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From the Publisher"A compelling new account by an acclaimed historian."
— Ireland on Sunday
The true story of one of the most heroic feats of World War II...the daring prison camp breakout that inspired the classic film The Great Escape
Stalag Luft III was one of the Germans' "escape-proof" prison camps, specially built by Hermann Göring to hold Allied troops. But on March 24, 1944, in a courageous attempt by two hundred prisoners to break out through a series of tunnels, seventy-six Allied officers managed to evade capture — and ...
The true story of one of the most heroic feats of World War II...the daring prison camp breakout that inspired the classic film The Great Escape
Stalag Luft III was one of the Germans' "escape-proof" prison camps, specially built by Hermann Göring to hold Allied troops. But on March 24, 1944, in a courageous attempt by two hundred prisoners to break out through a series of tunnels, seventy-six Allied officers managed to evade capture — and create havoc behind enemy lines in the months before the Normandy Invasion.
This is the incredible story of these brave men who broke free from the supposedly impenetrable barbed wire and watchtowers of Stalag Luft III — and who played an important role in Allied intelligence operations within occupied Europe. The prisoners developed an intricate espionage network, relaying details of military deployment, bombings, and raids. Some of them were involved in other daring escape attempts, including the famous Wooden Horse episode, also turned into a classic film, and the little-known Sachsenhausen breakout, engineered by five Great Escapers sent to die in the notorious concentration camp on Hitler's personal orders. Tragically, fifty of those involved in the Great Escape were murdered by the Gestapo. Others were recaptured; only a few made it all the way to freedom. This dramatic account of personal heroism is a testament to their ingenuity and achievement — a stirring tribute to the men who never gave up fighting.
Includes eight pages of photographs and illustrations, excerpts from Göring's testimony during postwar investigations, and a list of the men who escaped.
Chapter One: For You the War Is Over
The first Allied officer to fall into German hands was a New Zealand RAF airman who was shot down over the North Sea on 5 September 1939 — shortly after war was declared. Flying Officer Laurence Hugh Edwards was on a reconnaissance flight in an Anson aircraft of 206 Squadron when he fell prey to two German Bv 138 flying boats. The two other crew of the Anson were killed in the attack. The enemy aircraft landed alongside the wreckage floating in the sea and took Edwards prisoner. He was to be the first of a sprinkling of RAF officers to fall into enemy hands in the early days of the "Phoney War." By the end of the year, some 26 British and French officers and NCOs were quartered, first in a prison camp at Itzehoe near Hamburg, to which Edwards was dispatched, and shortly afterwards in Spangenberg Castle, a medieval fortress near Kassel which had been used to house prisoners since 1870. Itzehoe was a fairly comfortable camp with a relaxed regime, at which the officers all had their own rooms and were allowed to buy fresh fruit and produce from the locals. Spangenberg Castle, designated Oflag IXA/H ("Oflag" being a corruption of "Offizierslager," meaning "officers' prison"), was far more picturesque, with a moat, formidable stone walls and a cobbled courtyard; it was the quintessential medieval fortress. But the living conditions were hopelessly primitive. The officers shared a long dormitory equipped with little more than straw mattresses and a couple of oak tables. They were given miserable German Army rations, a far cry from the more generous (and healthy) helpings they had been accustomed to in the officers' mess in Britain. Matters were made worse by the arrival of the bitter German winter. As the weather worsened it became too cold to venture outside, and the men mostly stayed inside playing cards and amusing themselves — or not — with whatever distractions they could find. It was a bleak portent of things to come as the very first Kriegies (derived from the German word for prisoners of war, Kriegsgefangenen) adapted to a way of life that would ultimately ensnare some 44,000 Allied airmen taken prisoner in occupied Europe.
The experience of airmen who fall into enemy hands is profoundly different to those of seamen and soldiers. The latter might be taken prisoner after a long struggle after possibly months at sea, or drudgery in the field. But airmen usually find themselves in enemy hands only hours after enjoying the comfort of their familiar surroundings: the mess and the local pub; the company of their girlfriends, wives and families. Most airmen, and particularly those who arrived in Germany at the start of the war, came from the sort of backgrounds where comfort was taken for granted. Yet one minute they are in the safe cocoon of their aircraft, which when thousands of feet above the ground gives exactly the feeling of limitless freedom that airmen crave, then the next they are plunged into a strange and unfamiliar land and are at the mercy of unknown people and an uncertain fate.
