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.
Bad Sulza was opened in February 1941 and was a small crowded camp run by the German Wehrmacht, containing a variety of Nationals including French, Belgians, Yugoslavs, British Army and RAF in the main, about 800 in total. The British Army prisoners made up the biggest force of British prisoners and were mainly survivors of Dunkirk, many disabled, with a lot of amputees and neither they nor the RAF were sent out of the camp on work parties although the majority of the other nationalities were. They worked on nearby farms and in factories and the nearby salt mines, returning to the camp each evening. Nineteen blind Prisoners and hundreds of ill and wounded were awaiting repatriation but this was extremely slow.
There were over 100 RAF prisoners at Stalag IXc, arriving in three batches from Dulag Luft as the other Stalag Lufts (Luftwaffe run camps for captured Allied airmen) over flowed as the number of downed airmen started to increase beyond the German camps capacity as Bomber Command increased its offensive drive against German occupied Europe.
The sight of all these badly injured Army POW’s must have been quite a shock to the downed aircrews and a cold reminder off what they could have suffered themselves. Whilst these soldiers were awaiting repatriation, it was very slow and it took just over 2 years for them to get back home. Although injured airmen were initially included in these repatriation lists, it soon became apparent that they needed to be excluded from repatriation as the Germans became aware that even limbless aircrew could be put back to work, Douglas Barder being a good example.
Later in the war, the camps strength would swell to 47,405, split up into 1700 labour detachments, about 40 being all British. At this time, Bad Sulza still held mostly French and Serbian Prisoners with three branch camps. The main one on the outskirts of Muhlhausen for British and American Prisoners, one at Langen Salza for Russians and the third at Molsdorf for Italians.
The camp lay 25 Kilometres North East of Weimar, in a broad valley, alongside a fast flowing river. On the other side of the camp, a railway line converged on the river and crossed a short distance away. Lying in the fork, the camp was virtually triangular in shape, with only one gate leading out into the German administration compound, in the middle of the base line. The stretch of wire measured about 150 yards. The apex was cut off to form a very short side about 30 yards long and about 200 yards from the gate. The importance of this shape, from the prisoner’s point of view, was that only three of the four corners of the camp were straddled by guard towers, as it was considered un-necessary to provide this area with separate surveillance.
It was formerly used as a Nazi Youth Hostel and all the windows were barred or made secure with heavy gauge wire netting similar to pig netting. In late 1940, early 1941, the camp remained unfinished and the prisoners were farmed out into disused factories or stable blocks, with straw on the floor which was infested with lice.
The camp was surrounded by two ten feet high parallel barbed wire fences with the area in between, about 6 feet in width, covered with coils of more barbed wire to about waist height.
An airfield was built round an old brewery at Rodigen ber Jena just outside Muhlhausen.
F/Sgt. James A McCairns Escape and Evasion report continues:-
‘In the morning of 14th July 1941 l left Dulag Luft in a party of 53 N.C.O.’s for Stalag IXc. We entrained at Frankfurt and arrived at Bad Sulza about 02.00 hours on 15th July 1941. On the journey our boots were taken from us. We travelled in two parties in adjacent coaches with only two guards to each party. It would have been possible for me, but for my injured leg, to escape through the lavatory window on the journey.’
‘At 16.00 Hours we were taken from the train to a disused factory, which is part of Stalag IXc. We were put into filthy rooms in which there were rats running about. After two hours we were taken to a Biergarten beside the saline baths. There we were searched, had particulars about us taken, and were issued with identity discs. The searching was done by three censors, but not efficiently, as we were allowed to empty our own pockets. Notebooks were being confiscated, but many of us had them returned later. After being searched, we were passed on to another official who took particulars such as height and weight and also our thumb impressions, but the German was too lazy to fill in a new form and make me give a proper impression. We were then given numbers and stalag discs and marched into the camp.’
In the Summer of 1941, it was the practice of the Germans on arrival, to publically humiliate the prisoners by parading them in full view of the town and strip search them. They were frequently pelted with missiles by the local inhabitants and children and no restraint was shown by the guards.
After 3 nights and 2 days on the run, Derek Thrower was caught and imprisoned before being sent off to Bad Sulza, where he was put into solitary confinement before being released into the camp.
‘The next day l was packed off to Stalag IXc at Bad Sulza, under escort. We arrived in the day, and l was immediately hustled into the camp prison and locked in without seeing any of my fellow prisoners. My punishment for escaping, l was told, was to be two weeks solitary confinement. This meant two days out of every three on bread and water, sleeping on a wooden bench without any blankets. On the third day l would have a bowl of soup and two potatoes as well as bread and water, and at night l would be given two blankets to cover me.’
‘The cell was tiny, some eight feet long by five feet wide, the window covered with frosted glass and heavily barred. By midday the rays from the sun heated the cell to a temperature that l found intolerable. There were flies everywhere, copulating madly, and they drove me to distraction as they buzzed about the cell or pitched on my face or hands. I was not allowed to sit or lie on the bed during daylight hours, and to make sure that l did not do so the guards would frequently tiptoe to the cell door and peep in through the spyhole.’
‘At night a tin was placed in the corner of the cell for me to use if it was necessary. I would take it out when the guard took me to the washroom each morning to clean myself, then back to the cell where l paced up and down for hours, two paces each way, sometimes three if l shortened my stride. Night-time always came as a relief, for the cell cooled down, the flies settled on the walls and l was allowed to lie down on my bed.’
Derek Thrower received help from the other prisoners in the form of cigarettes, chocolate and a book but most of this was quickly discovered by the guards but the time passed and he was released into the camp to be re-united with his fellow prisoners and was given a Red Cross parcel. It was that night that he got in a fight with a fellow prisoner and the following morning he was sent to another camp.
At Stalag IXc, all boots and trousers were handed in and the prisoners were locked up each night to help foil any escapes. Flying boots were confiscated as they were not considered suitable for camp use. They were given wooden shoes in exchange. Over 100 Airmen had no R.A.F. uniform.
All shutters had to be kept shut whatever the weather. The path between the barracks and the barbed wire was put out of bounds and Prisoners were liable to be shot without warning if they were seen there.
Prisoner slept in rooms just large enough to take 18 triple tier bunks with little space between. They were given two blankets each and a palliasse filled with wood shavings, which encouraged lice. There was heating via a stove in the barracks, which was just as well in the winter when sub-zero temperatures occurred as many of the windows were broken. The one over-riding thought though was that it was clean and airy, quite a difference from their initial experiences on arrival at Bad Sulza although the sewage system ran down one side of the camp.
James McCairns ‘bagged the middle bed in the 3-tier erection and almost immediately we were allowed out for lunch. It was quite easy to make friends with some Tommy and to borrow a billycan. Armed with that one proceeded to a huge bowl and ladled a pint of the famous soup into the billy, for consumption by spoon – that was our daily lunch.’
Every day, lunch was the same, a pint or more of this watery soup with nothing else to supplement it. This was almost always made up of potatoes or rice, sometimes with carrot or cabbage to flavor it and very rarely, tinned meat would be thrown in as a supplement. However, 2 days in each week, five year old dried cod was steamed and thrown in, which very few prisoners found edible.
For tea or dinner, the prisoners were given 200 grams of brown potato bread, a small amount of grease, some tinned meat or ersatz (replacement or substitute, meant to be like) honey for flavoring and a jug full of mint tea.
As part of the Geneva Convention, prisoners were supposed to receive the equivalent rations to those of a front line soldier, however these rations fell well short of these requirements and it would not be until the Red Cross parcels started to arrive in numbers that the prisoners would start to receive sufficient food for their needs. The Serbs in the next compound were not so lucky and their food rations looked even worse than the British Prisoners, without any chance of a Red Cross parcel.
James McCairns went on to say: ‘Food problems were soon shelved in the joy of reunion with the Tommies, Dunkirk veterans all and ready to forget that bitter phrase “Where were the R.A.F.?”’
‘They were much too eager to hear how England had survived the blitz, the arrival of 50 R.A.F. the week before had broken a 15 month complete absence of news. So now we all joined forces in the joyful news that today was Red Cross Day. There would be a food parcel per man and also 50 cigarettes. We were formed into groups of five and each Group leader took his aide and a blanket and collected a blanketful of food and tins of cigarettes. It happened to be a bumper day, there were Canadian parcels with pounds of real butter, raisins and corned beef, good English parcels with marmalade and even Portuguese parcels – in addition a dividend of 123 cigarettes was declared. Truly we had need to be grateful to the Red Cross. Those who had recently become prisoners were so impressed at the sight of the food that we nearly fell on our knees then and there to thank God for his mercies.’
‘After we had feasted our eyes on the spoils, sorted and arranged every object about 10 times, the M.O. came in and held a brief examination and once again l begged for a laxative – somehow the old system just didn’t function on this new diet.’
‘The same evening, in company with my newly-found friend’s l did a tour of inspection.’
McDonald was transferred to Dulag Luft on 25th July and remained there, undergoing the same interrogation until 3rd August 1941, obviously a period of recovery was required, when he departed for Stalag IXc.
The prisoner’s enclosure was made up of hard, down trodden dirt, roughly 100 yards long by 60 yards wide with a rough road running down the middle to a small exercise yard for the prisoners in solitary confinement. Any green areas of flower beds were within the German compound.
The accommodation consisted of seven buildings, three of them packed, the others being the concert hall and theatre adjoining the French barracks, a tailor and shoe workshop, sick quarters, shower room with the delousing equipment and a larger building which included the 7 cell jail, the communal kitchen, storerooms, library and canteen. The guards barracks and the HQ building were just outside the main gateway and were also surrounded by a high barbed wire fence.
A map of Stalag IXc, Bad Sulza, as drawn by Sgt James McCairns upon his return to England.
On the Southern boundary of the camp ran the River Ilm, a lazy, deep flowing river with forested mountains and a picturesque old castle as a backdrop. A single track small railway line ran along the Northern boundary, all seen by the prisoners through the multiple strands of barbed wire fences, two, set 5 feet apart with the gap filled with further strands of coiled barbed wire. The prisoners were under the constant gaze of the German guards, with their machine guns, especially those who stood in the observation towers.
A night, the guards remained and the barbed wire fences where floodlit by suspended electric lamps with additional sentries patrolling the external perimeter, 100 yards apart. These guards however were either young men of around 16 years old or old men over 50.
The Camp Commandant was an old man of over 70 years who took an interest in his work though he was more frequently away. He lived in the town and went to and fro for his meals.
‘One of our chief delights’ Wrote Sgt. James McCairns ‘in the evening would be to witness the changing of the guards with its comical about turns and goose stepping. On more than one occasion some nervous old man would send us into shrieks of delight by the accidental firing of his rifle, sending the rest of the guard into immediate chaos. Sentry baiting was also a never-failing source of fun, even in its more stupid form when it consisted of calling the poor Germans everything unspeakable in the English tongue, keeping a serious face and ask him to agree with a muttered Ja, Ja!’
Life settled down to a more mundane pace, being awoken each morning at 7.00AM by the guards marching through the barracks, shouting “Auf stehen, auf stehen” and then chasing the prisoners out for roll-call at 7.30AM every weekday. Sunday remained a day of rest with the French holding mass from 9.00 until 10.30AM in the concert hall and the British having a more relaxed service of their own.
The rest of the week, the day’s routine was parade in the morning, followed by breakfast either cooked on the communal stove or on small fires made from burning the bed boards which used them up so quickly that most of the prisoners were sleeping on four or five boards rather than the usual thirty.
Recreation consisted of organised P.T. every day and Prisoners were allowed to go outside the camp to the football ground between 14.00 and 16.00 hours but were strictly guarded. Deck tennis was played inside the wire. At its height, Stalag IXc, the library was well stocked with 13,000 books. There were no indoor games such as ping pong or cards but an orchestra was formed and plays were produced in the theatre. All indoor entertainment was forbidden for three weeks due to a sketch being performed, which the Germans considered being insulting to them.
Mail was very irregular and was sometimes stopped for the whole camp as a punishment. When a tunnel was discovered all parcels were stopped, for ten days. Letters took about six weeks from Britain.
James McCairns asserted ‘The (Sunday) services were simplicity themselves yet l am convinced l felt much nearer to God in that little hall than in the most mighty cathedral of England – that the staff-sergeant /lecturer conveyed more than could any Archbishop. This was faith absolutely in the raw – our only hope.’
‘On Sunday evenings there would be a concert, 3 times out of 4 given by the French, and only once a month by the British. After all, this was a French prison camp and no one had any idea what the R.A.F. were doing there in any case.’
‘But the French gave marvellous concerts, under the direction of M. Alexander, a skilled orchestra had been formed whilst actors of talent gave weekly concerts or plays. I was deeply moved on every occasion by these shows which, without fail, filled me with a sense of rebellion. At the finale l would always declare “That will be the last. I must escape”.’
‘Unconsciously l lost a grip on my mind and became one of those escape maniacs and quite naturally l began to forsake the company of my own men and migrated to the Belgium camp where hour after hour l listened to the experiences of men who had been outside these four walls, either at work or freedom bent – all my own companions seemed such rookies with only vague ideas.’
‘It was indeed a great day when the Germans called for 10 volunteers to go down to the village and store Red Cross boxes. In the mad rush l bagged a place and a few minutes later ten of us marched out of the place escorted by only one guard – what a feeling to be on the road again and what chances this voluntary work provided. But it was hard work. We unloaded hundreds of10-lb food parcels, moving them along in a human chain until our arms nearly dropped off. At the end of the day, dog-tired but elated with satisfaction, back we marched. Thereafter on every possible occasion, adopting a soldier’s disguise if the job didn’t conform to R.A.F. regulations, l went out on working parties and soon had a fine, practical knowledge of local geography.’
‘Lunch, issued by the cookhouse at midday, was mostly stew. Once a week it was fish stew. The dehydrated fish arrived in bales, dry and leathery. The bales were slung into huge boilers from which escaped a persistent and penetrating smell which crept through the camp and clung to everybody and everything. This delicacy found its way to the latrines by a far shorter route than normal.’
‘The latrines were monopolized by the French, who retired there when the Boche was looking for a working party. Some sixty brown porcelain bowls were laid out in four rows at arm’s length apart. This arrangement was very convenient for conversations and lighting several cigarettes from one match. The bowls possessed no wooden seats. In summer, the pot was pleasantly cool to the touch but in winter it was icy. The latrines were shared with the flies which clamored to settle on any uncovered portion of the anatomy. They detracted from much of the pleasure, though the old timers, with their philosophy of live and let live, sat on unconcerned, even smiling at the unavailing swipes of new prisoners. For the first three days the sprog airman did not touch the bowl with any part of his anatomy. Then, compromising between hygiene and comfort, he sat on his hands. Soon, he was smoking a cigarette with one hand and holding a newspaper in the other and conversing with his neighbour!’
‘In the long afternoons the camp pursued various interests. The bridge fiends played many different conventions all day long. A few talented ones danced and sang and mimed for the coming camp concert. Only a minority planned escapes. There were, of course, those who did nothing all day but sleep in the sun and who, on a dull day, just slept.’
‘At five o’clock, at the end of another day’s work in the fields, the French, Belgian and Serbian workers flooded into the camp. After the evening meal, cliques gathered to discuss their secrets. With the nights growing longer and colder, the encroaching blackout drove everyone into the barracks, where shuttered windows prevented ventilation and an open door was too draughty to be tolerated by those nearest to it. The fug so developed that, just before lights out, one end of the barrack-room was not visible from the other.’
‘These evenings were bartering times. Odd individuals carried small bags containing the results of a day’s scrounge. Perhaps a leather belt intricately made, or onions stolen while working in the fields, or even someone’s washing found drying in the open.’
‘Among ourselves there was a rate of exchange. One quarter of tea equaled fifty cigarettes or a one-pound tin of American or Canadian butter. There was little haggling. The question was “what would you like for that?” or “Is this any use to you?” Rarely was it “What will you give me for this?”
‘Once a week we were issued with a Red Cross food parcel. The American and Canadian ones were the best, containing pure butter, sugar, meat and milk powder. The British parcels, however, had more variety. All were magnificent for the food they contained and the spirit which inspired their dispatch.’
‘To make the food parcels go further most of the prisoners joined together in combines of two, three or four members. Cake baking was a favorite pastime in the camp and we all used more or less the same ingredients. Black German bread and Red Cross biscuits were crumbled and beaten into a flour substitute. Fruit, orange peel, prunes, jam, oats, syrup, treacle, Nestle’s tinned milk and blackcurrant puree were added as flavoring. Since there was neither self-raising flour nor baking powder available in the camp, most cakes tended to be on the heavy side, until we, with a stroke of genius, solved the problem by emptying half a bottle of effervescent fruit salts into the doughy mixture, immediately before placing in the oven.’
