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

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  1. I know this is a very serious subject Keith, but I could not help but giggle when I read about the POW brewing their own beer! My mind went into overdrive, as I tried to think about how they managed to get all the ingredients?

    Regards the prisoners being transferred before they managed to escape, which was obviously devastating for them. I imagine that the experience actually put them ahead of their game regards the 'Great Escape' later.

    Good stuff, thank you for sharing.

  2. Thanks for your comments Maria. Home brewed beer by a POW is something I had not read about before. The usual hooch came from raisins or potatoes in a makeshift distillery (the raisins came out of the Red Cross parcels). The brews were pretty lethal and there are amusing accounts of parties in the huts at Christmas time where a gentleman's agreement was reached between the SBO and Camp Commandant that there would be no escape attempts over the festive period. Since the temperature and outside conditions were severe and it was not 'the escaping season' the POWs had not conceded very much. I read one account where the camp guards were given a drink, then one fell out of the sentry tower and another was dragged across the compound by his alsation dog as he had fallen over unconscious.

  3. That is hilarious! I have the scene in my head. You couldn't make that up and write it into a story though Keith, as no one would believe you, they would say it wasn't credible.

    Honestly though, the POW would have needed a good laugh to keep them going under the dire circumstances in which they found themselves on a daily basis.