"It was quite a shock to suddenly realise you weren't going home and you faced an uncertain future in the hands of the Germans," recalls General Albert Clark, who was one of the first Americans to be taken prisoner in the Second World War. Clark, nicknamed "Bub" thanks to his youthful looks, was a lieutenant-colonel and second-in-command of the 1st US Fighter Group when he was shot down in his Spitfire 5B in July 1942. "Today there is elaborate preparation for airmen should they be shot down, but then there was nothing."
Airmen as a breed are not temperamentally well disposed to endure captivity. Most of them choose to fly because fighting in the sky offers them a sense of individuality that other forms of warfare deny them. The Second World War airman-writer Richard Hillary was typical of the breed. For the Australian-born Spitfire fighter, the war presented an opportunity to leave his distinctive mark on life. Even if it was in death. In an age of mechanised mass slaughter, his ambition was to fight "with a maximum of individuality and a minimum of discipline." In his classic account of aerial combat, The Last Enemy, Hillary wrote:
In a fighter plane, I believe, we have found a way to return to war as it ought to be, war which is individual combat between two people, in which one either kills or is killed. It's exciting, it's individual and it's disinterested. I shan't be sitting behind a long-range gun working out how to kill people 60 miles away. I shan't get maimed: either I shall get killed or I shall get a few pleasant putty medals and enjoy being stared at in a nightclub.
In that single passage Hillary summarises the mentality of warrior airmen better than the millions of other words written on the subject since men took to the skies. Not for airmen the rank conformity of army barrack life or cramped conditions of a life on the ocean waves. (Indeed to many soldiers and sailors, drudgery and conformity become such a fact of life that they often feel lost without it.) For airmen, however, to be suddenly caged and robbed of most freedom of movement is a particularly onerous burden to bear. Airmen are further distinguished from their land- and sea-bound comrades in arms in that almost all of them are very valuable individuals indeed, usually the product of much expensive training in the art of flying and navigating, or any of the other highly skilled abilities flying requires.
In the Battle of Britain planes were not a problem. Britain had the industrial capacity to produce more than she needed. The big problem was the supply of pilots. Pilots are so valuable that their superiors will go to great lengths to get them back and, indeed, the British government created MI9, the clandestine escape and evasion organisation, in December 1939 with that purpose in mind.
Agents of MI9 were parachuted into occupied Europe to link up with the local resistance. Their task (initially) was to spirit downed airmen back to England before the Germans could get their hands on them. But fortunately few fighting men as a group can be more suited to escape than airmen. The sort of sharp mind it requires to understand the complexities of, for instance, astro-navigation is hardly going to be daunted by the prospect of building a simple tunnel. The sort of mentality that is happy fighting alone in the sky without the immediate support of comrades is not going to be oppressed by the long hours of solitude that are often the escaper's lot. Airmen are a clever and aggressive breed, who value their personal freedom above all else.
If airmen are highly individualistic creatures, they were at first treated in a highly individualistic fashion in the nascent conflict between Germany and Britain that had begun in September 1939. Two of the first RAF officers to be shot down over Germany in the Second World War were taken to meet air Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring himself. Squadron Leader Phil Murray and Pilot Officer Alfred "Tommy" Thompson were on a leaflet-dropping raid over Berlin in a twin-engine Armstrong Whitley bomber of 102 Squadron when it crashed after its engines failed on 8 September 1939. (Thompson, a Canadian, was one of the first foreign fighters in the RAF, the son of an Ontario Member of Parliament. He went to England and joined the RAF in 1936, craving adventure and excitement.) One evening Thompson and Murray had been indulging in the usual light-hearted banter of aircrew on the tarmac of their base in Driffield, Yorkshire. The next morning they woke up in the care of a few German guards who didn't quite know what to do with them. The two men were duly astonished to be marched before the jovial figure of the air Reichsmarschall sitting, incongruously, behind a large desk on a raised platform in a forest clearing. The chief of the German Air Force was proudly displaying his medals on his barrel of a chest. The British officers saluted their superior officer, and Göring returned the compliment before politely engaging the men in small talk for 30 minutes or so. Göring was surprised to learn that Thompson was a Canadian, as Canada had yet to enter the war. It would not be the first time that the Germans would be taken aback by the multi-national coalition of countries and even races that seemed to be prepared to come to the support of the supposedly hated imperialist power of Great Britain. Indeed, if there was one thing that the Allied airmen of the Second World War shared more than a love of adventure it was their bewilderingly diverse ethnocentricity in an age long before the phrase "multi-cultural" had been invented.
