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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

Types of Escape

Types of Escape

An escape is better defined as the complete journey from a prison camp to ultimate freedom than as the initial evasion from enemy hands. For the escaper perhaps the most dramatic moment was the exit from the camp itself. Months of observant study were needed to decide how to get out; an assiduous but unobtrusive watch had to be kept on the whole system of guards and barriers to find both the most favourable moment during the twenty-four hours for the attempt and the most favourable place. The main methods of getting out of camp, subject of course to considerable variation in detail, were by cutting through the wire or finding some point where it was possible to climb out without alarming sentries, by tunnelling under the wire, by disguise or impersonation, or by hiding in rubbish or clinging under carts which were passing out of the camp. The other two important methods of escape were from working parties and from parties in transit, particularly from trains.

It was no easy matter to cut through the outer wire of an established prison camp. The fence would probably be 12 feet high and double, with a jumble of concertina wire in the centre, thickly hung with bits of tin ready to jangle loudly at the slightest touch. Inside the wire a margin of soil about ten feet wide was kept soft by constant raking so that footprints would show up. In Japanese camps a few strands of wire were electrified. The whole fence was lit at night by high arc-lamps; guarded by day and night, it was overlooked by high watchtowers on which the sentries had movable searchlights to help them in. their task. Machine guns were mounted in these towers covering the approach to the wire, and the sentries themselves were armed.

In addition to sentries perched up in these observation towers, many German and Italian camps also had sentries on beats outside the wire. In Germany the prisoners were generally forbidden page 8 to move out of their huts at night, and roving guards with trained dogs patrolled the compounds at night. Some smaller and temporary camps were less formidably enclosed. In Crete it was easy to get out under the wire. An astute prisoner with a bent for escaping (Lieutenant Thomas1) noticed the one line of weakness in the German prison camp at Salonika. He cut through the bolts of a door of a building on the outside of one enclosure (a three-night job), passed through it at the right moment (two searchlights on high towers had to be kept in motion to cover three sides of a square and for a few seconds each side in turn would be more or less dark) to reach the one point on the outer wall which was hidden from the view of all the sentries, and there climbed out. Even then he landed in the street beside two German soldiers, but they were engaged in a drunken argument and did not notice him. In general, however, the prisoner's chance of escape ‘over the wall’ was the slimmest of all the possible means.

Tunnelling might be described as the escaper's favourite indoor sport. If it succeeded, tunnelling out of camp outwitted the enemy more spectacularly than any other type of escape. The absorbing work and long-term planning involved, demanding the loyal co-operation of a fairly large body of men, made digging a tunnel enthralling as a sport even if it never became a means of escape. The two great difficulties of tunnelling were the disposal of the spoil inconspicuously and the concealment of the entrance. At Lamsdorf (Stalag VIIIB) a tunnel 130 yards long led 10 feet below the surface from a hut in the Canadian compound to bushy ground outside affording good cover; it was lined throughout with bedboards, and air was taken down into it along a trunk built from tins fitted together (the Red Cross parcel again!), operated by a fan geared to the motor of a gramophone. The spoil was taken out in tins and dumped on a sports ground where the soil was being turned over. This tunnel was kept open, undiscovered, for a year. When it was used for an escape, friends of the escapers created an ingenious diversion. During the day someone hit a ball across the soft earth just inside the wire, and then secured the German sentry's permission to retrieve it. While doing so he slipped a piece of string round the wire low down on the fence, and left it lying across the soft earth perimeter. That night someone pulled this piece of string hard, making the wire jangle wildly and attracting the attention of the guards. Simultaneously a group of men got to work with wire cutters on the opposite side of the perimeter and actually cut a way through the wire. Meanwhile the real escape party was crawling out through the tunnel.

In nearly every permanent camp in Germany or Italy tunnels were at least started. The time needed to complete the work, and the probable chance of its being discovered before completion, made tunnelling on the whole an unfruitful mode of escape, though it offered the possibility of numbers escaping together. Usually the tunnels were discovered long before they were finished. Once found, they were blown up or blocked at the entrance; some remained undiscovered but were caved in when the suspicious enemy drove heavy vehicles round and round the camp.

