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4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies

Appendix — First New Zealand Escape from Germany

page 355

First New Zealand Escape from Germany

THE first New Zealander to escape from Germany to Britain in the Second World War was a 4 RMT sergeant, Bruce Crowley, captured in Greece. The achievement won him the DCM. Before this Crowley had made three escapes: one of nearly five months in Greece, one of ten days in Greece, and one of ten days from Germany to Czechoslovakia. In Stalag VIIIB, Lamsdorf, he compared notes with another determined escaper, an Englishman, Gunner Edgar Harrison, a prisoner since Dunkirk. Plans, made in strict secrecy, were revealed only to the camp's escape committee. The committee gave them papers which were of little help. Before leaving Stalag VIIIB Crowley passed on his plans and intended escape route to two RMT comrades, Drivers E. R. Silverwood and E. J. A. Phelan, who had made several escapes since their capture in Crete.

Intending to escape north to the Baltic, Crowley and Harrison got a job with a working party, Number E243 at the Breslau gasworks. This job away from Lamsdorf took them a good many miles on towards the Baltic. At Breslau gasworks the two collected maps, civilian clothes, a railway timetable and chocolate. After several weeks of final preparation (altogether the plan took five months to complete), the two hid civilian clothes, chocolate, and scraps of food in an attaché case. The case and a small ladder were concealed behind the gasworks' purifiers.

At 2.45 in the afternoon of 23 September 1943 the sergeant scrambled over the gasworks' wall, closely followed by the gunner. They timed their escape to catch a tram at the terminus about 400 yards past the gasworks' entrance, and to connect with the 3.40 train from the main Breslau railway station. Harrison missed the tram by a few yards; Crowley did not see him again until they met in Stettin. The New Zealander bought page 356 a third-class ticket for Glogau at the ticket office, passed through the turnstile guarded by an armed German soldier, and reached the platform just before the crowded train began to move off. Vainly trying to find a seat, Crowley noticed he was being followed by a German soldier. The German caught up with him, touched him on the arm, and pointed out a vacant seat in one of the carriages.

‘I thanked him,’ Crowley continues, ‘saying “Heil Hitler” (the recognised greeting in German), and scrambled in. There were several people in the carriage, but nobody spoke on the journey.’

From Glogau Crowley, carefully following the timetable, changed trains. This was essential because nobody could travel beyond 16 kilometres without a railway pass which had to be shown when a ticket was bought. ‘During one of the journeys in a crowded carriage a German woman asked me to help her with her luggage. I replied “Freilich” (with pleasure). When the luggage had been placed on the station platform the woman thanked me, I replied “Heil Hitler”, and returned to the carriage much relieved.’

Crowley reached Stettin at 8.45 a.m. on 24 September, passed safely through the station turnstiles, and at the main entrance caught a tram to a suburb of Stettin called Gotslow, a village on the brink of the River Oder where several coaling ships usually loaded. ‘I inspected the ships from a distance, only to find that they were flying the German flag, so I went back to Stettin, wandered about the port inspecting ships from a distance, and found it quite impossible to get onto the wharf. In any case, no Swedish ships were there. The next step was to hang discreetly about the local Labour Office, and sure enough three Frenchmen in civilian clothes and black berets turned up. I took a chance, said “Bon jour”, and asked could they speak English? They couldn't, and seemed to be quite frightened. Doubts were allayed when I produced a letter addressed to me in camp, a stalag identity disc, and a photograph of myself in New Zealand uniform. They took me to the workmen's lager where they lived. An English-speaking Frenchman told me they often worked on the Swedish ships, they could get me aboard, and they'd look after me until a page 357 Swedish ship turned up. No Germans ever visited their lager. I had a shave and a wash, and when I came back into the barrack room, Gunner Harrison was standing there.’

A Swedish ship, SS Ludvig, arrived in the port of Stettin on 27 September. The two escapers took the places of two Frenchmen in the gang detailed to load the ship in the evening. An air raid drove them into an underground shelter for half an hour.