Göring made some high-minded references to chivalry displayed by Britain's Royal Flying Corps in what was still then called the Great War. He went on to make it clear that as long as Allied airmen were in Luftwaffe hands they could expect to be treated as gentlemen in this, the second major European conflict of the century. His extravagant display of gallantry was by no means unusual in the early stages of the war. In a Reich that was partly founded upon a series of bogus racial theories, British and later American airmen were seen as the sort of superior breed of human beings with whom Hitler would definitely like to stock his Aryan state. But as the war — and particularly the war in the air — was to progress, Allied airmen were not to be regarded quite as benignly when they fell into enemy hands. The Anglo-American aerial bombardment of Germany was to become unprecedented in scale. By the end of 1943 Allied airmen were thought of as Luftgangsters (terror fliers) and murderers of children and women, by many of the unfortunate victims of their bombs. It might have been a case of the pot calling the kettle black, but it would not be an overstatement to say that by the end of the war many British and American bomber crews were also beginning to have misgivings about their task. It was this dramatic shift in perspective towards Richard Hillary's noble warrior airmen that contributed to one of the most heinous crimes against RAF fliers by the Nazi regime.
After their slightly surreal meeting with Göring, Murray and Thompson were dispatched to Itzehoe, where they met the New Zealander Hugh Edwards, brought down in his Anson over the North Sea. There were also two French airmen in the camp and some 600 Poles. Shortly thereafter the decision was made to keep captured fliers in their own separate prison camps, and the RAF men found themselves on the way to Spangenberg Castle, which was very quickly filling up with prisoners of war. (Among them were Gerry Booth and Larry Slattery, the first non-commissioned RAF prisoners of war, who had actually been shot down before Edwards the day after war was declared. The distinction is important because officers and NCOs would be kept separate from then on. Booth and Slattery met their fate in a bombing raid on Wilhelmshaven, which was more of a futile gesture than a serious military manoeuvre.) Among the new officers to arrive at Spangenberg was a congenial Irishman of the RAF's 57 Squadron of lumbering old Blenheim bombers that were mainly being used for reconnaissance duties. Mike Casey, who was just 21 when he was captured, spoke in a deep, attractive brogue but had been brought up in India, where his father had been a senior figure in the Indian Police. He was educated in England, where he mixed a love of sport with a devotion to religion. Sadly, but not untypically, Casey had been married less than a month when he was shot down by a German fighter over Emden in October 1939. The plane crashed into a field below. Typically, at that early stage of the war, the Blenheim crew did not harbour any ill-will towards their German adversaries. As the fighter that had shot them down circled above their wrecked Blenheim, the crew gave the German pilot a friendly wave.
Shortly after Casey arrived he witnessed the arrival in mid-October of a familiar face. Wing Commander Harry Day had been in 57 Squadron with Casey. At 41 years of age, Day was one of the oldest RAF fliers. He would spend much of his war in German captivity and be pivotal to the escape activities of the Allied prisoners. A tall, balding and congenial character, he was known universally to his men as "Wings" Day (not because of his "wings," but after the RAF's anniversary day). He was old enough to be thought of by the younger men as an "Uncle."
Harry Melville Arbuthnot Day was born and brought up in Borneo, but educated in England. He joined the Royal Marines in the First World War and was decorated for gallantry after he rescued two crew members from below decks on a battleship, HMS Britannia, that had been torpedoed by a German submarine. Following the war, he continued to serve in the Marines, but after conceiving a love for flying, joined the newly formed RAF in which he became an ace fighter pilot and a noted stunt flier (leading the aerobatic flight at the Hendon Air Display in 1932). By the time hostilities broke out the second time around, Day was already in his 40s, an elderly man to the youthful fliers of the Air Force. He was sent to France commanding 57 Squadron. When he was shot down in October 1939 (as fate would have it, on Friday the 13th), Wings was flying one of the ancient old Blenheims on a reconnaissance flight in broad daylight over south-west Germany. He was a sitting duck flying in clear blue sky when three Messerschmitt 109 fighters set upon him. After checking that his crew had safely bailed out, Wings followed suit, narrowly avoiding being burnt to death as he threw himself out of the escape hatch.
