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
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1 comment:

  1. Very informative post Keith, the images really help to give it a sense of time and place. Your own book must be almost finished now?