|German Patrols on bicycles would have been looking for the escapers - perthvintagecycles.com|
Duncan recorded on September 15 1941 that the previous night ‘was as bad as any I could remember, made worse by the pouring rain.’ His diary of the escape kept whilst on the run provides a fascinating factual account and has brushstrokes of detail which are often missed from work written after events took place. Many of the problems encountered by the two men were typical of a cross country escaper during the war, although the search and ‘lockdown’ by the Nazis did not seem to have quite the same trawl and intensity as in the years which followed.
The men left their hide in the forest at 19.00 to continue a strategy of travelling at night and lying low during the day. The sole soon came off O’Sullivan’s shoe resulting in a stop every few minutes to tie it back on with a mackintosh belt and a piece of string. Duncan describes them at the time as being ‘a pretty crippled pair.’ Open to the elements, physically exhausted and with wet clothing and poor footwear, it is easy for us today to totally underestimate the sheer hardship and mental battle experienced by these men, despite the tough and menial existence in a POW camp, which would have afforded them some resilience.
The fine balance between keeping going and giving up was constantly tested, and examples and hints of this percolate through Duncan’s narrative. The problems with O’Sullivan’s shoe and deteriorating mobility of the men forced them to deviate from their plan and take the risk of using roads. The dishevelled limping pair would be instantly recognisable and the Saulgau road which was their objective would almost certainly be guarded at some points. The men’s luck held as they only ‘actually saw one motor cyclist and one cyclist’. After deviating north and then west, they hid in a forest for the night. Duncan’s words need no qualification:
‘We are both worn out, absolutely drenched and rather miserable and I for one am beginning to wonder how long I shall be able to stick it. The wood is soaking and there is nowhere dry to lie down, so we are lying on my sodden coat and huddling together to try and keep warm.’ They made a rough shelter of fir branches which made minimal difference. Duncan’s mental state at this low point was quite stark. ‘All last night I was convinced that there were three of us instead of two.’
He describes how when they restarted after a stop, he found himself waiting for the third person. It was only after O’Sullivan asked what he was doing, that after some thought he realised there was no one else there. Duncan recorded that after this point he felt the ‘third presence’ to varying degrees throughout his escape journey. Whether this is a spiritual phenomenon or simply a human state borne out of physical and mental exhaustion is debatable. Other fugitives have reported similar experiences.
At 20.00 on September 16 the diary notation began ‘very bad’. They left their hide at 20.00 moving west through pine forest in the direction of Hohentingen and Hausen, eventually reaching a large river which they assumed to be the Danube. After following the line for about two miles they struck south and reached the main road which ran parallel with the river. The time was noted as 02.30 and estimated distance covered 20 kilometres. Tired and fully visible under a bright moon, it was not surprising that Duncan favoured moving towards a wood on the horizon and hiding out for the rest of the night. O’Sullivan was typically insistent they pressed on. The diary recorded that he had no sole on one of his shoes and his solution for being restricted and lost, as they were at this point was to ‘go faster.’
|Terrain around Hohentingen - wikipedia|
They walked a good way down the main road without being spotted. There were no road signs to get their bearings, but at 03.30 O’Sullivan agreed that that they should look for shelter. Traffic would soon be using the main road and they must stay out of sight during daylight hours. The pair walked south west crossing a railway line and heading uphill for a solitary wood in the distance. It was the first of a string of apple orchards and hills. The first group of trees was near a large town and the rest were too sparse for hiding out.
The night temperature had dropped to below freezing. Sodden clothes and wet feet were slowing them down. Duncan described their feet as ‘rapidly becoming lumps of ice.’ After an hour of walking they saw a thicker wood on the horizon and decided to make for it.
‘On the way we came to a small river, which we waded, then a wider river which we waded and finally a third river at which we gave up and lay down totally exhausted under a bush where frozen as we were, we went to sleep.’
At first light the men could see the whole countryside covered in a thick frost.
‘Our clothes had frozen stiff on us and we decided that we must either give up or move, so we waded the third river and continued to the wood which we eventually reached.’
It is incredible that neither man developed pneumonia, nor suffered the effects of exposure. If they did, Duncan never mentioned it. Outside the shelter of the thick wood, the sun shone and the temperature began to rise. Neither of them could leave their hiding place in the thickest part of the wood for risk of discovery. Duncan recorded that there were people working in the fields just below and they were forced to lie shivering in wet clothes in the cold and damp. Their hands were so cracked that it was agony to get anything out of their pockets.
The weather improved overnight, and walking along by the railway the men reached Krauchenwies. Duncan twisted his knee again which severely affected his walking. They were forced to struggle up to the top of a hill and rest in a fir wood with a clearing in the middle. In the sunshine their clothes began to dry. Duncan wrote that they were a mass of aches and pains and looked like a couple of tramps, but apart from his boots which he kept wet on purpose to stop them going hard, they began to feel warmer for the first time. He added ‘I’m afraid Barry has a very poor opinion of my powers of endurance. For the last two nights he has walked barefoot. It must be agony at times, but he keeps going at a tremendous pace.’
O’Sullivan must have been impervious to pain, but on September 18 the foot started to seize up. Despite this, Duncan with his injured leg was still unable to keep up. Three times they were nearly seen by cyclists and managed to take cover. Much of the journey continued through pine forests but there were stints along roads where as Duncan wrote ‘watchfulness and good luck saved us.’
What he wrote next shaped the rest of the journey and gives the reader a further glimpse of O’Sullivan’s single focus and Duncan’s own inner mental state and dogged determination.
‘At about 03.00 my leg finally seized up and as we were passing a forest hut full of hay, we climbed in for three hours sleep. Poor Barry is trying had to be patient but he doesn’t understand the word and at last has agreed to go on and leave me – much against his will. So at 07.00 this morning, we split, Barry going on through the forest to try to find Lipplingen, before dark, while I made myself a hide in the woods to rest my leg. I’ve at least a week’s food left, especially if I keep on finding apples, and, if I can keep up seven or eight kilometres a night, I shall just about do it. I must say one feels rather lost being alone in the middle of the forest and it will be probably worse at night. However no doubt I shall manage.’
Final part next week
Sources and Additional Reading
Underground From Posen - Michael Duncan Highly recommended read and it is much more than one man's escape story. A detailed account of the Glosters' stand at Cassel in 1940 is well documented.