Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Biberach Tunnel Break - Part Three

Typical German Guard Tower
Continued from previous post

The plan for leaving the tunnel stipulated that each man should go out at five minute intervals. This would minimise the amount of movement visible from the towers, searchlights and guards patrolling the perimeter fence with their dogs. It also gave each man a chance to get away in the event of the person following being discovered. No more than two personnel would be moving across the open ground at any one time.
Many of the escapers applied crude forms of camouflage – some by sewing grass on their clothes, others darkening their outfits and covering faces and hands with blacking. Michael Duncan had obtained a large net big enough to cover his whole body. To this he attached tufts of grass. The POWs involved in the escape had prepared their maps, compasses and clothing long before the tunnel was completed. Red Cross parcels were arriving with some regularity and it had been easier to accumulate food suitable for long term storage. Duncan described his rations for the journey as:

‘4.5 lb of chocolate, 2.5lb of cheese, 1lb German ration biscuits, 1.5lb mixed dry oatmeal, glucose and a water bottle.’
Red Cross Parcel - Daily Telegraph

The final exit order from the tunnel was decided by drawing lots. Each one related to a pair of escapers, whether or not they would be travelling together once the break was made. The only predetermined positioning was that of Duncan who exited first, followed by Temporary Captain Barry O’Sullivan. Neither of the two men wanted this, as despite the amount of work they had carried out in leading, planning, digging and shoring the tunnel project, they sought no privilege. The rest of the party insisted that the two men went first and O’Sullivan was adamant that Duncan should exit before him.
It is strange that that some escapers had never set foot in the tunnel before the night of the breakout because they were members of the other tunnel project which had not yet been completed (see previous post). Also certain POW’s had been solely involved in other areas of the ‘end to end’ process:

Passing up soil into the hut from the tunnel entry shaft (This had usually been excavated at the tunnel face and ‘trollied’ down in half a biscuit tin mounted on wheels.)

Lifting the cardboard box containing soil up to a POW standing on a locker, who would then pass it to the man inside the roof space for stowing.

Acting as a lookout or stooge and assisting with the rapid cover up operation in the hut in the event of a guard, ferret or search party approaching.
On the night of the escape, four men were to be in the tunnel at any one time. One waited at the exit, one at the Cathedral (see previous posts re The Cathedral), one in the chamber and one at the entrance. Duncan had taken up position at the exit ready to break through and O’Sullivan was in the Cathedral. The two men had planned to meet half a mile from the camp where a road entered a wood. If it became necessary to call to establish contact, Duncan would be ‘Heinrich’ and O’Sullivan ‘Karl’. Neither man spoke any German.     
‘As soon as I had made a small hole the cold night air gushed in…and the rain which had started to fall splashed on my face.’
Duncan accidentally dropped his knife during trying to make the exit hole larger, which slowed the whole operation. The men down the tunnel grew impatient as he tried to tear away tufts of grass with his hand. O’ Sullivan arrived behind him, and by chance in the total darkness Duncan’s hand located the knife and work began  at full speed again. It took two hours to get the exit hole wide enough for a man to get through.
He described what happened as he made his move:
‘I wormed my way out and lying flat, I crawled away from the hole. After a few yards I stopped, spread my camouflage net over me and looked around to get my bearings.’
The tunnel had exited right on top of the crest of an incline which had blocked the view from inside the camp as to the state of the ground beyond. The terrain was open and level rather than the decline that the escapers had predicted. Duncan calculated that there would be a good hundred yards to crawl before they were out of range from the searchlights.

Tunnel Exit as photographed in 1981 (larger than the original)

Opening the tunnel exit had taken more out of him than he realised. His arms were weakened and crawling became very slow and painful.
‘Once a searchlight came on, sweeping across the field. I lay still under my net and the light passed over me without stopping and went out. Soon I saw, away to my right a small light close to the ground. It was moving very quickly and soon passed by.’
He realised that it was the glow from a luminous watch and a further figure crawled past him. The five minute interval plan had clearly been ignored.
Eventually he reached the cover of a ditch and some bushes. Standing up to get some bearings, he calculated that he had strayed further to the left than planned which had cost valuable time. It was doubtful that O’Sullivan would wait for long at their rendezvous point, so Duncan got his bearings and hurried towards the location. Dogs began barking and he broke into a run across a field towards the wood.
‘Suddenly I felt myself falling and as I hit the bottom a sharp pain stabbed at my left ankle and knee. …I found that I had fallen down a large and deep irrigation ditch.’
To be continued

Sources and Additional Reading

Underground From Posen - Michael Duncan  Highly recommended read

Author's Notes

©Keith Morley
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