Capture and incarceration – Dulag Luft

Meanwhile, back at Drax, Keith Simpson recalls;

‘At morning assembly at the Grammar school, only a short while after the ‘Fly past’, the Headmaster advised us that yet another old boy of the school, namely Ken, was a wartime casualty.’

Lost 1

This was normal, firstly a telegram, and letter from central records followed by a letter from their commanding officer.

Lost 2

All the information received at home.This was normal, firstly a telegram, and letter from central records followed by a letter from their commanding officer.

At this time, no one knew of his rescue.

McDonald, having been injured during the flight, crash, ditching and capture was at this point separated from Fenton and Fuller and was taken to Amsterdam Hospital for treatment where he remained until 20th July 1941.

After two or three days of interrogation by both the Luftwaffe and Gestapo the rest of the Blenheim and the HSL crew were taken by train to Dulag Luft at Frankfurt-am-Main, where they were separated from Captain F/O Jackman. Dulag Luft, short for Durchgangslager der Luftwaffe was a transit camp, where all captured aircrew were taken for interrogation before being moved off to their main camps. All the various crewmembers received additional interrogation from bogus Red Cross personnel and were asked to fill out additional forms.

Cal Younger in his book, “No Flight from the cage” recall’s that Dulag Luft was a desolate place, “There were none of the traditional bugs to tame, not even nails in the door to count. There was a bed, a table and chair, I was ordered to strip. My clothes were taken away to be searched, and l was given a Polish uniform that was rough on my skin, and clogs in which l could hardly walk.”

Kenneth Fenton, the Luftgangster, arrived at Dulag Luft, near Oberursel, Frankfurt am Main on 6th July 1941 and officially became a ‘Kriegie’, the shortened version of the German word Kriegsgefangener or war prisoner, which was used by the POW’s to refer to themselves.

Upon their arrival, each prisoner was allocated to a ‘cooler’ or reception room but not before they were escorted to the washrooms and under very close and strict supervision, they were allowed to use the toilet as the Germans were aware that many things had already been flushed down the toilet of secreted upon the prisoners person.

In the cooler, the prisoner was forced to strip completely, all possessions and clothing was taken away, leaving the prisoner naked in a small panelled room with a single bed. They were then given an army uniform to wear, one that was probably captured with the many supplies left after the British Army’s withdrawal from Dunkirk and medical treatment was provided if it was needed. The guards were very friendly and happy, giving then tea or coffee and biscuits, before being left for the night. The prisoner could see through the window pleasant gardens and a river in the distance, all designed to relax the prisoner and get him off guard. Their clothes were searched for any escape aids concealed in the collar, linings or pockets which would include compasses, silk maps, wire, gold coins, etc.

The next day, the prisoner’s interrogation would commence in a very subtle way, no threats of harm or mistreatment. This would start off with a German posing as a Red Cross Official, offering cigarettes and chatting with the prisoner to get his confidence, assuring him that this was in no way connected to the German Forces and that he had no interest in any military information the prisoner may have. Telling the prisoner that any information that he told them was for the Red Cross in Geneva only and would not be passed on to the German authorities, trying to convince the prisoner there was no reason not to tell them, telling they were only interested in their welfare and their ability to let their family know they were safe.

After a while and promises of the return of their personal items and time for them to write home to tell their family they were safe, the ‘Red Cross Official’ would produce a Red Cross form to be completed and signed by the prisoner following many questions from the German. The prisoner was only obliged to give name, rank and number and had no obligation to provide any other information, being asked their squadron number, target, bomb load, defensive armament, how they got shot down etc. The prisoner would have been told that contact would only be available through their squadrons so they needed the information to get in touch with the right person, saying that German intelligence would know the answer to this question anyway. He would then be told that without this information, the prisoner would not be able to receive any parcels or letters from home or indeed inform them that they were safe. This was usually met with the repeated name, rank and number and the ‘Red Cross Official’ departing, looking very upset.

This was usually followed up by a very Fatherly acting German Officer, Major Rumpel, the camp Commandant who told the prisoner that he was very sympathetic to his parents, not knowing what had become of him as he also had a son who was a Luftwaffe pilot fighting on the eastern Front and he understood what his parents must be going through.

He talked about politics or whatever interested the prisoner, slowly trying to get his confidence, asking why his country was at war with Germany, did he agree with it, etc. and giving advice on how to survive in the prison camps during the long years that were going to follow, wishing them a pleasant stay.

What effect this would have on a young pilot, miles away from home, having suffered already the shock and fear of a crashed aircraft, is difficult to know. It is clear however that you would want your parents to know that you were still alive. What harm could that do? But it was the start of the slippery slope and could lead to more information being supplied or lies being detected.

What was clear that the Germans knew a great deal already, squadrons, strength, aircraft type, station, station commanders name, probably just lacking bomb load and fuel load. This would have also shocked the new POW’s.

From records, we know that Ken gave his Father and Mother’s name and address but that was not unusual.

Depending on the information obtained or the level of interaction, the German guards would probably cease their interrogation there unless they saw any chink in the resolve of the prisoner, which could be further exploited but if not, they would be released into the main compound with the other prisoners. In July 1941 there were about 100 aircrew prisoners in Dulag Luft, the result of approximately 10 days of bomber and fighter raids.

The new prisoners of war soon found out through interrogation that the German authorities knew more about the RAF than themselves. Whilst being asked questions about their base, commanding Officer, fellow crew and other personnel at the airfield, if the prisoner did not answer, preferring to give name, rank and number only, the German interrogator would inform the prisoner of the answers, just asking them to confirm the situation. Sgt. Alfred George Endicott, who was the pilot of a 77 Squadron Halifax shot down on 12th June 1943 quoted in his liberation questionnaire that at “Dulag Luft – 19th June 1943 – showing photographic copies of crew lists, dispersal and trip questions on CO name and station staff. Bomb load and aircraft equipment – usual Red Cross form”. He also stated “That the German officer (interrogating) had in his possession complete records of aircraft crews and where and when trained, in fact the only information he required was bomb load, petrol load and PFF Gen.”

Dulag Luft was first opened in December 1939 as a small camp on the edge of the Taunus Hills, previously being part of the campus for the University of Frankfurt. It was the instruction that all captured airmen were to be taken here with any documents or paperwork retrieved from their downed aircraft.  It comprised two long barrack huts split into rooms for 4 or 5, one hut for officers and the other for NCO’s. There was a third hut which was the library, games and concert room and was split up at meal times to provide a separate area for the Officers and Sergeants mess, separation was encouraged as was dissent between the two levels of seniority. Hot showers were available anytime and a large grass covered exercise area allowed the prisoners the chance to wander around. The BBC was also broadcast at 9.00 PM every evening and the propaganda radio transmitted to allow the prisoners to listen to Lord Haw-Haw, listing out the prisoners now in German hands.

This camp was well known to the authorities back in England and the RAF personnel had been warned as to what to expect, including the bogus Red Cross officer who gave them a questionnaire to fill out, with the threat that their parents would not be told of their survival unless this was properly completed; but they seemed to know all the answers anyway. The names of all their other crew members, their squadron and aircraft details. This did not stop them from interrogating the newly captured RAF men, with the view that “they knew so much, they may as well be told the rest.”

Within its buildings, Dulag Luft, had every known device for extracting information from the captured airmen, and they knew all the tricks as to how to get the information from any unsuspecting prisoners of war, including hidden microphones behind the wooden panelling. The passers through were warned to only talk in the exercise yard and then to trusted aircrew only but it became obviously and was talked about that more worryingly, genuine Air Force officers had now turned to the German cause and that the permanent Air Force staff responsible for running the camp at Dulag Luft could not be trusted. A difficult situation that the novice prisoners would find themselves in, wanting to notify their Family that they were safe. They were told that if they co-operated then they could confirm to their families that they were alive and well and that they would be well looked after.

