Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Out of the Tunnel - The Asselin Escapers Part Three

Freight Train in German Occupied Poland 1939 - Wikipedia

I continue a summary of Robert Kee and Tommy Calnan’s escape from last week.

Kee quickly puts his own coat back on, whilst Calnan seems oblivious to the danger. The man at the mirror does not look across and decides to undo his bow tie, shoving it hurriedly into his pocket. He takes an ordinary necktie from another pocket, puts it on and leaves.

There are whispered remonstrations between the two escapers who decide that the safest course is to lock themselves into adjacent lavatory cubicles before anyone else comes in. They will ‘sit it out’ until the train is due. To his horror Kee discovers that the first cubicle shows the engaged sign and someone must have been sitting listening to them speaking English. On instinct he pushes at the door which opens. The lock is broken and the cubicle empty as are all the others.
The men sit in adjacent cubicles communicating via pieces of paper being passed under the partition. Kee eats a biscuit and stares at the pornographic drawings on the wall. He still has plenty of money to buy their tickets and escape rations remain adequate. The plan works well until the main door to the lavatory opens and the clatter of a bucket and slap of a mop sounds on the floor. The female cleaner is singing as she works her way through the cubicles. He describes the back to basics events which happened next:
‘…I heard her in the next cubicle to mine, slamming up the seat and pulling the plug. The dirty water from her mop edged its way under the partition into my cubicle. She tried my door. I rustled the lavatory paper. She tried Sammy’s door. He was more realistic. She moved away…..then she came back and rattled our doors impatiently….I could think of nothing to do but wait and see what she would do. I could think of nothing to do but wait to see what she would do. I could hear her waiting and breathing on the other side of the door. She waited for about two minutes and then kicked the door and shouted in a German which I did not understand. I pulled the plug and left with a show of dignity.’
Kee waits for Calnan outside. They walk towards their platform and find the waiting room. There are few occupants, but some are roughly dressed foreign workers like themselves. Kee has bought a newspaper and falls asleep for around an hour at a table. When he wakes, the place is almost full. Calnan suggests under the circumstances that they should not order any soup, which was the plan. (soup and fish are the only unrationed foods in Germany at that time.)

Scheidemuhl Rail Station
They eventually leave and whilst waiting for the train to Scheidemuhl are approached by an official in a blue peaked cap. He questions where they are travelling to. Kee explains in basic German, rummaging in his pockets for papers. The official is not interested in any checks and draws Kee’s attention to the train approaching which is theirs.
Passengers board and scramble for seats on the train which is a slow stopper calling at most stations. The pair sit on wooden seats in the third class carriage amongst four boisterous soldiers. Few people seem to get out, with more passengers piling on. People begin rummaging in their pockets, but it is only the ticket collector and the train reaches Scheidemuhl without incident. The escapers alight and are now more than fifty miles from Oflag XX1B.  
It is interesting that Kee mentions their long term plans had always been hazy, as they doubted they would ever get an opportunity to use them. Whilst in the camp Calnan had spoken vaguely of a contact he had near the Belgian frontier. To use this option they will need to make their way by train to Aachen and travel to the address. He had sewn a map of the Belgian frontier into the lining of his coat before the tunnel break.
The reality of their present situation casts a different light on things and Kee has some doubts about the reliability of the information on the ‘address.’ Looking at the destination board, Calnan decides a train to Berlin is a good move as they can still stay with their original strategy and merge into the waiting room of a big station.

