunnel, adding to the confusion.  POW camp intelligence knew that plans existed to evacuate Oflag XX1B in the near future and rehouse the prisoners elsewhere. If the men could hold out and keep being supplied by the few personnel who knew where they were, it might be possible to slip away after everyone had left.  

Entrance to Oflag XX1B (Camp hospital in the background) - IWM 

Ash reported that he listened for the sound of rifle shots and the camp siren whilst moving away through the woods. All was quiet as the two men hurried off. There are conflicting reports as to which direction the men went. Ash states it was towards the Baltic, Asselin says they headed east hoping to link up with Polish partisans. The author favours the Baltic plan, as if they could get across country, reach one of the ports and sneak aboard a Swedish ship returning home, the chances of a ‘Home Run’ were almost in the bag.

Once an escaper got clear of the wire at night, it was vital to put maximum distance between him and the camp before dawn broke or any breakout/absence was discovered. The Allied POW catching a train was often at the mercy of timetables and other factors such as bombing raids and damaged  tracks which might affect the running of the railways. The footslogger or ‘hard arser’ as the POWs termed them,  had one plan in mind – keep walking in open country away from main roads until it got light, then find a place to hide and rest up.

Whilst the average escaper was a reasonably fit young man, he would have been living off poor camp rations and was totally reliant on the Red Cross parcels to supplement the meagre German food. Despite exercise and preparation for the journey, energy levels were not high and these men were undernourished. Concentrated escape rations were prepared from the Red Cross parcels, but the ‘hard arser’ still required regular rests and realised in the cold how shallow his energy levels had become. Feet and footwear were also not used to covering long distances cross-country.


Asselin and Ash stayed together, working their way across difficult marshy terrain at times. They travelled 20 kilometres on the first night in an attempt to get as far away as possible. The evening after the break, with thousands of personnel out already searching for them, the pair narrowly avoided being discovered whilst hiding in a wood as the torches, sticks and flashlights passed a few feet away. Every road and bridge had sentries looking out, guards were increased on the Dutch, Swiss and Belgian borders along with heightened security at the German held Baltic ports. An estimated 300,000 personnel were looking for all of the escapers from the tunnel.  

The men managed to crawl across one bridge on their stomachs, avoiding the two sentries, but travel was becoming more difficult. They tried to sleep in barns and huts if possible. It is hard  to envisage how the footslogger maintained their level of focus and constant vigilance under these conditions. Ash said that they drank water from streams and when the limited escape rations ran out, ate any raw vegetables they could find in fields.

The game was up on the fourth day at around 23.00 hours when they were captured by a policeman who was guarding a station crossing. He was hidden in the shadows and the men failed to see him until he came up behind and challenged them. They could not get away so tried a cover story.

They claimed to be French workmen who had been sent to work in the Krackau train marshalling yards and had somehow lost their way. Forged papers backed up this cover story, but the policeman was insistent they accompany him to the local Gestapo headquarters as he had received strict instructions to bring in anybody even remotely suspicious. These orders had been issued since the tunnel break and he had been posted to look out for escapers. 

Asselin and Ash were taken to the Gestapo headquarters, but had already started to try and dispose of any incriminating evidence such as compasses and maps. Once their identity was established, they were passed through a range of jails under Gestapo or Crepo guard on their journey back to the camp. (small local jail to larger political prisons) They finally returned a few days later to Oflag XX1B, where they were questioned and searched again. 

Next Post:

What happened to the other escapers from the Asselin Tunnel at Oflag XX1B
The fate of the tunnel led by Squadron Leader David 'Dim' Strong and Dickie Edge which was still undiscovered and making for the west wire at the time of the Asselin breakout. 


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

Imperial War Museum
National Archives

Notes on Canadian Archives
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.

