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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

Escape Equipment

Escape Equipment

An escaper's equipment was obviously limited in bulk. He could take a pack with him but not one of conspicuous size. Thus it was rarely possible for him to carry much more than ten days' food, and his need to replenish the supply when it ran out would lead to a crisis in his career of freedom. Some escapers tried to make their food last them longer by preparing especially rich mixtures from the most concentrated of the foodstuffs in their Red Cross parcels: ‘escape cake’ might consist of condensed milk, sugar, ovaltime, and margarine or butter, welded into one glorious mixture which contained in the smallest bulk the highest calorific value. In any case the most concentrated foods, chocolate particularly, were religiously saved up from Red Cross parcels in spite of the care with which the guards, both in Italy and Germany, tried to prevent the accumulation of reserves. Months before his attempt, every would-be escaper had become an expert in hiding what he did not wish to be discovered, food as well as other escape materials. The rafters and the linings of huts were favourite hiding places, but no place was absolutely secure; the adroit could shift their gear almost from under the noses of searching guards.

Next to food the most pressing need of the escaper was civilian clothing. In his own uniform he was immediately conspicuous among civilians. Clothes were made up inside the camp by expert or amateur tailors whose work with blankets and portions of uniform, aided by the judicious use of dyes, would have amazed their mothers and wives. Materials brought into camp for amateur theatricals often gave these tailors an extra source of supply. Men out on working parties picked up clothing from civilians by barter, the cigarettes, soap, and chocolate out of Red Cross parcels being more valuable than currency.

To get out of camp, tools such as wire-cutters or files might be needed. These were hard to come by, and it was practically impossible to get them in a parcel. They were nearly always acquired by barter or by theft.

Escapers who intended to make their own way without reliance on outside help needed maps and a compass. A few maps had been obtained by fair means or foul in most prison camps. They page 6 might be obsolete or on too small a scale to be of much value, but they were better than nothing and were closely copied by aspiring escapers. The map would be traced on tissue paper and retraced onto a finer fabric. An issue silk map could easily be hidden, for instance inside a coloured handkerchief. Compasses were difficult to acquire in a prison camp, but with a magnet crude ones could be made, an advantage of the home-made compass being that it was small and easily hidden, for instance, inside a cake of soap or in the top of a fountain pen. It was harder to keep the larger, ordinary army-issue compass through a series of rigorous searches, though some succeeded in this.

Most escapers felt they needed money. In Italy the practice of issuing special ‘camp lire’ made it impossible to accumulate money, except illicitly by selling valuables to guards or civilians. In Germany it was easier to accumulate a supply of marks, as guards were more readily corrupted Again the escaper's real capital was his personal possessions: watches, cigarette cases, spare clothing were all sold or bartered to provide funds. Currency could be hidden in spite of the enemy's eagerness to inspect all types of paper; it was possible to make bank notes into the lining of a tic.

The escaper had to have personal papers if he was to mingle with the civilian population, more especially as identity papers are always carried in normal times by the citizens of most continental countries. Many escapers who could not produce them came to grief. It was almost impossible to travel by train in Germany without identity papers that had to be a good enough imitation to pass even a close scrutiny. In Germany, unless the escaper was an accomplished linguist, the best papers to copy were those of some foreign worker. The Reich was full of Belgians, Czechs, Poles, and several other nationalities, most of whom were working for the Germans under greater or less degrees of duress, but who had some freedom of movement. In many camps genuine papers had been acquired; even though cameras and photographic materials were forbidden, photographs were specially taken and affixed, or photographs of men in uniform were cleverly retouched to change uniform to civilian clothing. Even the official stamps on these documents were imitated by devoted draughtsmen or reproduced on pieces of rubber salvaged from old shoes. Occasionally prisoners of war acquired the correct blank forms of passes and identity cards; they had still to fill in the names and affix the photographs and the correct stamps. The forger's patient art would have to be invoked again to provide permits to travel and other supporting papers. Amazing work was done by these artists; typewriting was imitated perfectly by freehand drawing, and a single pass might take a month to prepare. A difficulty was that papers such as permits to travel had to be stamped with a recent date, and were for limited duration only, and once the escaper had made up his mind for a particular date he was committed to it. The major difficulty remained: that of acting the part set by the false documents carried. Many promising escapes struck on this rock.