No more trains leave for Berlin that day, but there is one for the port of Stettin with a change at Kustrin in three hours. (At Stettin they could try and board a Swedish ship to take them across to a neutral country.) The escapers opt for this as it is more immediate and they feel at least they are giving the bid for freedom a good try.
When Kee attempts to buy tickets for Stettin, the official looks at him quizzically.
‘Are you a Pole?’
‘No a Frenchman.’
He takes out his identity card, but the official waves it away, passes over the tickets and advises Poles are not allowed into Stettin without a special permit. Doubts around the plan begin to niggle. After a two hour wait, the escapers catch the train to Kustrin. They find a compartment to themselves. All is  well until they are half an hour from their destination, when they hear requests for papers and identity cards. A civilian enters the compartment, checks the cards and advises a policeman who steps into the carriage that the men are two Frenchman. Kee decides to say nothing, as he is concerned that further examination of Calnan’s card might lead to confusion.

German Policeman

‘Where are you going?’ asks the policeman.


 ‘You’ve got your worker’s cards I hope.’
Kee advises they have. There is something in the tone of the policeman’s voice which makes him think that he will not ask for the cards. What follows is not good news for the plan, as the official advises as he leaves the compartment that they will need the cards to get into Stettin.

Kustrin Station - delcampe.net

Fifteen minutes later whilst standing on the platform at Kustrin, the escapers decide to abandon the Stettin route because it is too risky. They return to the original plan and look for the next train to Berlin. It departs at 6.30 the following morning, so they will have to leave the station and find somewhere outside the town to hide overnight.     
As a reader, the dialogue and psyche behind the characters, gives an impression that decision making is becoming more reactive. Kee is measured and serious, but there is a sense of inevitability about what he is doing. He has never once questioned Calnan’s vague contact strategy in Aachen, but clearly has doubts over it. Calnan seems content to rely on Kee to front most things because of his own lack of German, but he has definite opinions and is bolder. A sense of humour and almost boyish mischievousness bubbles up at times. Both men are focused on escaping, but despite their spikes of confidence, the overriding impression is one of keeping going and getting as far as possible until they are caught, rather than thinking of what is beyond. Given the odds against making a home run, it is perhaps a better mentality at that stage of the journey.
Their train tickets are for Stettin, so Kee explains at the barrier that they will be returning to the station later. Kustrin is in thick blackout and the men bicker in the dark as they walk around the streets, finally realising they are lost and going around in circles when the same bridge is crossed twice. A place to hide is becoming vital. Wandering around after eleven o’clock will result in them being stopped and questioned.  

Kustrin Streets -akpool.de

After trying to sleep on some secluded open ground, they take shelter from the cold in a tiny hut between two houses which are close together in the middle of a small heath like area (the hut is a disused dovecot which has been broken off its pole and sits on the stump.) There is some shield from the wind, but sleep is impossible. By 4.45am a frozen Calnan decides they should go back to the station and risk being stopped. There is likely to be a sentry posted on a bridge they must cross.
The men are chilled to the bone. They reach the station without incident as the sentry on the bridge ignores them. The plan is find the lavatory, have a wash and hide as before until the train to Berlin is due. There is no one at the barrier and the men are about to go into the lavatory when Kee realises they still have the Stettin tickets. He returns to the barrier by which time two policemen and a railway official are there talking and standing in his way.  
He manages to pass through by pulling out his Stettin ticket and telling them he is a Frenchman. This provokes laughter and ridicule, but he is able to reach the booking office. The cold has lowered morale and confidence again; he stumbles over his German when asking the girl for two tickets to Berlin. She asks who he is and he has to produce his identity card. The forgery shows signs of wear; some of the false printing has become smudged due to rubbing in his wallet. The girl keeps turning over the card. Kee describes what happened.
‘I’ve never seen an identity card like this before.’