From the very start of his arrival on enemy soil Wings was treated with great courtesy. He landed in open countryside. As he was unclipping his parachute harness in a field, a local man arrived on the scene. "Englander," said Wings. The man grinned, held out his arm and shook his hand. Later, local villagers helped him clean up and treated his burns. Wings was billeted with a young German Army officer at his home nearby. At that stage of the war the Germans had not thought through their policy of dealing with prisoners of war and Wings was moved from one makeshift jail to another, rarely guarded properly, before he arrived at Spangenberg, where he immediately took on the role of Senior British Officer (SBO), a function he was to occupy in various camps for much of his Second World War career.
Day was a naturally courteous and chivalrous man. He took the attitude from an early date that the Germans should be treated exactly as the British officers would expect to be treated. He always insisted on a sharp turn-out for roll-call (or Appell as the Germans called it) and he snapped to salute a senior Luftwaffe officer just as sharply as he would have done an RAF one. However, there was no doubt in which direction his steely nerves were directed. On 11 November 1939 the British and French prisoners held a small ceremony to commemorate the end of the First World War. Wings made a moving declaration to the French officers. "Nineteen-eighteen may seem a long way off to some of you. At the beginning of that year it looked as though we had lost the war. It may seem to some of you now that you have already lost this one. But we beat the Germans in 1918 and what you have already done will help to beat them again. For you the war is not over. Vive la France — and England." Wings's sentiments were gratefully acknowledged by the French, but it was not long before the two nationalities were separated by the Germans.
As the Germans evolved their prisoner-of-war strategy, the Allied prisoners were not to suffer the deprivations of Spangenberg for much longer. In the first two weeks of that December the Germans dispatched five Royal Air Force and French Air Force prisoners to a camp just beyond the outer suburbs of Frankfurt am Main. Wings Day was among them, as was Mike Casey. Dulag Luft, as it became known, was situated at the foot of the Taunus Mountains. It was the place that from then onwards most shot-down Allied officers would find themselves in before being dispatched to permanent camps across Germany. Dulag Luft was an abbreviation for Durchgangslager der Luftwaffe (transit camp of the Air Force). A former experimental agricultural centre on the outskirts of the small town of Oberursel, it consisted of a ramshackle collection of brick buildings lightly guarded by barbed-wire fencing. From December 1939 onwards, Dulag Luft would become the first point of call of most Allied airmen caught in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Wings Day became the SBO at Dulag Luft once more. He rapidly formulated policies for dealing with the new situation that the captives and their captors found themselves in. It was then that he confirmed his policy to observe the correct military courtesies towards the Germans, as the Geneva Convention required. It was Wings's belief that should he ever have to demand the rights of the much-abused international treaty be observed towards his officers, then he would be on much firmer ground if he had observed them himself. Another decision he took breached British military regulations, which stated categorically that parole was not to be granted under any circumstances. Day decided that the cramped conditions of Dulag Luft did justify giving parole in certain circumstances. His men would be driven mad unless they were allowed to leave their quarters occasionally.
Day could be excused his flagrant breach of orders. When the RAF men arrived at Dulag Luft in late 1939 and early 1940 the war didn't seem quite so real. There was an air of a charade about the whole thing. The war at that stage was, after all, called the Phoney War. However, as the weeks turned into months the reality of war struck home. At first the officers were housed in the permanent brick buildings of what had once been the experimental farm. The living conditions were congenial. The prisoners lived in small rooms off a central corridor and were locked in at night but free to roam the buildings during the day. However, by the spring of 1940 a compound of timber barrack blocks had been constructed, and the men settled down into surroundings that would become familiar to all air force prisoner-of-war camps in Germany in the Second World War, as the conflict would become known. The compound of three barracks (East, West and Central) provided dormitories, cooking and cleaning facilities, and was surrounded by barbed-wire fencing and guardtowers. Even then, however, the regime was a comparatively lax one. There was still a faint hope that the Phoney War would not develop into a real one, and the bulk of what the RAF dropped over Germany was leaflets exhorting the population to rise up and throw Hitler out of office. All that changed with the Nazi onslaught on the Low Countries and the fall of France in the summer of 1940. In June of that year, with Britain standing alone and stubbornly defiant, the French airmen were separated from their British allies and deposited in their own camp. In July, Dulag Luft became an interrogation centre to which all British and most American airmen were sent immediately after they arrived in Germany.