Robert Morton would meet up with his old flying comrade, James McCairn here at Dulag Luft.

Sgt. W J Q MaGrath stated about his time in Dulag Luft, having been captured in April 1940:-

‘We knew all about the microphones in the camp and used to search for them and make them useless. We were often moved out while the room was searched to see what damage had been done and to put in new microphones in new places. The huts were wooden with brick fire-walls at one end and we used to look for the holes in which the microphones were hidden. Loudspeakers were also installed in the recreation room, but we discovered that they could be used as microphones also. We discovered this when we heard an officers’ concert on our loudspeaker. We immediately disconnected the loudspeakers.’

The German’s first started to realise the importance of any information held by captured service men in the First World War, especially airmen, and established a series of ‘hotels’ where they were initially taken and looked after with excellent food and accommodation. They were however first taken to the Squadron or gunnery unit that claimed the ‘Kill’ for their celebratory meal, where they were wined and dined and treated like a hero. This was probably where their interrogation first started, when information would be coerced out of the downed and confused airman. It must be remembered that immediately upon capture, any prisoner would be in a confused state, realising for the first time that his continued survival and well being was now in someone else’s hands and it was difficult to prepare him for that, even in the second world war, when they had knowledge of what prisoners experienced in the First world war.

These ‘hotels’, in the First World War, were quickly adapted to assist in collecting any information possible, putting downed aircrew of similar rank together to make them feel at ease and encourage them to talk, gaining valuable information, both passive personal information and direct information on military tactics, strength and numbers, etc.

The Germans played the card very well, relying on the very British tradition that a Gentleman does not listen to another Gentleman’s conversation. The Germans had no such views and placed English speaking waiters and guards around the hotels to specifically listen to all the conversations. They also became experts in listening equipment, hiding a range of devices around the rooms to listen in on all the conversations being held and collate the information gained.

It did not take too long before the prisoners realised what was going on and for them to find some of the listening devices and to warn the immediate people around them. They were also able to leave notes, hidden in the rooms, warning those that followed about this practice but these notes had to be well hidden from the guards so their eventual discovery by prisoners following on was also in doubt.

What it took quite a while to do, was to inform British intelligence back home of this practice so that they could prepare servicemen going to the front in case of their capture and imprisonment.

It was probably not until after the First World War that the true extent of this subterfuge became apparent but even then it took time for the training to get into gear. Escape and evasion and related training in the case of capture was the responsibility of MI9 (MIS in the USA as noted at the top of the liberation questionnaires) and through its executive branch Intelligence School 9 (IS9). Established in December 1939, MI9 took a while to get working properly and the BEF were not instructed in coded message writing, but this changed after Dunkirk. Priority of training was towards those most likely to find themselves behind enemy lines, so the RAF and ‘special forces’ were top of the queue.

MI9 arranged, throughout the aircrews training, to instruct them on techniques of evasion and escape, how to behave when captured and in a few select cases, mostly Officers, for security reasons, how to communicate in coded messages via letters home. They also arranged for the preparation and supply of escape aids, the sending of newsletters to POW camps to help with morale and, having learnt a very important lesson from the Germans in World War 1, they initially were responsible for the bugging of enemy POW conversations, but this was later split off from MI9 to create a new organisation MI19. They were also, in conjunction with SIS, responsible for the organisation of escape lines across Europe to get evaders and escapers home.

As part of MI9’s programme, all aircrew were issued with standard Evasion and Escape equipment, including some local currency contained in a purse, silk maps (to be sewn into the airman’s clothing), compasses of various sizes (including substitute buttons, etc.) and aid boxes incorporating food, fishing line and hook, water, etc., sufficient for 48 hours on the run. Where the crew were to be operational over Germany where they could not expect to be helped or indeed in the Far or Middle East, additional aid boxes would be provided.

Ken, like most newly trained aircrew, received training about the possibility of capture and what to expect at No. 13 Operational Training Unit. He was told how to behave, what he should or should not say under interrogation, the power of the Geneva Convention and what it meant, what interrogation to expect, etc. latterly, during the War, the trainee aircrew were lectured by aircrew who had been captured but escaped, giving them first-hand experience on methods of escape, what to take with them, methods of survival, etc. but this in no way prepared them for what was to follow.

A film was produced to show them what to expect: www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoXQIcgMEhs

They received direct instruction but were also passed a copy of a booklet entitled ‘The Responsibilities of a Prisoner of War, Instructions and guidance for all ranks in the event of capture by the Enemy, European Theatre of Operations Only’, Air Publication 1548, giving them basic French, Belgium, Spanish and German phrases, such as how to count, day and night and other phrases that might be useful in the early hours of their capture and attempts at escape and evasion.7

Air Publication 1548 Dated March 1939, Second Edition June 1941

Air Publication 1548 Dated March 1936, Second Edition June 1941, Instructions and Guide to all Officers and airmen of the Royal Air Force regarding precautions to be taken in the event of falling into the hands of the Enemy.

Air Publication 1548-2 Air Publication 1548-3 Air Publication 1548-4 Air Publication 1548-5 Air Publication 1548-6

It told them that it was the duty of all ranks to protect the security of their Country and the Royal Air Force and that the Geneva Convention of 1929 required any captured airman to only divulge his Name, Rank and Number and that no pressure should be exerted to find out any other information. It went on to say that the captured aircrew would be respected by his captors if he systematically refused to give information under interrogation.

The aircrew were required to stand correctly at attention, give their name, rank and number and otherwise maintain a rigid silence, avoiding even using answers such as ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. If pressed, he may answer ‘I cannot answer that question’. He should at all costs avoid any attempts to bluff or tell lies at all and maintain throughout the interrogation a disciplined and strictly formal professional attitude, addressing any officers as ‘Sir’.  He should avoid all fraternization, and refuse all favours, establishing from the outset that he is the type from whom nothing can be learnt.

The aircrew were told how the interrogation would not just be a formal interview, but would continue, in a more relaxed manner afterwards, by bogus Red Cross personnel or people pretending to be other Allied soldiers or indeed, collaborators.

They were instructed on what the interrogators would be looking for, such as:-

  • Information about any unit of the Air Force, Navy or Army.
  • Your squadron number?
  • Where were you stationed and what was its strength?
  • Other squadrons and where were they stationed?
  • What have been their recent movements? Any rumours as to future movements?
  • What do you know about casualties suffered?
  • Types of Aircraft–performances–new designs–and armament. Building and Supply.
  • Airfields and landing grounds at home and abroad.
  • Any information about Allied training and tactics–and how much you know of enemy tactics.
  • Information about air raid damage in U.K. or to British ships and their effectiveness.
  • Anything about the weather, recent or forecasts.
  • Air Defence organization and A.A. Defences.
  • Home Conditions – Politics, Food Supply, Spirit of the People and serving Forces.

They were warned, as were the whole population, against a few careless words and how it could adversely affect the war effort.

