Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Biberach Tunnel Break - Part Four


Duncan’s leg was painful, but at least he could stand and walk. The other side of the ditch was almost vertical and he struggled to climb out of it. T/Captain Barry O’Sullivan would already be at the rendezvous by now and growing impatient. Time was vital and every delay meant less distance between the escapers and camp before the alarm was raised. As Duncan scrambled out and limped towards the meeting place, he must have speculated on the leg injury and cursed his carelessness in allowing the fall to happen. Most of the journey would be on foot. A leg or foot injury was every escaper’s nightmare.

‘Heinrich, Heinrich, where the hell are you?’ (As neither man spoke German, O’Sullivan called out his fellow escaper’s agreed code name {See earlier post} ). Duncan recounted what happened next.

‘I’m terribly sorry Barry. . I fell down a ditch and damaged my leg. You’d better go on by yourself and I’ll follow in my own time. I’ll make it alright, slowly.’
O’Sullivan ignored this. ‘We must get cracking’ he said leading off into the forest. ‘Half the others have gone already.’ Duncan limped after him.
The agreed plan between the two men was to journey entirely on foot, keeping away from all contact with others if possible. Trains or any other form of public transport were to be avoided as neither man spoke German. They had agreed to travel their prearranged route together for the first three days and then go their own ways. This largely fitted into the overall strategy of all twenty six escapers. They had  chosen their own  routes into Switzerland to avoid the whole party travelling in exactly the same direction. The paths varied, ranging from travelling around the east of Lake Constance or east of Schaffhausen, to moving west. Some were making for points as far away as Basle.

Schaffhausen - nostalgie-foto.ch

Lake Constance - present day
We’ll go north for the first night’ said O’Sullivan. ‘They’ll be expecting us to go south, so if we go in the opposite direction, we’ll fox them. Then we can turn west and finally south. It’ll make the journey a lot longer, but I think it’ll be worth it….we must move in the dark and avoid contacts.’
They hurried along the forest tracks for the first two hours, reaching the road from Biberach to Attenweiler .  O’Sullivan always strode on ahead and the psyche of the two men is well illustrated during the early stages of their escape. Duncan observed that his travelling partner had a formula if he were not quite sure of where he was. ‘We must keep cracking on old boy. We can get our direction tomorrow.’

Attenweiler - panoramio.com

O'Sullivan had shown numerous instances in the past of his desire to forge on first and let the rest take care of itself. A typical example was during the tunnel excavations, when in the middle of August he returned from a spell in the camp hospital and as Duncan noted at the time:

' breathing fury at being kept away from the work so long and determined to do twice as much as anyone else.'

On the first occasion O'Sullivan went down the tunnel, large amounts of earth came back in double quick time. It was only after he was finally persuaded to come out for the next man to take over that his over zealous digging with a poker was discovered. O'Sullivan had lost direction and hollowed out a large dome in the roof of the tunnel. This became known by the diggers as 'The Cathedral' (see Part One)
As the two men journeyed, Duncan seemed to assume a more cautious, ordered and less hopeful approach. At this stage he was prepared to let O’Sullivan take the lead.
‘I had decided to keep a diary of our wanderings with the rather pessimistic idea that, if we were captured, the information on the country might be useful to subsequent escapists. To start with, it was concerned mostly with comments on roads, types of country and water points, but as time went on and I gained confidence, it became more and more of a narrative.’
The escapers needed to achieve maximum distance from the camp before daylight, whichever route they had chosen. Although it had been agreed to avoid all roads and to travel across country at night, both men were sure that taking the highway in the direction of Attenweiler was worth risking under cover of darkness as the breakout was unlikely to have been discovered yet. The road was also lined with apple trees which helped add to their rations.
By 04.30 Duncan was exhausted and struggling with the pain in his leg, but O’Sullivan insisted on continuing for a further hour before hiding up in a wood for the day. Although the date was 14 September, the weather had already started to deteriorate, with temperatures dropping at night. Description from the diary gives a vivid picture of how uncomfortable conditions were for the escapers. They lay all day in a spruce wood, lying in wet clothes on a bed of branches and surrounded by a camouflage screen. The damp had ruled out any chance of drying the clothes and during the afternoon a group of men and boys had beaten their way through the wood. Pestered by mosquitoes, the escapers lay still and were left unsure whether the party had worked their way through to flush out game or were searching for escaped POWs. Fortunately the dogs had been left outside and the pair remained undiscovered. In a single sentence in his diary Duncan’s thoughts encapsulate the mind of a POW fresh on the run:

‘It’s almost impossible to believe we’re free – if only for the moment.’

To be continued

Sources and Additional Reading
Underground From Posen - Michael Duncan  (Highly recommended read)

Author's Notes
* I would like add some photographs of any of the 26 men from the Biberach Tunnel escape. If anyone can help on this, I would hugely grateful if they could contact me.  

©Keith Morley
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