Despite the seriousness of hostilities, however, Dulag Luft in the early years continued to be a home-from-home for most of its unfortunate inmates. They soon became familiar with the inedible German rations of (usually) ersatz coffee made from acorns and dry black bread of questionable provenance for breakfast, Sauerkraut soup and a portion of mouldy potatoes for lunch, followed by some sausage or a peculiar cheese made from fish by-products. It was the Germans' standard diet for a non-working civilian, but at 800 calories per day it offered far less than the optimum 1,200 calories recommended for a normal healthy adult. But supplies of Red Cross parcels were plentiful and the Luftwaffe made sure their prisoners were well fed. In fact there were so many Red Cross parcels that the Germans gave banquets of four or five courses every two weeks just to keep the surplus down. There was plenty of wine and spirits, and culinary delicacies too, looted from occupied France. The Germans were unstinting in their generosity in dispensing these supplies among the prisoners for birthdays or farewell celebrations. And instead of ten to twelve officers per room, which became the norm in later camps, the rooms at Dulag Luft housed as little as two or four men. Walks out on parole were frequent for visits to church or recreational outings. It would have seemed remarkable to prisoners of a later stage of the war, but for the first two winters some officers enjoyed skiing holidays with their German counterparts. In the summer it was not unusual for the Kommandant to give permission for berry-picking excursions into the woods.
It was not just thanks to the Germans' benevolent spirits that these comfortable conditions prevailed in the early years at Dulag Luft. The Germans hoped that they could break the prisoners' will to fight. And they believed a congenial atmosphere was more conducive to their charges letting slip confidential information that would be useful to the Nazi war effort. It emerged later that the barracks were wired with secret microphones. Unfortunately for the Germans, however, it turned out the recordings they obtained proved to be almost unintelligible. It is unlikely that the German eavesdroppers obtained any useful information from this method. And it would soon become apparent to the Germans that, despite their best efforts to do so, the imprisoned airmen's combative mood was not sapped. Some prisoners, it is true, unashamedly took up the offer to sit out the war quietly. But the majority devoted every waking moment to continuing the war from behind the wire.
This attitude was by no means disapproved of by the German Kommandant of Dulag Luft. Major Theo Rumpel was an aristocratic officer who had flown in Göring's squadron in the First World War. An engaging, courteous man, Rumpel was not by any stretch of the imagination a Nazi and didn't have the slightest sympathies for Hitler or his henchmen. But he was regarded as the best intelligence officer the Luftwaffe had, and he spoke almost perfect English. Consequently he had been persuaded to take on his present role. Rumpel was keen, as the air Reichsmarschall was, to continue the spirit of chivalry that he supposed bonded his men with those of the Allied air forces. He sometimes entertained officers to dinner at his own quarters and was always solicitous of their needs, sometimes sending them packets of fine cigarettes for special anniversaries. The British officers, in turn, returned the compliment, invariably writing Rumpel letters of gratitude for small favours he had bestowed on them.
It was soon clear that Dulag Luft was intended to be not an ordinary prisoner-of-war camp but a transit post. Newly captured airmen would be sent there initially for interrogation before being dispatched to one of several new camps the German armed forces were building in different parts of Germany and occupied Europe. To ease the transition, Rumpel appointed a Permanent Staff of some 25 British officers at Dulag Luft. Its function would be to liaise between the new RAF arrivals and the German officers. New prisoners were first interviewed by the Germans in the old brick agricultural buildings, which were rapidly being transformed into an interrogation facility. Under the Geneva Convention prisoners of war were required only to give their name, rank and serial number. The German interviewers tried to trick more information out of their charges. But in these early days they had not developed the sophistry or duplicity in such techniques that were to be a hallmark of their efforts at Dulag Luft later. Afterwards the Allied prisoners were handed over to the Permanent Staff, which provided them with a Red Cross parcel and any clothing replacements they needed before giving them a welcoming meal. It was all very civilised. The permanent RAF staff were mostly selected from the older officers, who were presumed to have a sense of responsibility and more maturity than their hot-headed youthful comrades. Rumpel also demonstrated a marked preference for officers with blue blood in their family.
To Major Rumpel, Wings Day was the perfect embodiment of the English officer. And to his great delight the British SBO cultivated friendly relations with most of the German officers, not least the Kommandant. When Day asked Rumpel if he could have a cat for a companion, his German counterpart responded warmly by providing the British officer with a kitten. (Day promptly named it Ersatz as it was a substitute, like so much of what else the Germans provided their prisoners with.) It was not unusual for the senior German officers to take Wings out to dinner, and he was invited around to Rumpel's private quarters for dinner or drinks on many occasions. It was a comfortable relationship that was to be the source of some irritation to many other British officers who passed through Dulag Luft. Day and other members of the Permanent Staff were later openly accused of collaborating with the Germans or, at the very least, being a bit too friendly with them. What their accusers didn't realise was that the men were using their privileged position within the camp to plan and prepare what would become the first great escape from German captivity. Their apparently harmless excursions out on parole in fact provided them with valuable intelligence about the surrounding district. On one trip to a restaurant, Day managed to get hold of a radio receiver which he smuggled back into Dulag Luft.