The two Frenchmen whose places they had taken then came aboard, followed by two drunk Swedish seamen talking in broken English. ‘We decided to trust them,’ Crowley goes on. ‘One of them took me to his cabin where I produced my photograph, letter and identity disc, and asked to be smuggled into Sweden. We were told they couldn't do this because the Germans searched the ship, but we could chance hiding away in the coal. Like the kind Frenchmen, they would not give us away.

‘When the hold was about three parts full we said goodbye to the Frenchmen and thanked them for their assistance. They wished us luck and commenced to fill the hold as soon as we had got in. They left a shovel with us so we could shovel ourselves out again. The hold was battened down with us in one corner of the hold with insufficient room to sit up, immediately under a ventilator. We laid doggo for two or three hours listening to tramping feet on the deck above.

‘The coal dust was very irritating and we had the greatest of difficulty to stop ourselves from coughing. A Swede afterwards told us that we had coughed while the Gestapo with their dogs were aboard the ship, and he had coughed himself and made a noise on the deck with his feet to distract their attention. Shortly afterwards there was silence, and we felt the tremor of the ship's engines and the gentle movement of the ship in motion. This was a great thrill. We clasped hands in silence, words were unnecessary. Late that night one of the seamen passed down a thermos full of coffee, sandwiches and a note telling us of the latest B.B.C. broadcast (a British raid on Hanover) and advising us of the time we would be in Swedish waters. The following morning, about eleven o'clock, they called down the ventilator that we could make our presence known. We began to shout and bang on the deck with the shovel page 358 handle. One of the seamen reported to the Captain that there was a noise in the for'ard hold, whereupon the Captain ordered the hold to be unbattened. We crawled out with great difficulty and surrendered to the Captain. He was very stern at first and made sure that we were kept within sight of the bridge, one seaman being detailed to stay with us. We landed at Landskrona that day at 12.30, 29th September. The Captain had notified the police who were there to collect us. He wished us luck and we thanked him. In Landskrona we were kept in the prison for a couple of days until our identity had been established.

‘During our stay at the Swedish police station, the Danish vice-consul was particularly kind to us. Imagine our surprise when we heard his name: Mr. Arvid Leopold Friberg!’

Their identity established, the two, unescorted, went by train to Stockholm where the British colony (‘the Military Attaché, Colonel Sutton-Pratt, treated us like a delighted father’) feted them. A month later they were flown to Britain.

* * * * *

Back in Lamsdorf Camp Padre J. Hiddlestone, a New Zealand chaplain taken prisoner in Crete, received news from Sweden that Crowley had arrived. The padre told Silverwood who, with Phelan and a Dunkirk-captured Englishman, Private Fred Simmonds, began preparations. A few days before Christmas, disguised as foreign workers, they escaped from the compound for prisoners stationed and working at the cement plant in Oppeln. They safely boarded a crowded train at the local station. At Breslau Simmonds, speaking fluent German, bought tickets for Berlin. Their papers were checked carefully by the station police and then stamped, saving further explanations along the line. On the way to Berlin the three women in their compartment started deploring the blitz on Berlin. One woman was particularly vehement. Her first boarding house somehow had been ruined in the First World War and now the RAF had obliterated her second. ‘We sat tight and sweated it out,’ said Silverwood.

The three had a good mental picture of Berlin, thanks to accounts from prisoners who had been at large, but they were not prepared for the enormous devastation, made even more page 359 confusing now that all street signs had been removed. They took the underground to another station and asked a minor official how to get to Stettin. He, very decently, bought the tickets for them. The Christmas spirit—and the Christmas crowds—were spreading.

‘About halfway to Stettin,’ Phelan recalls, ‘the railway guard came through inspecting everyone's tickets and express travel warrants. He asked us why we were travelling, and we replied that we were on our way to an arms factory in Stettin: we'd been transferred from a similar factory in Oppeln. “Ah,” he said, “The Fatherland has need of all good workers now. I hope you find this work to your liking.”’