‘The normal housewife, when placing a cake in the oven has, at the most, only to juggle with a joint or one or two trays of pastry. The prisoner has to whip the cakes of the entire camp out of the communal stove so that his own will nestle snugly in the one hot spot at the back of the oven. Naturally, this procedure is repeated by each aspiring baker so a cake is taken out and put back into the oven at least forty times. Often the oven cools down until some prisoner with a social conscience and more than five bed boards dashes off to his bunk, appropriates a part of the barrack-room furniture and returns to stoke up the fire.’
The RAF prisoners at the camp were full of talk of escape, but it was difficult to devise a plan with much hope of success. Tunnelling and either going over or through the wire were considered difficult at this time so the best option appeared to be to simply walk out of the gate. Some prisoners, not the British, had cleaning duties in the administration block and others went out daily in large numbers on working parties, but these prisoners were carefully counted and checked. Understandably, the Belgians were unwilling to offer to switch places too often and the French were even more reluctant. Relations between the French and the British were very cold because of their sense of betrayal by the British at Dunkirk, an attitude carefully encouraged by the Germans.
Rumors about the latest arrival of 50 RAF prisoners to arrive from Dulag Luft swept through the compound, which included Sgt Thrower who had made his escape from the train.
As a reprisal the remainder had been taken and locked up in Hell’s Kitchen, a disused theatre with just one stage which was described as being worse than The Fabrique. Here the prisoners were kept for 2 weeks, in appalling conditions, without Red Cross parcels or food, living on German food rations only. However, the day before they were due to be moved to the main camp, 9 of the 50 RAF prisoners decided to make a break that night without any escape preparation, maps, etc.
They had found an old trap door in the stage and gained access to an unbarred window, leaving a 9 foot drop to the ground below and freedom but with a sentry only 25 yards away. The 9 made their escape and the first the Germans knew about the breakout was when the German guard tried very hard to make 45 prisoners into the 54 he had under his control. ‘Counting feverously on all fingers and perpetually marshalling the men into groups of 5 as was the German custom. After something like ten efforts the soldier dashed off to his N.C.O. with the news that some prisoners had escaped’ as reported by Sgt James McCairns.
‘After the usual spasm of cursing the Germans took the loss well but before any more trouble began, they herded the crowd together and marched them off to the camp proper. We gave them the usual terrific welcome and l singled out little “Gremlin” Morton from my own squadron, shot down 3 days after myself. He gave me all the latest developments and l in turn explained the camp to him. Together we marveled at last night’s escapade; Morton himself had the intention of going but when he had surveyed the mode of exit he hadn’t considered it possible – which all goes to show.’
Joe Walker said “Attempted escape from small camp attached to Stalag IXc unsuccessful. Other names unknown. Succeeded in getting away but were later captured.”
Sergeant Robert Alexander (Butch) Morton, born in Blackpool in 1920 but prided himself that he was a Yorkshire man from Hull, became an aircraft apprentice at Blackburn’s before joining the RAF and was shot down on 9th July 1941 by German aircraft and crashed near St. Omer, France, whilst flying with 616 Squadron when he was captured. He referred to an escape attempt at Stalag Luft 3, Sagan, in June 1942 only.
Morton also confirmed that the 150 RAF aircrew were put into one room of a barrack block, separated from the other end by a washroom between. The camp was full of French and Belgium POW’s, he confirmed and a number of Serb civilians, who he thought to be ‘a sorry lot’. Initially, he could not tell what nationality the prisoners in the other part of his barrack block were due to their language and it took a while to realise they were a Scottish regiment captured at Dunkirk!
The escapers remained at large in one’s and two’s for up to a fortnight, before they were all captured. Most of the escapers had jumped good trains so quite a few miles were covered and this proved the fastest mode of transport. The camp was located 300 miles from the Swiss border and 350 miles to Holland, France or Belgium. Three of the escapees were Czech’s who almost made it to their own country but the best performance came from Sgts. Bovington and Penn who jumped trains all the way passed Mannheim to Strasbourg where they received help from the French in getting out of the goods yard. They were well on their way to Metz when they were accidently pulled up by a motor cycle policeman who thought they were thieves.
During August 1941, Sgt Jack Gutteridge made an escape attempt with Sgt Robert Martin from Bad Sulza, They hid by day and travelled by night by goods train. They were recaptured by a flak post in Hanau. Bob (Robert Taylor) Martin, in his liberation questionnaire confirms escaped “from IXc August 1941 with Sgt Gutteridge by prepared hole. 9 men in all escaped. Picked up with Gutteridge at Hanau 14 days later by German AckAck (All others also recaptured). Health weak.”
What the escapees soon discovered was that walking around German occupied Europe in RAF blue, walking amongst Luftwaffe soldiers, begging bread from house to house and jumping trucks and trains proved the need to prepare for future escapes. They came back to confirm that every train wagon held a consignment note stating its intended destination, which would prove useful in future escapes. The escape proved unsuccessful, but useful in the information that was gathered.
Sgt James McCairns stated: ‘July was drawing to a close and whilst we were still madly dashing round the camp clad only in a pair of shorts, dressing only to go on a working party, we began to fear the approach of winter and the end of the escaping season. Hour after hour l labored in the sweltering heat religiously copying any map l could lay hands upon, the most popular being the German railway map and a copy of this was still available on exhibition in every passenger coach. Every now and then some Frenchman out on a work party would be able to nip into some deserted coach and cut the copy out of its frame. Returning to the camp he usually sold it for a fantastic supply of Red Cross tins. A group of us, subsisting on half rations soon managed to purchase via the French and Serbs, such articles as maps, compasses, wire cutters and rucsacs, and a liberal supply of civilian clothing. In addition, l sewed together a type of tight-fitting corset, stretching from my chest to my thighs. This l partitioned off and in every pocket was a ¼ slab of chocolate, glucose tablets, Horlicks tablets and oxo cubes. With this arrangement on l could walk round the camp carrying 7lbs of food about me and still did not show the bulk. All those earlier days were employed in bartering food or else changing tins of food into concentrated food packets. Never did we have a moment for Bridge or other relaxation.’
‘About this time l made the happy discovery that l still retained my compass. It was a small magnetic pointer, hole in the centre and suspended by means of a special cotton, luminous painted either end. This had been sewn in my tunic in England in the lapel of a pocket and so cunningly had it been hidden that when l searched for it after the Dulag Luft investigations, l could not find it and presumed the Germans had tumbled to it. A more thorough search revealed its presence and that appeared as a good omen – my faith was not misplaced for it did eventually steer me out of Germany.’
‘In consultation with Morton I found he had also smuggled his along in addition to a false collar stud, which, when the bottom varnish was scratched, revealed a compass in the base. Full of hope l decided to play my last ace and wrote home in my registered code which l had previously studied, giving gen on an arms dump and begging for aid and instructions. We were only allowed two letters per month and four postcards, so, once a month, l sacrificed my Mother’s letter in an effort to wrap up the code; terrified lest she misjudged my ramblings to her and feared for my state of mind. In an agony of suspense l waited for news from England. After 3 months mail began to arrive, but not until 4½ months had passed did a reply come to my first letter. Impatiently l sought for the coded content but none seemed apparent. Letter after letter l examined, but still no news. Only on my return did l realise my scheming had been in vain. Through some slip at this end l had never been correctly registered, consequently my mail had never been examined nor had any attempt been made to push out information.’
‘Friend Morton also had a registered frequency but never bothered with it – so when l sent out a coded letter to him on my return and signed it with a girl’s name, back came the reply to his parents “Sorry, but who is the girl Gladys starting to write to me? Is it Mc’s girlfriend?” He had completely forgotten to apply the key! Fortunately, his parents had already acquainted him of my return so we proceeded to razz him about Gladys!’
‘By the middle of August, 50 per cent of the R.A.F. were in the midst of escape preparations, the Army looking on in amazement with an experienced eye. Small, jealously guarded parties were formed and combination or formation of an Escaping Club was rendered quite impossible – keenness sent the price of escape aids rocketing and it was a royal harvest for the French.’
‘Without a leader, everyone mutually suspicious, the preparations became a shameful cut throat exhibition.’
Kenneth Fenton’s Liberation Questionnaire states under escape attempts:-
‘Yes, numerous attempts, e.g. tunnels – succeeded once in quitting camp with F/Sgt. McCairns at Stalag IXc – recaptured Weimar by Police next day. Physically fit -Yes. F/Sgt. McCairns re-escaped ~ l was unsuccessful ~ he was recaptured one or two days later – method – impersonated Belgians and walked through gate in early morning.’
Ken Fenton and Alan Fuller are second and third from the left, front row. You will notice Robert McDonald moving from hut picture to hut picture, a comic, sending his own message back home.
Back row, left to right: Twist, Jones, Penn, Fair, Tracey, Griffin, Judge, ___, Taylor, Marsden,
Black, Godwin, ___, ___, Jarvis. Front row, left to right, Fleury, Stevens, Barker, Hunter, Panter,
Keith Simpson recalls;
‘Whilst as a POW, ken escaped from a work party outside the wire but was subsequently apprehended.’
Meanwhile, Eric Sydney-Smith was about to go on a spot of leave when his flight was put down for a large-scale operation against the strategic important harbour at Rotterdam. During 1940 and the first half of 1941, Rotterdam had been raided dozens of times, mainly by heavy night bombers.
A daring daylight raid had been instructed by Churchill for Wednesday, 16th July 1941. Intelligence reported a number of ships in the harbour, ready to move up to the Ruhr Valley and equally of strategic importance, ocean-going vessels.
Two waves were directed to carry out the attack consisting of eighteen Blenheim’s from Nos. 21 and 266 Squadron based at Watton and secondly eighteen aircraft from Nos. 18 and 105 squadrons from Horsham St. Faith and No 139 Squadron from Oulton lead by Wing Commander Tim Partridge DFC, the CO of No 18 (Burma) Squadron.
The Blenheim crews practiced long and hard. Eric Sydney-Smith was given a scratch crew as his usual crew were in hospital recovering from wounds sustained on 27th March 1941 whilst attacking a German destroyer. Neither S/L Sydney-Smith, Pilot Officer R A White, nor the WOP/AG, Flight Sergeant E G Caban DFM, had flown together before. Ted Caban had been posted to 139 Squadron in a non-flying capacity as a gunnery leader/instructor after completing a tour of operations.
The Horsham St. Faith Blenheim’s took off 20 minutes earlier than those from Watton and those from Oulton, 25 minutes earlier at 1600 hours. They crossed the North Sea at wave top level heading South-West of Rotterdam and reached their target at 1700 hours. Sydney-Smith could see Dutch civilians waving and cheering at them from the streets. It was a miracle that none of the Blenheim’s collided; the sky over Rotterdam was a hornet’s nest of bombers.
Sydney Smith and his crew survived a successful belly landing in the middle of the city. As Sydney-Smith flew across the docks, looking for a target, he ran more or less broadside on to a cargo ship, being towed across the docks, fully laden. He let his bombs go at low level, lifting the Blenheim’s nose and then flew straight at a flak-ship, moored on the other side. He could feel the ship sparking from end to end with gunfire and could feel it striking the Blenheim.
Within a few seconds Caban was on the intercom warning that the port engine was on fire and that he had been hit. Black smoke was pouring from the top of the cowling of the port engine, trying to put out the fire. He later felt that he had accidentally switched off the engine, although the propeller continued to turn. When he looked up again, out of the cockpit, he saw a church tower looming towards him. His first thought was that he was going to crash into it. He rejected this idea and without any calculated ideas, he heaved back on the controls, taking the weather vane of the top, and they came down on the other side in the countryside, with great strength avoiding the rooftops. Both wings with their engines, had been cleanly torn from the fuselage and left behind, and the fire had gone out. The aircraft, Blenheim Z7362 XD-V, crash landed in Rotterdam Street, the nose of the aircraft came to a halt against the ticket office of the local zoo.
Sydney-Smith was unhurt. He unclipped his harness and the aircraft rescue axe, and climbed out of the cockpit and down onto the port wing root to help Ted Caban out of his gun-turret, where he was currently trapped with severe shrapnel wounds to his legs. Almost as soon as he stepped to the ground, crowds from the surrounding streets began rushing towards the stricken Blenheim. With-in seconds – before he had any time to do anything – the first man reached him, snatched the axe from him and started attacking the turret, trying to rescue Caban. He went round to the nose and saw Dutch civilians attending to Adrian White who was smiling reassuringly, even though he had been projected feet first through the Perspex nose of the aircraft and had broken his ankle. Sydney-Smith made his get away amongst the crowd. He was able to leave the scene but was eventually betrayed by collaborators and taken into captivity with his crew. Sgt Caban, POW No. 9631, was awarded the DFM with 18 Squadron, Gazetted 7th March 1941 and after hospitalisation, followed Ken through the various POW camps and his name and address are listed in his POW log.
Meanwhile, back of Drax, Keith recalls;
Following a further lapse of time, good news, and at morning assembly, the Headmaster Rev. B P Grant announced that official advice has been received by the family that Ken was safe as a POW.’
Picture of the Cuttings at Drax where Ken fished as a child as taken from his YMCA POW log book, given to him in Stalag Luft 6 and drawn from memory. Pencils, ink and paints were banned items.
139 Squadron ORB’s report on 17th July 1941, Squadron Stand Down; Sgt. Fenton, Sgt. Fuller , Sgt. McDonald reported as being Prisoners of War. Ken’s family was also informed the same day via telegram.
A picture of Mrs Fenton and a poem by Tommaso Campanella, called ‘The People’.
Letters from Records Office, RAF and the British Red Cross confirming that Ken is safe.
Together with notification that their Son, Father or Husband was now a POW, the Red Cross also provided an information leaflet, in my Fathers case PW/99/41, which outlined some questions answered and confirmed what could be sent to the POW’s in the form of letters, food or aid parcels. It also gave details of a booklet that was also available from Newsstands and bookstalls. See Appendix A.
Upon hearing the news that Ken was a POW, the Family immediately tried to send Ken some supplies.
McDonald joined his former crew members at Stalag Ixc, Bad Sulza on 10th August 1941.
On Sunday, 14th August 1941, an international boxing tournament was organised on the riverside of the camp, midway between two guard towers. The whole camp were watching, including the guards and Sgt. William (Bill) W Hall (listed in Ken’s POW log book) and Derrick Nabarro chose this opportunity to escape over the wire but were recaptured just outside the compound as a group of Serbs had seen the pair climb over the wire and were so excited to see this that they could not contain their excitement, which alerted the guards and foiled the escape.
‘Four of us, keen on a daylight break, got together fully determined to get out before anyone spoilt our chances. Then dissension arose in the four, which was considered too large a party, so we divided and because Hall and Nabarro wanted to go immediately and had hit upon a scheme whereby their exit would remain a complete mystery whereas Bezley and l would leave unmistakeable traces, we agreed to give them preference and sat back, impatiently awaiting the delivery of a pair of wire-cutters from a Serb to whom we had paid seven tins of food.’
‘Thus, one month after our arrival at the H.Q. of IXc, Bill Hall came up and said that today he a Nabarro were going to attempt the first escape ever contemplated from this camp in its 18 months’ history. Once the R.A.F. began weaving, the escape-proof camp soon became very silly looking. What was more, their effort was to be a daylight sortie.’
What had been noticed was that there was on guard tower, separate from the others that did not give the field of vision needed to ensure that no escape attempts could be made over the wire. Indeed, the guard was not able to see what was going on just below him.
McCairns wrote – ‘So these two pilots (Meaning Nabarro and Hall) had the audacity to attempt to cross the 2 fences directly underneath the guard and then to slip into the river and worm their way up it under cover of the steep bank.’
‘Just before dusk, four of us were to be seen carrying out blankets for shaking and of course the place we chose for the work was right at the foot of the tower – completely out of sight. Concealed in the blankets were all the necessary articles of food, clothing and rucsacs, for they planned on a long campaign – south to the Swiss border by train-jumping and then nipping into the barbed wire frontier of which we had heard all sorts of rumours – even to its intensive electrification.’
‘Just then a group of ten Poles sauntered up and stationed themselves about 20 yards away, always keeping an eye on our party. No one ever knew how they came to learn of secret moves but in each and every case, you could depend on the Poles being “au fait” with an escape. One complication had arisen during the day – an open-air boxing match was scheduled to take place that evening and the improvised ring was only 50 yards away and almost in full view. But after consultation this was agreed upon as a good thing – all attention would be focused on this match and it should act as a considerable diversion.’
