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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

Escape Organisation

page 4

Escape Organisation

In many camps escape committees were set up with the express object of providing would-be escapers with the materials and information they needed. In officers' camps the senior British officer's permission was usually obtained before an escape was undertaken. Senior officers were concerned to see that the attempt would be reasonably likely to succeed, not a futile gesture which would only provoke the enemy, and also that it should not prejudice the success of other parties. Cases occurred where the same device for getting out of camp was hit upon almost simultaneously and quite independently by different parties, and its use by one would obviously make it impossible for a second party to use the same means.

The actual organisation varied from camp to camp. In some the committee rigidly controlled escapes, equipping the escapers from a pool of materials collected from everybody in the camp. Nobody was allowed to make an attempt until he was perfectly equipped and thoroughly briefed with all information that he needed. In others it was little more than a discussion club. In many camps those who had escape materials in their possession—clothes, compasses, maps—preferred to hold them in case they themselves should later wish to make an attempt; some would part with these articles only in exchange for money (unselfishness was not universal in prison camps: conditions of strain may bring out the worst as well as the best in men). Some escape committees were indefatigable, collating information about trains, passes, permits, and the thousand and one other details of civilian life in an enemy country in time of war which had to be known by escapers; coaching every aspiring escaper in the best way to cope with every imaginable contingency; teaching appropriate phrases of the enemy language to those who were unfamiliar with it. Every frustrated escaper was eagerly questioned when he came back to camp, and the lessons of his failure taken to heart. The information inside any camp about conditions outside might not always be accurate. For instance, in some Austrian camps in September 1943 the prisoners who had just been brought from Italy believed that the Italian population was hostile to escaped British prisoners of war. In some camps the members of escape committees found it prudent to keep their mouths shut and revealed their projects only to the chosen few lest careless talk should betray them.

A number of prisoners found fulfilment for their own aspirations in unselfishly forwarding the escapes of others. Among these men were the expert forgers of passports, and the tailors who made up blankets or other improvised materials into passable imitations of civilian clothes. A Zealand major (Neill Rattray1) was commended for his ‘tact, patience, initiative and above all an optimistic outlook’2 as secretary of escape committees in successive prison camps in Germany. Optimism indeed was essential: ‘The only way is to plan the escape, weigh the odds in its favour, convince yourself it will be successful, and then, while you are enthusiastic and confident, go before you examine it too closely and discover that it is really completely crazy.’3

At one of the moments of greatest importance in the conduct of an escape, the actual passing page 5 out of camp, the co-operation of other prisoners was often essential. A diversion to attract attention elsewhere while the escapers found their way out might be needed. Officers sometimes changed identities with men so that they could go out on working parties and thus have a chance to get away. (Once identities had been changed, the deception had to be persevered in or both would be punished. Each had to receive and write the other's letters, at times a source of bewilderment to relatives.) An excuse made for absence from a roll call might mean the postponement for a number of hours of the guards' discovery that an escape had occurred. In some cases the assistance was direct, lowering men on ropes out of windows or engaging an essential guard in conversation at a vital moment. Few escapers gained their freedom without a good deal of assistance from fellow prisoners of war inside the camp. While it is just to praise the skill and daring of the men who actually got away, it is important to remember the ungrudging help of the others who remained behind (for all could not go), which very often alone made possible the most spectacular successes. Escaping required teamwork, and it benefited by responsible direction.

1 Maj N. A. Rattray, MBE; Waimate, born Dunedin, 7 Nov 1896; farmer; p.w. Apr 1941.

2 South to Freedom, Hon. T. C. F. Prittie and W. Earle Edwards (Hutchinson), p. 320.

3 Life Without Ladies, Colin Armstrong (Whitcombe and Tombs), p. 46.