Among the Permanent Staff members at Dulag Luft there were two pilots who had been among the first to serve in the Royal Navy's flying force, the Fleet Air Arm. Lieutenant Commander John Casson (the son of the actors Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson) had been shot down over Norway flying a Skua plane from HMS Ark Royal in an attack on the German pocket battleship Scharnhorst in Trondheim fjord. (His navigator was Peter Fanshawe, who would play an important role in escapes to come.) He was joined several weeks later by his Fleet Air Arm friend and comrade Lieutenant Commander Jimmy Buckley, who had served in the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious before the war. He was shot down over the coast of France in May 1940 while strafing German lines at Dunkirk. He had been taken prisoner along with the thousands of other British servicemen who did not make it back across the Channel. When he arrived at Dulag Luft, Wings Day appointed him his deputy as SBO. Buckley was a small man with dark hair and eyes that always seemed to twinkle with laughter. A born comedian, he would occupy much of his time in captivity writing and acting comic sketches for many of the theatrical shows that would become such a part of Kriegie life. But these innocent activities were not just a way of relieving the boredom. They disguised Buckley's far more important role as the first chairman of the Escape Committee. At Dulag Luft, the Escape Committee was little more than a nascent body that affirmed the prisoners' will and desire to escape. But it would soon grow into a formidable outfit, known as the X-Organisation, that controlled every aspect of escaping activity from behind the wire.
Jimmy Buckley turned to a remarkable young RAF officer to provide the backbone of the Escape Committee. Squadron Leader Roger Bushell was a Hurricane pilot who had also been shot down over France during the evacuation of Dunkirk. Twenty-nine years old when he fell into enemy hands, Bushell was the wealthy son of a South African mining engineer. He had moved to England to study engineering at Cambridge University, but ended up practising as a barrister. Bushell was a man of formidable build and an equally formidable personality. Thick-set and of aggressive appearance, he was a fearless skier of Olympic standard and sported a permanently drooping left eye, thanks to a skiing accident before the war. He had joined the RAF long before the war began and belonged to 601 Squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. It was dubbed "the Millionaires' Squadron," thanks to the wealthy former public schoolboys who mostly made up its number, and it had a reputation for louche ribaldry. In the air Bushell displayed all the characteristics that he possessed in his career on the ground, not least his outrageous daring and complete fearlessness. One of the ornaments of the officers' mess of 601 Squadron was a road signpost he had lopped off when landing his plane at a country pub for a quick drink.
When war broke out Bushell was ordered to set up 92 Squadron, a unit of Blenheim night fighters, at Tangmere on the south coast of England. He arrived there to discover the only problem was a lack of any pilots to fly the machines, although there was a sprinkling of ground staff to maintain them. By the time the war was being fought in earnest, however, 92 Squadron had been converted to the far more deadly Hawker Hurricanes, which were being churned out in their thousands by factories up and down Britain. Bushell was in his on 23 May 1940 over the beaches of northern France when a Messerschmitt 110 got the better of him in a dogfight. The British pilot managed to land his Hurricane inland intact and, presuming he was in Allied-held territory, waited by his stricken machine for assistance to come. Unfortunately, he was quickly to discover that the area had by then been occupied by the Germans. Shortly afterwards he was under German guard and on his way to Dulag Luft.
Buckley appointed Bushell the Escape Committee's chief of intelligence. He was to become probably the most persistent and indefatigable escaper of all the Allied prisoners and the man without whom the future Great Escape would never have happened. But if Roger Bushell was to play a key role in the escape organisation, the Permanent Staff was shortly to be joined by one of the most colourful personalities of the story that was about to unfold. Major Johnny Dodge was also one of the oldest Allied prisoners of war, being 46 when he fell into German hands in 1940. He was not, however, destined to be SBO for the simple reason that, being an army officer, he really shouldn't have been among air force officers at all. But that story is just one of the many peculiar twists in the life of Johnny Dodge.
