|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.
What happened to the other escapers from the Asselin Tunnel at Oflag XX1B
Under the Wire – William Ash with Brendan Foley (highly recommended read)Moonless Night – B A ‘Jimmy’ James (highly recommended read)
Imperial War Museum
National ArchivesAuthor’s notes
Notes on Canadian Archives
Notes on Canadian Archives
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Apologies for the late post - this was due to IT problems