It went on to explain the various methods used by the German interrogators to gain information from captured air crew:-

  • Examination of captured aircraft and material.
  • Search of prisoners of war for note-books, letters, diaries and any other incriminating articles or papers to be found on their person.
  • Interrogation of prisoners, either by direct questioning or by indirect methods such as the following:-
  • The commonest trick of all. Prisoners are well treated, entertained and given plenty to drink. An atmosphere of good fellowship is carefully built up and Service matters are then casually discussed. A skilled interrogator will be present to guide the talk into the right channels.
  • These are always extensively used, and are sensitive to the slightest whisper. Some will be so cunningly hidden that not even an expert can find them.
  • Stool-pigeons, speaking perfect English and carefully briefed, will be introduced among prisoners. They will not be easy to recognize, and may even be the first to warn every one of the need for caution when discussing service matters.
  • The Enemy will have agents working among the nurses, doctors, attendants or guards who look after prisoners. These may either pretend to be sympathetic; or else pretend that, they cannot understand English. Like the stool-pigeon, they will be good actors and very difficult to recognize.
  • Know-all approach. “We know everything already, so there is no point in you keeping silent.” It may be suggested that another prisoner has already talked; or an imposing-looking file may be produced which appears to give detailed information about R.A.F units, aircraft, equipment and personnel and may contain a number of photographs, newspaper cuttings and other such items.
  • A prisoner may be threatened, or attempts may be made to bully or browbeat him. A ‘fake’ shooting of other prisoners may be staged. Blackmail may be tried.
  • Ill-treatment may occasionally be resorted to by the Enemy, even though the Geneva Convention forbids it. Attempts may be made to lower a prisoner’s morale and to undermine his resolution by means of unsuitable diet: overheated cells; or solitary confinement.
  • A prisoner may be offered preferential treatment, with special liberties and luxuries, if he will co-operate with his captors, either by talking himself or by persuading others to talk. A prisoner who collaborates with the Enemy in return for an easy life is a traitor.
  • Bogus Forms may be produced in the hope that the prisoner will answer the questions which they ask. They may appear to be genuine Red Cross forms or official documents. Put your pen through every question except Name, Rank and Number–otherwise the Enemy may fill in the answers above your signature in order to bluff other prisoners. (Note.–Failure to fill in a Red Cross form does not delay notification to relatives, who are informed through official channels.)
  • From the moment a prisoner is captured he is subjected to enemy propaganda. He will continually be told lies about the war situation, and about his country and her Allies, in the hope that his resolution will weaken, and that his courage will fail.
  • These are only ten of the Enemy’s tricks. Be on your guard.
  • He has many others up his sleeve

In response to these potential threats, the aircrew were instructed on things to do and not to do.

  • Do give your Name, Rank and Number, but nothing else.
  • Do convince your interrogator from the very outset that you are the type of person who will never talk under any circumstances. Therein lies the whole secret of successfully withstanding interrogation.
  • Do behave with dignity and reserve under interrogation, so that you command the respect of your captors.
  • Do maintain your resolution and morale; and encourage your comrades to do the same.
  • Do empty your pockets before going on operations.
  • Do destroy your aircraft, maps and documents whenever possible. Remember that incriminating articles and papers can often be disposed of before the Enemy has a chance to search you.
  • Do keep your eyes and ears open after capture, you may learn much which may be of value both to your country and yourself if you succeed in escaping.
  • Don’t be truculent or aggressive under interrogation. You may regret it.
  • Don’t try to fool your interrogators. They will be experts at their job, and in any battle of wits you are bound to lose in the end. Once you begin to talk, they have got you where they want you. Say nothing and go on saying nothing.
  • Don’t imagine that you can find every microphone. Yon can’t.
  • Don’t talk shop. A careless word may cost old comrades their lives. If you have plans to discuss, do it in the open air, but remember, even trees have ears!
  • Don’t accept old prisoners on trust.
  • Don’t believe enemy propaganda, and don’t let your comrades do so either.
  • Don’t broadcast, no matter what inducement is offered.
  • Don’t fraternize. The Enemy is not in the habit of wasting his time, whisky and cigars on those who have nothing to give him in return.
  • Don’t give your parole, except under special circumstances.
  • Don’t betray those who helped you to escape. A careless word after you have reached safety may cost them their lives.
  • Don’t write direct to any Service address in the U.K., and don’t reveal in your letter that the addressee is in any way connected with the Services. Remember that the German censor will closely examine all your correspondence, and will note what you write and to whom you write.
  • Don’t carry these instructions on you or in your aircraft. They are to help you and not the Enemy.

A prisoner is always surrounded by his Enemies. Trust no one.

The aircrew were also reminded of their rights, as a prisoner, and that the rights of a prisoner of war were fully safeguarded by the Geneva Convention of 1929, and this should be displayed in every Camp and that they should insist on this being done.

They were reminded that there was a neutral Protecting Power (Swiss Red Cross) to whom all serious complaints could be addressed through the Camp Commandant and that, if they were able to escape to a neutral country, that they should claim their freedom and report to the nearest British representative.

Most of the POW’s acknowledged on their Liberation Questionnaires that they had received adequate training in the event of capture at their respective OTU’s or in some cases, squadrons, but a few stated that they either did not receive adequate instruction or had since forgotten about it, leaving them vulnerable to interrogation or inadvertent collusion.

There are some examples of where some of these rules or guidance were not followed, either inadvertently or through brashness or cockiness or even for personal gain but generally it has to be said that the aircrew took their responsibility very seriously and were constantly watching and guiding others.

The new prisoners were disillusioned, confused, feeling very vulnerable and it took the support network of those already there to stead them and settle them in, hence the fact that they were isolated for their initial interviews.

They were still in a state of shock, ready to talk to make sure their family knew they were safe, first off only giving name, rank and number but surely some of the questions could do no harm? Who was your favourite composer, who you thought would win the war, your Father’s name and address, but every piece of information beyond the basics allowed the interrogator to build up a picture of your character, for them to find ways to extract further information from you. But to many young airmen, they only wanted to get a message home and it appears that Ken told them his parents’ names and address as well, and who can blame him. Based on what detailed information about the raid the German’s already knew, what harm could that do? The details of your parents was one of the first questions on the IRC questionnaire, which would appear legitimate but further examination of this document would soon make you realise that it was another badly disguised means for the German’s to find out as much as they could.

In July 1941 the interrogation methods the Germans used were adequate but as the war progressed, so Dulag Luft improved as was needed to handle the increasing numbers of Prisoners passing through the camp and the advancement of technical equipment.

It was also known back home that anyone who showed any inclination to chat would be retained at Dulag Luft to be petted and turned by the Germans and used to find out information. Anyone who spent more than a fortnight in Dulag Luft was suspected of getting involved and one RAF Officer sent photos home showing what a great time he was having there. Those who cooperated, it was supposed enjoyed a life of luxury, swimming in summer, skiing in winter and 20 men to share the camps entire ration of Red Cross parcels, eating at their own table in the mess rooms.

Ken Fenton was obviously not of much use or they already knew what they wanted because he was only here for 4 days.

Keith Simpson recalls;

‘Survival rumours. We, at the school heard through people in the village that Ken was a survivor and such was the excitement at the news that several of us approached his Father. He could only confirm the rumours. I believe that it was probable that one of the people involved in the search for the aircrew in the dinghy had passed news to Ken’s family. Ken later told me very little about the raid and destruction of his aircraft. Ken said there was no time to feel any fear. It was a full time job concentrating on the controlled ditching of an aircraft, which had lost power.’

Or had the family, friends or villagers heard Ken’s name over Lord Haw-Haw’s broadcasts from Germany?

It was also normal practice for the German Authorities to broadcast the names of recently captured servicemen through the radio transmissions of Lord Haw-Haw and other presenters, giving the name, address and sometimes, the service number of the newly interned Prisoners of War. The Lord Haw-Haw (actually William Joyce) broadcasts were designed to undermine the will of the British population, showing them how desperate their position was.

Through these broadcasts the Germans, in the form of the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, attempted to demoralize Allied troops, the British population and America before they joined in, whoever was within radio listening range, to put doubt in their minds on what they were being told through the Allied propaganda machine and to try to get the Allies around the negotiation table to discuss peace. Among many techniques used to attract listeners, the Germans broadcasts reported on the shooting down of Allied aircraft and the sinking of their ships, suggesting high losses and an ineffectiveness of the Allied forces. Although the broadcasts were widely known to be Nazi propaganda, they frequently offered the only details available concerning the fate of friends and relatives who did not return from bombing raids over Germany. As a result, Allied troops and civilians frequently listened to the broadcasts in spite of the obvious propaganda and frequent blatant exaggerations, in the hopes of learning about the fate of downed aircrew, etc., leading to the British propaganda machine reporting on casualties as well to counteract this.

