Friday, 18 April 2014

The Asselin Escape - The Aftermath

The Tunnels at Oflag would have been similar to this picture of one of the Great Escape Tunnels - USAF Academy

The morning after the Asselin tunnel breakout, the usual body of German soldiers marched with fixed bayonets into the compound of POW camp Oflag XX1B. They separated into the various barrack blocks, unlocking the doors with their usual  vocal ‘Raus, raus.’

The POWs knew that appel later that morning was certain to take a different turn to the usual routine. The more experienced men fortified their usual breakfast of three thin slices of black bread with what additional food they could muster before stuffing their pockets with other provisions. Fully dressed against the weather and chill, they were ready to stand outside all day once the headcount did not match. Barrack blocks and the whole camp would be searched until the means of escape was discovered.

The kriegies decided to line up for appel in rows of four instead of five. Hauptmann Schultz* (described as a ‘little Czech fascist’ in some accounts) marched up the hill as he did every morning. The POWs knew that from a distance everything would look normal. There were long lines of prisoners, with each one nearly the length of the barrack hut  behind where they stood.
When Schultz ordered the head count, it rapidly became clear that something was amiss.

‘There are too many ‘he said to the acting Senior British Officer (Substantive SBO ‘Wings’ Day had departed via the tunnel)  
‘How is this? You know we count in fives. We always count in fives. Why have you put your men in fours?’

The SBO paused, looked back at the rows for a moment and replied ‘Well, there seemed more of them that way.’
Prisoners erupted in a wave of laughter and cheers. Schultz must have sent for the Camp Commandant, an almost mythical figure to the POW’s as his dealings were confined to their SBO ‘Wings’ Day and he was rarely seen in the compound. A thin figure in cavalry breeches and a long flowing cloak walked stiffly into the compound, ‘like an ancient crow, his cloak held tightly across his narrow chest.’**

POWs on the Parade Ground at Oflag V1b

The men were right to stock up with food, as they remained outside for hours whilst every hut was searched. A guard searching around the outside of the camp in the potato field discovered the tunnel exit, so the Germans sent a Russian prisoner at bayonet point into the hole with a rope tied around his waist for fear of cave ins or booby traps. It was a total surprise to them when he emerged from inside one of the latrines.

The escape resulted in the prompt arrival of the SD (Sicherheitsdienst, the intelligence arm of the Gestapo).They took over the running of the camp for a month during which time all staff were interrogated and the Commandant plus Schultz were removed for court martial.  Prisoners were regularly turned out of huts which were then searched and ransacked. Additional snap appels took place without warning at all hours. Once the camp bugle sounded, prisoners had to stop whatever they were doing and assemble outside the barrack blocks. During the immediate period after the Asselin escape, there were nights when POWs were woken up five or six times and whilst they were being counted outside, the ferrets would search the barracks, toilets, cookhouse and the washhouses for evidence of more tunnelling activities which might have been hastily covered because of the sudden roll call.

SD Sicherheitsdienst

SD Sicherheitsdienst pictured in Poland

The searches were not without their lighter moments though. In one hut a barrel of home brewed beer was discovered. Instead of destroying it, the SD asked how much it was for a glass. Lieutenant Commander H H ‘Bungie’ Bracken a naval pilot charged them fifty pfennigs each and the money went straight in to the escape fund. A POW being caught with German currency automatically received a long spell in solitary, but the visiting Germans seemed more than happy to form a queue and hand over their money. There was an extra twist to the tale, as one SD officer sat holding court on the barrel totally unaware that it had a false bottom concealing most of the forged papers and maps in the compound. POWs observed that the SD could rummage and ransack huts, but unlike the ferrets they had little idea of what they were looking for.
The Asselin breakout  had a ripple effect on all existing tunnelling projects taking place in the camp. Whatever stage of completion, they were all now in danger of discovery. Continuing work with a Gestapo presence, heightened security and snap appels made discovery more likely. Two main projects were well under way when Eddie Asselin led the escapers out on the night of 5 March 1943:

1) A large tunnel run by Squadron Leader David ‘Dim’ Strong and Flight Lieutenant ‘Dickie’ Edge had gone out beneath the night latrine at the end of the block near the west wire. It was shored and had electric lighting tapped from the camp’s mains supply.