From Nabarro’s recollection of the incident;
‘The day dragged. Towards six o’clock l shaved. I washed. I had a meal. At seven l went to see Bill and asked if he was ready.’
‘”I’ll not be a minute. See you out there,” he said. I sauntered out of the barrack-room and flopped down beside McCairns, who had already carried my rucksack out underneath a blanket. McCairns, tall, slim, fair-haired and a fighter pilot, was one of our small circle of prisoners engaged in preparing escapes and helping one another. Underneath his languid exterior McCairns was as tough as a steel hawser. For days now we had occupied that position underneath the tower, either playing cards or sunbathing until the guards were quite used to seeing us there.’
‘So, after 8PM, Hall and Nabarro made the necessary changes to their uniforms, slung on their rucsacs, shook hands with Bezley and myself, pulled on their thick, prepared gloves to prevent the barbed wire prongs tearing their hands and Nabarro leading, embarked on their climb up the first 9 feet barbed wire fence.’
‘Naturally, the success of the whole venture depended on silence – the guard could not see them but his attention must not be attracted by noise. From the first moment Nabarro put his full weight on the barbed wire strand, l felt the enterprise was doomed. The whole tower gave a sickening creak which made a noise worse than a thousand sirens but undaunted, keyed to a now-or-never itch, up and up went Nabs with Hall close on his heels. The row was terrific – it seemed as though the very fence would collapse under their combined weight. God, l thought, they haven’t a chance, in a moment every machine gun in the camp will open fire. This is no place for me, and funking the issue, controlling my movements as best l could, l essayed casually strolling from the base to my barracks 23 yards away. Arrived there, l pulled a pair of trousers over my shorts, put on a blue tunic in order to change my complete appearance and rushed to the window.’
‘Although l was still 25 yards from the scene, l could hear the creaking of wood and the groaning of wire as they climbed over the scaffolding of the tower, well above the two wire fences and actually gained the ladder leading up to the guards tower. Down this ladder they came in style, gaining the ground outside both fences and with one last exposed yard to cover before scrambling down the river bank.’
During the whole of this performance; like a statue or some deaf mute, the guard, propped between his rifle and the balustrade, had eyes for nothing but the boxing match staged below. Not a hint did he give of the slightest suspicion.’
‘The plan went like clockwork, only to be jammed in its final stage. As the two escapees were on the scaffolding, a miserable Serb happened to glance from the boxing match and observed the farce. This he thought was far better value than any boxing match and with screams of delight he advised his neighbours! Like one man 50 Serbs turned and just as the two Englishmen were disappearing from sight into the safety of the river, a party of Serbs broke away, rushed to the barbed wire and endeavoured to watch the two creeping along the river bank. The last move was fatal. Even the stupidity of the guard was penetrated. He rushed to the other side of the platform and leaning over his balustrade, at long last he managed to spot the unsuspecting Nabarro crawling away.’
‘The Germans had definite instructions, as were grimly warned by the skull and crossbone notices in the camp “Shoot to kill”.’
‘Of all concerned, the guard was the most nervous. For my part, deathly white and petrified, l could only watch him as he brought the rifle to his shoulder. With trembling hands he attempted to level and take careful aim at a target outside our vision.’
‘For an eternity he seemed to be aiming, a ghastly hush descended on the camp, not to be broken until the crack of his rifle sent the whole camp into an uproar, the German bellowing orders loader than all the rest.’
‘The first Derrick Nabarro knew of his turn in fortune was the whine of a rifle bullet and the dull thud as it buried into the earth six inches from his head. Startled, he lost his balance and fell headlong into the river, thus it was a rather dripping and crestfallen pair who emerged from the river, hands held well above the head.’
‘As for the method of escape, the Germans would still have been in the dark if one of the beloved and obliging Serbs had not gone straight to the German Commandant and given an almost practical demonstration of just how it was done.’
‘God! How we hated those meddlesome Serbs – always ready to ingratiate themselves with the Germans in exchange for the oft-promised but never-granted repatriation. Poor starved devils – one couldn’t blame them.’
Only one Slav l ever met did l trust. He would do anything for me. His one ambition was to escape to England with Salen Bezley and myself and become our batman. Poor wretch, although he was only 35 the last time l saw him come limping into the camp from a Kommando, he looked 60 at least.’
So the method of escape was discovered and fixed and Nabarro and Hall started 21 days of solitary confinement. The Germans erected a further fence inside the main perimeter fence, effectively reducing the size of the compound further. This caused many of the prisoners to start to begrudge the escape hungry RAF POW’s, especially considering the number of Army prisoners who were classified as DU’s, Definitely Unfit and awaiting repatriation to England.
With the successful curtailment of the already used and exposed escape route, McCairns was looking for an alternative. He knew what he and Sgt Norman Cound Bizley of Combe Dingle, Bristol, would do once outside the camp, they just needed to get out. Bizley was a Bomber Command pilot from 77 Squadron who was captured at Epe, Holland on 7th July 1941.
Sergeant Bizley was to suffer two early accidents before being captured.
On 3rd December 1940, a three month old Whitley, T4205, took off from Topcliffe at 16.32hrs for Ops to Mannheim. It is not know why the crew did not release their bombs over the target but they certainly brought them home and while making for their Yorkshire base at Topcliffe the aircraft was force to land near Easingwold, at Boscar Wood, Raskelf at around 03.40hrs. Lack of fuel was blamed for the landing being attempted (not suprising given the time in the air), the wireless had also failed and they were unable to get signals to locate an airfield. A fire broke out on landing which caused one of the bombs to explode later (probably at another time quoted for the crash itself) at around 06.00hrs. All five crew men were injured and the aircraft destroyed as a result. The crew consisted of Sgt Norman Cound Bizley 242472? Pilot who suffered a broken leg and arm, P/O Leonard Edward Pearson 42639 Second pilot, of Scorton, Lancashire. Slightly injured, Sgt Sewell, observer, injured, Sgt Middleton, Wireless Operator / Air Gunner, injured and Sgt Engel, Wireless Operator / Air Gunner, injured.
Then he ditched a Whitley off Hornsea, Yorkshire in mid-November 1940 on return from Ops to Berlin.
He was captured following an operation on 6/7th July 1941 when Sgt Bizley was flying Whitley Z6642 on Ops to Dortmund, his aircraft crashed in Holland and he and the four he was flying with became PoW’s.
All we wanted was three days’ liberty, clothes and food didn’t mean a thing because we were decided upon the maddest of mad schemes. Fly home or bust! It was all worked out. We had the directions to neighbouring aerodromes and basing our assumptions on the aircraft we chanced to see and which never failed to make our hearts swell with the ambition to fly again, we had a fair idea of the machine we might cope with. Rejected was any idea of attempting to start an aircraft – instead, lying in waiting on an aerodrome perimeter we would bide our time till the mechanics came to start the engines on a daily inspection. Then it would be do or die – one glorious rush, a stunning blow with our heavy-wire cutters and the kite would be ours. If a twin, Salen the bomber expert would captain, if a single, the job was mine. It all seemed to simple – questions like range and petrol supplies didn’t worry us unduly – we were just mad keen.’
But with their escape route closed they needed to find another way, so the prisoners kept plotting with the odd outing on a work party, but these were very much reduced following the RAF NCO’s demonstration on escape. Sickness was also hitting the camp with bouts of dysentery. This was the time that Beresford and Mercer made their escape attempt, the first the prisoners knew of which was a rifle shot being heard during the night but they were soon captured.
Sergeant Neil Shillinglaw Mercer of 115 Squadron, Bomber Command, was captured on 26th June 1941 at Schotten and reported in his Liberation Questionnaire ‘October 1941. Climbing boundary fence. Sgt Beresford. Recaptured by camp guards same morning’
McCairns wrote about their attempted escape. ‘It was a cold, black night. The gusting wind hurling tins and odds and ends round the camp was expected to cover up any suspicious noise. They intended, shod in rubber gym shoes, to climb the preliminary fence and then cope with the real barrier by climbing over it. The spot chosen for the sortie adjoined our barracks whilst across the way were also German quarters, so that once over the fence they still had to find a way amongst German barracks, avoid the kennels containing a large number of Alsatians, and then over a last 9 ft fence surrounding the German administrative quarters.’
‘At the first barrier the ground was lit by an overhanging lamp, 25 yards to the right was a sentry who had an annoying habit of popping out of his box and stamping round – that had to be chanced.’
‘After midnight when the barrack was fast asleep, out they crept and up to the fence. Lying flat on the ground they listened to the receding steps of the guard on the other side of the two fences and a little later when snatches on conversations caught their ears, they knew that man at least was engaged. As no noise came from the direction of the sentry box Beresford cautiously raised himself and seeing the coast was clear, he carefully climbed the 9 ft fence, one foot on either side of the wooden vertical pole to which the vertical horizontal strands were stapled every 9 inches, employing each stapled strand as the rung of a ladder. Luckily the strands had been nailed whilst at tension and they took the weight.’
‘Clambering down the other side there remained a belt 5 feet wide of loosely-coiled barbed wire, made more unmanageable by the rank growth of vegetation. With care he managed to negotiate his way to the second fence when it became merely a repetition of the previous effort. Five minutes after the start he was lying concealed in the shadows of a ditch running parallel to the German building waiting for Mercer to join him. Without difficulty the latter surmounted the first obstacle, but proceeding too quickly through the coiled barbed wire, it tore into his clothes and held him a temporary prisoner. His wild, preliminary efforts to disengage only increased complications and before he had time to calmly consider the situation the noise of his first, futile efforts had brought the guard running along the wire, madly flashing his hand dynamo driven lamp with its peculiar whir-whir sound.’
‘Whilst still 15 yards from the Englishman now struggling like a rat in a trap in the dim light of the lamp, the German saw him, levelled his rifle and tried to shoot him like a dog. Blessed we were in camp as far as accuracy of fire in our guards was concerned. Even at that range he missed and the hapless man was court-martialed next day for such inefficiency.’
‘In next to no time the place was just a mass of excited Germans who added to their elation when a chance ray of light showed up Beresford still crouching in his meagre cover – off went the Hun, contented with their night’s work.’
‘True to form reprisals were applied the next day. The commandant argued that since they had left the barracks, via a window – we were locked in each night at sunset – in future every night each window would be shuttered. That meant that 300 men, 150 in each of three rows, were expected to pass the whole night, herded one upon the other, without any ventilation. In spite of our spirited protests, that decree became the order of the day.’
‘A feud started which lasted a month, and eventually we emerged triumphant, mainly because the Germans lacked the new materials to enforce such a regulation. The wooden shutters, fastening from the outside, were only held together by a single latch – padlocks or horizontal iron bars were not available. So as soon as our lights were extinguished at 10.30 pm every shutter was forced open, in vain did the poor guards come round and re-fasten them muttering dire threats. As soon as their back was turned – crash – open they would fly again.’
‘So it went on for a month and then, in disgust, Jerry threw in his hand.’
‘With Mercer and Beresford in the jug and all my little outings proving quite fruitless, involving much hard labour which l welcomed, but no get away to freedom, a general depression set in. One of the outings proves quite instructive for we had to build a fence inside a huge Luftwaffe camp, unfortunately used only for convalescing aircrew and initial ground training of recruits. But l remember how impressed l was by the efficiency and smartness of their drill, how high the physical standard of the youth before me. And once again l doubted the words of home propaganda which declared that the cream of Hitlerian youth had already been sacrificed. If these chaps represented future aircrew, as they did, our boast was far from the truth. That visit was the subject of another long coded but futile message home. How l damned someone’s inefficiency.’
‘Whether or not we were superstitious l don’t know, but no one seemed at all keen on risking a third bullet trying to scale the barbed wire and thoughts veered to that long-discussed project – a tunnel – last card left to any escapee, and about the weakest.’
‘By a little subtle management, a small party, keen on digging, organized it so they had all the beds in the worst corner of the room, that nearest the river.’
‘It is difficult to imagine, but the 3-tier beds were packed so compactly that finding the corner from the clear space on the other side of the room by the entrance was far worse than any labyrinth – an unbelievable maze of beds.’
‘Apart from the ten beds around, by careful screening it was impossible for anyone to observe our actions – except in the morning when rousing us, Germans seldom came down the alleyway so we were quite free to work all the day, with one man posted as guard to pass the word if jerry entered the building when the tunnel would be covered up and someone would be temporarily entombed.’
‘The Royal Engineers took the technical side in hand and designed a wizard tunnel, some 30 yards in length, running 10 ft underneath the surface to the familiar river bank. The passage had to be made well below the surface because the Hun, to forestall any tunneling efforts, had dug a trench 5 ft deep inside the perimeter of the camp and we had to pass beneath this with a good margin of safety. So we commandeered the two ground-level beds in the corner, one was used for storing loose earth until it could be disposed of. The second bed was chosen for the scene of operations. The straw palliasse was rolled back, the bed boards, horizontal slats of wood 30 inches wide, being the width of each bed, marked out on the concrete beneath. Then for days on end went on the heart breaking task of cutting a gap 30 inches square through nine solid inches of concrete with a small hammer and chisel as the only tools. These, together with a trowel and spade we purchased from the Serbs.’
‘Gradually, scarcely daring at first to make any noise, we chipped away and eventually an impression was noticeable. The work continued and as the news leaked out, many prying questions and requests were made by the curious, but few genuine offers of help.’
‘At last, after steadily working in relays, the day dawned when we chipped away the last piece of concrete and set to work on the soft-yielding clay soil below. In comparison with the solid concrete it seemed like a piece of cake – down and down went our vertical shaft, with ever-increasing rapidity. We sank this beautifully symmetrical shaft a good eight feet until it was almost an impossibility to make the required descent and ascent. Only by cutting a series of footholes in the crumbling sides and scrambling up like a chimney sweep with a final movement that consisted of grasping a bar placed over the hole, and chinning ones-self up, could the ascent be made.’
‘Altogether it was a most awe-inspiring work and l could appreciate the look of amazement that passed over the faces of the uninitiated on their first view of our construction.’
‘At the bottom of the shaft we proceeded to scoop plenty of earth away in order to make sufficient working space and room to turn ones-self inside out. That is to say, if one wanted to make a head-first or feet-first attack on the yawning cavern – for the largest of us couldn’t do a turnabout in the tunnel.’
‘Taking a compass bearing at the shaft bottom which we hoped and prayed would lead us to the river in the shortest possible line, excavation was started on the actual tunnel. Once again we decided on the old 30” x 30” measurement, but there was method in our madness!’
‘The size was rather larger than necessary and it is a fundamental fact that the larger the opening, the quicker the progress. On a large face one can really get down to it. But here one came up against the big snag – disposal of soil. As it was calculated that at least 20 tons of earth would be excavated and that was quite enough to carry about. One other important reason for such a measurement was imposed by the necessity for bracing. Originally we cut in bracing struts every yard, but in certain instances the whole of the tunnel with bed boards 30 inches long and about 4 inches wide, it was quite a simple matter to bank in wooden frames.’
‘Altogether we must have used 3 or 4 hundred pieces, enough for 30 or 40 beds and l know most of us had a palliasse resting on only 4 or 5 boards instead of the customary 15.’
‘As already indicated, the soil disposal question was one of our most ticklish problems and the most dangerous. Eventually it was solved in a reckless but satisfactory manner. For digging we worked a 3-man shift; the first person down used to strip, don a helmet of some description to keep the hair more or less clean and lower himself gently down the shaft, crawl along the winding tunnel and begin chewing the face away with a trowel, and pile the loose dirt into a bucket. No.2. would then go down, creep along to No.1. and when the bucket was full, attempt to crawl out backwards pulling the bucket with him. At the vertical shaft he would find a hook and a rope, fasten this to the bucket and cry out “Haul away”. Up would go the bucket and all the time you would be praying for the rope or hook not to break and send 20 LBs of solid bucket crashing down on your exposed head.’
Ken Fenton was working in McCairns team of 3 diggers. Whilst those at the top suffered the need for constant surveillance, the danger of being caught, those below, in happy ignorance, suffered from frequent tunnel collapses and very bad headaches, carbon monoxide poisoning in effect as their candles burnt the small amount of oxygen present.
The tunnels were 2 feet 6 inches wide by 2 feet 6 inches high, impossible to turn around in, based on the size of the bed boards. They suffering from frequent collapse, the air was acrid at best, but with the margarine candles for light, carbon monoxide poisoning was normal, leaving the tunnellers with severe blinding headaches, often passing out. The further they got, the worse the air would be, leaving them with little oxygen to survive. ‘The Great Escape’ implies that they invented the air pump but this was in fact used during escape attempts during WW1 and earlier camps during WW2. This would have made it easier to work for an hour as opposed to ten minutes but they still suffered with carbon monoxide poising. Other ‘blitz’ or ‘mole’ tunnels, those started closer to the wire where the tunnellers would be buried alive until they could escape on the other side of the wire had to find other methods. They utilized air holes, being pushed up by hinged iron rods every few yards but this exposed the tunnel to discovery.