Apologies for the late post - this was due to IT problems

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Oflag XX1B - The Other Escapes Part Three

Jozef Bryks

Czech pilot  Jozef Bryks of 242 Squadron was shot down on 17 June 1941. He had been already been a POW in four camps (including Oflag 1VB Warburg) when he arrived at Oflag XX1B towards the end of September 1942. Known as Joe Ricks, he had changed his name in order to protect his family back in Czechoslovakia, a practice adopted by a number of Allied airmen whose relatives were still under the Nazi jackboot. A Polish and German speaker, he became a key camp contact with the Polish underground outside (Armia Krajowa).

Jozef Bryks (1st Left) with other Oflag XX1B POWs

Together with Squadron Leader Morris*, Ricks had formed a plan to escape inside the tank of a sewage wagon which regularly collected the camp waste. He had spoken to the Polish driver who agreed to help by flushing the tank out before arrival and then leaving it parked strategically alongside one of the buildings, so that the two men could climb in. The wagon would later leave through the main gate as normal with the two escapers inside the tank.  
The risks to the Polish driver were best described as suicidal as once the Germans realised that the two POWs had escaped, they would quickly work out how. It is fitting that the Camp Escape Committee only sanctioned the plan on condition it was implemented on the afternoon preceding the Asselin latrine tunnel break. The POWs were confident of being able to cover the two men’s absence at evening appel and once the tunnel breakout was discovered the following day, the Germans would assume that Ricks and Morris had also exited that way.    

The two escapers figured that if the German guards were unlikely to stick their heads down a latrine and discover a tunnel, they would also avoid opening a hatch and peering inside a sewage wagon. One report states that to guard against this possibility, a bucket full of raw effluent was concealed just inside the hatch for ‘effect’ should one of the guards decide on a cursory inspection.  
Around three o'clock in the afternoon, Ricks and Morris squeezed through the hatch on the wagon dressed in overalls and with makeshift masks to cover their faces. The escape went perfectly. As the two men were making their way towards a farmhouse rendezvous arranged with the Polish resistance, the final part of the plan for the Asselin tunnel break was under way. William Ash reported in his account that Ricks carried a large bottle of eau de cologne with him (obtained by barter with one of the guards).

Otakar Černy

Amongst the escapers lying in the dark of the latrine tunnel was another Czech airman - POW 3663  Otakar ‘Otto’ Černy. Serving in RAF 311 Squadron as a Wireless Operator, his aircraft had been shot down on 17 July 1941 during a bombing raid on Hamburg. He managed to stay free for two days before capture and like Ricks had been imprisoned in a number of camps before Oflag XX1B.

Černy's strategy was to clear the camp and then dressed as a Polish labourer, meet up with Ricks and Morris at the farmhouse. The men could then move on to Warsaw and from there with the help of the Armia Krajowa travel to Gdansk where they would attempt to board a ship sailing for Sweden.  Černy made it to the rendezvous and hid with the others, but Morris was subsequently captured near the farmhouse and accounts vary as to what actually happened**

Women from the Armia Krajowa  during the Warsaw Uprising

Ricks and Černy lay low before travelling mostly on foot to Warsaw where they arrived on 6 April 1943. They made straight for a contact address provided by the Armia Krajowa and the men were drawn in to the underground movement,  including the Warsaw uprising. They were finally arrested at a safe house in a village several miles from Warsaw on 2 June following a tip off to the Gestapo by a collaborator. After some horrendous treatment and torture, the men were sent to Stalag Luft 111. It is suggested that this was due to intervention by the Camp Commandant there. (Oflag XX1B had been closed and POWs transferred).

* I am unable to trace any record relating to a Squadron Leader Morris in Oflag XX1b, but have not checked all of the Liberation Reports yet.  There are 6 men listed in Oliver Clutton Brock’s book Footprints on the Sands of Time with the surname Morris who were RAF POWs before March 1943, but none are noted as being at Oflag XX1b.
** Reports vary as to why Morris did not travel with Ricks and Černy. It is possible that the plan’s dependence on the Armia Krajowa and the route via Warsaw to Gdansk was not suitable for him as he spoke little Polish. Ricks reported that Morris did not want to go with them. Another version suggests that Morris became ill. If anyone knows what actually happened, I would be interested to hear from them.

Sources and Additional Reading

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

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

National Archives

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.