Squadron Leader David ‘Dim’ Strong pictured after the war

Shaft Entrance to 'Harry' in the Great Escape. Strong's entrance shaft
 would have been much more shallow & not as wide, but had the same
 principle of shoring up the sides with boards

2) An earlier project, abandoned because of flooding had been restarted. Behind the hospital was a cookhouse where the POWs got hot water in the morning. Four large boilers were standing in a row on an apron of concrete against the farthest wall of the room. The fourth boiler was not used and underneath it a narrow trapdoor had been made (concrete set on a shallow wooden tray). The fit was exact and to reach it the tunnellers had to slide under the small gap beneath boiler and floor.

The entrance hole was around two feet square with a rough wooden ladder fixed to the side of the shaft. At the bottom, an oblong chamber measuring around six feet by four had been excavated and led into the main tunnel working. Under the light of a fat lamp, a man was pumping air concertina style into the shaft via a modified old kitbag and metal tins pushed together which created improvised pipework.  Walls and ceiling and the mouth of the tunnel were solid wood with bedboards jammed together, but the floor remained thick clay sludge.
Once the chamber, the excavation had no wooden supports. Water ran down or dripped from the ceiling and sides. Tunnellers took their own fat lamps to the face and worked in a clammy cold. To reach there, they had to negotiate another ladder after crawling for around fifteen feet. This dropped down another six feet to the main working. Their reasoning was that if the entrance, chamber and first level of the workings were discovered, the Germans would only fill that section in, and the diggers could sink another shaft further along to link up with deeper section.        

Work at the Tunnel Face - F/L Kenyon (T Kilminster)

Initial work concentrated on strengthening, shoring and repairing damage to the tunnel before they could start digging again towards the wire. When excavations restarted at the face, clay soil was hauled back up the tunnel through the gluey substance on the floor via a toboggan pulled with rope made from thinly plated sisal string obtained from the Red Cross parcels. It was then smuggled  back to the barrack block in water jugs, jam tins or packed into small bags made from shirts and underclothes.  Some of these bags were taken to the latrines whilst suspended by a piece of string and hanging around the men’s necks under their coats. The contents were then disposed of in the normal way. The rest of the bags got hidden under bunks and in the short interval between dusk and lock up the men buried the clay in the ground outside the huts. The whole end to end process was painstakingly slow work.

Some of the methods and thinking used by the POWs would later be used in The Great Escape at Sagan Stalag Luft 111. As with the Asselin tunnel, because of intelligence received about possible closure and evacuation of the camp, work had also been stepped up on the other projects. It must have been frustrating for the men involved on the Cookhouse and West Wire digs during the period of SD presence and heightened security. Any work became severely restricted and although the exact date for camp closure was not known, the POWs knew the clock was still ticking down.
The SD left after a month and with time running out, efforts on the tunnels reached maximum. Dim Strong’s project had escaped detection and was almost complete. It had reached a hundred and ten feet in length and sixty feet beyond the wire. Whether sheer fatigue and urgency may have been the reason for a careless error is not known, but a guard spotted one of the final boxes of soil being sneaked through a hut window. The barrack was searched and the tunnel found. 
Work continued under the cookhouse with a shift system of diggers tunnelling flat out during the day. Completion was imminent and a provisional date had been set for the breakout when news came through that the camp was to be completely evacuated within forty eight hours. There was insufficient time to finish the job – a case of so near but so far. The prisoners were to be transferred in four purges – their destination Sagan Stalag Luft 111. The Great Escape took place a little over 11 months later. 
*Referred to as Mueller in The Tunnel by Eric Williams

** The Tunnel
Sources and Additional Reading
Moonless Night – B A ‘Jimmy’ James
Under the Wire  - William Ash 
Prisoner of War – Charles Rollings
The Tunnel - Eric Williams
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


Thursday, 10 April 2014

Out of the Tunnel - The Asselin Escapers Part Four


Schubin/ Oflag 64 pictured today

In the final post on the Asselin Tunnel at Oflag XX1B, I have selected a cross section of the remaining escapers who made the break. Some of the notes are brief but they are a typical snapshot of what happened to the rest of the men who made it out of the camp.