Later in the war, when the V1 flying bombs started to appear, they were used to drop propaganda leaflets as they flew over Britain with POW letters. The Government went to great lengths to collect these leaflets and avoid public discussion about them, the fear being that any press reporting of where the leaflets were found would assist the enemy in the tracking the trajectories of the V1 rockets and assist in their accuracy.

On the same day as Ken arrived at Dulag Luft, 6th July 1941, 11 Spitfires from 616 Squadron, fighter command, forming part of the Target Support Wing B for Circus 35, took off at 13.30 hours in support of Stirling Bombers on a raid to Lille, France.

James McCairns memoirs recall:-

‘By this time, the conviction that it would be my last flip had become quite overpowering – to such an extent that, for the first time in my life, l wrote a short message of farewell and detailed instructions as to the disposal of my car. My last action, l remember, was to turn to a New Zealand friend who was not going on this show, and tell him if the worst happened to deliver this message to an old friend of mine, the ground F/Sgt, Freddie Dale.’

‘But that was not all, even, for Fate continued to warn me right down to the last minute. Whilst taxi-ing out and jockeying for take-off position, my engine suddenly cut and stopped dead. Immediately I shoved another cartridge in the Koffman starter. Bang – the engine caught and roared into life. Before it had a chance to cut again whilst running hot and rich on the ground, l became airborne and picked up a position in the wing Formation. That afternoon we had a free-lance commission whilst the bombers went in at Lille. So, at 12,000 feet we left Beachy Head and by the time we had reached Boulogne our height was about 17,500 feet.’

‘For the last time, l once again sensed trouble – no sooner was the French Coast crossed than my radio became U/S by powerful jamming from the ground. Over l went onto another channel – wavelength – but this too was jammed. A fighter without radio is rather like a soldier going over the top blindfolded – a complete sense of helplessness over powers one – it is impossible to receive warnings of impending attacks and at the same time one is not in a position to warn one’s companions.’

‘So in this condition we stooged to our target area, our Squadron gradually being broken into smaller and smaller remnants as 109’s flashed through us from the skies above – fired, half rolled and plunged to the earth beneath. Still l managed to cling to my No. 1 – our Flight Commander, H.S.L. Dundas – and eventually we headed for home. Enroute over France we tried to join forces with another four Spitfires but they, believing us to be hostile, immediately orbited and once again there was chaos. Time and time again we tried to straighten out and head n there was a fresh flap and round and round we would orbit – odd M.E.109s plunging past us at incredible speeds. For the seventh time we began to sort ourselves out when suddenly there was a terrific crash just behind me and the whole cock-pit went dark, as l attempted to skid down, the seat with myself left its foundation and was thrown violently against the roof. No chance to half-roll and get away so all l could do was a crazy, headlong dive – fortunately the engine was going full blast. Looking over my right shoulder l could see little except a terrific rent in the aircraft just two feet behind my head and the metal oxygen –bottle hanging out in the slipstream – once again l had been saved by the pilot’s armour-plating.’

‘Down and down l went, possessed with the one idea to get down to zero feet as soon as possible and head for base. At 300 feet l pulled out and because l seemed to be covered in oil, as were all the instruments and canopy, visibility was reduced to practically nil.’

‘Charily l tried to decrease my height and began to toy with the idea of my future.’

‘During my headlong dive l had attempted to use the radio, giving an S.O.S. message and position, now, with a feeling of security once more coming over me, l wondered where to make landfall in England and whether l should touch down at the first available base.’

‘Engrossed in these ideas l suddenly became aware of the activities of a light flak battery immediately before me – they were giving me everything they had got. There was the noise of another minor explosion and as l began weaving away l saw a white vapour trail coming from my kite. In spite of such evidence l still retained some misplaced faith in the aircraft and its ability to survive, only to be completely thwarted when, in an incredibly short space of time, there was a splutter from the engines and the propeller blades froze rigid.’

‘Incredulous, l jazzed the throttle, tried the switches and in desperation, fired fresh cartridges into the starting chamber. All in vain – the blades stood there motionless.’

‘Quickly speed dropped off and at the height of some 250 feet it meant a forced landing. Gazing out l could see dead ahead the blue sea of the channel, directly below, the sand dunes and fields round Graveline. Realising all too well the almost suicidal implications of a “ditch” with a Spitfire, and, still being quite a little escape-conscious, l did a quick turn to the left and landed almost parallel to the beach in a field some 300 yards inland.’

‘Once before in my career l had to force-land because of engine failure in the mountains of Wales and this experience was little worse. With a sickening jar the aircraft came to a dead stop and all l can remember is cursing my fate for putting such a quick end to my fighting career.’

‘Inwardly l was fuming, furious with myself and already determined to leap out and make a run for it. Off l snatched my helmet and then tried to slide back the hood. It was jammed, and in spite of all my frenzied efforts l could not force an exit. Like a condemned person l waited in my cell for my gaolers who already were only thirty yards away.’

Trapped in his Spitfire, McCairns waited for two Luftwaffe soldiers to prise back the hood and help him out of the aircraft. ‘Gingerly l clambered out and it was not until l placed my right foot on the ground that l was conscious of pain in that leg and a squelching sound in the boot itself. Fortunately, one of the Huns caught me as l tottered and with his support l stripped off the boot and was horrified by the pool of blood disclosed.’ 

After a quick search, McCairns was taken to a concealed flak post, he was well looked after. ‘All of them displayed the German Eagle on their left breast which l very mistakenly assumed were their “wings” and for a moment considered l was confronted by a bevy of pilots.’

Photos were taken, phone calls made, whilst they attended to his leg and he was given cigarettes, beer and spa water. A far cry from what the Bomber aircrews could expect later in the war if they survived a lost aircraft and found themselves in Germany. German officers soon arrived and he was questioned on his intended mission, etc. He was asked where his ‘war-kartes’ were and on faining a lack of understanding, they cut open the top of his breast pockets and removed his silk escape maps with great joy. ‘At that particular stage of the war the subtle interrogation tricks of the Hun were comparatively unknown to the average airman and in the initial stages at least l had not the RAF classic reply to each and every question – “My name is McCairns, my number is 754718 and my rank Sgt.”.’

McCairns was taken to a country residence, transformed into sick quarters, where he received further treatment, a shot of morphine and fed sandwiches and coffee. Here he was told that an ambulance was on its way, with another downed airman, to take him to hospital.

After four hours of waiting, ‘a pukka ambulance drew up outside and l was carried out and then presented to an immaculate-looking F/O, D.F.C. with his black well-greased hair, perfectly arranged tie and collar and scrupulously clean cuffs. It didn’t require the addition of an ultra-Oxonian accent saying “Well, we’ve had a bad day, haven’t we, old man” to convince me that this was a mere stool-pigeon, an imposter.’

McCairns passed out in the ambulance and so escaped the questions from the imposter and was taken to St. Omar hospital. Here, they removed the bullet from his leg and re-bandaged it, but only after he had been asked to complete a form which included the question as to how he had been shot down, this he answered “Unknown” and everyone seemed satisfied.

Not an hour later, however, he was woken up by an angry officer demanding to know the answer to this question in detail, apparently as there was a furious argument between the fighter pilot who shot the first rounds at McCairns aircraft and the flak post who got in the second bust as to who had actually shot him down. McCairns never settled the argument.

He went on to say:- ‘Sleep at length won but l was roused early by the sound of a woman’s voice softly singing “J’attendrai” – only a week before l had heard that melody for the first time in a London night club, now it was being sung for my benefit by two French chambermaids – little did l realise that l was listening to the song destined to be the theme song of the prisoners of war – that before l left this cursed captivity, in company with every other British Prisoner of war would have sung it together so many times that not a word could ever be obliterated from the memory.’

J’attendrai – I will wait, in English.

I will wait night and day,

I will wait forever,

For you to come back, I will wait, [I will wait]

For the bird flying away

Comes to seek oblivion in its nest.