A tall, big man, John Bigelow Dodge sported a peculiarly small moustache above his invariably smiling lips. Born in 1894, Dodge came from a distinguished and wealthy American family related to the US side of Winston Churchill's forebears. His maternal grandfather was a brilliant writer, newspaper editor and US diplomat. His uncle was another famous journalist who had been a close friend of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Johnny Dodge himself was something of a maverick and adventurer who did not fit into the conventional mould of any sort of careerist.
He had had a colourful and chequered military career, having managed to gain a commission, despite his American citizenship, in the British Royal Navy at the beginning of the First World War. He subsequently transferred to the British Army towards the end. His only guiding light appeared to be an overwhelming desire to be where the action was. In the Navy, in 1915, he won a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) at Gallipoli. Later, after having transferred to the Army as a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Sussex Regiment, he was wounded twice in France, mentioned twice in dispatches, and won the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and the Military Cross.
Dodge's inter-war career was almost as colourful as that of his fighting years. A natural adventurer, he turned his interest in the problems of international trade into a travelling mission that encompassed most of Persia, Asia and the Antipodes, including a 1,700-mile horseback trek across Siberia. His journeys took in exotic locations as far apart as New Zealand and Mesopotamia, Mongolia and Japan. He also visited Thailand and Afghanistan. Finally arriving in Georgia on the Black Sea in 1921, he fell into the hands of the Russian secret police and was arrested on suspicion of spying. In the absence of any evidence he was released and made his way back to England.
He had become a British subject in 1915, and once back in London he worked for London County Council in an east London ward. Twice Dodge attempted to become a Conservative Member of Parliament, and twice he failed. He had more success in his commercial endeavours, joining the London Stock Exchange and becoming the director of a New York bank. His private life too was a success. He married — happily, which was a little out of character for someone so footloose and fancy-free — and fathered two sons. As soon as the war broke out, he joined up and found himself serving with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). In the summer of 1940, like hundreds of thousands of other British and French troops, he was caught between the devil that was Hitler's Panzer divisions and the deep blue sea of the English Channel. He tried to swim away to a small boat offshore, but the boat was heading away to England faster than Dodge could swim. He was shot at and forced to return to the mainland, where he was eventually captured after further efforts to get away. By a stroke of fate he was handed over to the Luftwaffe rather than the German Army. When Major Rumpel set eyes on the distinguished new arrival to Dulag Luft, he immediately identified him as exactly the sort of officer the British Permanent Staff required. He could not believe his luck to have a relative of the British Prime Minister — no matter how distantly removed — as his "guest." Discreetly, Rumpel had Dodge's papers altered to identify him as an officer in the RAF.
The nucleus of the X-Organisation was slowly being formed. In the summer of 1940 one of its most successful members was to arrive. Bertram "Jimmy" James was the very picture of a gentle, mild-mannered Englishman. James was to be one of the most prolific and irrepressible escapers of the Second World War, rarely allowing a week to go by without indulging in some form of escape activity. His persistence would eventually incur the wrath of the German High Command, and Heinrich Himmler himself. Jimmy James was born in India, the son of an English tea-planter, and was educated at King's School, Canterbury. After his father died, James decided to see the world, took a steamer to Panama and worked his way up the length and breadth of North America before ending up in British Columbia. He worked at the local branch of a big bank, but as war approached James saw an advert for RAF personnel and applied for a short-service commission. He scored so well on his navigation tests that the RAF assigned him to a new bomber squadron, 9 Squadron of Wellingtons, based at Honington.
James was the second pilot of a Wellington when it was caught by heavy flak over the Dutch coast on 5 June 1940. The "Wimpy," as Wellingtons were fondly known, was hit by flak as it made its way fully laden towards Germany. The bombs inside exploded at once and James recalled the stricken plane plunging to the earth "like a fiery comet." He bailed out and as he was floating down towards the moonlit enemy territory below James decided he must have been about 25 miles south of Rotterdam and possibly the same distance from the sea. It was about 11 p.m. when his feet finally touched the ground with a thud, breaking his ankle as he did so. His sudden arrival was witnessed by a herd of friendly cows. James picked himself up and began walking in a westerly direction towards where he supposed the coast would be, hoping to find a boat and make his way across the Channel back to England. At first he made promising progress. After travelling some 15 miles before daybreak, he encountered a friendly Dutchman, who sheltered him in a farmhouse and gave him bread and cheese. The man indicated that James should rest there for the day and continue his escape the following night. But unfortunately his family proved less receptive to the idea of harbouring an English airman. After some discussion he was driven to the double gate leading to the German administrative compound (the Kommandantur) in Rotterdam. There he discovered from a Luftwaffe officer that three others of his crew had also been captured. Then the German issued the immortal phrase: "For you the war is over."