 ‘Well it’s the one I was issued with.’
‘I suppose its alright’ said the girl.
Finally she returns the card with the tickets. Kee receives more ridicule as the policeman and ticket collector wave him through the barrier.  He is sure that the girl knew his card was false but could not be bothered to do anything about it.
Calnan is agitated at the delay and the escapers lock themselves into the same lavatory cubicle. There is a wash basin and a water closet. Whilst Calnan has a shave, Kee sits on the toilet seat, recounting what happened. ‘Oh my God’ is Calnan’s repeated reaction with a chuckle. They swap places and although Kee says ‘the cold and anxiety of the night …were forgotten. This was suddenly a game we were playing’ the reader is left with a sense that this is not the full picture and he has been carried along by his travelling companion’s attitude.
They pack up their shaving things and unlock the door. A man is standing outside staring at them. Even speaking in whispers, if he understood English the ‘game’ is surely over. In 1943 two men coming out of the same German public lavatory cubicle after a period of whispering is likely to be reported without any qualification.
The escapers try to bluff it out by moving over to the mirror and straightening their ties. The man combs his hair and leaves. As they exit the lavatory the man is already thirty yards down the platform talking to two civilians and pointing back. The escapers try to act innocently and the two civilians quickly approach them. One asks for their papers, the other advises they are Kriminalpolizei.

Although the men pictured are Gestapo, plain clothes
Kriminalpolizei would have worn similar clothes
The two detectives inspect and swap the identity cards. One is clearly unhappy and asks more questions, finally culminating in Kee having to produce a letter backing up their story of being specialist armament workers travelling for Krupps. Although the written German on it is faultless, the document is potentially flimsy. It becomes clear that one of the detectives has a mind on catching a train which is pulling in on the other side of the station; the other ignores his prompts and continues to read the letter. In the end he hands it back reluctantly and runs after his colleague who is already hurrying down the platform. The train begins to pull out while they are still on the footbridge, but they manage to jump on at the last minute. The two escapers suddenly feel they can get through anything.

The Berlin Station where the escapers arrived - stadbild-deutschland.org
They catch the train for Berlin Charlottenberg, surviving another identity check on the way and leaving the station to sit in a public square nearby. Kee wants to wander around Berlin, but this time Calnan stops him. His silk escape map indicates that the best route to Aachen is first to get a train to Stendal. They return to the station have coffee and soup in the second class refreshment room, eat raisins in the lavatory and take the train, alighting at Stendal without any checks.  

Stendal Station - akpool.de

The journey has reached a pivotal point, although the escapers do not realise the full implications. Kee is feeling more confident, and the events from Berlin to Stendhal have only reinforced his belief that slow trains do not produce the same levels of identity checks. Calnan holds the opposite view, and always has. He counters, insisting that their papers are good enough to survive any checks and the longer they take on train journeys, the greater the risk. It is not clear whether his state of mind is borne out of impatience, immaturity, a fear that they will soon be caught, or simple disagreement with his partner. The two men argue over what kind of train to catch for Hanover and there is an awkward silence. There is a feeling that it is not only the specifics of the train which are instrumental here, but the whole experience which is working on the men’s minds.
Kee wins the argument for the time being, but expects a trade off if they reach Hanover having experienced a check. The journey will take around five hours. There is soon an identity check from a policeman, Kee thinks on his feet when answering questions and it takes the Krupps letter to convince the official of the escapers’ story. Circumstances work in their favour when another man nearby is arrested for issues around his documents.

Hanover Station circa 1930 - maunak.de
They reach Hanover and after more verbal fencing Kee agrees to take the 1.00am express to Cologne in seven hours time. This will bring them close to the German border and Calnan has got his way. The train is packed, with many passengers being forced to stand including the escapers. Soon after the first stop there is an identity check, as an elderly civilian in a soft grey hat pushes his way through the carriage carrying out random checks in cramped difficult conditions. Kee realises that because each check is completely new and subject to a fresh set of eyes, the previous checks lend no weight in their favour. His documents are not examined, but he is asked who he is. The reply of armaments worker seems to satisfy the official.
Later on in the journey a policeman checks their papers. In the torchlight he examines Kee’s documents, moving the flashlight from identity card up to the owner’s face and back again, rubbing the lettering with his thumb. Kee sums up his own thoughts:
I got the impression that he suspected the document but didn’t want to admit that he had never seen one like it before just in case it might be a real one. He continued to look at it for about five minutes and handed it back without saying a word.’
Just before dawn the train makes its last stop before Cologne and the men are able to find seats in one of the carriages. For the first time Kee begins to think about Aachen and a possible contact with the Belgian underground. The escape is taking on a new phase.
As daylight comes through the windows a portly young man enters the carriage on another identity check. He keeps Kee’s identity card immediately and asks if there are any other papers. The letter is handed over, the man folds it up and puts it straight in his pocket along with Calnan’s identity card.  Kee tells the cover story and has the feeling he is relaying it to someone who knows what is coming already. The two escapers are told they will be taken off at Cologne and asked some questions, but shouldn’t be kept long. A policeman who has been working with the portly young man civilian waits outside the door of the carriage while the latter  continues his checks.