The tunnel was big enough to allow a man to lie flat and wiggle or worm his way along the tunnel, little room to move on hands and knees, the same way that you had to leave the tunnel, but backwards. They dug wearing very little clothing as was required by the heat and exertion of their exploits, usually in long johns to make it easier for when they left the tunnel, to keep themselves as clean as possible and give no indication of their exploits.
Removing the dirt produced was the next most difficult job, requiring dexterity to either move the dirt behind you to another tunneller or ‘bag’ it up direct for it to be pulled to the main shaft.
They became accustomed, although very difficult, to being buried alive during the frequent collapses when bed boards and shoring was not available or thought not necessary. On the better days, after the introduction or air, an hour to an hour and a half at the tunnel face was as much as anyone could stand and the progress depending on the soil encountered. Soft sand as experienced at Stalag Luft’s III and VI were easy to dig through but needed continuous shoring and suffered frequent collapse, whilst the earlier camps had soil that needed less shoring but was full of stones and clay and therefore slower progress was made. The tunnellers used table knives and other sharp, improvised, pieces of equipment to dig with. Sgt. John Fancy, a frequent tunneller used a German butter knife throughout his various escape attempts.
The noise of the tunneling was hidden by frequent distractions and the disposal of the soil was a major issue. A very secure security system was developed, ensuring that any guards moving into the area could be watched so that the tunnel could be closed down as soon as they were coming too close.
But many, especially after some time in the camps, looked on tunneling as the only way out, having heard the Germans frequent speeches, stating that any prisoners attempting to escape would be shot, not to stop them, but to kill them. This intention was witnessed many times throughout a POW’s experiences, but in these early days of Stalag IXc, they had not witnessed any form of success or excess by the German guards.
‘No.3., after heaving the bucket clear of the shaft, would empty it under the adjacent bed and we would keep on working in 1-hour shifts, which, believe me, were quite long enough if you were at the face digging, until all the bed space was full – that represented anything up to 40 buckets. Sometimes if we were lucky we could dispose of some of the earth in the daytime. We would bring a rubbish box along, fill it one third full of dirt and put refuse and tin cans over the top, then carry it out to the Old Ashengrabe outside, which was a huge brick rubbish container. Perhaps twice a week the soldiers would come along and empty it in a big wagon, carry it out of the camp and shove the contents on the garbage dump. Never once did the guard notice the large percentage of soil.’
‘But the method by which 80 per cent of the soil went was far simpler. In the dusk each evening, the last half-hour of twilight before we were locked in our respective barracks, an amusing procession used to take place. About ten of us used to take a bucket each, have it hurriedly filled by some type sitting under the bed and then hurry out to the communal lavatory, grope in the darkness till we found a bowl and then tip the contents down into the cess-pit. What chaos those processions used to be. On more than one occasion some poor Frenchman having his last pleasure of the day would be the recipient of a bucket of clay and then what cursing there would be. At other times we would get in each other’s way and violent head-on collisions would take place at the door.’
‘Usually, just as the last buckets were being filled, a whistle heralding the arrival of the guards and dogs would be sounded, and we would feverishly empty the last buckets whilst someone else would go round cleaning the lavatory bowls of the last sticking remnants of clay, poking it down into the pit with the ever-useful bed boards. Occasionally, in a desperate attempt to rid our bed of all the earth, we would leave it too late and be forced to run a gauntlet of Germans and dogs, dangling an empty, earth encrusted bucket in our hands.’
‘But those guards were very, very dim and even when it became obvious to every inmate of IXc that a tunnel was being dug, the earth-covered lavatory bearing silent witness in our frenzied effort of the last few days, the Germans were still none the wiser.’
‘Once a month a tanker lorry came along and the cess-pit was drained out. We were scared lest the percentage of mud might clog the pump and warrant an investigation. But fate was with us – the pit was not drained until it was too late.’
‘By our fourth week we were up against another snag. We had now penetrated over 20 yards, but the air had become foul. Breathing was laborious but much worse, our lamps would no longer burn. Our great lamps were merely cigarette tins filled with fat and a piece of cloth stuck in the top as a wick. When sufficiently hot they would give off a yellow, smoky flame but sufficient to see where we were digging. Obviously we had to introduce an air pipe. Digging had to be suspended whilst we set about the collection of 300 empty cigarette tins – the 50 variety.’
‘The bottom of each tin was cut out and they were joined together by insertion. Thus we had a 3 inch diameter pipeline some 25 yards long but it was not sufficient – there was no flow of air. Bellows had to be introduced.’
‘So it happened that one morning a poor innocent soldier woke up and found that during the night some cruel-hearted type had pinched his accordion. That accordion appeared 24 hours later, mounted over the top of the shaft, a round hole cut in its side and joined onto the pipeline. Whilst work was in progress, No.3. now had a most important mission. He had to squeeze and open the accordion continuously for the hour shift. With great wheezing he performed the job very well and a cool, refreshing flow of air was introduced to the tunnel face. Work once more progressed and we counted 10 days to go before the break.’
‘The Sunday before (21st September) l celebrated my birthday – my 22nd – in traditional manner. Attended a poignant church service in the morning; gave a dinner party at 5pm, and managed to serve 5 courses starting off with hors d’oeuvres and ending with a chocolate birthday cake. In the evening we went to the French show and l finished the day by muttering the eternal vow – “Just let me get outside the barbed wire”.’
‘The following Sunday opportunity came knocking and l answered it in about 1 minute.’
‘At noon on this particular day, after Church, l heard rumours that we would be allowed to parade out to a field about half-an-hour away where there would be a football match between the French and the Belgian teams. In the past this had been the custom once every 3 weeks but of late the privileges had been suspended. However, l had once, surveyed the ground and considered the chances excellent. Bezley was still U/S with a crocked knee and dysentery. Fenton, my tunnel partner, wanted to wait for that work to be successful so off l rushed to Morton, pooled our efforts and l began to dress for the occasion, putting my famous girdle on before bags of heavy clothing, finishing the job with a huge Army greatcoat.’
‘I remembered when l borrowed the coat from some Army friends, they suddenly took me into their confidence and declared a tunnel (our tunnel) was in preparation – why not wait for that? I laughed and confessed my lack of faith in that exploit – l much preferred to get weaving before the big break, news of which would presumably be broadcast.’
‘So 1.30pm found “Butch” Morton and myself jockeying for position in the party of 50 Englishmen to be allowed out. We were lucky, but when we counted 7 other suspicious characters in the same crowd; in one particular case the R.A.F. type’s pockets was so crammed with food one could see the oval outline of a pilchard tin, we became much more uneasy.’
‘After marshalling us into groups of 5 and using all their fingers, the guards eventually allowed a party of 123 or 121, they weren’t very sure, (to) sally forth.’
‘With my corset and clothes l felt conscious of the guard’s proving eye – every inch a giant l seemed to be. Without incident we reached the field, the match started and immediately 9 types started weaving and investigating the strength of the guard. For once the Germans were much too clever; one of the stool-pigeons must have tipped them off – not a single loophole remained open.’
‘By teatime one saw 9 disgruntled pilots in the queue only too eager to get back to food after such a goose chase. To add insult to injury the guards scarcely bothered to count us on return – they must have been confident of their prowess.’
‘Meanwhile the tunnel was rapidly being extended and caution and secrecy almost thrown to the winds.’
‘The following Friday, October 3rd, brought great excitement – the arrival of hundreds more Englishmen. The camp was packed with Dunkirk D.U.s (Definitely Unfit medical category). The first great repatriation scheme was on foot. These hundreds would be on their way to Rouen and thence to England on Monday. You can imagine how everyone was giving addresses and instructions to these war-wounded veterans. How lucky they were – but l didn’t envy them. Much as l wished to return l would not have done so at the cost of a limb or eye which was the penalty demanded. We gave up our beds to the wounded and that hindered our work. The one great ambition was to time our break to synchronise with the departure of these men. We were confident by this time the Boche must be hopelessly confused as to the numbers and with luck even an absence of 25 might take a certain time to confirm.’
‘Feverishly we worked but our best estimate still left us 3 yards to shift. On Sunday, October 5th, it was announced the D.U.s would be on the move – one good opportunity had been lost. Then came the storm. At 11am a humble whisper swept the camp – the Kommandant and a large force of men had swept into the Army barrack and kicked every soldier out. Doors were locked and the rumour had it that the tunnel had been discovered. I pooh-poohed the idea and explained that it was all part of the repatriation scheme. But inside of me there was a queer sinking feeling – l felt the parental worries over a fast-sickening child. Doom loomed before me.’
‘For ages and ages we were in suspense, then out charged the Germans – locking all doors after them. Our senior man was sent for and his return confirmed our worst fears – we had been sold. An informer had gone to the Germans and given the precise site of the tunnel mouth. Apparently, the Kommandant had been able to go straight to the spot, throw aside the coverings and expose our little game. Fortunately, no one was working at the time. Swift conjectures went round as to the informer. The most popular candidate was a Serbian interpreter although two Englishmen ranked high on the list of suspects. But more colour was lent to the Serbian version when it was noticed he accompanied several high-ranking Nazi officials on their inspection of our work. On the whole l think our work excited their admiration. The Kommandant swelled with pride at the praise lavished on him by his bud-nipping of the escape and punishment was surprisingly lenient.’
Sergeant O B James confirmed that the tunnel started on 28th August 1941 and was given away on 3rd October the same year, when only three feet remained to be dug. He was also hoping to escape by means of this tunnel, having helped by keeping watch. There were 15 men in total involved, all of whom were RAF with the exception of the tunnel Engineer who was Royal Engineers. James confirmed two other names involved being Flt Sgt Cameron and Sgt Penn.
Sergeant John Henderson, 106 Squadron, was captured near Liege on 3rd July 1941. He confirms that he was also involved with the tunnel at Bad Sulza and stated:- ‘Tunnel escape at Stalag IXc. Was betrayed by unknown person before completion of tunnel about Oct 1941’. He had previously evaded capture following the downing of his aircraft; ‘On being shot down l attempted to escape – walked west all night into Belgium, was alone. At daylight was taken into Belgium cottage, where l was told l would be put in touch with the underground movement. While hiding, there was apparently betrayed to local Gendarme. Handed over to Military next day.’
Sergeant David Boyne Annesley from Moutoa, Shannon, New Zealand and a member of 15 Squadron Bomber Command, was captured on the night of the 29th/30th June 1941 in Hamburg and was also involved. He sprained his ankle in the incident but says he suffered ‘Fever nature unknown, believed to be scarlet whilst being shifted from 9c to Sagan whilst suffering from ill health.’ Duration ‘One month.’ He says ‘Took part in tunneling at 9c. Believe Crane may have given us away on final night.’ but he also stated ‘Have reason to believe that Styles of the Gloucestershire Reg. plus Cyril Crane whilst at 9c collaborated with enemy and interfered with prisoners attempts to escape. Believe Crane was either NAFFI or Civilian. July ’41 – April 30 ’42.’
Sgt Annesley was aboard Stirling N6016 coded LS-G when it was lost on the night of 29th/30th June 1941. The aircraft took off from Wyton to bomb Hamburg and was shot down by a night fighter, crashing at Ellerbak, 14 km NW of Hamburg. The crew consisted of Sgt R.C. Smith KIA, Sgt D. Rees POW, Sgt D.B. Annesley POW, Sgt T.S. Thorkilsen POW, Sgt W.B. Louch POW, Sgt L.B. McCarthy POW and F/Sgt R.S Storie KIA. The two airmen who died are buried locally at Ohlsdorf.
Tunnelling continued after the RAF’s departure from Stalag IXc, Bad Sulza, and Sergeant Alfred William Abbott arrived at the camp in September 1942 and departed in January 1943. He stated that he escaped by tunnel with 5 companions from IXc but was captured outside the compound.
‘He (The Commandant) called for the culprits to announce themselves. We went into a huddle, and, fearful lest reprisal measures might be taken against the camp, especially the D.U.s whose departure was imminent, 25 of us gave ourselves up and paraded before the Ober Leutenant. After inspection he shook his head in a wise and fatherly fashion and announced that under German supervision we must dig it up and cement in the shaft. During the rest of the day we could take out our temper in furious labour.’
‘The tunnel proved too deep to dig up. That effort was abandoned so we had to be content with pouring in barrow loads of mud down the shaft and stamping it down with a huge pole. Eventually the surface was cemented over and that was all – threats of absence of Red Cross boxes were not executed but the Germans did insist in future on a change of barracks once a month, which became a terrible fag – the carting of kit about the place and bagging new beds and eating place.’
‘For me that day the world no longer existed. I was numb – just like another time when l lost my wrist watch which was of great sentimental value and the invaluable asset in an escape. But this time there was no joyous finding – even when the D.U.s trooped out after lunch, presumably en route to England. I still couldn’t muster up any enthusiasm.’
‘If only l hadn’t been so shattered, what opportunity that farewell would have given. Out the hundreds trooped – homeward bound with joy in their hearts. Carrying only messages of wellbeing to our loved ones they had gladly given every little bit of kit away and were now travelling light.’
‘What faith they possessed in international transactions – even when the bitter story was broken it couldn’t be believed. There they lingered in Rouen whilst the Germans and English mutually blamed one another for the break-down of the scheme. Knowing how l felt when escape schemes came to naught, l could never imagine how those embittered and disappointed D.U.’s ever managed to steel themselves to undertake a new life at a fresh camp in Germany, without kit, without hope, without anything. That was the devilishness of the Germans, no man ever returned to his old environment and pals but had to remake a new existence.’
‘But out of evil some good did come. About 13 types did put up a colossal show and in spite of the Germans, they did make England – definitely unfit or not.’
‘The most outstanding case that l knew of was a Sgt. James, a Blenheim pilot (Now known to be a Hampden) who went into Brest so low that he hit a ship’s mast and crashed in flames. In that episode he lost his left arm after a hurried and unnecessary amputation by the Germans.’
Sergeant Oliver Barton James DFM MM was shot down on 22nd March 1941 onboard an 83 Squadron Hampden X3132 OL-L on a minelaying raid on Brest. The aircraft took off from Scampton on 22nd March 1941 at 02.00 hrs and crashed near Morlaix, France, having been hit by flak before reaching their objective. Sgt D. MacCallum evaded capture but both Sgt W.E. Miller and Sgt N.S. Weir were killed. Sgt James was initially taken to a barn by the French, but was later given away and captured by the Germans, who took him to a hospital in Morlaix, where his left arm was amputated.
‘He was with us in IXc and he was one of the most enthusiastic of the escape maniacs. With his single arm he was unsuited for actual tunnel digging but did invaluable work as lookout.’
‘Two mornings after the D.U.s had left, a report came through that they camped in the open by the station and were urgently in need of food and more R.A.M.C. orderlies. A gang of R.A.M.C. men were ordered down there and a further contingent of D.U.s sent along.’
Sergeant James, noticing after the initial departure, that there were many injured soldiers still left, approached an Army Staff Sergeant who he knew to be friendly with the Germans who took him to see the German MO. Dressed in Army kit but giving his real name, he was allowed to leave with the next batch.
‘James, wearing Army kit, because, since Wing Commander Bader’s arrival over there, the RAF were right out as far as repatriation was concerned, and looking very pathetic with his little bundle clutched in his one arm, managed to wangle himself into the group and away he went. That was the last we heard of him. What a pleasant surprise l received on my arrival in London when he confronted me looking like a veteran with his D.F.C. and M.M.’
‘He told me that he had got as far as Rouen without any trouble and when some of the more sceptical realised the game was up and a return to Germany and not England would be the next stage, an escape was made from the repatriation camp. With another R.A.F. N.C.O. McGrath (actually Magrath), the two wandered far and wide, eventually bolting into the Red Cross organization in Paris and getting food and help there. Always, it seems, the audacious stroke pays.’
‘The rest of the journey to England was accomplished with the usual risks although he managed to cope with a 36-hour climb in the Pyrenees l still can’t imagine. But he was a person of indomitable spirit as can be well judged by the fact that as soon as he had finished a lecture tour in Bomber Command he started plaguing the Powers That Be for an artificial arm and permission to show his worth as a Night Fighter Pilot.’
‘The last l heard of him was in 1943 when he failed to return from a low-flying Typhoon attack over France – certainly a great fighter.’
Despite all the odds, he managed to escape, returning to England in March 1942. Fitted with an artificial arm he returned to operations with 245 Squadron flying Typhoon fighter-bombers on night fighter operations but was shot down and killed on 4th October 1943.