Selection and Order of Personnel for the Escape

1) Eddie Asselin and his team of diggers, earth-dispersers and the three men amongst his stooges who took it in turns to sit on the lavatory seat which was used to enter the tunnel.

2) Officials in the camp X Organisation (see previous posts how X functioned)

3) Ten per cent of the Senior British Officer’s (SBO)reserve chosen from the administration, entertainment, education and other socially important sectors of the camp.

Escapers who were German speakers, or those who knew a language of one of the occupied countries (so they could masquerade as foreign workers) stood a better chance of surviving checks and not arousing suspicion when travelling on trains. Their forged papers would often fit into an escape plan and mirror their cover story. The men needed to look and act the part, so also had to wear clothes which did not seem out of place. Once a break of this size was discovered, a massive search operation and extra checks were instigated all over German occupied territories, so the odds were still massively stacked against even the most ‘credible’ of escapers.

The rest of the fugitives would inevitably be the ‘hard arsers’ who travelled on foot across country, often at night then hiding up in the day. They took their chances and tried to make use of any transportation they could.
Flt Lt Aiden Crawley
Flt Lt Aiden Crawley

His involvement with camp security and intelligence had earned him a place in the tunnel. Crawley’s plan was to head west by train. He had a forged letter on headed notepaper from Krupps the German industrial firm, identifying him as a travelling executive. He had sufficient bluff and knowledge of German to back it up and passed through numerous identity and document checks. He was eventually caught on the Austrian border between Munich and Innsbruck.
PO Peter Stevens

PO Peter Stevens

Jewish and born in Germany he had fled from the Nazis with his family. Stevens changed his name but had remained a fluent German speaker as it was his first language. He also headed west, but got caught up in the massive search operation and was arrested.
PO Tony Barber -
The Late Rt Hon Lord Barber

PO Tony Barber

He had been a pilot on a reconnaissance unit when his aircraft ran out of fuel and ditched near Mount St Jean France. Barber spoke some Danish and had false papers as a worker from Denmark for cover. The plan was to make for occupied Denmark with a view to getting to Sweden. He was picked up by the Gestapo after a few days.

PO Wilf Wise -Yorks Post
PO Wilfred Wise and Squadron Leader Paddy Barthropp

In October 1941 Wilf Wise of RAF 12 Squadron was one of only two survivors from a Wellington bomber when he crawled out of the stricken aircraft after engine failure had forced it to crash land into a Dutch sand dune. He was a good German speaker and was one of the early exits from the tunnel behind Paddy Barthropp. The two men were travelling on foot and aimed to make for the railway line where they planned to jump on a goods train as it passed. It was a thin strategy and they spent a cold night trying to catch some sleep in a quarry.

After making some headway on foot the next day, they crept into a farmer’s barn to hide for the night. An elderly couple came out from the farmhouse and gave them hot tea and bread before the men moved quickly on. The couple were clearly terrified of being discovered aiding escapees, as they would have been immediately shot.  
The men had a difficult time the following day walking through a forest plantation. They managed to stay out of sight and spent a cold uncomfortable night in a deserted Polish graveyard. Barthropp was suffering from a foot problem which had slowed them down, but the next day they reached a railway line and this time jumped aboard a slow moving freight train where they shared a box with two nervous untethered horses.

The train arrived at Hohensalza, a pro-Nazi town. Through the slats of the wagon Wise could see the station was busy with passengers, German soldiers and civilians. Shunting had started, so the two men decided to stay hidden where they were. Time passed and it became clear their wagon had been left alone in the middle of the platform after the rest of the train had been removed. There was no choice but to try and slip out and get away. They were quickly spotted and surrounded by armed guards.

Hohensalza station where the escapers were captured

S Ldr Dudley Craig

Wing Commander Harry  ‘Wings’ Day and Squadron Leader Dudley Craig

‘Wings’ got stuck in the narrow exit of the tunnel due to the previous escapers failing to clear away any earth which had been pushed down when scrambling out of the opening. He was last out and as Senior British Officer would certainly be held responsible for the tunnel break by the Camp Commandant. ‘Wings’ decided he may as well have a run for his money and join in. As one of the ‘hard arsers’ making his way on foot with Dudley Craig, the plan was to hide out in the day and travel by night, keeping out of sight as best as they could. Carrying two empty cigarette cartons with a few Polish phrases scribbled on, such as ‘we are escaped British prisoners of war please help us’, they crawled across the potato field separately and reached cover in the trees. The railway line was their destination as the plan was to travel south to a town around eighty miles away on the main Posen-Warsaw line. A Polish prisoner in the camp had given them an address of some relations living there.