Cologne Rail Station - anicursor.com

The escapers are escorted off the train at Cologne and taken away for questioning. For a while Kee sticks to his cover story. The portly young man loses his patience, screams that the papers are forged and presses a revolver into Kee’s stomach. Hands are raised and Kee admits they are British Officers and escaped prisoners of war.    
The atmosphere in the room instantly changes. The official explains that he knew they were prisoners immediately and that they had escaped from the Oflag in Poland. The Germans had been told that the men they were looking for would be wearing khaki and would have leather bootlaces*. Key recalled the endgame.
‘But we aren’t wearing any khaki clothing.’

 ‘No but I would have recognised it if you had been. Besides, it wasn’t necessary. You were wearing leather bootlaces.’

 *German laces were made from cloth at the time.

Sources and Additional Reading

A Crowd is Not Company – Robert Kee  The above and last week's summary is a mere snapshot of what happened. This book in the bloggers view is a must read. The Times described it as 'Arguably the best POW book ever written.' I have not read one to better it.
Moonless Night – B A ‘Jimmy’ James (highly recommended read)
Under the Wire  - William Ash (highly recommended read)
Footprints on the Sands of Time - Oliver Clutton-Brock (Highly recommended read for info and stats)
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

Monday, 10 March 2014

Out of the Tunnel - The Asselin Escapers Part Two

Whilst William Ash and Eddie Asselin were ready to break the latrine tunnel on the other side of the wire at Oflag XX1B, conditions were almost unbearable for the rest of the escapers lying in the passage. Wing Commander Paddy Barthropp was number three in the line and remembered the situation well.

Wing Commander Paddy Barthropp

‘Thirty two of us were shut off in the tunnel, head to toe during the afternoon, and remained in this cramped position for nearly five hours until darkness. The stench was unbearable and I will always remember the rush of fresh air when Tex Ash and Eddie Asselin broke through the last few feet of earth and into the open.

I was number three to go out and can recall the memorable sight of looking back into the camp from outside and seeing the guards with their dogs and searchlights sweeping the compound. It was truly unforgettable.’
Back at number sixteen and half way down the tunnel was future author and British TV broadcaster Flight Lieutenant Robert Kee. Lying directly behind him, South African pilot Squadron Leader Tommy Calnan was to be his travelling companion. (Kee refers to him in his book as ‘Sammy.') Calnan had been shot down over France in December 1941 on a photo reconnaissance mission in his Spitfire, whilst Kee had piloted a Hampden Bomber on 18 February 1942 which was on a mine laying operation off the Frisian island of Terschelling when it got hit by flak and crashed. 

