Friday, 1 August 2014

Oflag XX1B - A Home Run Part One

RAF Kenley 18 Aug 1940  from a Luftwaffe bomber

Three months before the Asselin Tunnel breakout, Oflag XX1B had its first successful home run. Sergeant Philip Wareing became the only pilot shot down over France during the Battle of Britain to escape from a prison camp and make his way back to Britain.
Wareing had joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in early 1939 and was posted to 616 (South Yorkshire) Squadron which moved to Kenley on 19 August 1940. The squadron was equipped with Spitfires and on 22 August Wareing shot down his first enemy aircraft. On the evening of the 25th   he was scrambled for his third operational sortie of the day to intercept a hundred bombers and escorting fighters which had attacked Dover and the Thames estuary.

616 Squadron scramble at Kenley in late August 1940

Hurricanes and Spitfires met the raiders mid channel. Wareing shot and damaged a Messerschmitt 109 which he chased back towards France. Not realising how close he was to the French coast, his Spitfire came into the range of enemy flak defences and was badly damaged forcing him to bale out. He landed near to Calais Marek aerodrome and was quickly surrounded by German troops.

Sergeant Philip Wareing standing far right
By the time he was transferred to Oflag XX1B POW camp (Szubin) in September 1942 Wareing had been in captivity for over two years. A short spell in Goring’s ‘model camp’ at Stalag Luft 111 Sagan from April 1942 had made his mind up to look for a change of scene and fresh opportunities for escaping. Oflag XX1B was a camp for officers, but as Wareing was an NCO he was not eligible for transfer. He solved this problem by volunteering as an orderly to the officers and was accepted.
Part of the camp was a former school, with the Army and RAF NCOs being housed separately from the officers in the converted stables. Living conditions throughout Oflag XX1B were basic (see previous posts) and the prisoners started to look for ways of escape. From reports and first-hand accounts, Wareing seems to have acted with no involvement in any of the officer’s schemes. There was always the division of rank and separate accommodation which kept a distance between the men. It was a natural evolution for the NCO’s to work with each other. One certainty was that any plan hatched would have been submitted and authorised by the Camp Escape Committee (see previous posts on a typical camp escape organisation).
Wareing quickly learned from other prisoners that many Polish civilians harboured such a hatred of the Nazis that they were prepared to risk everything for the Allied cause. For the ‘would be’ escaper this was a vital piece of the jigsaw, both inside and outside of the wire.

Entrance to Szubin Camp

He equipped himself ready to take a chance with any snap opportunity which arose. To pass his clothes off as civilian, he had loosened the stitching around the pockets of his tunic, pilot wings and sergeant’s chevrons, so they could be quickly torn off. He had already changed his blue trousers to an old pair of khaki Army ones and also wore Army boots which he had acquired. Some old RAF trousers had been cut up to make a cap, and carefully hidden in his pockets were shaving kit, a comb and mirror along with a homemade compass and three maps which had been drawn in the camp. Wareham always tried to carry these items with him. 

The orderlies were regularly taken out of camp to the railway station under heavy guard to collect rations, coal and Red Cross parcels. The ratio of one escort to every two POWs meant that there was little chance of making a break, but with model behaviour by the orderlies the number was reduced to four guards against every ten prisoners. The time taken to achieve this relaxation was used wisely, with intelligence gathering by the POWs when at the railway station and travelling to and from the camp. Work practices and observations of the guards were discreetly noted and examined for weaknesses and potential escape opportunities. 

Szubin railway station pictured present day

Late on 16 December 1942, Wareing made his third trip to the station since the new guarding arrangements had been implemented. He had a plan. In a staged accident, one of his fellow orderlies dropped a load of bread he was carrying, creating a diversion. It was time for Wareing to make his move.

To be continued..

Sources and Additional Reading

Home Run - Richard Townshend Bickers
Moonless Night - B A 'Jimmy' James
Under the Wire - William Ash
Author's Notes

©Keith Morley

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  1. Good to see you back Keith. Looking forward to the next instalment.

  2. Thanks Sally. Its good to be back and posting again. Lots more to come on E & E.