Gnesen one of 'Wings & Craig's planned destinations - Prussian

'Wings' Day with his cat Ersatz - S Smith

‘Wings’ and Craig were discovered hiding in a hay loft by a group of friendly Polish farmworkers who gave them some of their sandwiches. A few hours later they were taken to a farmhouse by more locals who gave them four fried eggs each. That night they reached the railway yard at Zinn having walked across marshes before tramping along the sleepers of a railway track. They were hoping to sneak aboard a goods train, but the yard was too brightly lit and heavily guarded.

There was no choice but to continue footslogging across country. By this time ‘Wings’ was struggling as he had been suffering from jaundice, a frequent problem within the camp. The escape took on a dreamlike quality for him which faded in and out of focus as he walked along. Just after dawn on the second morning they met a blond haired boy of around twelve. They showed him the phrases written on their cigarette cartons and he directed them enthusiastically to the nearby farm buildings.

By now ‘Wings’ was exhausted, soaked in a cold sweat and shaking profusely. The jaundice had overtaken him,  but he was able to struggle up the ladder to a hayloft and crash into a fitful sleep. The men were woken by two German soldiers probing the straw with fixed bayonets. Down in the farmyard around a dozen armed farmers were waiting. The nearby village was one of the few heavily pro-German areas in the vicinity and the boy, a member of the Hitler Youth had immediately alerted the authorities.

The Late Escape
At around seven o’ clock on the morning after the escape, the first prisoners awake took a circuit around the camp for a discreet look around, as all was still quiet and appel was not yet due. The tunnel still remained undiscovered, so a quick thinking South African, Squadron Leader Don Gericke slipped back to his barrack, uncovered his own stock of escape kit and was out and across the field dressed as a civilian worker. He managed to get clear of the camp without the alarm being raised.   

Schubin Camp. The hospital is in the background - IWM

The Ghosts

Ten other POWs had volunteered to hide in the attic in the main building of the camp ‘The White House’, so the Germans would think they were looking for more escapers. It was a room that was rarely opened and if they could gain access and remain undetected until the camp was evacuated which was thought to be imminent they might be able to get away once everyone had left. (Information about the transfer of prisoners to another camp was already known to POW intelligence and hastened the date for the Asselin tunnel escape -  see previous post) After evening appel on the day of the escape the men were successfully smuggled in and kept supplied with food and water. They were finally discovered after a month in hiding during which time the Germans had been looking for them all over Europe.


On the morning after the escape the Camp Commandant was 46 men short:

2 had got out inside the sewage wagon

33 were tunnel escapers (plus Squadron Leader Don Gericke the following morning)

10 were ‘ghosts’ hiding in The White House

The tunnel escapers were all recaptured within two weeks and returned to the camp for ‘solitary’ in the cooler except:

Jorgen Thalbitzer and Jimmy Buckley who were drowned making the short crossing to Sweden from Denmark via a two man canoe.

Czech airman Otakar ‘Otto’ Černy who made a planned rendez-vous with the two sewage wagon escapers Squadron Leader Morris and another Czech airman Jozef Bryks (see previous post). Morris was quickly recaptured but Bryks and Černy reached Warsaw and were not arrested until 2 June 1943. 

In early April the prisoners were evacuated to Sagan and Oflag XX1B was closed. The camp had been riddled with tunnels and plagued by escape attempts. The Wehrmacht came out of the Asselin affair badly. With the air war producing ever increasing numbers of Allied flyers being taken prisoner, the Schubin POWs were handed back to the Luftwaffe at Sagan and many took part in the Great Escape there.

Sources and Additional Reading

Wings Day – Sydney Smith

Escape From Germany 1939-45 – Aiden Crawley

Moonless Night – B A ‘Jimmy’ James

Under the Wire  - William Ash

Prisoner of War – Charles Rollings

Escape, Evasion and Revenge - Marc Stevens   See review

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