He was awarded his MM (Gazetted 26th May 1942, for his escape and the citation from Public Record Office reads:-
This airman was a member of the crew of an aircraft which was shot down in Northern France on 22nd March 1941. Sergeant James was captured by the Germans and taken to hospital where his left arm was amputated. He was imprisoned in Germany for some time and, with ultimate escape in view eventually succeeded in getting himself removed to France under the repatriation scheme. When this was abandoned, Sergeant James in company with Sergeant Magrath, and in the face of many difficulties and physical handicaps, succeeded in escaping from the prison camp and showing the utmost determination made his way after many adventures through France and Spain to Gibraltar, from where he was repatriated.”
His DFM citation awarded week ending 20th March 1941 reads:-
‘Sgt. James has carried out 24 operational flights entailing 164 hours flying. He has carried out attacks on such targets as Wilhelmshaven (3), Berlin (2), Bordeaux (2), Kiel (2), Hamburg (2), Dusseldorf (2), Cologne (2), Bremen (2), Brest and Mannheim. The majority of these attacks have been made in the bad weather conditions throughout last winter and nearly all of them were completely successful. He has displayed the greatest keenness and enthusiasm for operational flying and has volunteered to take part in any operation for which his squadron has been detailed, whether he was rested or not. His courage, keenness and ability as a pilot have always been of the highest order and a source of inspiration to the pilots of his squadron.’
Sergeant William John Quirke Magrath 581464 was shot down on 13th April 1940 whilst flying an 82 Squadron Bristol Blenheim on a raid on Aalborg Aerodrome, Denmark. The aircraft left Watton on 13th August 1940 at between 0830 and 0900 hours and after running over the target their aircraft was attacked by four M’E’109’s, one of which was shot down by their gunner, Sgt Greenwood. Later they were hit in the port engine which caught fire and forced the aircraft to leave formation, after which their starboard engine caught fire and they were forced to descend and crashed in a fjord running West of Aalborg at 1400 hours. A few hours later, the crew were picked up by the Danes and taken to hospital in Aalborg. The crew consisted of Sgt Blair, Sgt Magrath and Sgt Greenwood. Sgt Blair and Sgt Greenwood were slightly wounded but Sgt Magrath suffered a broken leg and broken arm and suffered slight concussion. Twelve aircraft set off from RAF Watton, one turning back with technical issues. 82 Squadron had considerable experience in this type of raid although it was at the limit of their range but this raid was made without fighter escort. By the time the bombers crossed the coast, there was no cloud cover and Wing Commander Lart decided to continue with the attack with disastrous consequences, with all 11 aircraft being shot down by the waiting ME109’s or ground flak batteries, only 13 of the 33 aircrew survived as prisoners of war. As this was not the first occasion that 82 Squadron had suffered in this way, the Squadron was nearly wound up.
German military funeral for some of men lost from No.82 Squadron, held on 16th August.
Sgt Magrath spent the next 5 months being passed through German hospitals before being sent to a hospital associated with Stalag Luft 1, Barth, moving to the main camp in May 1941. In September 1941 he was considered for repatriation and sent to Stalag IXc, Bad Sulza, which he left, with Sgt. O B James in October 1941 as part of the repatriation program
He was awarded the MM for his escape with Sgt. James, covered in the the London Gazette on 26th May 1942, which states:-
“This airman was a member of the crew of an aircraft which attacked an aerodrome at Aalborg on 13th August 1940. After leaving the target they were attacked by fighters and compelled to descend in a fjord. Sergeant Magrath, who was badly injured, was imprisoned in Germany for some time and was eventually removed to France under the repatriation scheme. When this was abandoned, Sergeant Magrath in company with Sergeant James, and in the face of many difficulties and physical handicaps, succeeded in escaping from the prison camp and, showing the utmost determination, made his way after many adventures through France and Spain to Gibraltar, from where he was repatriated.”
Returning to the tunnel at Bad Sulza.
Sergeant Leonard Barrows, a tailor’s cutter by trade, was also in Stalag IXc, Bad Sulza after being captured on 18th April 1941 in Berlin following a raid by 102 Squadron. He stated that he did not make any direct attempt to escape but ‘Worked for camp escape organisations in producing clothing and German uniforms.’ He was also a POW in Stalag Luft III, Sagan and VI, Heydekrug and Stalag 357, Thorn and Fallingbostal. Likewise, John William Davidson was in the same camps, but was involved in many tunnels in ‘Tunnel digging but never successful’
In September 1941, following removal of the wounded POW’s to a holding camp in Rouen, France. Nabarro recorded in his memoires:-
‘Though we were glad for their sakes, they had mixed feelings about leaving us. Their departure left us all feeling hollow. Within a fortnight………news trickled back to the camp that they were still at Rouen and that the exchange of wounded prisoners had fallen through.’
The Prisoners remained concerned for their wounded colleagues for quite some time and whilst there was no doubt that they found the experience of being with them distressing, they had wounded RAF comrades amongst their own ranks, they clearly shared similar ordeals.
Reg Griffin say’s under escape attempts that at Stalag IXc, 50 of the army and RAF NCO’s made a tunnel but was discovered before being completed. The date was October 1941.
Nabarro made a further attempt to escape in October 1941; ‘I was in the potato cart cleaning it out, when the guard, getting impatient, drove off with me still inside. When we got near a wood l jumped off and hid in it. On this occasion l happened to have with me a week’s supply of vitamin tablets. I then jumped two goods trains, but three days later was caught asleep in a wagon at Apolda. This time l was sentenced to 21 days in the cells but l only completed 15. I had by now made two dozen keys for the window of the cell and we were always able to keep anyone in them provided with food.’
‘I made my first attempt to escape on 20th November 1941 with Sgt. Kenneth Fenton, RAF. The prisoners’ part of the camp is surrounded by two fences of barbed wire each 8 or 9 ft high. Between the two fences is a space of about 5 ft., in which there is one coil of barbed wire about 1 or 2 ft. high. After two British airmen had got out across the wire, (Nabarro and Hall) a third fence of four strands of barbed wire about 3ft. high had been put up all round the camp inside the fences at a space of about 2 yds. from them. Outside the camp proper are four barracks surrounded by a single barbed-wire fence, also 8 or 9 ft. high. At night the sentry patrolled the edges of the camp proper. Outside there was one man near the main entrance to the camp and another outside a hotel about 200 yards away, where the intelligence office and the more important camp offices are situated.’
‘We decided that there were two ways of getting out of the camp. The first, which had been tried twice, once by Belgians and the second time by an Englishman and a Pole, was to walk out of the camp by day along with the Belgians, who were allowed out, or with a British working party. One could then conceal oneself in the lavatory of one of the barrack buildings, which was used as a mess. All the barrack buildings were empty at night except for the one nearest the entrance to the camp, which was used as a guard room. This gave one an opportunity of climbing the outside fence at night, but, in our opinion, this was outweighed by the disadvantage of having to spend a day in hiding.’
‘Fenton and l decided on a different way. At 06.30 Hours we put on French uniforms, over which we wore British Army greatcoats on which French buttons had been sewn. We went out with a Belgian named Godfroid, who was going out with a working party to sweep out the barracks. We got behind the mess hut and nipped over the barbed wire. I wore woollen gloves and mittens made of Khaki blanket material. As l was crossing a wooden fence about 3 ft. 6 ins. high a searchlight came on, but l was not noticed.’
‘We could not go down the river, which ran outside the camp, as two sentries were patrolling that road. We managed however, to find a footbridge across a stream running into the river, and made for the saline bath building. We climbed up on to a promenade which runs round the building and searched for a stairway on the other side. We could not find a stairway, and l let myself drop only to find that we had been no more than 18 ins. From the ground. We now got on a path, which led to the main road to Naumberg. It was a wet morning and still dark and, although there were some people about, we were not challenged. We walked about 300 yards towards Naumberg, and then cut off into the mountains, where we hid all day in the woods. At 18.00 Hours we broke camp, after a wet, unpleasant day, got out into the open, and traversed some lanes only to find ourselves heading for Bad Sulza. About 18.30 Hours we must have passed at least a dozen people. It was still half-light, and, though they regarded us with astonishment, they did not say anything. Once we were sure there was no one in sight, we got into the fields and reached the main railway line from Bad Sulza to Weimar, which we followed past a brightly lit Russian P/W camp. Our original intention was to make for one of these places – Weimar, Apolda or Kolleda. – at each of which, we had been told by Frenchmen in the camp, there was an aerodrome. We planned to seize an aircraft from one of these aerodromes. After we had walked along the railway for about an hour, a goods train drew up near a station and we jumped into a coal truck.’
‘21st November 1941, by about 02.00 hours on 21st November we were in Weimar. Our coal truck was shunted off in a siding, on both sides of which there were factories. We left the railway on the North side, crossed a factory yard and a scrap yard, and reached a road in Weimar running parallel to the railway. While we were standing in a gap in a hedge trying to work out the possible direction of the aerodrome, we heard footsteps and ducked behind the hedge; but a torch was shone on me and a man in uniform asked me what l was doing. I said l was a Frenchman working in Weimar. He asked who l was working for, and l said ‘Herr Engelhart’, that being the name of the Camp Commandant at Stalag IXc and the only German name l could think off. The man obviously did not believe me, and said that we must go with him to the Police station. Fenton walked on his right and l on his left, the policeman carried his revolver in his hand. After about five minutes, he put away his revolver. He showed no signs of hostility, and probably did not realise we were escaped British P/W. After a time we turned a corner into a residential part of Weimar. About 25 yards down this road l wheeled round and dashed for the corner. No shots were fired, and l got away. I learned afterwards that Fenton bolted in the opposite direction, but right into the arms of a soldier who was out walking with his girl.’
‘I struck the first lane l could off the main road on the right, trying to get clear of the town. The lane was bordered by fences and led past an Arbeitskommando into a large field, on the other side of which was a large factory. This factory was patrolled, and l could hear Germans talking very near me. After lying for about 45 minutes l went back up the lane past the Arbeitskommando and took a turning on the left into a residential area. From there l got on to a road which l thought was going East back to Bad Sulza, and decided my best plan was to return to the railway and hide in a truck. I followed a single-line railway to the main railway near the goods yard, and, getting into one of three passenger coaches standing in a siding, slept on the seat until about 06.00 hours. I then went into the lavatory, where l remained all day. The coaches were standing only 200 yards away from a Russian Arbeitskommando. About 100 Russians were working on the railway close by me all day, and at one time they actually moved the coaches.’
‘About 20.30 hour’s l left the siding and went to the main line to wait for a suitable train. After less than an hour a train pulled up beside me and l jumped on to an empty truck in which l lay down flat. We went through Weimar station, which was well lit up at about 5 miles an hour. The first time the train stopped l moved to a brake van. At Arfurt l took the consignment bill from the side of the truck, having heard from French and Belgians in the camp that this would give an indication of the train’s destination. Unfortunately, the writing was in Gothic script which l could not read. The last station at which l saw a sign was Gotha. After that l must have dozed off. I was awakened about 07.00 hours next morning (22nd Nov) with a lamp shining in my face and an astonished German saying, ‘was?’ I jumped out through the other door and found myself between two platforms in the middle of a station. Lights were flashed on me. I ran about 20 yds. down the train, but, realising l could not escape, l just packed up. The Germans led me back to the brake van and then to the stationmaster’s office. I discovered that this was Warburg station and that the truck in which l was travelling had stopped near the stationmaster’s office beside the main clock. In the stationmaster’s office l was asked if l were a Russian. I also learned that the train on which l was travelling had been bound for Holland.’
‘On this attempted escape l had the following equipment:-
Clothes:- Very long Army Khaki greatcoat with French buttons. Khaki trousers, blue tunic, black civilian peaked cap.
Food:- I carried my food in a corset arrangement which l had made of tent cloth bought from a Frenchman. This garment fitted close to me. It buttoned down the front and had supporting shoulder straps. I had the following food.
4 ¼ lb. Bars of chocolate.
30 French military biscuits.
2 small tins of Horlicks tablets.
Glucose sweets (Athlete’s friend).
14 Vitamin tablets issued by the Germans.
2 Large packets of dates (which l found very nourishing).
All this food except the vitamin tablets came from Red Cross parcels. We reckoned on having sufficient for a week, though originally we had intended to be out only three days.
Maps:- Rough tracing of a German railway map such as is found in German trains. L left more detailed tracing in the camp, as l did not expect to need it. I also managed to secure another copy of the German Railway map from one of the coaches in which l hid in the siding at Weimar.
Compasses:- One stud and one swinger sewn into my uniform. I tried to use the stud compass in the train, but it would not work there.
Groundsheet:- Wrapped round left leg.
Pliers:- A pair of pliers with wire cutters bought for seven tins of food from a Serb in the camp who got them from a factory where he was working. I had these pliers in a case made of blanket material strapped to my right leg.’
‘I had the addresses of Belgians in the Stalag sewn into one of my shoulder straps and the swinger sewn into the other.’
‘An Army Feldwebel and private took me from the station to a French Arbeitskommando in a large house. I was left alone in a dormitory, and managed to put my map and the lading bill into the stove. The Feldwebel and the private asked for my Stalag disc, and when l was producing it they found a 5 R.M note in my cigarette case. They confiscated the money, but there was no other search. I was then taken to the Kommandatur office in Warburg and handed over to another soldier for escort to Oflag VI B near Warburg. He cycled and l walked. At the camp a young interpreter conducted me to a prison just outside, where l remained four days locked in the building by myself except at mealtimes. On arrival l was searched by a Feldwebel, but he did not find anything except matches and a knife. My corset arrangement, which l wore under shirt, pullover, and battle dress was not detected, and they did not bother to see if l had anything concealed on my legs. They found the dates in my pocket, but let me keep them. After l had been in solitary confinement for about half an hour l was interrogated by an Intelligence Officer. (See Notes on Interrogation.) He also failed to detect any of my equipment.’
‘After my four days’ solitary confinement I was marched to Warburg station at about 06.00 hours with only one guard. At the station l had gathered some hints about platform procedures which l found invaluable on my next escape. I noticed that, although l was in P/W uniform of a sort, l passed more or less unnoticed in public places. I was greatly encouraged by this. At Weimar, on the way to Bad Sulza, a woman conductor put my escort and me in beside three British P/W who were also on their way to Stalag IXc. These three had just come from hospital. Banking on their not being examined again, l gave them my ground sheet, pliers, and cap, which they were able to take into the camp for me. I removed the pliers and sheet in the lavatory of the train. I again noticed that I could quite easily have escaped through the lavatory window.’
‘At Stalag IXc l discovered that the commandant thought l had got out with a crowd going to a football match. Our absence had not been detected till about 10.00 hours on the day of our escape, although we got out at 06.30 hours. Two poles had also walked out at 07.30 hours, saying they were Frenchmen working for a baker in Bad Sulza. They actually signed themselves out of the camp. Appels were irregular at Stalag IXc. Sometimes we had two in a day; at other times only one in three weeks. I was searched and a cigarette lighter was found hidden in a toothbrush case. L had maps in one coat sleeve and my stud compass in the other, but these were not discovered. The officer who examined me was ready to pass me, but a Feldwebel ran his hand over my body and felt one of the biscuits at my back, thus discovering my corset. I had to strip. I was given my food back and was taken to prison. Next day l was interrogated by an intelligence officer (Hauptmann Keller) (See notes on Interrogation). I signed a statement in German drawn up by the Intelligence Officer, which was to be sent to Berlin, whence l was to receive my sentence. In fact l did only six days in prison. There was a scare about typhus and diphtheria in the camp and all the British P/W were taken out and sent to the factory. The sentences of those of us who were in prison were suspended, and we never finished them. We were two days in the factory, during which the rooms in the camp were fumigated. One R.A.F man in the camp had had diphtheria, and there had been typhus in the Russian camp. We heard that 14 German sentries and one doctor had died in Bad Sulza. The camp was in strict quarantine until 11th January 1942, and all escaping was at an end for the time.’
‘Notes on German methods of interrogation:-
(i). After my re-capture at WARBURG station (22 Nov) l was put in solitary confinement at OFLAG VIB. After about half an hour l was taken to an intelligence officer who spoke quite good English and who wrote a long report about me. The questions he asked included, ‘What were you dressed in?’ and ‘What was your object?’ To the latter question l replied, ‘Out for exercise and a change’, and lectured him on camp conditions. He also asked how l had got out, insisting that l must have ‘played the mole’. I said nothing, except that they would probably find out. He also asked where l had got the tools for tunnelling, and was greatly interested in how l had travelled. I told him l had travelled by goods train. Lying in front of the intelligence Officer were two pairs of gloves, one inside the other, in which the stud compass was hidden, also a toothbrush case which contained a cigarette lighter and map of the BAD SULZA district and the German railway system. The intelligence Officer did not examine any of these things.
