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

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  1. Escaping in the tank of a sewage tanker - eergh! Courage and fortitude abound from all these men and women.

  2. Agreed Sally, and a large bottle of eau de cologne.