Flight Lieutenant Robert Kee

Their escape attempt encapsulates so much of what others went through. The physical states, emotions, luck, risks and mistakes are just a snapshot of what the escaper experienced. There is no better illustration than to simply relay Kee’s excellent narrative with additional observations. 
He recalled how he found himself in the darkness of the tunnel listening to his heart beating against the packed earth of the floor, clutching an attaché case filled with escape food and fingering a pocket full of false papers. Occasionally messages would be passed down the line from the tunnel exit or up from the chamber at the entrance. Most of the men were laying head to toe, unable to turn around and being forced to speak in whispers. By the time messages reached the middle of the tunnel they often bore little relation to the original.
A man named Warburton was directly in front. He turned his head as much as it was possible to turn a head without moving the shoulders and hissed:
‘The Emperor says there’s simply got to be more air.’
Kee passed it on to Calnan who replied
‘I don’t know who the Emperor is, but I couldn’t agree with him more.’
Calnan amended it to:
 ‘People are fainting, there’s got to be more air.’
The foul smell from the latrines and cesspit was being pumped up the tunnel by a man working overtime in the entrance chamber to get the best out of an adapted kit bag.

Squadron Leader Tommy Calnan as featured
on the cover of his book 'Free as a Running Fox'

The risks were high:
One hundred and fifty feet of narrow tunnel was a considerable distance for air to travel.
A cave in would mean the men had no chance of moving or manoeuvring and would probably die. Most did not think of the fifteen feet of earth above the tunnel roof. 
The lack of oxygen meant the risk of suffocation if the tunnel break did not occur soon after it was dark and the camp had been locked down for the night.

When the draught of cold night air finally came, the men began to crawl slowly forward. Kee described what happened next:
‘It was not a continuous progress, but a series of rare tiny jerks. Sometimes we remained stationary for five minutes at a time and often I decided that at last something had gone wrong. But always we moved on again, and each time we moved on, the possibility of escape became more real and exciting….I was sweating. My elbows, sore from weeks of work in the tunnel were becoming more painful. I badly wanted to stretch my neck. After a long time I noticed that we were edging uphill. That meant we were on the last stretch. ’
The delays had been caused by earth dug away at the tunnel exit being insufficiently dispersed, making the passage gradually narrow towards the surface. Each man had to stop and fight his way out.
Kee and Calnan managed to force their way through, before slowly crawling across and along the staggered ditches of the potato patch at intervals without being spotted by the sentry. They slipped under a wire fence into the next field and were able to cover the next two hundred yards to the wood without being seen from the camp, as the land sloped downwards about a quarter of the way across.

Although this is Oflag 17a,  Key and Calnan might have seen
something like this from outside the wire 

The two men met on the edge of the wood and Kee removed a pair of old black dyed pyjamas which he had worn to keep his clothes clean in the tunnel. It is interesting to see how the pair had adapted their clothes and formed an escape plan with the necessary paperwork ready for when they got outside.
Calnan spoke good Italian and Kee had some schoolboy French, so their false papers had them as Italian and French workers. Calnan was a machinist and Kee described him as having ‘something of the seedy confident look of people who spend much time with oil-cans and machines.’   
Their civilian clothes had been assembled and adapted with varying degrees of success to suit their false identities, but it is clear that Kee felt uneasy about his own appearance. ‘Altogether I had a mad artificial appearance. I looked like someone who had dressed up.’
Dark glasses to be worn in the day to hide facial burns sustained when he was shot down

Naval officer’s cap with the badges removed

Well-worn naval uniform with civilian buttons and a green half length coat bought from the Pole who drove the sewage cart (See Bryks & Morris escape - earlier post)
Cap made out of a German blanket

Cut down RAF greatcoat

Naval trousers

A tie often worn as an undergraduate which had not been confiscated from one of the clothing parcels.

Dyed RAF airman’s tunic, with the cut clearly altered.

A stand in pair of boots borrowed at the last moment as Kee’s toe had poked through his existing pair. The substitute boots had a right sole which had recently been glued on by the owner. 
Move north east across open country using Calnan’s luminous compass, and reach the railway line for Bromberg. Get to Bromberg before it gets light by walking down tracks and catch a train out to Berlin by 08.00 before the balloon goes up at the camp. The men estimate that the station will not be safe after 10.00am.
Communication With Each Other in Public Areas
Difficult as they cannot use English. Kee speaks very basic French and no Italian. Calnan’s French is no better. They will try to use French between themselves, but it is difficult to make each other understood.  They will be forced to revert to English (whispered or otherwise) when it is considered safe. 