Time flies and runs,

Beating sadly in my oh so heavy heart

And yet I will wait for you to come back

 

I will wait night and day,

I will wait forever,

For you to come back, I will wait, [I will wait]

For the bird flying away

Comes to seek oblivion in its nest.

Time flies and runs,

Beating sadly in my oh so heavy heart

And yet I will wait for you to come back

 

The wind is bringing distant sounds,

Watching at the door, I’m listening in vain,

Alas, there is nothing for me to hear anymore.

 

I will wait night and day,

I will wait forever,

For you to come back, I will wait, [I will wait]

For the bird flying away

Comes to seek oblivion in its nest.

Time flies and runs,

Beating sadly in my oh so heavy heart

And yet I will wait for you to come back

And yet I will wait for you to come back

 

Time flies and runs,

Beating sadly in my oh so heavy heart

And yet I will wait for you to come back

I am sure it sounds better in French, but for those who went on to suffer 4 to 5 years as POW’s, you can see the attraction to this song.

James McCairns passed a not unpleasant time here, being well fed and being allow to write home to his mother, with few attempts at interrogation. Here he was joined by another ‘Tommy’, the nationality of his new friend was not in doubt, ‘a real airman, A.C.Potter, a member of a Red Cross crash boat, A.S.R.S., whose body had been riddled at the same time as his launch, by three low-flying ME109’s who delighted in raking with fire the huge red cross on the yellow background. Yes, that was the Nazi way and my fellowman bore silent witness lest l was to forget such a fact.’

On the 11th July they were both told that they were to be taken the following day to Germany and aroused at 3 AM, they were packed into an ambulance, together with a guard and two German dental officers returning home on leave and any spare space, being packed with looted goods being taken back to Germany.

After a fairly uneventful journey, McCairns arrived at Dulag Luft, the reception centre for every RAF prisoner of War. ‘Towards evening came the end of our journey and gazing out of the window, behind two barbed wire fences forming a rectangle, l beheld about 100 half-naked savages, playing on the sun-baked earth. Little did l realize they were English until l observed a group clutching the barbed wire and waving at the car. There in the middle, just as l had seen him before his one-way trip 10 days before, complete even to pipe in mouth, was our old Ft. Commander, Macfie – looking little the worse for his experience.’

The following is taken from F/Sgt. McCairns Escape and Evasion Questionnaire:-

‘I took off from Tangmere at about 1300 hours on 6th July 1941 on a daylight sweep over St. Omer. At 15 miles inland from Gravelines, l was hit by cannon fire from an M.E. fighter . Being incapacitated, l went down to and tried to return at ground level. I was then hit in the radiator by a ground defence gun. Shortly afterwards the engine completely seized up, and l was forced to come down at 1415 hrs in a field about 300 yds. from the coast near Gravelines. I had a piece of splinter in my right leg, and this and the fact that the hood of the cockpit had jammed made it impossible for me to get out. Two Germans in Luftwaffe uniform carrying rifles approached the aircraft, and l only had time to tear up a code card. The Germans helped me out and led me to a camouflaged flak position about 100 yards away, where l was kept a very short time.’

‘I was laid on a bed in an underground room, and my leg put in splints. An intelligence Officer interrogated me fairly briefly, but as he did not speak very good English, it was easy for me to avoid answering him.’

‘The Intelligence Officer took me in a staff car to a ‘Dispersal medical unit’, 4 or 5 Kms. from the coast, where l was kept from about 16.00 hours to 20.30 hours. I was given medical attention and was then removed to hospital in St. Omer.’

‘In St. Omer my leg was successfully operated on, and l remained in the hospital until 10th July 1941. I was in a room by myself on the second storey. My clothes were taken away from me. On the second day l was interrogated by a member of the Luftwaffe whose rank l do not know. The interrogation lasted about half an hour.’

‘During the interview l signed a form for 200 Frs., with half of which toilet necessities and writing paper were bought for me. The interrogator said l could write as many letters as l liked. I wrote only one – to my Mother – which arrived many months later. Two French Ward-maids used to clean my room, but a soldier was always present while they were there and would not allow any talking.’

‘On 11th July, l left St. Omer with A/C Potters. We were taken by road to Dulag Luft at Frankfurt in an ambulance. Also in the ambulance were two dental officers and a Feldwebel going home on leave. The ambulance was stacked with parcels, many containing food, for Germany. The journey lasted 17 hours and we had three lots of tyre trouble. We passed through Aachen, which had been ‘blitzed’ the night before. I saw very little damage beyond four or five smouldering ruins of flats and shops, but there were policemen at every corner and the general impression was of something like pandemonium.’

‘We arrived at Dulag Luft at 20.30 hours on 11th July 1941. I was taken by an orderly to the prison wing. Almost immediately, I was put alone in a room in which there was a large single bed, table and chair. The trousers and polo sweater which l was wearing were stripped off, and all my possessions were taken away, including my wristwatch. After breakfast next day (12th July), l was interviewed by the bogus Red Cross Official, at lunch while l as still alone an officer – l later learned he was the Camp Commandant – dropped in for a chat with me. (For details of these interviews see notes on interrogation). In the afternoon l was taken in the compound and welcomed by a friend, Sgt. Turnbull of 145 squadron, and also saw F/Lt. McFie of my squadron. I was put in a room with three Bomber ‘types’ (this is likely to be Fenton, Fuller and MacDonald?). On the second morning S/Ldr. Elliot gave the newcomers a ‘pep’ talk, in which he emphasised that it was our duty to try to escape. The same morning all my personal articles were returned, except for the identity disc. I was paid five camp marks and received five additional marks for 100 FRS. which l had left of the money l was given at St. Omer.’

‘Notes on German methods of interrogation:-‘

‘(i). About 1000 hrs on 12 Jul, the morning after my arrival at Dulag Luft, l was visited by the bogus Red Cross official, a large fat man of between 50 and 60, wearing uniform and a white tunic. He played the part of the benevolent uncle, and oozed good nature at the beginning of the interview. Speaking fairly good English, he said he wanted ‘an informal talk of a non-military nature’, he being an officer employed by the Red Cross. He did not produce any card or letter in proof of his identity. He said anything could be said to him in confidence. Producing the Red Cross form, he said, ‘it would be so much easier if you fill it in nicely’. The form consisted of about 15 to 16 questions. The first question which l felt l could not answer was:- ‘number of squadron’. When l refused to answer, he said that he would get this information in other ways, but that would mean a delay of 48 hours, which could be avoided with my co-operation. When l continued to refuse, he said l was stupid. Other questions which l did not answer were:- Group, Command, aerodrome, and operation engaged on. Eventually the old gentleman left in a huff at my continued refusals.’

‘(ii). At lunch the same day a man in service trousers and a linen jacket came in and sat down for chat. (I learned later that this was the camp commandant.) His opening line was amazement at my not speaking with an American accent. (I had been carrying my U.S. birth certificate). He claimed an expert knowledge of American and British dialects, but could not place the part of England, from which l came. He also adopted a fatherly air, expressing an interest in me because his own son was in the Luftwaffe. When l said l could never settle in a prison camp, he told me l must get rid of ‘the barbed-wire complex’. I do not remember his asking information. After some conversation, about my pre-war life, he brought out his statement about my victories as a fighter pilot and said, ‘l think you’ve got three.’’

Derek Thrower described his time in Dulag Luft as a bewildering experience.

The few days l spent at Dulag Luft behind barbed wire, living with hundreds of other RAF aircrew prisoners of war of all ranks from Wing Commander to Sergeants in over-crowded conditions. My own crew apart, l knew nobody. Day and night the conversations hinged on introductions followed by explanations as to how one was shot down. The stories were legion and the sense of frustration and misery, mixed up with the excitement of what might have been, showed how desperately difficult these men were finding it to adjust to a new way of life. To be hunted down and captured and then penned in like cattle seriously disturbed many of them. The watchtowers, the cramped confined space, the primitive conditions and the poor quality of food all helped to confuse the mind.’