One of the neatest tunnelling exploits was that in which nineteen men escaped from Gruppignano in October 1942. Spurred on by the incautious boasts of the fire-eating carabiniere commandant that no prisoner could escape from his, camp, men set to work in four-man shifts to build a tunnel,

1 Lt-Col W. B. Thomas, DSO, MC and bar, m.i.d., US Silver Star; Kenya; born Nelson, 29 Jun 1918; bank officer; CO 23 Bn 1944-45; twice wounded; wounded and p.w. May 1941; escaped Nov 1941; returned to unit, Syria, May 1942; Hampshire Regt 1947-; author of Dare to Be Free (Wingate, 1951).

page 9 two working on the ‘face’, two disposing of the spoil by cramming it under the floor of the hut. The tunnel, driven down 12 feet and then out towards the wire, was only three feet high and the width of a man's body, so that lack of air, the great enemy of the tunneller, soon made the work terribly uncomfortable. The metal conduit round the electric light wires in the hut was stripped off, led down into the tunnel, and a bellows used to pump air down it. The only tools available were an old pick head and a small sledge carrying a bucket to draw out the spoil. In spite of all difficulties the tunnel was taken 40 feet in a fortnight, 94 feet in a month. Then it was taken up to ground level, work stopping at the grass roots, 40 feet past the nearest sentry post. The escapers crawled out one stormy evening shortly after the work had been finished, one by one making the thirty-yard dash to the cover of a maize crop. The whole exit operation had taken three hours to complete. It was bad luck that all the nineteen, handicapped by the bad weather which had made their break-out more secure, were recaptured during the next few days.

With tunnels may be mentioned drains. In Italy, in particular, old buildings often concealed ancient cloacae, sometimes of considerable size, big enough at least for a man to crawl along. It was by means of a tunnel linking drains that a small group escaped in the spring of 1943 from the formidable fortress of Gavi. Other heroic spirits elsewhere fruitlessly explored drains so narrow that it was not possible to turn round to go backwards in them—dark, noisome, claustrophobic, filled with rats.1

The method of passing the guards at a camp entrance by impersonation or disguise was obviously not a mode of escape that could be used frequently. The more ambitious escapers imitated some personage who was on a visit to the camp—the representative of the International Red Cross, a German officer, an Italian interpreter complete with beard. This required careful preparation, but although very risky, usually worked for those bold enough to try it. Some, however, relied on improvisation, on the inspiration of the moment. One New Zealand sergeant escaped from a hospital in Greece by walking out into the lobby, putting on the greatcoat and peaked hat of a visiting German officer, and stepping out into the rain past a sentry ‘who was frozen into a salute’. A New Zealand medical officer (Captain Webster2) also escaped from a prisoner-of-war hospital in Italy, but under German guard, in disguise—a simple one: he wore a blue air force shirt without a collar and hospital trousers. His escape equipment consisted solely of a pipe, a tin of tobacco, a cake of soap, and one packet of Italian cigarettes. To get out he had to traverse two long corridors, descend a long staircase, and cross a courtyard: three friends were posted to give him the all-clear along this route. Just before reaching the last sentry at the street door he lit a cigarette. Then he ‘walked slowly past the sentry, looking at him with the cigarette drooping from my mouth as I passed. He did not seem half as interested in me as I was in him.’ Webster then made for the house of an Italian acquaintance.

Close study of the method of garbage disposal in a camp might allow an escaper a ride out to freedom. Some men had themselves wrapped up in bundles of rubbish. Others clung to the undersides of carts or hung there uneasily in rope slings, hoping not to be seen. Some escapes were made in North Africa by this means.

1 Unwilling Guests, J. D. Gerard (A. H. and A. W. Reed), p. 97.

2 Maj F. E. Webster; Auckland; born New Plymouth, 20 Jan 1903; medical practitioner; p.w. 28 Nov 1941; escaped 12 Sep 1943; reached Allied lines, Italy, 6 Sep 1944.