About seven kilometres from Bromberg there is a bridge where the railway goes over the canal. The men expect it to be guarded, but POWs who had previously escaped spoke of some bridges not being covered. The Camp Intelligence Officer has already advised them to assume that it will be guarded. Kee approached one of the ‘tame’ Germans in the camp, bribing him with cigarettes. The German says the bridges are all guarded night and day. Calnan has already asked the same question to the man with the lure of chocolate. He tells him that the bridges are not guarded. The two escapers decide whether he likes cigarettes or chocolate best.
They walk across country using Calnan’s compass. Kee runs down a slope, slips and goes up to his waist in muddy slime. His trousers and the bottom of his coat are covered. This is a serious problem. He cleans himself up as best as possible and the pair press on. By the time the railway line is reached, they are already behind schedule.
The men tire and Calnan’s feet are suffering. A limited camp diet plus a reliance on Red Cross Parcels is already taking its toll. They consume some of the concentrated escape rations, take rest breaks, but walking over the sleepers slows them down further. In the dark, they cannot be sure that the bridge is unguarded. Kee takes a chance and makes himself visible and easily heard. There is no one there and they cross. The men have run out of time to reach Bromberg by the eight o’clock train. They decide to hide up in some woods, tidy their appearance and catch a slower local departure later. The mud on Kee’s trousers has soaked in to the material, making it less noticeable.
They fall asleep and manage to get some rest, but the wood is too risky to hide in during daylight hours. It will be one of the first places searchers look, so the men decide to approach Bromberg by the main road as they would not be expected to use such an obvious route and could pass off as two men going to work. The sole of Kee’s right boot comes unstuck and begins to flap. They pass through a village without incident, trying to memorise any names and places for readymade answers if stopped and questioned. An armed Luftwaffe patrol fires shots in a nearby wood, emerges at the double and hurries past them. Kee realises once they have passed that the men are on a military exercise from the aerodrome that the escapers have spotted close by.
He grows in confidence and even asks a Pole the way to the station. The more people they see, the less notice anyone seems to take of them. The plan is to find a departure time for the first train leaving west, buy tickets and hide in the lavatory until it is due.

Bromberg Railway Station

It is nine forty five when they pass through the station entrance , there is a large crowd in the hall. A local train to Schneidemühl about fifty kilometres away is due to leave at midday. Catching slow local trains is thought to run less risk of identity paper checks. As Kee is moving across to the booking office he is approached by a man in SS uniform rattling a money box. He has no change, so puts two separate one mark notes in the slot. The man looks surprised and startled. It is a mistake which Kee gets away with. When Calnan finds out what has happened, he tells him that according to a camp interpreter no German ever gives more than ten pfennigs.
Kee has already made another error by giving the ticket clerk a whole five mark note too much. The bored official merely slaps it back to him in annoyance. There is some latitude here for mistakes as the area has many foreign workers of poorly dressed appearance who are not conversant with travel and currency. 
The escapers follow their plan, moving through the ticket barrier on to the platform. The railway official punches their tickets and advises they have a two hour wait. They descend the steps into a subway and follow signs for the lavatory. Once at the washbasins, there is no opportunity to communicate, as a man is standing in front of the mirror fiddling with his bow tie. He lingers as they take off their coats and prepare to have a wash, removing towels quickly from their attaché cases so as not to disclose the quantity of escape rations still inside. Kee glances across and sees Calnan playing nonchalantly with the taps. His braces are stamped with ‘Gift of the British Red Cross.’
To be continued 
Sources and Additional Reading

Moonless Night – B A ‘Jimmy’ James (highly recommended read)
A Crowd is Not Company – Robert Kee (A must read)
Footprints on the Sands of Time - Oliver Clutton-Brock (Highly recommended read)
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