(ii). On my return to STALAG IXc l was searched, and the cigarette lighter was found in the toothbrush case. By this time l had the maps concealed in one coat sleeve and the stud compass in the other. My arms were felt, but nothing was found. A Feldwebel, however, discovered a corset arrangement in which l had food hidden. On my second day back at Stalag IXc l was interrogated by Hauptmann Keller, the camp Intelligence Officer. He tried the line that Sergeant Fenton, my companion, had told them everything. I managed to divert the conversation to PARIS before the war and got him on to talking of his last-war experiences, l told him l would not say anything, and he was annoyed when l gave ‘exercise and change’ as the reason of my escape. In the end l signed a statement which he drew up in German and which was to be sent to Berlin, whence l was to receive my sentence. In an interval in his interrogation Leller’s secretary tried to pump me on morale in Britain. He also showed some nervousness about the Russian situation.’
McCairns diary is much more descriptive and for this reason, again repeated verbatim here:-
‘After such painful moments as the discovery of the tunnel and the departure of the D.Us, a general depression seemed to settle on the camp. The escape season was over and the whole problem shelfed – the camp prepared to hibernate. Two weeks later a new German scheme soon brought us all to life! Apparently the Boche were beginning to feel the draught in Russia and were attempting to reduce the number of prison warders and ship them out as cannon fodder. So they hit upon the magnificent scheme of asking 1,500,000 French prisoners to collaborate. They would be allowed out in working parties under their own chaps who would be responsible to the Germans and so dispense with a German guard. On the whole the French accepted the idea and it worked well originally, much to the Germans benefit.’
‘But one Sunday – November 16th – there was rumour again of a football match so l tore into the barracks, did my usual striptease and this time l had as my confederate Sgt. Fenton who was with me on the tunnel. By 1pm we were all set and in Army greatcoats, loaded with food we left our barrack and mingled with the crowd outside waiting for the gates to open. Eventually a great decision was announced by the French leader – Frenchmen would be allowed to go to the football match and even walk along the roads and in the fields without German escort – astounding news!’
‘The Germans called for a party of 25 to be made up and out of the gate dashed a huge crowd and paraded in front of the Camp Kommandant. His eagle eyes singled out two Belgians in the midst of the French and these he sent bustling back into the camp. After appointing a chef he allowed them to march off, then called out 25 more.’
‘I was staggered when l saw a crowd of 4 R.A.F. and 1 Army disguised in French uniform rushing out with a crowd of French to take their place before the Ober Leutenant. Ken and l looked at each other – would we dare? Would seven be too much of a crowd, especially so as we were pretty loaded up and in British Army clothes.’
‘We didn’t budge and waited at the wired gate with bated breath whilst the Kommandant pulled and pushed the 25 into some semblance of order. He seemed to be pulling the Britishers about the most and in the end had 3 of them on the front row but still his suspicions were not roused. The French played trumps and 3 minutes later the French chef gave the order to march to the field. Once they disappeared from view we went into a huddle. What would happen? Were they on parole? Would they be shot if ever recaptured? Would the French chef or men suffer?’
‘Thirty minutes passed and then on the top road past the camp leading to the village of Bad Sulza, two of them walked boldly past the camp, as large as life. Two hours later a very crestfallen and humiliated French chef marched his 20 men back with the confession that he could not restrain 5 mad Englishmen concealed in his midst. Then took place the most terrific upheaval. All measure of reprisals were threatened. French privileges were cancelled and, altogether, Anglo-French relations became rather strained.’
‘Nevertheless, it was a good day’s work for, despite all German efforts, the escapees eluded all search.’
The two that strolled past the camp made it to Kassel before they were captured whilst the other three made their way to Mannheim by jumping trains before being captured in the good yard there, not before they had found a hidden German Petrol dump into which they wandered before bluffing their way out.
‘That Sunday night l was utterly depressed, in a raging mood, cursing myself for being a weakling and not seizing such an opportunity. From other quarters l was being ridiculed as the escaper who didn’t want to escape. – those were already far too numerous.’
Sgt Norman John Smith, a spitfire pilot, was also in Stalag IXc at this time. His nickname was ‘Mushroom’ and he was a “very cheerful little farmer from the West Country”. He was last seen in an attacking position on the tail of a 109. He probably sold himself very dearly. From his liberation questionnaire, he and Sgt Alan Fuller;- “In November 1941 from Stalag IXc. Dressed as French worker walking through main gate, recaptured in Stalag locality after being found out by French collaborator. Companion Allan Fuller.”
‘In such a black mood of despair l threw myself on the bed of Belgian friend Jules and implored him to use his influence and give me a chance to organise a break. Fortunately for my sanity he gave me a small ray of hope and promised to introduce me the next day to a friend who might prove helpful.’
‘The next night l met his friend Godefroid and the plan was unfolded. It was an idea which had been tried on two previous occasions but had been funked at the last fence – once by an Englishman and a pole, more recently by a Belgian.’
‘It seemed simplicity itself and l begged the chance to become a guineapig and try it out. Apparently the form was to organise some job which took one in the German administrative quarters on a Saturday afternoon and whilst there, just as the Germans were leaving their offices for the weekend, lock ones-self in the lavatory till nightfall. When it was really dark, climb out of the window, over a ditch and then scale the one barbed wire fence 9 feet high surrounding the German quarters. This fence was neither guarded nor lit but was close to the bedrooms of the officers. On the two previous occasions the would-be escapees had declared the fence rattled far too much for safety and that the searchlights occasionally played along the barbed wire.’
‘Godefroid had a slight amendment to this plan which worked very well. Instead of locking ourselves in lavatories for hours he informed us that at 6.30 every morning a party of 10 French and Belgian soldiers were detailed for the German bureaux to sweep up and light fires before the Germans put in an appearance. What would be more simple than to mingle with this party as it straggled out. Once on the German side, thrown off our Belgian clothes, dash behind the offices and climb straight over the barbed wire. Sunrise wasn’t until 7.45 so we had ample time to get into hiding before the alarm was sounded. The plan seemed excellent.’
‘Fenton approved so we decided to act straight away.’
‘Thursday became our E.T.D. so preparations were hurriedly laid on. A study was made of searchlight activity in the morning and to our concern we discovered that at 6.40 the light was extensively used – just when we should be scaling the wire. However, that was just another risk.’
‘Five a.m. on Thursday morning, 20th November, 1941, saw Ken and l trying to rouse ourselves after a night of sleep snatched only in fragments of minutes. In the bitter cold blackness we tried to dress and by the time the lights were on and a German had paraded through the barracks, all our suspicious paraphernalia was concealed. Right underneath l had thick woollen pants and a vest. Over this was strapped my corset of foodstuffs followed by a heavy shirt, polo sweater and khaki battledress blouse and trousers. Over the top of this was an Army greatcoat, a balaclava and 2 pairs of socks, with solid boots. On my left leg was strapped a case containing wire-cutting pliers and round my right leg was strapped a groundsheet.’
‘Beside the corset l stuffed food into all my pockets, a litre water bottle in another and, very ready to hand in case of immediate destruction were the maps l had so carefully traced and the 2 compasses.- the swinger on its cotton and the stud compass.’
We were all set – much too eager to pay any attention to two Poles who were up and about at the same time. Little did we realise that they had a break planned and indeed walked out of the camp only one hour after ourselves.’
‘Looking like the two fat ladies of the circus we staggered over to the Belgian quarters, and met Godefroid who was to conduct us past the guard.’
‘It was a perfect setting for an escape – black as pitch, cold and raining.’
‘For minutes we hung about the black depths of the barrack awaiting the arrival of the French.’
‘As soon as the first few filtered past the guard, out we stepped and one on either side of Godefroid, we marched boldly up to the sentry who was standing most dejected and miserable in his box. Godefroid called cheerfully “PUTZEN” meaning “Cleaning” and some other matinal greeting with the result we filed past the guard, through the small gate out of the camp right into the German quarters. We walked straight to the second line of offices, marched along the corridor, out at the other end and then instead of walking into the next office we muttered our thanks to Godefroid and shot behind the next building.’
‘Between the building and the fence was a ditch. We staggered along for 10 yards, and then because if we continued lights could be seen streaming from windows, we decided it was now or never. On came the gloves designed against barbed wire and l swung on to the barbed wire and, strand by strand, clambered up it, over the top without anything catching and down the other side. Ken was right behind me. The din was terrific. The poles creaked and the wire groaned but the staples held firm and nothing was broken.’
‘As we floundered away from that fence we thought of freedom – an end to our troubles. But we were far from right, our difficulties were only just beginning.’
‘Inside the camp we assured ourselves once the barbed wire was crossed the rest would be easy, but no, just as we were clambering over yet another wooden fence whose existence we had not imagined, on came the searchlights. Voices seemed to spring up on all sides and over the river on the main road, lights appeared to be coming towards us. We tried to push on but the powers of darkness were all against us. Once the searchlights had finished we were lost.’
‘At last we crashed a 100 yard journey down to the river where it was out intention to take a small footbridge over the river. With all confidence we ploughed through to the soot where the footbridge should have been only to find that it led straight into a factory where lights were to be seen and sounds of noise. Behind and to the left was the camp, in front the deep river, in which we couldn’t afford a swim, leaving only the saline baths to our right as a possible means of exit.’
‘They consisted of a thick and impenetrable pallisade 15 feet high with a promenade above. Fortunately, scaffolding ran up to the prom as up we tried to clamber. Half way on the struggle upwards l chanced to look at the river and there, 20 yards away, revealed in the factory lights, was a man, bent over, peering at us, rifle in hand. At least that was my first impression but at a second glance l realised it was a workman wielding a pole in the river, the noise of which successfully drowned our noisy scurry.’
‘At last we made the promenade only to find ourselves stranded at some indefinite height over a pitch black earth. We walked towards the other end of the promenade where the entrance was situated, but every step took us nearer to the hotel H.Q. of the Germans and a sentry. Time was becoming precious so l decided to risk a jump into the blackness. Accordingly, l clambered over the railing of the prom., let myself down until l was hanging by my hands, stayed like that for one fleeting moment and then let go, hoping to Heaven the fall was not too great or there were no spikes to receive me.’
‘My fears were groundless. The drop was a mere ??? feet but because of the pitchy darkness we just had no idea. Ken joined me with a dull thud and we now decided to try for the main road and bridge, actually in Bad Sulza. Two hundred yards behind us the camp was already bursting into life and dawn breaking.’
‘Once again it all seemed so simple until we were baffled by a maze of mill streams all tending to run back towards the camp and head us off. Again it was impossible to determine the width or depth of these moats so a detour had to be made bringing us almost to the camp itself.’
‘Meanwhile, there was a good deal of activity on the road itself. German soldiers coming on duty, so Ken and l stayed flat on our tummies only 10 yards from the road until the way seemed clear. Then on to the road and as casually as possible we turned towards the village and passed quite openly a number of Germans. No trouble at all.’
‘Over the bridge and the first to the left to avoid the centre of the town – out to the open road we trudged, more or less doubling back in our tracks, but on the other side of the river.’
‘As soon as we could we left the road and struck up into the hills. The going was incredibly hard, the ploughed ground soft and boggy. Still it looked like freedom when suddenly the last obstacle presented itself.’
‘The main railway line ran about 300 yards south of the camp. To cross this we never imagined difficulty but suddenly we came to a most abrupt crossing, cutting sides like a precipice and the lines 100 feet below – our detouring required until the cutting became more gradual. Already it was light and the camp was lying just 300 yards below us. The last whistle for the parade had gone and already the men were lining up – five more minutes and our escape would be published.’
‘We made an effort to scramble up the hilly slopes and gain the safety of the neighbouring forest but we were much too exhausted. Almost at the end of our resources we sank down under a tree, completely demoralised, wondering what this precious thing called freedom really was. In the camp we had always thought the idea of freedom would literally spirit us around the countryside. In point of fact for the first few hours l don’t think either of us gave a damn whether or not we were collared straight away. Never in my life was l quite so miserable. At last we summoned but sufficient energy to proceed and by 8am we had gained the wood, but here were more disappointments.’
‘From the camp it appeared a thick, well-sheltered wood, but once inside it was sparse and bare, all the foliage had disappeared. There was no cover at all.’
‘Miserable and dejected we kept on the move following, stupidly enough, small paths in the wood. Suddenly l looked up and there, only 20 yards away and rather higher on the hillside was a man walking towards us.’
‘We could do nothing except carry on. He stared at us and once we passed turned round and started yelling. We kept straight on, not even daring to turn. Soon we were out of earshot but at the same time we were nearing the end of the wooded area. It seemed inevitable that a search of the area would shortly be made so we tried tcket, but not a thing could e found. Eventually we found a little hollow with a huge protruding stone. Under this we crawled and for the rest of the day tried to make ourselves as small as possible.’
‘In the drizzle we were terribly wet and miserable, not a thing to encourage us and only the sight of the village and camp some 500 feet below us as entertainment.’
‘Somehow we managed to survive 8 hours in that position, most of the time contracted in our greatcoats trying to doze in spite of our misery, fearing every time we heard shrieks from the children in neighbouring fields that the Hitler Youth were hot on our trail.’
‘Once one has the hand of man turned against one it is incredible the tricks imagination can play. They are far, far worse than any real dangers.’
‘By 4pm the strain became unbearable so, after a hurried council of war, we decided to reconnoitre our position. Our immediate object was to circumnavigate Bad Sulza and regain the main railway line to the West of the town, hike along this to Werman.’
‘Near Werman we fondly imagined there would be an aerodrome. Off we set and in no time at all we came to the end of the wood, only to find the whole area populated. Although it was still light we decided to cut across some open fields. This went well until of a sudden we heard voices and as quickly as possible we went to earth as a herd of cows and some children sauntered by.’
‘In spite of that lesson we were still far too impatient and in broad daylight kept marching on, eventually striking down a road.’
‘Too late we turned and saw people in the distance following us. All that remained was to walk forward when to our horror a signpost indicated the road as leading into Bad Sulza. There were no means of escape except over the fields so on we trudged.’
‘At last we began encountering German peasants and with a bold face marched smartly past them. They turned and stared at these two khaki-clad figures but no one lifted a hand. Next in turn we had to pass a group of 5 or some children, l muttered to Ken “This is it” but we kept going. By this time l was so nervous l couldn’t stand any more and once we were out of sight l left the road and bolted over ploughed fields. Thank heaven for the dusk just descending to mask our progress.’
‘With the coming of the winter darkness once again our bearings became difficult and it seemed an infinity before we pinpointed ourselves on the main railway. Originally we had planned a cross-country trek, not daring to employ the guarded railway. But in the wet winter the going was so hard and direction so difficult the railway seemed a Godsend.’
‘So along the sleepers we marched, and in the blackness that was no easy matter.’
‘As usual, once the going seemed good, Fate would invent yet another obstacle, for there in the darkness on the left of the railway were the brilliant, suspended lights of a Russian P. of W. (Prisoner of War) camp – always well guarded, and just at that point a river crossed the railway at right-angles. We had either to crawl over the railway bridge 10 Yards from the camp’s perimeter or do a detour of miles before finding another bridge over the river. The night was much too cold to allow for swimming.’
‘Impatience made us throw discretion to the wind and the next few minutes saw us worming our way along the railway in full view of the camp. Our risk was justified for we passed without incident and continued along the line.’
‘At first we were fairly cautious and at the approach to a small station or signal box we used to leave the rails and make a wide detour. But soon we grew more and more callous as the night drew on.’
‘Eventually as we were walking through one small community we spied a level crossing in front and traffic on the road so we waited. Just then on our left a door opened and torrents of gay conversation floated out. There seemed tons of activity and then a hurricane lamp began to move in our direction surrounded by a crowd of people. All we could do was to fling ourselves face down on the embankment and hope for the best.’
‘Nearer and nearer came the crowd. At last they seemed right over us but to our relief the noise of footsteps continued and eventually dwindled. Once more there was the sound of a door being opened and shut – the crowd was swallowed up and we were free to continue.’
‘Once out of danger we decided to refresh ourselves with a tin of Nestle’s sweetened condensed milk (Now l know why l love it – Nick) which seemed the ideal concentrated food for the journey, a few Horlicks tablets, a nibble of chocolate and a few drops of precious water.’
‘By this time we were both incredibly tired (Remember their fitness levels and food intake prior to escape) and although we had walked for hours we hadn’t reached the half way line APOLDA. Thus we started discussing the possibility of train jumping. Already we had shattered another prison camp fallacy – that trains could be jumped up to a speed of 15 m.p.h.’