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In working parties in Italy opportunities for escape were less frequent than in Germany. The Italians placed strong guards over the prisoners while they were actually working; the Germans left them very much more to themselves, and on farms prisoners very often worked alone or with one or two other prisoners. The quarters of working parties were not nearly so elaborately barred and enclosed nor so well guarded as the main camps. Moreover, the prisoner on a working party had the maximum chance of getting in touch with civilians who might help him or at least supply him with escape materials. Typical of these escapes was one made in May 1943 by two men who were working in a German paper factory. They got out by removing the bars from the window of their sleeping quarters. German workers in the same factory had given them substantial help: civilian clothes, food, some money, and maps. ‘One man in the SS was to help us on to a troop train going to France, but at the last moment he changed his mind, but he did not give us away.’ This was amazing help to be given by Germans (and in that respect not at all typical), but these were Sudeten Germans, ‘very democratic and friendly’.1

In the first days after capture in Greece or in North Africa, while moving on foot under guard, and in the last days of the great marches across Germany, men sometimes made a dash for freedom. In North Africa men walked hundreds of miles through the desert, desperately thirsty, to rejoin their units. Others took advantage of momentary inattention on the part of the enemy, and at considerable risk made off in the enemy's own transport. In Italy groups in transit were usually too heavily guarded, and in Germany the chances that an impromptu escape might succeed were small, so that attempts made to escape while travelling between camps were infrequent. However, on trains taking prisoners from Greece to Germany, and particularly from Italy to Germany after the Italian armistice, hundreds of men escaped, though many who succeeded in getting off the train were quickly gathered in by German patrols.

One of the most courageous escapes from trains was made by a New Zealand sergeant-major (R. H. Thomson2) who had fallen very foul of his German captors in Salonika prison by attempting to knock out a guard with his boot in order to escape. After being badly beaten up, he was tied up with wire and put on a train for Germany in the German guards' carriage. They placed him in the small compartment outside the lavatory and mounted guard over him. After desperate, clandestine efforts he was able to free his hands and then fling himself bodily through the window. Skinned and bruised, Thomson set out on foot and finally reached Salonika, but some months later was handed over to the police by smugglers who had promised to ferry him across the Struma River.

The moment they entered the closed trucks in which they were to travel from Italy to Germany, most prisoners set about examining the possibilities of finding a way out. Those who were in steel trucks had the hardest task; with wooden walls enclosing them men had a better chance. Many wooden doors yielded sufficiently to the efforts of those who hacked at them with knives, forks, and even a dentist's drill to allow someone's fingers or even a whole hand to reach out and release the catch. Jumping a train was doubly dangerous: the guards, with machine guns mounted on the roof or on flat cars here and there in the line of trucks, blazed away indiscrimin-

1 Account by Sgt B. J. Crowley.

2 WO I R. H. Thomson, DCM, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Port Chalmers, 19 Feb 1912; school-teacher; p.w. 1 Jun 1941.

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, and also attempted to pick off anyone they saw escaping. In the darkness it was not possible to choose a comfortable spot to land on, and the chances of getting killed along the track winding through the eastern Alps were considerable.

The escape of a wagonload of sick officers is among the most heroic of train-jumping episodes. Perhaps because the prisoners were considered too ill to be dangerous, the grating in the roof of their truck was left unsecured. A Montenegrin lieutenant gave a practical demonstration of how it could be lifted. At dusk these men all jumped the train; a man who had his leg in plaster had his crutch handed out to him through the hole in the roof while he waited on the running board before jumping. A New Zealand medical officer (W. G. Gray1) was the last to climb out ‘with his little black bag to attend to his patients’. Two New Zealand medical orderlies were ordered to remain, as otherwise the prisoners in the train would have been without medical aid.

Halts gave some limited opportunities to make a break. Men were alert to seize the shadow of an opportunity. During an Allied air raid on the line between Italy and Germany, guards and prisoners alike abandoned the train; a New Zealander shared the shelter of a culvert with a guard and two other prisoners. At the close of the raid he went out the opposite end of the culvert from the guard and disappeared into the Italian countryside.

No method of escape was easy. None was safe. Although he devoted much ingenuity to deceiving his captors, the escaper could never be sure that he would not get a bullet in his receding back. If he was recaptured in enemy country, although he was generally honourably treated, even with a certain admiration, he could never be sure that he would not be the victim of atrocity.

1 Capt W. G. Gray, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 13 Jul 1913; medical practitioner; p.w. Nov 1941; escaped to Switzerland, Nov 1943.