Monday, 18 August 2014

The Biberach Tunnel Break - Part One

Oflag Vb - www.prisonerof

At 8.45 pm on September 13th 1941 the POWs planning to escape from Oflag Vb, Biberach met in hut 6. Recent nights had seen a full moon with clear skies and almost floodlight visibility. This ruled out any possibility of a breakout, but towards the evening of the 13th a strong breeze had started to bluster around the camp. Thick black clouds gathered and now the men mulled over whether this would be the night to make their move.
An escape tunnel had been completed a few days before this, after months of work. Only the last nine inches of earth to the surface remained at the exit end. The men had shored up this part with a one inch thick piece of plank, but a neighbouring farmer had decided to cut a second crop of hay in the field near to the camp, including the edge where the final section of the tunnel was situated. Initially, this suited the men, as the swathes of grass would give extra cover when they moved across open ground and any cut areas would make crawling easier.

Diagram of Oflag Vb - M Duncan.

A problem arose on the morning of the 13th as heavy wagons were brought in to move the hay. These regularly trundled over the roof of the tunnel and the men watched anxiously from behind the wire. With the mountains of neutral Switzerland visible and only 68 miles away, these were tense times. Months of careful planning and work would be lost if the tunnel collapsed.
The entire operation had been a magnificent achievement. Oflag Vb was originally built as a barracks and consisted of long low brick huts built around a parade ground. At one end was an extra open space for exercise purposes and the whole area was surrounded by a standard double fence of thick barbed wire, ten feet high with a six foot gap between the two fences, filled with short lengths of the same type of wire. This created an impenetrable perimeter; although the construction was overcome with ladders in another camp (see earlier post on the Warburg Wire Job).
At every corner or bend in the fence, a raised sentry tower with machine gun and searchlight was strategically positioned. Three feet inside the main wire was a low single length of thin wire which was the closest that POWs were allowed to venture in terms of the perimeter. Anyone stepping over the wire risked being shot. At night, guards with dogs constantly patrolled around the fence.   
A road ran parallel with the outer barbed wire fencing and beyond this was a six foot rising bank where at the top the ground continued up less severely on to a crest. The POWs decided to tunnel down, before gradually angling upwards beyond the crest, as this would conceal any exit from the camp searchlights. The disadvantage was the lack of a proper view beyond the crest.  
The team decided this had to be the night. For the 26 escapers, everything rested on a getaway during the hours of darkness. (See earlier post ‘Long Tunnel Schemes Part Two’ on 03 January 2014 for a general account of the tunnel and breakout.) Scheme leader, organiser and main digger Lieutenant Michael Duncan, 4th Battalion Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry entered the tunnel for the last time at 9.15 pm.
One foot nine inches by one foot six inches were the absolute minimum dimensions which tunnellers could realistically hope to work in. The Biberach tunnel ran for around 145 feet with these measurements, apart from:
 ‘The Rocks’ - a gap of only a foot between two immovable boulders.
‘The Depression’ – where the floor sank into a short recess at the point where full boxes of earth were pulled back.
‘The Cathedral’ – a spot where Temporary Captain Barry O’Sullivan, (fresh from a stay in the camp hospital due to blood poisoning) had been over enthusiastic with his digging and unknowingly carved a small dome in the roof as he excavated with a poker.
‘The Chamber’ – a ‘room’ wide enough for a man to turn around and high enough for a man to achieve a sitting position. This became a ‘half way house’ and control area for tunnel work.

Diagram showing tunnel points, path and trajectory - M Duncan

Diggers had usually worn only vest and pants when working in the passage. Duncan now faced a problem. With all his clothes on, it was a tight fit. Dragging his kit behind him (tied to his foot) he reached ‘The Rocks’ and described what happened next:
‘I came to the Rocks and there I stuck. My kit prevented me from going backwards and I apparently could not go forwards. I was beyond the range of The Chamber light, and in the dark, I sweated in uncontrollable panic. For a moment I was in absolute terror and seemed to be suffocating…’
To be continued

Sources and Additional Reading

Underground From Posen - Michael Duncan  Highly recommended read

Author's Notes

©Keith Morley
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