Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Biberach Tunnel Break - Part Two

Biberach Camp pictured later during the war -

Continued from previous post:

Lieutenant Michael Duncan was stuck fast between two boulders in the escape tunnel. He had led and driven this project, spending more time excavating soil, and shoring up the workings than any of the other diggers on the team. Panic set in as Duncan found he was unable to move forwards or backwards. He recalled:
‘…but at last I calmed down and by careful wriggling got free.’

The Biberach tunnel was less than half the width and height of The Great
Escape tunnel shown in this sketch -

It would be natural to assume that all 26 prospective escapers had been involved in the digging or tunnel project at some stage. This was not the case. The original team consisted of 10 men who formed the digging party. As the tunnel was very narrow, only limited numbers could work in it at any one time. At the beginning, there was room for only one person and throughout the project there was only one digger at the face. As the tunnel progressed, they had a small chain of support coming from behind.  It was decided that personnel on the team not involved in the digging work at any given time would act as ‘stooges’ (look outs).
Soil from the tunnel was stored in the roof space of the hut. The heat was so excessive in that space that a team of men had to take it in turns working short stints. An additional four POW’s joined the group to work solely on the stowing operation. They did not dig in the tunnel, as this work was too exacting on top of what they were already doing. The stowing group functioned as a three man operation, with the fourth acting as lookout or general support whilst not engaged in the physical work:
Man One would collect the cardboard box containing the soil, which had already been passed up into the hut from below. He passed the box to Man Two standing on top of a locker.

Man Two would pass the box up to Man Three who was waiting in the roof space to spread and store the earth.
When the tunnel was finished, the team waited for a suitable cloud covered or moonless night. It was then that Duncan suddenly remembered an agreement made at the beginning of the project which had been forgotten.
They had obtained permission from the Escape Committee to start their tunnel whilst another was already under way. The agreement had been that whoever completed first must then allow the men working on the other tunnel to leave in line before them.  Looking back at events, this seemed a strange arrangement. Duncan’s co-leader, Temporary Captain Barry O’Sullivan advocated that they should not be held to that agreement as their team had started work after the other tunnel project and yet still completed first.
Duncan went to the head of the Escape Committee.
‘We’re all ready to go sir, as soon as we get a decent night. You’re not going to hold us to our promise to let the others go first are you?’
‘I must’ said the Head. ‘I gave them my word. But I’ll have a talk with them.’
The Biberach tunnellers worked from underneath the location of  a stove in
hut 6 - 

The other tunnel was nowhere near completion and a compromise was reached. Duncan’s party had increased over time to nineteen, but one of those was in the camp hospital and not fit enough to take part in the escape. The Head advised that if Duncan was ready he could go, but would have to take the ten leaders of the other tunnel project with him. Duncan suggested that once his team were out, anyone could make use of the tunnel. The head was unmoved.
‘I don’t think that’s wise. If too many try to get out, someone’s sure to be spotted and that’ll spoil the chances for everyone. …I think twenty five should be the maximum number. If they leave at five minute intervals, it’ll take just over two hours to get them all out – say two and a half to allow for accidents. That’ll give them a chance to get clear by daylight.’
Duncan queried that if ten of the other team were included in this number, it would mean three of his own men would miss out on the escape, which was unfair. He suggested that the number be increased to twenty six, as there was no little chance of the other tunnel being completed before all of the POWs were transferred to a new camp, which was imminent.      
This must have been bitterly disappointing for Duncan and the men. They had worked so hard as a team and had completed before the other tunnel. They now faced the prospect of two of their own not being able to leave. Duncan had also envisaged larger numbers escaping by way of other POWs using the tunnel after their party had exited. He could however see the head of the Escape Committee’s logic.
The next problem was how to arrive at the two POWs who would not be going. Drawing lots amongst the whole team was unfair as some had completed huge amounts of work and would then run an equal chance of not being selected. Conversely, to select a given number of men from within which the lots would be drawn was equally unjust. A secret ballot amongst the whole team was taken where everyone voted on the two who should be excluded. The lot fell on a member of the guard party and one of the men who stowed the soil. They were given the bad news and told they would become members of the other tunnelling party and leave by that exit once it was completed. In reality this seemed an empty compensation which was unlikely to materialise. 
As Duncan reached the end of the tunnel and the final shored up exit point, he had been forced to accept the way things were. The whole focus now was on pushing through the last few inches of grass and breaking out for freedom.

 To be continued
Sources and Additional Reading

Underground From Posen - Michael Duncan  Highly recommended read

Author's Notes

©Keith Morley
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