Episodes & Studies Volume 2
Escapes in Germany
Escapes in Germany
The German system of placing men out in small working camps and leaving them in comparative freedom ‘on the job’ favoured escapes. It was so much easier to escape from a working party, as compared with a regular prison camp, that many officers exchanged identities with men to secure this opportunity. Immediately after the intense disappointment of being taken from Italy to Germany in September 1943, men who had had no chance of jumping from the train felt an overwhelming impulse to try their luck. Several succeeded at this time, both officers and men.
The officers from the Italian camps were quartered first at Spittal-on-the-Drau, a large cosmopolitan camp. They were not counted into camp, and at the first roll call next day many hid, thus making the number officially in the camp smaller than the number it actually held. An irregular situation like this could not go on for ever. It was imperative to make the most of it at once. A number of officers changed places with men and volunteered for the work camp nearest the Italian frontier, a transparent manoeuvre which the Germans saw through. Most of these officers returned to their own rank discomfited, except for those few who had taken the precaution of really learning the part they were to play, knowing by heart all the personal details of the man they were impersonating. One New Zealand officer who had made this change made a further one, changing uniforms with a Frenchman; he left the camp with a French working party and escaped with two South Africans in the direction of the Italian frontier, a hard four page 27 days' walk away, ‘moving by night across valleys and by day through hills and woods’, although only 18 miles in distance. Some good luck with unguarded bridges enabled this party to reach shelter in Italy and eventual freedom through Yugoslavia.
In Germany itself the scales were heavily weighted against the escaper. Most escapers pretended to be foreign workers, a good enough alibi so far as language was concerned, but one which might get the impersonator into difficulties if he met anyone of the nationality he had assumed. As nearly all the escapers in Germany were recaptured, it must be presumed that these subterfuges were easily penetrated by the Germans. It should be remembered that Germany was swarming with police, perpetually on the alert as the two million foreign workers in her service could never be entirely trusted and the character of the Nazi regime necessitated the supervision of opinion. In addition to the ordinary civil police, Germany enjoyed the services of the SA and the SS, as well as of Himmler's Gestapo, whose arbitrary and often bloody acts and domineering behaviour in the name of security were found oppressive enough by the Germans themselves. Even the railways had their special police who checked the papers of travellers on long journeys, but who might, with luck, be avoided by taking a series of local trains for comparatively short distances.
Another factor that worked against the escaper was the scruffmess of his home-made clothes. Even if he were wearing genuine civilian garments, he often had to show himself to the public in clothes in which he had slept or in which he had been crawling about in fields or swamps or wading rivers in darkness. The German civilians were generally clean and tidily dressed, making the travelling escaped prisoner of war conspicuous by his untidiness and poor clothes and possibly by personal dirtiness as well.
The best chance of leaving Germany lay in securing the sympathy and co-operation of some group of foreign workers. These men hated the Germans, and although their morale varied and some were notorious collaborators, in many groups it remained very high. Both French and Poles maintained what was virtually an underground in some parts of Germany, and once an escaper had blundered into acquaintance with its members (the first contact was usually a matter of luck) he could count on shelter and help. In both occupied and unoccupied France, of course, a vigorous underground movement could forward escapers to eventual freedom through Spain1 and Portugal, but the difficulty was to get in touch with the right people to begin with in a country where everyone had reason to fear the stool-pigeon and the spy.
The escaper who tried to remain entirely independent of all outside help and avoid all contacts with anyone, walking by night and hiding by day, had practically no chance of getting out of Germany unless he were very near a frontier when he escaped. Men walked into France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Switzerland, but succeeded only when a few night marches lay between them and freedom. They could take it for granted that the civil population would be hostile and immediately suspicious. Roads would be patrolled, bridges and other vital points guarded. The man without guides, relying on some possibly very rudimentary map, had every chance of stumbling on disaster.
In the general disintegration of 1945 many men escaped from the columns of prisoners being marched west in front of the Russian advances, and others slipped away from working parties before being made to move. These men found much better support than would have been possible earlier in the war. Anyone not actually a German would help them. One New Zealander who fell out from a column lived a few days in the fields on swedes and potatoes before meeting United States troops, a somewhat hazardous encounter as an American soldier wearing a huge marksmanship badge shot at him and later greeted him with the cry, ‘Boy, I don't know how I missed you!’ Another New Zealander who broke away from a marching column hid with some Poles, hoping to be able to wait for the Russians to arrive. Moved out of one place after another by the Germans, still posing and working as a Pole, he eventually rode a bicycle 100 miles into Czechoslovakia, where a group of Czech youths sheltered him until the war ended.
At first sight the route out of Germany by way of Sweden might seem unpromising. The Baltic sea was an additional obstacle, but in actual fact was no worse a hazard than a guarded land frontier. Escapers had the chance of stowing away in one of the Swedish ships which regularly called at Stettin to lift cargoes of coal. The docks were well guarded, but apparently the Germans reposed overmuch faith in the efficiency of their searches of ships before they sailed, and a steady trickle of stowaway escapers reached Sweden and freedom by this means.
A few months later a party of three (two New Zealanders1 and an Englishman) escaped near Breslau and travelled to Stettin by train, carrying the forged papers of Belgian workers. An air raid helped them to pass through Berlin unchallenged, and at Stettin they walked out of the station by the unguarded staff entrance as ‘apparently the Germans had not considered the possibility of anyone being such a criminal as to use an unauthorised entrance’. At Stettin they passed an anxious week living in a German lodging house trying to find a means of getting on board a ship. They had no food coupons and so could eat only at a welfare centre which served watery soup twice a day. The 500 marks the party had among them were ample, since food, the only thing they needed besides railway tickets, could not be bought. Finally they buttonholed a Swedish sailor and appealed to him for help. He cautiously disclaimed assuming responsibility for them but suggested they might follow him on board as best they could. In spite of this diffidence the Swede proved himself a firm friend. He took the German guard on the gangway off to have a drink and so allowed the escapers to pass on board. The ship lay alongside for five days, and all this time he fed them. He moved them into the most secure place on board, the ship's rope locker, hiding them behind a pile of ropes. When the Gestapo made their routine search of the ship at sailing time, the kerosene he had astutely sprinkled on top of the ropes put the police dog accompanying the searchers off the scent. The escapers gave themselves up when the ship berthed at a Swedish port. They spent about a month in Stockholm, enjoying the hospitality of British residents, before being flown out to Scotland.
1 Drivers E. R. Silverwood and E. J. A. Phelan.