‘It was a time of despair: the awful yearning for home, to wander along the lovely English lanes with their sweet smelling wild flowers made my nights a torment. A strong determination to escape grew steadily, though reason told me that l was raw and inexperienced and l must learn to know my enemy first.’

There was talk of escape from Dulag Luft but the prisoners were not there long and they appear to have been actively discouraged by the permanent staff, who did not want reprisals on them for the prisoner’s acts of foolishness. There was talk of 18 Aircrew having escaped via a tunnel but their exploits were laughed at as childish by the staff.

Reading many period reports of Dulag Luft would suggest that this was the case, that the permanent RAF staff were in the pockets of the German Luftwaffe however the senior officer in charge up until June 1941 was H M A ‘Wings’ Day, who assumed the position of Senior British Officer (SBO) and set up an excellent support system for the downed airmen, who were suffering from shock and humiliation having been shot down, probably with the loss of some of their crew, and now found themselves in German hands. They were not allowed to talk to the new prisoners until the German interrogators had what information they felt they could acquire but then their work started in adjusting the prisoner to life behind barbed wire.

‘Wings’ Day was eventually sent to Stalag Luft 1, Barth, having escaped from Dulag Luft, together with 17 other members of his staff, via a tunnel on 1st June 1941. Many of these escapees were to become part of ‘The Great Escape’ when some would be executed at that time rather than returned to their camps and this could in fact be considered as a rehearsal to the escape made in 1943. This tunnel, referred to earlier, was started in July 1940 through the floor of the senior French Officers living room in the west Block, with Jimmy Buckley in charge. The ground was wet and very stony and after quite a while, a very large boulder barred their way but they kept digging, intending to escape between September and December of 1940, but through October, digging had to be abandoned as the tunnel flooded and a further delay occurred when 26 POW’s were sent to other camps, Oflag IXa/h and Stalag Luft 1, including some of the main tunnel party, including geologist PO A H Gould.

The tunnel was restarted in March 1941 when conditions permitted and pretty well finished by May the same year, with a planned escape on 1st June 1941. Those who were chosen for the escape included many of those involved with the Great Escape from Stalag Luft 3 in the Spring of 1943. The 18 who were chosen included FO R D Baughan, FO J B J Boardman, Lt Com Jim Buckley (Purged before Great Escape), Sq Ldr Roger J Bushell (Executed), Lt Com Peter Butterworth (The Actor), FO M J Casey (Executed), FO A B Corbett, FO J A Gillies, WC H M A Day (Recaptured), Major J B Dodge (Recaptured), FLt G B K Griffiths, WC N C Hyde, FLt A J Madge, Major R T Partridge, FO D E Pinchbeck, LtCom R P Thurston, Sq Ldr N H J Tindal, FO F H Vivian and FO P A Wimberley.

After the war, Peter Butterworth applied for a part in the film ‘The Wooden Horse’, produced in 1950, but was turned down as he ‘didn’t look convincingly heroic or athletic enough’ for the part, but he did not tell them that he was actually there, as he was one of the vaulters involved.

Later, in Stalag Luft III, Peter Butterworth was to meet and form a great friendship with Talbot Rothwell, who later went on to write the ‘Carry on’ series of films, in which Peter was to appear. Other friendships were formed by the pair with future actors including Rupert Davies, Stratford Johns (Like Peter Butterworth, both Royal Navy) and John Casson, the son of Lewis Casson and Sybil Thorndyke. Throughout their stay at Stalag Luft III, they were involved in many theatre productions, which were not only used to keep them busy but also as a distraction for the tunnels and other various escape activities underway at the time. All five remained very close friends after the war.

Fleet Air Arm Officers including Lt Cdr J Casson, RN and Lt PE Fanshawe RN both of 803 Naval Air Squadron , were interned at Stalag Luft III, being shot down together on 13 June 1940 during a dive bombing attack on the German battleship Scharnhorst at Trondheim, Norway. Their Skua aircraft crashed at Stjornfjord, Fosen and both were captured by the Germans and taken POW, first to Dulag Luft near Frankfurt, then eventually arriving at Luft III.

Peter “Hornblower” Fanshawe, spent his wartime mostly at Stalag Luft III where he was a member of the escape committee. Fanshawe was the real sand dispersal specialist at Luft III, utilising the method of disposal demonstrated in film “Great Escape” but the use of this was seen in earlier camps. Fanshawe was transferred to Belaria shortly before the escape and was played by David McCallum in The feature film about events in Luft III.

Equally, whilst at Stalag Luft III, Casson acted as a code master for MI9 in various POW camps, and assisted Fanshawe in his role as a member of the Stalag Luft III “Great Escape” Executive Committee. Sub Lt Rupert Davies 812 Naval Air Squadron was shot down in his Swordfish with Lt N M Hearle and captured on 22nd August 1940. He became a post war TV and film actor, including ‘Z Cars’, with Stratford Johns..

Squadron Leader Bushell decided on a different escape but the others all used the tunnel to escape that evening, most being recaptured quite quickly, with the exception of Wing Commander Day who was out for 5 days. Bushell hid in the goat shed but was attacked by the goat before he was able to find a suitable hiding place. This is covered by Derek Throwers book and the McCairns diaries.

When Ken arrived at Dulag Luft, Squadron Leader Eric Douglas Elliott was the SBO and was regarded with the same suspicions as the previous permanent staff and was the subject of great criticism and finger pointing, resulting in a court of enquiry being held at Stalag Luft 3, in conjunction with MI9, which found no evidence what so ever that Squadron Leader Elliott was involved in any charge of disloyalty. After the war however, further evidence was uncovered and additional investigations were undertaken but these again proved no more conclusive as to Elliott’s connivance with the enemy, being put down more to stupidity than anything else, not looking to antagonise the Germans to make sure the POW’s were well looked after. Any act of escape, he said, could ensure the removal of comforts or privileges so he therefore tried to dissuade any such attempts.

Sergeant Harold Bell, captured on 26th October 1941 whilst flying with 75 Squadron, said in his Liberation Questionnaire about Collaboration:- British personnel at Dulag Luft suspected, particularly Sgt. Slowly and S/Ldr. Elliott. Asking personal questions about Squadron. Transferring Red X food to Germans. Depriving POW’s of Red X food by giving short rations or cutting supplies.

Derrick Nabarro was transferred to Dulag Luft on 30th June 1941 but quickly transferred to a hospital 2 kms away in a wood the next day. Here he met up with Sgt. William (Bill) Hall and they occupied the top floor with 3 beds to a room. He was with Bill and one other British Prisoner but they were very careful not to discuss service questions. Nabarro spent two weeks in this hospital before being transferred to Stalag IXc on about 15th July 1941. They were given false Red Cross forms to complete, which they ignored.

In truth, the length of time spent at Dulag Luft was dependent upon the number of captured crew passing through at any one time, as this was the only debriefing station in Northern Europe.

It appears that Fenton, Nabarro and McCairn’s travelled to Bad Sulza together, having been paraded in the company of 50 NCO’s, to be told that they were going to a camp they had never heard of, Stalag IXc.

Their personal items were returned as they rushed around collecting bits and pieces for the journey, saying their good byes and filling in a Red cross post card to be sent home telling their family that they were safe and were now POW’s.

Derrick Nabarro, in his book “Wait for the Dawn”, describes the journey from Dulag Luft to Stalag IXc:-

‘After a short stay in Dulag Luft, we were squeezed into the third of three buses laden with prisoners.  At Frankfurt station we transferred to two classless coaches. That morning everyone had been issued with a block of chocolate which would provide excellent nourishment if a chance to escape arose during the journey, but l ate mine before the train started!’

‘The intention of escaping from the train was widespread but we were all too inexperienced to recognize the golden opportunity when it occurred. We were too slow making up our minds.’