‘In the daytime at a distance it looked incredibly easy but at night in darkness trying to run along the sleepers and clutch at the flat smooth sides of a wagon, that was a different matter. So far the trains that had gone by were travelling fairly slowly but they were quite beyond our abilities.’
‘With reluctance, we agreed to wait at the next signal in the hope of a train stopping, seemingly our only chance. Then, for the first time, Fate gave us a break,. A goods train came panting by and then pulled up a quarter of a mile ahead. We put on a spurt and almost caught it before it started up again.’
‘Without a care we put on full steam, tore past the last wagon which, in Germany, does not always carry the guard, and before the wagons gained full speed, pulled ourselves up into a well-filled coal truck.’
‘We settled down in a corner of the wagon and for the next couple of hours we jolted through the night, being shunted about at Apolda and then in the well-lit station at Weimar.’
‘Eventually the jolting ceased and we found ourselves quite alone in a goods yard with huge factory sites looming on all sides. There was no sign of life so over the edge l jumped, falling heavily after under-estimating the height.’
‘With Ken (Fenton) beside me we picked our way out of the yard through the scrap-yard of some factory and then at last through an opening in a hedge we gained a small road.’
‘Foolishly by this time we had lost our bearings and began to argue as to the whereabouts of the town and the relation of the aerodrome to it. Our debate was abruptly halted by the approach of someone along the road and we shot behind the hedge again, and, turning our backs to the road, hid our white faces with bodies crouched.’
‘Nearer and nearer came the sound of footsteps until they appeared to halt right beside us. The next thing l knew was seeing a figure shadowed in a circle of light and a guttural German voice asking questions.’
‘It was a most uncomfortable moment because l couldn’t see my captor and didn’t know whether or not a gun was pointing in my direction. So l gave up and turned around to find my interrogator. AS l covered the five yards between us l gathered he was an oldish man probably in the uniform of special police. Although he had no weapon in hand there was a very serviceable revolver at his side. Then followed a most amusing conversation because the old boy spoke German and l didn’t understand. I tried to pretend l was a French workman attached to a farmer just up the road. “Which Farmer?” he asked, and as l couldn’t think of a good German-sounding name l gave him that of the German Commandant, Herr Engelhart.’
‘That didn’t satisfy him so he told me to accompany him to the police station. I told him as my farm was in the opposite direction l couldn’t comply and reaching in my pocket l was about to tempt him with “Cigaretten” when he whipped out his revolver and ordered me to proceed’
‘Not being a particular self-sacrificing time l saw no future in argument with the revolver so off we marched towards the town.’
‘We hadn’t gone more than 50 yards when Ken, who had remained unseen, came plodding up in the rear, which addition proved complicating for the old boy.’
‘Anyway, Ken started talking in German trying to get all the gen- just where we were and where we were being escorted.’
‘The old chap grew quite friendly and to our relief shoved his gun back in the holster.’
‘That made things more easy. As we turned the next corner and began to enter the more residential part of Weimar l waited until we had walked about 20 yards down the street, hanging back as far as l dared, then, suddenly, l yelled to Ken. I pivoted and tore like hell up the street, weaving like the devil, expecting the bullets to start kicking up around my every movement. But no, without any trouble at all l was round the corner and charging up the next road for all l was worth. Fortunately, at 2 o’clock in the morning not a soul was to be seen.’
‘Later l discovered that Ken charged off in a totally different direction and on turning his first corner ran smack into a German soldier who was out with a girl. This chap hung on to him and Ken was taken to the police station where, under the impression he was French, the local Gestapo maltreated him until Ken proved his British nationality, where upon matters improved.’
James kept running around, convinced the whole of the German Police force was after him, ducking and diving and found himself back at the railway line leading back to Bad Sulza. He found three deserted railway coaches and decided to hide in there through the daytime watching what was going on around him. He spent the day hiding in the locked lavatory until darkness eventually arrived in his wet sodden clothes. In the dark he left his coach and looked for another train to jump but startled a woman cleaner so had to run off, eventually jumping aboard a moving train.
Eventually falling asleep in a brake car he was woken up the following morning by a German porter so ran off, not knowing where he was but was eventually caught at Warburg, 200KM into the 400KM journey to Holland, where the train was destined for.
James McCairns was taken and locked up in a local prison, was given some coffee and disposed of his maps in the stove. He was then taken to Oflag VIB in which Bader was currently imprisoned and locked up in the cooler after a very friendly chat with the Commandant. After about 5 days James was awakened at 4am and handed over to a German guard who was to return him to Stalag IXc. Then returned to Warburg station where James McCairns had a good look round where he had previously been captured before returning by train to Bad Sulza.
On the journey, James was put in a carriage with three British soldiers going to Bad Sulza after hospital treatment so he was able to pass over to them most of his escape equipment so it was not lost, however, he was strip searched on his arrival and his food catche was discovered. He was then marched to the cooler.
‘There for the first time l was greeted by the 5 who left on Sunday, by Ken and also by the 2 poles l had noticed the morning we made our break. They, unfortunately, had managed to walk out of the camp with a working party but had been captured that night.’
So started 21 days of solitary confinement in a cell 8ft by 5ft with a single wooden bed and paillasse and no heating as it was winter, the heating only worked in summer for maximum discomfort and a single shut window for light.
‘Theoretically we were on a bread and water diet but actually German rations, which were little better, were supplied until the trial and sentence had taken place. But in addition we managed to have smuggled in several commodities of the Red Cross boxes, either by the little Belgian who carried in the German rations or else, more daringly, at night when each window would be opened by improvised keys and friends outside would hurl in tins through the bars. For all concerned it was a highly-dangerous proceeding – frequently one of the camp sentries would realise what was happening and would either try and intervene or worse still, shoot at the offending prisoner. Whilst for the man inside there was a fair chance of being hit by a tin as it came hurtling through the window and ricocheted round the cell, or else the inside jailer would enter from his office, drawn there by the clatter of falling tins.’
‘With this small supplement of food our misery was lessened and in many cases, mine for example, l thoroughly enjoyed my solitary. After all, when one has been herded in one room with 150 other types for 6 months on end; has heard the same story retold 10 times; the same groans, grunts and snores every night, one really appreciates a small dose of solitary with one’s own private room. Definitely it was the first time l ever managed to sit down and concentrate.’
‘Contrary to all expectations, l began planning a war and then a post-war career in which another immediate but successful escape played an important part. Always l had anticipated once my honour as an escapee had been satisfied l would be content to sit back, learn German, play bridge and try and settle down and enjoy camp life. Such was not to be. Already l was resolved on a policy of an attempt to escape once at least every 3 months. I felt sure before 10 essays success would be assured. With this in mind l was overjoyed to hear of the escape of Derricek Nabarro and a Belgian friend. Using the same means of exit as Fenton and me they escaped two days after my return, and, after a remarkable series of adventures, Nabarro, 14 months later, arrived safely in England.’
‘Following in their tracks about 15 more French and Belgians escaped from a working party and a large percentage were successful. Among those who fell by the way was a particular Belgian friend of mine whose story belongs somewhat later.’
‘Following in their tracks about 15 more French and Belgians escaped from a working party and a large percentage were successful. Among those who fell by the way was a particular Belgian friend of mine whose story belongs somewhat later.’
On 7th December 1941, Pearl Harbour was attacked by the Japanese and America joined the second world war.
After Nabarro’s initial escape, he continues. ‘I then set about making preparations for escape with a Belgian, whose Christian name is Godefroi; he found out the times of the train, and l got sixty marks, a pair of slacks, and a leather jacket from a Frenchman in return for a fountain pen, a wrist watch, and an army greatcoat. He also provided maps. I improved my French by conversation with a Corsican.’
Nabarro escaped again on 25th November 1941 with Godefroi (Godfrey), whilst pretending to go out and clean the Commandant’s office, and returned to England arriving in March 1942. He spent almost 3 months at Fort De La Revere from which he escaped with F/Lt. Barnett.
‘With such exciting news our prison life was relieved of boredom. The gen came in via hastily smuggled letters usually passed over when exercising. Twice a day we were lined up outside our cells, marched the length of the camp and then, in single file, hands behind back, we were forced to walk round a small circle for three quarters of an hour. The perimeter of this circle was just 50 yards and in the space of 45 minutes we did 90 circuits or some 2 ¾ miles. No wonder twice a day we went back to the cells almost spinning after the number of turns.’
‘The whole parade was conducted in silence and if our friends, loitering in the vicinity, voiced the news too loudly they were threatened with inclusion in the ring.’
‘After this we were marched back to our cells, first being given 5 minutes to attend to the needs of nature and one can well imagine there was a good queue for the seat. No one wished to be taken short whilst confined in the cell.’
‘Since razors were not permitted, no shaving took place and heavy beards were evident on all faces. And as there were few blankets we remained fully clothed day in and day out. On the whole we must have looked a pretty scruffy crowd when on parade.’
‘Just at parade time on the second day at IXc l was removed to appear before Captain Kellar, the chief intelligence Officer of the camp and quite a just and fair man.’
‘Ken managed warn me that he was a most difficult type and had tried to wheedle and bluster him into giving away information. So, naturally, when l was confronted by him in his office, he started by telling me that Fenton had told everything so there was no point in holding back. The first point which staggered me was that my presence in Weimar was known and l felt sure sooner or later l would be associated with the stolen map. However, the point in question was a charge that l had also escaped from a policeman whilst in his charge. This l hurriedly denied and said that in the darkness l was not aware of the uniform. Very justly Kellar allowed this to go in my signed statement.’
‘Soon it became obvious that he still had no idea of our means of escape. Ken told me when he mentioned the barbed wire fence they merely laughed – they were so cocksure that we had gone out with the French.’
‘Just at the most critical point of the interrogation a French P of W. collaborator came in on urgent business and Kellar realising l had a smattering of French fortunately sent me out into the passage with his henchman. This individual was a queer, fearsome little type who talked mainly of the Russians. He was desperately keen to ascertain the English view of the Russians and hastened to plunge me into conversation about them. I almost burst out laughing when, in all seriousness, he assured me they were barbarians and did not know the meaning of culture! He almost tried to enlist me as Germany’s ally disclosing that the Russians were a direct threat to the whole of the European civilisation.’
James had no idea what would follow World War 2.
‘Altogether he struck me as an educated German who realised, all too soon, the draught on the Russian front and was only too willing to placate the English.’
‘After being readmitted into Kellar’s presence the rest was just too easy. My knowledge of French and mutual pre-war experiences in France brought on reminiscences dating back to the 1914-18 war when Kellar was a French P of W.’
‘All together I was quite pleased with the interview and went back to the cells proudly crowing to Ken that Kellar was “just a piece of cake”.’
‘So passed 11 days of solitary confinement, no relief at all from the horrible monotony and, little by little, becoming more and more hungry, eagerly looking forward to the day when one would be able to rejoin ones friends and open a huge tin of pilchards and eat every one yourself. I was beginning to dream of my first monster meal.’
‘Then, on the eleventh day there was a great commotion in the camp – a rumour of typhus or diphtheria. Apparently at a neighbouring Russian camp where the illness was prevalent, besides the Russians, 7 guards and 2 German doctors had died.’
During the Winter Months, Bad Sulza suffered a Typhus epidemic and the camp was isolated, the Prisoners were restricted from any movement to or from the camp, all work parties were cancelled. No guards were allowed into the compound and food was left at the gates to be collected and distributed by the prisoners. On one occasion, a group of Russian prisoners were told to use the delousing station and this caused a big cheer to come up from the prisoners, to be met by a burst of machine gun fire along the outside of the huts.
Whilst McCairns maintained:-
’So apparently the order of the day was that the whole camp was to be moved to the Fabrique once again whilst every room and barracks was disinfected and fumigated – likewise, all bodies and clothes had to be deloused.’
‘For once we really blessed our prison. Thank Heavens we did not have to move. In fact, several men contemplated some offence to be put into jail until the purge was over.’
‘Indeed it was a pathetic sight as we watched 300 Englishmen struggling out of the camp laden with kit. It was amazing the way baggage accumulated in a camp and it seemed a very favourite German trick to either make us move barracks or pretend the camp was going to be moved. Great chaos was occasioned every time and the amount of good thrown away was incredible.’
‘Just as we were muttering our thanks for delivery from such an ordeal, in marched the guard with the devastating news that our sentence had been suspended and that we were to pack immediately and go ourselves up to the Fabrique. We pleaded to be allowed to continue our sentence in the jail. No use, out we came and found our friends had either left our kit in with the jailor or else they had been smuggled into the Belgian barracks. The system was that one nationality after another would be treated and although it was contrary to medical practice, many parcels were left in the other barracks and reclaimed at a later date, – smuggling which intensely annoyed old jerry.’
‘Thus, by leaving most of my kit with the jailer and Jules the Belgian, with my bedding and a few boxes l marched up to the Fabrique and found the whole contingent still waiting for admission.’
‘Once we were inside this squalid, disused factory the scene was indescribable. Three hundred Britishers were herded into 2 rooms – there being just room for each man to occupy 2 ft by 6 ft floor space. No passage could be left, so when one moved about it was by a process of picking one’s steps over other people’s bodies.’
‘At night it was pitch black and even in the daylight the absence of windows gave conditions of dusk. Definitely it was the most miserable time of imprisonment.’
‘Fortunately, there was a patch of ground we could exercise in and also light fires and cook, but for the most part everyone was too miserable to unpack. We were allowed one cup of water for all our meals, for which we had to queue, and the usual German rations.’
‘During the day it was miserably cold but luckily quite dry. But at night it was freezing and sleep on that first night must have blessed only a few.’
The next day, volunteers were sort to clear out the barracks and this provided an opportunity to get out of the Fabrique for a spell so was a welcome opportunity. One prisoner, however, saw this as an opportunity to escape and packed food and equipment ready for a few days on the run but his bulk was soon noticed by the guard, who, upon searching him, erupted into a rage as he suspected the prisoner of smuggling food out to the French, rather than attempting to escape.
Before and over the Christmas period of 1941 Red Cross parcels started to arrive with more regularity, which certainly increased moral. Not only were the contents vital for survival for their food but they assisted in many other ways. In another camp John Bristow cooked the tins down to get the solder out for his radio but was also working on a flint and steel ignition petrol engine. However, this opened up a further cause for concern for the Prisoners and German’s alike.
At one time there had been a terrific market in Red Cross parcels with the French, swapping food with the French for clothes, money or fresh vegetables and then in turn, this was converted to real money, swapping the food with the German civilians on their work visits to the farms. This supply of good food being sent from all over the world to the British prisoners clearly had a moral effect on the German civilians so the Germans did their best to stop this practice. This practice, however, affected everyone right to the top of the German prisoner command and it was understood that Frau Englehart, the camp Kommandant’s wife, had seen the effect of British soap on her friends clothes and implored her husband to secure some. The Kommandant was not impressed, realising the extent that this practice was taking place and he tried his best to stop it.
The Red Cross parcels were also vital for the escape plans of many. When the parcels arrived, the tins were pierced by the Germans so that the contents had to be used quickly and the tins could not be used as escape material. Some tins missed out on this by various means and came through whole. With chocolate, these were hidden away quickly as escape rations or for trading purposes. This trading was very important because goods like this were rare in Germany at this time and the guards were easily encouraged to take these home to their families, but once induced, they could never refuse for fear of being exposed for accepting these bribes as this was strictly forbidden. The resultant punishment was a posting to the Eastern Front. Later this encouragement to obtain the items necessary to make radios, escape equipment or just make life easier for the Kriegies became an art, but at this time it was fairly basic but still essential. Empty tins were used to make digging tools, air ducts, candle holders, etc.
The prisoners also encouraged their friends and families to send over clothes, supposedly to keep them warm, but many of these items were being re-fashioned into escape outfits. Most of the prisoners realised they were in for a long war behind the wire and each made up his own mind as to how they would deal with this.
After much threatening and posturing, he eventually got a promise from the prisoners that in return for three full parcels every two weeks per prisoners, rather than one per week and the prisoners would stop giving full tins to other nationalities. The cigarettes were also exchanged if they were not wanted. This bartering could secure Lager marks or camp money, which could then be swapped for the local German money which was ideal for future escape attempts.
Sorting out the barracks meant that the prisoners returned to the Fabrique tired and ready for sleep and probably the first good meal that the escapees could have since they exited the camp.
The next day, woken early, the prisoners were released back to the camp in groups of 20 for delousing.
James McCairns reported:- ‘Everything at first was well organised and l managed to secure a pitch in the second 20. Then, just as usual with queues in Germany, the order was almost reversed. Chaos reigned and eventually l waited something like 10 hours, all the time in the queue, before it was my turn to march down to the camp.’
