Friday, 8 August 2014

Oflag XX1B - A Home Run Part Two

Szubin Rail Station  Pictured Present day
In continuation from last week’s post - late on 16 December 1942, RAF POW Philip Wareing made his third trip under guard to the Szubin railway station to collect supplies off a train (four escorts to every party of ten POW’s). In a staged accident, one of his fellow POW orderlies dropped a load of bread creating a diversion. The guards were momentarily distracted and Wareing slipped between the lorry that had transported the POWs to the station and a goods wagon. In the fading light he crawled under the wagon, rolled across to the other side, then raced over two sets of tracks and platforms. As he made a run for it, the lorry driver, who was a German soldier, started up his engine, which drowned out any warning shouts from station or public personnel on the other side on the wagon. The guards were unaware of what had happened.

If Wareing could get away undetected from the station and reach the woods and marshes outside Szubin he could hide up before making his next move. The odds were slim, as once his absence was discovered, searches would begin, with the entire area being put on alert. But he had one thing in his favour - darkness was closing in. He managed to sneak out of the station without attracting attention, and night fell as he left the village to make for the woods.
In his pockets Wareing carried the day’s ration of hard tack biscuits plus items from Red Cross parcels - a small lump of cheese, Horlicks tablets, sugar and a piece of chewing gum.

Standard Hard Tac Biscuit

He hid overnight in the wood, trying to get some rest in the intense cold. The distance to Bromberg  (now Bydgoszcz) was around 24 kilometres, and at 09.30 the next morning he set out to make the journey on foot. It passed without significant incident apart from the effects of cold. In the town he managed to find a bicycle which had been left unattended.  Walking casually along, he pushed it for a few yards, then rode off heading north in the general direction of Danzig.  

Bromberg Streets in 1940 -

It is interesting how the lure of freedom shortened distances in the mind of the escaper. Wareing had a working knowledge of the area through camp intelligence and maps (see previous posts on how this operated). He had already walked 24 kilometres, and the journey ahead of him to Danzig was 166 kilometres. Travelling by public transport was to be avoided where possible because of checks and heightened security. He would cycle in the direction of Graudenz  (now Grudziadz) on the Vistula river and look for a ship flying the Swedish flag. 71 kilometres to Graudenz was a significant distance and the worn out machine had an uncomfortably hard saddle. Frequent dismounts were necessary on hilly sections and he had not reached his destination by nightfall. The moonlight was sufficient for him to continue travelling and Wareing took a chance, crossing a guarded bridge over the Vistula.  

Grudsiadsz -

At 08.00 hours on 18 December, he  reached Graudenz. It was light and he cycled towards the docks to find a Swedish ship.  With hindsight, the odds of finding a neutral vessel on an inland river port such as Graudenz were remote, but had to be investigated. There were none. Wareing needed to leave the dock area immediately. Anyone acting suspiciously would be stopped and questioned. There was no possibility of waiting around or loitering on the streets. He decided to cycle over to the railway station and look for a train to Danzig. Travel on this route was extremely risky as it led to a major port and would be closely monitored. For an escaper who was cold, tired and hungry, with a long distance to cover on a rickety old bicycle, this was the next best option.  Nothing showed up on the departure boards. There was no choice but to retrace his route back to the guarded bridge over the river and get on to the Danzig road. Wareing knew that neither he nor the bicycle would stand up to the journey.


Grudsiasdz Rail Station -

For an escaper or evader there were often watershed moments which shaped the pathway to either freedom or capture. Wareing soon spotted a man propping a pristine looking bicycle on a stand and seized the moment. The man had walked away leaving it unattended. There was no going back. Ignoring the risk of being seen and apprehended, the escaper took the new bicycle and rode off back in the direction of the Vistula bridge, leaving the boneshaker in its place. He crossed back over unchallenged whilst the guards were deep in conversation with two Germans in uniform.

It was still light when he saw a milk churn beside a farm gate and paused to take a drink. After snatching some sleep in a haystack, the journey restarted at 04.00 hours the following morning and continued throughout the day. He spent the night in an empty unfurnished house, narrowly missing the torch beam of a caretaker who was checking the premises.
The bicycle held up well. Despite surviving on minimal rations, Wareing reached Danzig the following day.  He slipped into the docks without being stopped by police or troops and spotted a Swedish ship being loaded with coal. Abandoning his bicycle, he hid by a timber pile before walking straight up the gangplank as if a member of the crew. Personnel on the ship seemed occupied with loading up the cargo and no one noticed him. Wareing found his way down into the hold unchallenged.

Danzig 1940 -

Port of Danzig -
Cranes were dumping more coal around him until the hold was three quarters full. Some Russian POWs under German guard came aboard to trim the cargo. Wareing was spotted by one of the Russians, but after saying quietly ‘ Angliski pilot’ he was left alone.

Gothenburg 1940

A two hour routine search of the ship began in the early morning of 21 December before it was allowed to sail at 09.00 hours. The stowaway remained in the hold for two days before venturing on deck. He was immediately seen by a member of the crew who returned him to the hold. For the following two days of the voyage Wareing survived on bread and water brought to him by the sailors. The captain was eventually informed and upon arrival at Gothenburg  handed him over to the Swedish police , who notified the British Consul. A full set of decent clothes was provided and he stayed at Police Headquarters, being allowed out in the day until a member of the British Embassy took him to Stockholm on 28 December. On 5 January 1943 he was flown back to Scotland. For his display of initiative, resourcefulness and courage he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.  

Sources and Additional Reading

Home Run - Richard Townshend Bickers
Author's Notes

©Keith Morley

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  1. I can't imagine the bravery and the endurance of such a man. It just goes to show what a human can be capable of with enough determination and luck.

  2. Many thanks for your comments Sally. Its yet another amazing story. Philip Wareing makes little or no mention of food and water and how he managed to survive apart from the Red Cross rations that he carried in his pockets. I'm still investigating that aspect.
    It seemed a fitting way to round off the series of posts around Oflag XX1b and the Asselin tunnel.