‘We were well guarded – one German to four prisoners. The lavatory door was wired open and a guard watched each performer. On either side of the stationary coaches more guards patrolled. The Germans were taking no chances. But they were only human. They had overlooked the railway maps fastened in the carriages for the enlightenment of passengers! In a moment they were unscrewed and stuffed under RAF tunics. Our two coaches were allowed to grill in the hot sun for two or three hours before they were hitched like a postscript on to the end of a goods train. Hands fluttered out of the open windows like popular leaves. The movement of the train generated a breeze and the aroma from the inefficient lavabos was slowly wafted down the corridor. We were still travelling, when at night, our boots were collected by the German guards. By then one more smell merely added variety! Mouths sagged. Snores rose above the measured rhythm of the wheels. Much later, the dawn threw a grey light on the day-old stubble on our chins.’

Whilst James McCairns recalls:-

‘At eleven o’clock the next day we were enroute to Frankfurt in a large autobus and then conducted by a side entrance, onto the sidings – that was rather a shame as some of those boys had been bombing Frankfurt only 10 days before and they were keen to know the score. By midday 25 were herded into either of the almost derelict, wooded-seated coaches in charge of 5 guards and for the next 14 hours we were shunted round SW Germany being the only two coaches on a goods train. We were given bread and tinned meat and at Gelsuen were even able to win some coffee from the German Red Cross nurses. The country was mainly wild and uninteresting, very little aerial activity and no signs of aerodromes which was my prime interest. Whilst at Dulag Luft, Macfie and l had already considered the distinct possibility of returning to our country in a ME 109. That night the guards shuttered all the windows and made us remove our foot gear and hand over every pair.’

Two weeks later on the same journey to Bad Sulza, the guards were not so careful with the result that Sergeant Derek Thrower, a cricketing professional from Hockley in Essex serving in 405 Squadron who was captured on 15th July 1941 at Staplehurst, Holland, a tall fearsome looking redhead, jumped through the lavatory window. The screws to the window had been loosened by countless visits by many POW’s to the toilet, each one loosening the screws to the window a little bit.

As the train was slowing down he made his escape at dawn but without any food, maps, compass or other provisions, it was not a well thought out or planned escape. Nevertheless, by jumping lorries on the Autobahn at night he managed to cover 200 miles in 5 days and in an exhausted condition, completely lost, had to give himself up. He was by then near the Czechoslovakian border.

Derek Thrower reported ‘Jumped from train at midnight when nearing Bad Sulza through fanlight in W.C. on July 27 1941. Recaptured at Saalfield July 30 1941 by police. From working camp on April 6 1942. Sawed through iron bars – was wearing civilian clothes. Captured April 7 1942 on autobahn near Hof by police. From marching column on April 9 1945. Hid in barn till April 15 1945. Met 6th Armoured Brigade of tanks (Rifle Brigade). Successful.’

Derek Bert Thrower was the pilot of a 405 Squadron Wellington W5534, which was lost on the night of 14th/15th July 1941, with the crew of 6 all becoming POW’s, Thrower being captured at Staplehurst, Holland. The crew also included Sergeants R G M Morgan, V R J Slaughter, E Jones, J N Kirk and W C Dossetter. Derek Thrower wrote about his exploits in his book ‘The Lonely Path to Freedom’. He reported being taken prisoner fairly soon after his parachute decent from the stricken aircraft and then being taken to Dulag Luft, where he was questioned and imprisoned with the Blenheim and HSL crew members. He reports that ‘Early one morning, a number of non-commissioned Officers were called out of line. I was one of them. We were informed that we were to be transferred to Stalag IXc, a camp at Bad Sulza near Liepzig. We collected our few bits and pieces, lined up at the main gate and marched out, heavily escorted, to a small convoy of covered lorries, in which we embarked for our news destination.’

‘Our first stop was to the station in Frankfurt. We drove through the city. Once the guards had satisfied themselves that there was no chance of us escaping, they lined up by the tailboard, and pulling aside the tarpaulin that covered the back of the lorry, began calling out or whistling to the girls passing by, and making jocular remarks to each other. Ginger, the wireless operator from my crew, in a moment of aberration expertly lifted a bayonet from its sheath and slid it into his battledress. The owner was busy making eyes at the girls and remained unaware of his loss, until eventually the convoy drew up in a siding – and the guards at the order jumped down, unslung their rifles and fixed bayonets! Pandemonium broke out, and at a command rifles were brought up at the ready and the bolts rammed home. It required no further persuasion for Ginger to hand over the bayonet and the tension eased at once, though we were hustled a little vigorously into the train.’

‘There were some fifty P.O.W.’s and these were allocated one carriage, with another for the guards, the two coupled together in the middle of a chain of wagons. Our carriage was of the open variety with seats facing each other and a table in between. The windows were shut and all of them had been securely screwed down. There were no curtains. Down the centre of the carriage ran a gangway, along which guards were placed at intervals. The remainder of the guards returned to their own carriage through a communicating door, and we were left to make ourselves as comfortable as we could on the hard wooden seats, and look out at the changing countryside as the train rattled into motion on its journey to Leipzig.’

‘Hour after hour the train clattered away, stopping sometimes in a siding to let the faster trains by, at other times dropping off a few wagons and collecting new ones; then back onto the main line to continue its journey. In the mid-afternoon the rations appeared: bread, magarine and leberwurst, and a blunt dinner knife, produced reluctantly in response to our request for something to cut the bread with. One member of the group was given the job of distributing the rations, a long slow task.’

‘While waiting for my share, l obtained permission from the nearest guard to use the toilet. At the far end of the carriage, another guard, standing by the closed toilet door, indicated to me to wait. In a glass panel on the wall was a small map of Germany: with difficulty l found both Frankfurt and Leipzig and l tried to estimate on the map where we might be at that point. I came upon Switzerland at the bottom of the map, and for a few moments l indulged in daydreams of a successful escape, and the excitement of crossing the frontier to freedom..’

‘The guard signalled that l could go in. Once inside, l closed the door, but as there was no bolt l could not lock it. What light there was came from a frosted window pane above which was a small fanlight also of frosted glass, securely screwed down. In the corner by the window was the lavatory, with a pipe running up the wall to a small cistern near the ceiling; beside it was a washbasin with a cupboard underneath. I looked inside – empty. On the fanlight l counted six screws fastening it to the frame. It was the usual oblong shape, and not a large fanlight.’

This is when Derek Thrower hatched the plan to escape. He was not chased out by the guard who seemed uninterested in the fact that he was in there alone for quite some time. He considered how he could get out of the tight fanlight and what he would do once he was through. He returned to the carriage, where the guard continued to watch the prisoner cutting up and distributing the food.

He confided in other POW’s about his plan, including the man cutting up the food and arranged for POW’s to go to the toilet in relays with the bread knife and start to unscrew the screws securing the fanlight. The POW’s sent Thrower away so they could get on with their task and the afternoon dragged on to the evening and following a change of guard, Thrower was informed that all the screws had been removed except for two which were very loose and ready to remove. The POW had also put into the cupboard under the wash basin some rations for Throwers escape. The guards had just changed and they looked fresh and more aware of what was going on around them so Thrower sat in his seat planning his departure when he heard the guards telling everyone that they would be in Bad Sulza within the hour and so the urgency heightened. Thrower slipped from his seat and went into the toilet, closing the door behind him and quickly removed the last two screws.

Thrower was not a small man and the problem of easing himself through the small window took time but he then found himself hanging precariously with another railway track below him. After what must have seemed like an eternity, he let go.

Finding himself dazed and bruised, he picked himself up and made his escape, the guards in the carriage at this point being unaware of his departure. What had actually happened in the train was that whilst the POW’s distracted the guards, one prisoner slipped back into the toilet and replaced all the screws so it was not until everyone was back at camp and a role call carried out that Throwers departure was realised, causing good humour for the prisoners.