At Stettin they dodged the station barrier and went out by an unguarded back entrance for employees: no German, apparently, would consider using an unauthorised exit. They found Stettin's wharves fenced and closely guarded, made for a Belgian labour camp, were refused shelter and, tired and depressed, ‘walked the streets until we found a hotel sign and risked applying for a bed. The lady of the house said we could stay only one night, and collected our passports to enter full particulars in the house register. We agreed one night's rest was all we wanted: we had to report to the Arbeit Offizier (officer in charge of foreign workers) next morning. In the morning our papers were returned. The woman appeared more amiable, and remarked that since we were quiet lads we were welcome to stay a little longer if we wished.’

The hotel served no food, the three had no food coupons for café meals, but managed with ‘wicked bowls of watery cabbage soup’ distributed at a welfare centre. Without interference, they independently searched the waterfront for signs of a Swedish boat or Swedish sailors.

Phelan found a sailors' brothel, confided to a Czech girl that he was an escaped prisoner of war, and convinced her when he identified the raucous ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ (and the swing band) playing on her gramophone. A rendezvous was arranged with a Swedish sailor.

That night, Christmas Eve, somebody knocked on the door of their hotel bedroom. As arranged, Simmonds opened the door while Phelan and Silverwood stood poised by the open page 360 window, ready for a sudden leap. The landlady entered with a tiny Christmas tree, three slices of Christmas cake, and three apples. She wished them a good Weihnachten (Merry Christmas). Leaving the hotel they found the Swede and went by tram to the waterfront—Silverwood still has the large black and white tram ticket. The Swede, knowing the ropes, got them past one remote and carelessly guarded entrance to the wharf. A long train was parked by the ship, SS Brage. Crawling from wagon to wagon, the three neared the gangway. The Swede coolly led the German soldier guarding the gangway off for a quick cup of coffee in the galley, and ‘we up that gangway very smartly indeed’. They raced into concealing shadows in the little deck at the stern of the boat. Here came a bad fright when someone kicked a piece of coal across the steel deck. Phelan and Simmonds destroyed their papers on the spot. The guard appeared out of the galley, probed around, muttered something about ‘bloody cats’, and disappeared.

They made for the boiler room and hid under the boilers, an almost unbearable spot. The friendly Swede appeared saying the rope locker aft would be more comfortable. On the way to the locker Phelan blundered into the captain's cabin, saluted, and withdrew. The other two, following a little later, opened the wrong door and fell 14 feet into a coal bunker. Eventually they found their way to the rope locker. Phelan describes their cramped and bitterly cold refuge:

‘It was a small cabin-like place partly filled with masses of ropes, netting, canvas and other odds and ends. This material we built into a wall across the entrance in such a way that a casual sailor looking in would see nothing but the normal jumbled contents of the locker. For five days we lived in this locker, suffering a good deal from the cold, and not daring to sleep at night for fear a snore would inform the German picquet, who paced up and down just above our heads. Our Swedish friend continued to look after us [bringing ham sandwiches and beer, and using his only English phrase: “Take it easy.”] and when the ship was due to sail we were provided with kerosene which was liberally sprinkled about. Our rope barrier was perfected and kerosened.

‘These preparations proved most necessary, for the Germans page 361 searched the ships with Alsatian dogs before they sailed. We had an anxious moment as the guards and dogs looked into our locker, but they went away quite satisfied.’

Nearing Sweden (the RMT men would receive the MM after they had been flown to England), the stowaways were brought out, cleaned, spruced up and fed by the delighted sailors, who then suddenly realised that trouble might start if the three were not ‘properly discovered’. Accordingly, Silverwood, Phelan and Simmonds were hustled down to the coal-bunkers, where they smothered themselves in coaldust. Reappearing with a flourish, the sailors escorted the grimy trio to the English-speaking captain.

‘How many more down there?’

‘No more, sir.’

‘Hell! I could have taken a battalion!’

page 362