‘Once there we were taken to the showers where our baggage was left whilst we were taken into the reception room of the delouser. Here we stuffed and loaded all our clothes into movable trolleys together with our bedclothes and whilst the trolley was run into a hot room and baked for 30 minutes, we went as disported ourselves under the shower. Out came our clothes at last, beautifully warm and with the effect of the shower, warm clothes, on top of a stand of 14 hours that day, no wonder we were rather weak as we staggered to our fresh, clean billets, still smelling foully of the cyanide burnt in them. Nevertheless the threat of typhus had been removed and it really was a credit to the system that during my 6 months stay, the only blot on the medical register was one case of diphtheria.’
James’s Christmas is recorded:- ‘It was now December 14th and thoughts turned to Christmas – we were going to have a show on the 25th and tons of parties. Fortunately the Red Cross sent out special Christmas parcels and that, together with a good deal of hoarding, ensured a liberal supply of food over the holiday. Some of us had received Christmas cards from England and most had received their first parcel. I well remember that my first parcel from home arrived the day of my escape and had been claimed by one of my comrades before the real hue and cry over the escape had been raised. I had also, the day before, received news from home which had a most heartening effect.’
‘To make the Noel more fitting, along came the snow. But as we had only two blankets each and not enough fuel to keep the two stoves going, we really didn’t appreciate the sight. The thermometer registered 20 degrees centigrade.’
‘Preparations lasted until the night of December 24th for this Christmas orgy which lay in store, and, to add to our enjoyment, because of the prevalent risk of disease the camp was put in quarantine and no working parties were allowed out. Hence, life became one riot of fun. Ice slides were organised, international snowball fights were the order of the day, whilst Jerry had to keep his eyes open just in case.’
‘About this time into the camp there walked a great rival to the famous Styles himself. It was a certain Lt. Reynolds, purporting to be on a mission from the S.B.O. at Oflag VIB and who had been incorrectly routed due to an air raid at Warburg.’
‘Up to this time Styles of circus fame had been the chief German stooge in the camp.’
‘Almost on Reynolds’ first appearance he summoned a great gathering of the clans and prepared to pass on a gen talk, originated by the S.B.O. and based on secret gen coming into prison camps. His delivery of this information was by no means secret and his whole attitude was one which created suspicion. Judged largely, his speed was in parts demoralising and in parts heartening, but the impression one received was that here was another master bull. And so was his subsequent history. The next revelation was that he was a private masquerading as an officer whose escape he had abetted but the true story was never told.’
‘Most of the time he appeared to convince the Germans that he was an officer whilst to us he remained a private, and a very phoney private at that.’
‘At last it was December 24th. All the extra Christmas rations had been distributed, decorations were in place, the stage show had finished its final rehearsal and at last the stage was set.’
‘The French and Belgian sections decided to start festivities on Christmas Eve, so l decided to smuggle myself into the Belgian barrack for the fun of the evening. And a most hectic night it was. The Belgians had arranged everything, a stage show on the barrack tables, food and liquid refreshments, long hoarded, whilst at midnight the entire crowd of us were allowed to file into the theatre and celebrate Mass. It was the second Midnight Mass of my life and l was incredibly impressed. In that atmosphere, surrounded by men, all rendered equal in captivity, and shorn of all the artificialities of outside. I did feel nearer to my God than l had ever done in any imposing cathedral in free England. My only regret was that being a Roman Catholic service l did not feel eligible to accept communion.’
‘As soon as the service was over serious faces soon brightened. We all looked forward to our prayers being answered and that next year we would be with our loved ones by our own fireside. Several, l felt, joined with me in the silent conviction that surely, surely these four walls could no longer restrain us. “I must get out” was the agonised cry from my heart.’
‘Away we all trooped back to the Belgian barrack and to an impartial observer it would appear as though it was a motley throng of drunks, so completely intoxicated were we by the spirit of the times.’
‘The rest of the night was spent in carousing and wild singing with not a little man-to-man dancing going on. I must say the Belgians coped very well at this and whilst a few of the more daring and, l might add, more effeminate, drawed themselves very prettily in feminine attire and for their pains were promptly raped on the spot.’
‘Evan at six o’clock on Christmas morning the gallant Belgians were still going fully out so as soon as the guards opened the door each one of us, armed with a tin or other noise weapon, formed a huge crocodile and to the tune of “she was coming down the mountain” marched into the sleeping English. Round and round their bunks we slashed and clattered until not a man was left unconscious, after which triumph we all sang the Belgian National Anthem and followed it with a rather accented version of “God Save the King”. The closing bars of this were the signal of dismissal and so we dispersed, each to find his own Christmas breakfast, which, unhappily, the Germans had done nothing to augment.’
‘The morning was again taken up largely with religious services for the French first of all, followed by a very simple but sincere non-denominational English service. For everyone it was a very special occasion. New clothes were worn, buttons glistened and boots shone. Parade ground smartness was the order of the day.’
‘In the barrack the stoves were festooned with cans, all being warmed for the terrific feast to follow.’
You cannot put this realistically in your own words so l will leave James McCairns to continue:-
‘I have forgotten my exact menu, but l remember bacon and beans featuring in the midst of a five course menu with a Christmas pudding, specially treated with rum, as my final piece de resistance.’
‘In the afternoon l was dressed as a Frenchman and smuggled between my friends into the concert given by the French – a truly marvellous piece of theatrical work where the brilliance of individual acts vied with the magnificence of Alexander’s orchestra. Practically every person was a professional in his own sphere and the show lacked nothing in comparison with many a West End production.’
‘After another sumptuous tea a night of revelry was continued, this time in the English barracks. Never before had the “Entante Cordiale” functioned so well. The Germans seemed far more concerned with their own affairs and left us completely free to cement our friendships.’
‘This happy and ideal state continued for a week. On Boxing Day the British put on an equally splendid stage show, complete from a Scotcher jazz band down to the Bull-Baffles-Brains illusionist Styles.’
‘Throughout these days the pace never seemed to slacken> Heaven knows when we managed to sleep but every night seemed to be spent in revelry and looking back it certainly remains one of the longest and happiest celebrations of my life.’
‘Naturally such seasonal joy could not be complete without a Scots edition so it was determined to conclude the week on New Year’s Eve by an evening organised by our powerful Scottish element.’
‘Everything went well until about December 31st when the Germans woke up to the fact that there was far too much Allied collaboration in the camp, and when it came to their ears that the British were to have an “Open House” on New Year’s Eve such a social was formally banned.’
‘This attack aroused much bitter feeling amongst us and considerable opposition, likewise the French and the Belgians. Consequently when the hour of the show-down approached it was only to be expected that many of the better type French and Belgian found themselves with us. As it happened there was no sign of the Germans and the threat was turned down as another big bluff.’
‘The fun was fast and furious, It was just about at the peak toward’s eleven o’clock when, in the midst of a patriotic speech, a sudden commotion and alarm broke out in the adjoining room. “The dogs!” was the cry raised on all sides.’
‘Talk about a stampede, it wasn’t in it. As soon as the baying of the German police dogs was heard everyone tore feverously onto tables, or, better still, on top of the three-tier beds and endeavoured to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible.’
‘In strode Engelhart, the camp Commandant, surrounded by his hirelings and holding in check about six magnificent brutes of Alsatians. Through the aid of an interpreter he vented his displeasure and informed the gathering that the whole barrack would be locked up and placed in quarantine whilst a full investigation would be carried out at daylight.’
‘With that he stamped out of the building, caused the doors to be locked and a guard and dog posted at both exits whilst a further sentry was on patrol with his Alsatian between the British and French barracks, thus cutting off the last line of retreat to our guests.’
‘This interaction considerably upset our continental friends and although we offered to entertain them for the rest of the night, it was quite obvious a wet blanket had been spread over the nights activities.’
‘It was resolved to attempt some escape plan, so after an hour or so we entered into negotiations with the guard and at the price of several hundred cigarettes he eventually consented to walk as far as the lavatories with his dog whilst one by one the guests ran across to their barrack behind his back.’
‘Every so often when he was at the length of his patrol he would continue his playacting and release the Alsatian which would go bounding after some luckless type who usually managed to scramble though a window to safety before the fangs of the hound could tear out the seat of his trousers. Only on one occasion did a last-minute slip give the dog a chance and then his only reward was a piece of trouser leg but without the flesh. This act went on for a couple of hours, the rate of passing being about 1 man every 3 minutes and we quickly worked out that it would be impossible to transport our 100 odd guests before the dawn came and with it the Germans.’
‘Once again a further series of negotiations was entered upon and for more food and cigarettes the guard consented to leave us in peace for five minutes during which time a mass evacuation took place.’
‘And what a scene it was – over 80 frantic prisoners bolting across the 30 yard strip of No Man’s Land and trying to hurl themselves through the few windows opposite, always wondering when the dog would be unleashed.’
‘However, the sentry kept his word and the move took place without further discomfort. We often wondered if it was all a put-up job and whether Engelhart was in a share of the hundreds of cigarettes and tins of food.’
‘As a last stroke of genius, one or two of the more daring, Styles again to the fore, still in his white tie and tails, jumped out and swept snow over the well-worn tracks between the two barracks. When that was completed we all retired to bed with a sigh of relief and a smile at the anticipated surprise of the camp Kommandant who, on breaking the sealed door at dawn, would find absolutely nothing on which to vent his wrath. Such indeed was the case. Engelhart seemed to realise in a surprisingly short space of time for a German that his game had been spoilt and we heard no more of that escapade.’
‘I mentioned earlier that l participated in the first One Act thriller to be produced at IXc. Now Thomas and evans got together and decided to become more ambitious and put on a real Three Act “Grouse in June”.’
‘They asked me if l had any escape plans and as l was completely destitute l willingly accepted their offer to take one of the larger parts in the proposed production on January 24th.’
‘There was little time to be lost so we got cracking on rehearsals immediately and henceforth practically every afternoon was spent rehearsing on the theatre stage whilst most evenings were spent play-reading in the little room known as the barber’s shop – life suddenly became very full indeed.’
‘It was early in January that our one and only officer, F/O Dowse, the P.R.U. pilot, made a very clean getaway from the camp although l gather in an unsuccessful dash to U.K. I never managed to meet up with him again and hear a first-hand account.’
‘The Germans, curiously enough, gave him warning that he would be moved to an Oflag and would send a guard to collect him at some unearthly hour in the morning to convey him to the train.’
‘Dowse took immediate action. He had already arranged for a Canadian friend to sub. in for him and without more ado off went the guard with this fake whilst Dowse smuggled himself onto a French working party early in the morning and under cover of darkness as the party approached the hotel which acted as an office, he detached himself from the party under pretext of going to the lavatory and cut down to the river and made good his escape, along the millstream route in much the same manner, l presume, as Fenton and l had already done.’
Meanwhile, McCairn’s continues: ‘Over Christmas and New Year l devoted considerable thought to escaping. I came to the conclusion that hiding by day and travelling by night was a ‘wash-out’, and that the idea of stealing an aeroplane was impractical. Cycling or pushing a hand barrow seemed possible ways of getting out of Germany, but only in the summer, and l came to the conclusion that in winter the only way was by train for which civilian clothes were essential.’
The Red Cross parcels were also vital for the escape plans of many. When the parcels arrived, the tins were pierced by the Germans so that the contents had to be used quickly and the tins could not be used as escape material. Some tins missed out on this by various means and came through whole. With chocolate, these were hidden away quickly as escape rations or for trading purposes. This trading was very important because goods like this were rare in Germany at this time and the guards were easily encouraged to take these home to their families, but once induced, they could never refuse for fear of being exposed for accepting these bribes as this was strictly forbidden. The resultant punishment was a posting to the Eastern Front. Later this encouragement to obtain the items necessary to make radios, escape equipment or just make life easier for the Kriegies became an art, but at this time it was fairly basic but still essential. Empty tins were used to make digging tools, air ducts, candle holders, etc.
The prisoners also encouraged their friends and families to send over clothes, supposedly to keep them warm, but many of these items were being re-fashioned into escape outfits. Most of the prisoners realised they were in for a long war behind the wire and each made up his own mind as to how they would deal with this.
The road running along one side of the camp was a regular route used by the German forces moving around the countryside and it soon became apparent to all the prisoners that as the soldiers moved into sight of the camp they started to sing rousing German battle songs or propaganda songs, which would encourage the prisoners to respond in a similar manor.
On 22nd January 1942 with a Belgian friend, Lucian Carlier, as chief plotter and guide, McCairns got away from Stalag IXc. Three days later, alone and exhausted, he crossed the Belgian frontier in the great blizzard of 1942. The Belgian underground sent him to Brussels and there he met an agent who had been parachuted into Belgium from a Whitley four months earlier. This agent told McCairns about the work he did and explained all about Lysanders, which were based at McCairns home base of Tangmere.
McCairns was smuggled to Gibralter, from where he was taken back to England, meeting up with members of MI9 – the escape organisation.
For his escape, McCairns was awarded the Military Medal (which Franks in FCL 1 states he received for escaping from Stalag IXC and returning to England via Spain. This was covered in the London Gazette Issue 35671 published on the 14 August 1942.
McCairns had few of the qualifications demanded. He was not commissioned, his French was not fluent, nor had he 1,000 flying hours and much more important, 500 by night. Worse still, the Air Ministry had clamped down and said that no prisoners of war would be allowed to do any more operational flying in the same theatre.
Sgt Walter Kershaw reported that he made several unsuccessful attempts to penetrate the gates at IXc, but however, he reported Sgt Styles (Gloucester Regt) at IXc as“Revealing escape plans. I understand information has been filed against him and already acted upon”.
Sgt Neil Mussen Campbell escaped alone on 5th February 1942 by climbing over the wire. He was captured at Erfurt by a railway worker but was out for 4 days in total. This delayed his departure to Sagan and he arrived there in May 1942.
Both Derrick Nabarro and Bill Hall wrote books about their time in Bad Sulza and escape attempts, entitled ‘Waiting for the Dawn’ and ‘A Flyers Tale’, respectively.
McCairns had a successful and distinguished career with SOE covered in Hugh Verity’s book ‘We landed by moonlight’. Pilot Officer J.A. McCairns, MM, survived the war but was sadly killed in a flying accident afterwards on the 13th June 1948. See Appendix –
Above and below, information found on display at the Imperial war Museum regarding James McCairns.
Ken heard about his sister’s wedding to another airman and carried pictures with him throughout the war. Shown here is Eric Fenton (Brother), Dorothy Fenton (Niece), Ivan and Lottie Sykes (nee Fenton), Pop Fenton, Madge (Niece) and Peggy Niece (Annie’s daughter) in the front row. Dated Drax 1942.
At the end of April 1942, the prisoners were delighted to hear that they were going to be moved to the new compound at Stalag Luft III, Sagan. Rumours were riff, as the Germans told them that the camp was especially being built for RAF prisoners and was reputed to be completely escape proof. The prisoners had other ideas.
On the day of departure, the guards, led by the Wehrmacht Feldwebel ’Robert Taylor’, escorted the prisoners to the railway station. The Feldwebel had not improved his reputation through the few months of looking after those at Bad Sulza and was renowned for frothing at the mouth when angry, whilst reaching for his pistol at the least provocation and loosing off a few rounds as well.
After the train departed, an alert guard spotted two prisoners jumping from the train as it slowed down on a hill. The train came to a quick halt and the guards opened fire on the fleeing prisoners who quickly surrendered. ‘Robert Taylor’ chased after the now prostrate prisoners, still firing his gun. The prisoners witnessed the defenceless men being clubbed with rifles before being thrown into one of the railway wagons Upon arrival at Stalag Luft 3, despite ‘Dixie’ Deans protests, one of the prisoners, thought to be RCAF Sgt. Harry Malcolm Robertson, later died of his injuries at Sagan. He is reported to have been shot on 29th April 1942 and died on 30th April. Sgt Stan Parris refers in his liberation questionnaire to an escape on “April 29th 1942. Please refer to W/O Deans report already made, to RAF and Red Cross, This was a special report made.”
Upon arrival at Stalag Luft 3, despite ‘Dixie’ Deans protests, one of the prisoners, thought to be RCAF Sgt. Harry Malcolm Robertson, later died of his injuries at Sagan. He is reported to have been shot on 29th April 1942 and died on 30th April. Sgt Stan Parris refers in his liberation questionnaire to an escape on “April 29th 1942. Please refer to W/O Deans report already made, to RAF and Red Cross, This was a special report made.”
Clement Wood, 2nd from left front row. Stalag Luft 3, 1943