Nabarro continues:-

‘Towards midday after many stoppings and shunting’s we reached a toy station named Bad Sulza. Here we were handed over by our Luftwaffe guard to the vaunted Wehrmacht. The brotherhood of the air was ended. In the van of our new guards stood a Feldwebel (Warrant Officer) who was about five feet wide and almost as tall. His head stuck out from his massive shoulders like a gargoyle’s. We called him Robert Taylor.’ From Dulag Luft, the Blenheim and launch crew were transferred to Stalag IXc at Bad Sulza, near Weimar, arriving on 10th July (ICRC records show 14th) 1941.’

‘We spilled out of the carriages on to the platform, lounging and taking our time. Then ‘Robert Taylor’ closed in and started snarling. He scared most of us but failed to make a lasting impression. The initial shock soon passed.’

‘In a straggling column we climbed away from the village, up a winding track to a camp known as ‘Hell’s Kitchen’. We entered this old factory through an archway on top of which stood a guard. Inside were prisoners of many races. Unshaven French Poilus with rounded shoulders stood in dejected groups. Serbs in faded and torn musical-comedy uniforms sat on their haunches, their backs resting against a sunlit wall. They were forgotten men. It was written on their thin, starved faces.’

‘We were herded into a barn. An iron door clanged behind us. Rats scampered over the beds, disputing possession. The walls were streaked with mildew and what sun penetrated the cobwebbed windows dissipated in the chaos of dust particles stirred up by every movement.’

‘”Make yourselves at home, boys,” someone laughed shakily. The doors rattled open. A German entered and told us we were permitted to go to the latrines.’

James McCairns continues:-

‘Our crowd was more peaceable with the result that at 6 AM next morning our boots were re-issued and we were paraded at Bad Sulza station by a miserable, officious little Gefreiter (corporal) who was immediately hated. In the chilly dawn our spread-out party made its laborious way up a hilly, country road until before us loomed the ramshackle buildings of a disused factory. The huge gates were opened and our sight was assailed by a view of intense squalor and misery. There, living in conditions of pathetic filth, were scores of ragged Jugoslav’s with a sprinkling of French. In harsh terms the Gefreiter bade them stand aside – they meekly obeyed – and our party was marched to one solitary two-storeyed building., bundled roughly inside and without a further word being spoken the door of our prison was slammed and locked.’

‘On the ground floor of our building were a few rusty old beds and lice infested blankets, and dashing up the wooden stairs it proved the same above.’

‘Everything was rotten. The floor had broken through in several parts and one was quite at a loss. Battling between exhaustion and fear of lice, my flesh eventually won and l collapsed on a wooden bunk. Was this going to be our future home? If so, escape was going to be our slogan and immediately it became the centre of thought. Suddenly a cry went up “My God, they’re British” and everyone rushed to the available windows and there framed in a window in the opposite buildings were two indescribable miserable and dirty-looking individuals dressed in khaki supporting a card on which was scrawled “Hide your lighters and watches”.’ 

‘Someone called out asking if they were British, to which they nodded and someone else asked where the Hell we were and why. That only started motions of caution and silence. They disappeared from view and we really began to wonder if they were still capable of speech. We found later that they were air gunners who had been sent from the Dulag of IXc up to the dreaded factory – La FABRIQUE, as a punishment for adopting the role of “NIX ARBLIT” when called to perform work by the Germans.’

‘As Sergeants, under the Geneva Convention, we were (as NCO’s) only compelled to do work of a supervisory nature and as one can imagine, that loose definition left too many loopholes. Work was a perpetual feud between us and the Nazi masters.’

‘About an hour later the door of our prison was opened and we were allowed to finish off the remnants of the Slave ersatz ‘coffee’ which came in huge canisters. Some had mugs by this time so little by little we each contrived a sip. Then in small groups we were allowed to visit the abort (lavatory).’

‘Only the stronger stomach could even pass over the threshold and no one even dreamt of satisfying completely his needs – no matter how urgent. As far as l could make out there was a wide, slanting floor containing 3 holes over a cess-pit, rather like a henhouse but with far more excretum, covering the flooring inches deep. God knows how it could have been so misused – we all retired defeated and were locked up again.’

‘Great relief was felt one hour later when we were informed to prepare for departure and we assembled outside La Fabrique, down the hill, over the river and railway line and there before us stood, deceptive at first sight, a neat looking camp surrounded by fences 9 feet hi watch-towers at every corner and filling almost every inch of the rectangular enclosure were neat, long huts, yellow with brown markings. There were even strips of grass and flower beds, but of course only an innocent like myself would have thought they could be in our preserves. Instead of entering this camp, we were conducted into a pleasant beer garden, complete with orchestra enclosure, hotel and saline bath promenada – the famous Bad Sulza. Once again we had to queue and this time we were each handed a little metal rectangle, and duplicated on it was “Stalag IXC 39239” – that was to be my sole claim top identity.’

POW tag

Ken Fenton’s identity disc that he would carry for the next 4 years, issued at Stalag IXc, Bad Sulza, Prisoner Number 39204.

Many now appear for sale on the internet, many broken in half to achieve twice the money but they were usually broken, one to be taken home as proof of the death of the Prisoner and the other left with the body as identification.

‘Next we were taken before three sensors and every article re-examined.’

‘All cigarette lighters and knives were confiscated, but luckily, not wrist watches. And last, but not least, we were paraded in front of a third party and our full particulars entered, including a print of the left thumb. I had taken the precaution of smearing mine with chewing gum before blacking. The result was just a nasty smudge on the filled out form. The German swore but was much too lazy to rewrite another reference. One of the most interesting features of Nazi hated education was then illustrated. A group of young 6-year olds were promenaded round the saline baths and chanting “Wir….gegen nach England,” gesticulating and singing at us on each appearance. All the R.A.F. burst out laughing and the German sentries came dashing up threatening us into silence – it was not fitting to show mirth on such occasions’.

‘Noon came and once again we were shepherded in the direction of the camp – in through the first gate, past the German offices and guardroom and then the sentry at his box swung open the huge, double-barbed wire doors and we marched the full 100 yards of the camp surrounded on all sides by questioning and cheering soldiers together with a small sprinkling of R.A.F. and herded into the last barrack of the row. We were in Stalag IXc (Bad Sulza).’

Nabarro continues, after the offer of the latrines:-

 ‘”How very thoughtful!” said Bill (Hall). We trooped outside, but the swarming flies round the boards, the dung piled even in the doorways and the stink, brought genteel vomit to my mouth. A few Serbs were crouched blissfully, their feet on the seats, reading torn scraps of soiled paper. Flies buzzed merrily, doing victory rolls for joy. I turned away. I revolted against this sight of human degradation, half fearing that this would be my fate. These prisoners might as well be dead as live in this horrible shambles. What sort of life was this for human beings? I soon learnt. An old Serb held out a crust of bread. His hand was brown and old. I stared at him and deep down in his eyes l saw humanity. He took my hand and put the crust in it. I had no appetite but l took it and l thanked him though he knew not a word of English. A ghost of a smile disturbed the wrinkles around his eyes. He turned away. I never saw him again.’

‘An hour later we were taken from “Hell’s Kitchen” to the main camp, which, by comparison, looked like a 5 star hotel. In a large yard we were paraded before various Hun officials who took our fingerprints and other particulars in return for which we received a prison disc with a number stamped on it. As long as we kept this disc we were protected as prisoners of war. If we discarded or lost it while escaping we would be treated as spies. When we had all been examined we were led to our barrack room, issued with two blankets each and told to choose a bed. The army prisoners were in another barrack block which the Germans, for the time being, had put out of bounds.’

When talking to Roger Daggett, he also recalled “Hell’s Kitchen” and the rats scampering around with some jollity, when jokes about the rats were made by the prisoners. He particularly mentioned Robert McDonald as being a very funny man and making comments about the rats at this time.

They had arrived at Stalag IXc, Bad Sulza and really quickly realised, too late, how easy conditions had been at Dulag Luft.

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