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
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