James's initial questioning at the hands of the Germans is instructive in how methods of interrogation were subsequently developed and perfected. He was interviewed by a colonel in the presence of some six other officers and one civilian interpreter. As the questioning progressed, however, it became obvious that the civilian was from the Gestapo. It was he who took over the proceedings. They tried to browbeat James into giving more information than his name, rank and number. At one stage they implied that if he gave them more information they might be able to help two of his injured crew who had been heard crying for help in a ditch near the downed Wimpy. James pointed out that if they knew there were injured men there, then there was little further information he could supply them with. Eventually they tired of trying to wear him down and sent him to the Luftwaffe's Dutch headquarters at the Carlton Hotel in Amsterdam. There James was subjected to a charm offensive. In his room was a table laden with glasses of beer, ice and cheroots. Presently a Luftwaffe officer entered and offered James a drink, which he gladly accepted. The German officer claimed he had been to Oxford University and lamented the fact that the two countries were at war with one another. When it became obvious that James was not going to disclose any information of value, the officer's mood changed. The beer and cheroots were removed and the following day the English airman was dispatched by car to Dulag Luft.
Once more James was subjected to a familiar litany of German tricks. He was presented with a "Red Cross" form that asked for details of his family and service background so that, purportedly, his next-of-kin could be informed that he was a prisoner of war. Once more James refused, and gave them only his name, rank and number. Once more the Germans gave up and sent their new prisoner to the prisoners' compound. There for the first time James met Wings Day, who greeted him fondly stroking his kitten, Ersatz. In Dulag Luft, James was delighted to be reunited with the American-born rear gunner of his Wimpy, who told him two more of the crew were alive and well, but the other pilot and the navigator had died. James and Wings Day would come to know one another very well indeed, finding themselves in the cells of Sachsenhausen concentration camp in the dying days of the war. But their acquaintance at Dulag Luft was short lived. After three days James was moved out with 13 other RAF officers, two Fleet Air Arm lieutenants and two French Air Force officers. Their destination was to be the newly built camp of Stalag Luft I near Barth on the bleak and cheerless coast of the Baltic, opened in the summer of 1940.
By that same summer in Dulag Luft, the prisoners had hatched their first escape plan. The men had used their parole walks to reconnoitre the surrounding countryside, and had obtained railway timetables. Just outside the wire fence was a dry ditch with a small bridge over it. Buckley and Bushell believed that it would be easy enough to dig a tunnel that would break through just below the bridge and give them enough time to get through several prisoners before their absence was noted. The plan was to head off in lots of different directions. Bushell was aiming for the Swiss frontier at Schaffhausen, a noted skiing area that he was intimately familiar with. It was a laughably simple break-out plan, without much of the sophistication that would characterise future endeavours, but it would teach the men valuable lessons in the art of escaping. Their first tunnel was an abject failure. It started out of the East Block's toilet facilities. But the water table proved higher than they had thought and the tunnellers found themselves clawing their way through mud. After only a few weeks they gave up some six feet short of the footbridge. They started another tunnel shortly afterwards from underneath Wings Day's bed, but that was discovered by the Germans. By then the winter had set in and what was becoming known as "the escaping season" had come to an end. Even the most resolute escapers, including Bushell, realised that trying to survive the German winter on sparse rations and in inadequate clothing was out of the question. All the prisoners could do now was make their plans for the forthcoming spring.
As the spring of 1941 approached, the escapers discovered the tunnel from the East Block toilets was still in good condition, despite the disastrous flooding that had turned it into a channel of mud and sludge the previous year. They decided to rebuild it, and over a period of several weeks members of the Permanent Staff slogged away beneath the toilet block scraping away the soil. This time they successfully completed the tunnel all the way to the footbridge without any flooding and surprised themselves that by May they were ready to break out. The Escape Committee earmarked the first moonless night in June to make the break. In all, 19 men were to take part in the bid led by Bushell and Buckley and including Casey, Day and Dodge. They were all armed with fairly rudimentary false papers and had altered their RAF tunics to look as much like civilian clothing as possible. Most of them planned to spread out and make off in different directions in pairs or alone.
Roger Bushell was to be the exception in that he was the only one not going through the tunnel. He had decided he would go out alone, a day earlier, via a different and ingenious way out of the camp. This was because of another problem the escapers were going to encounter regularly in the future — the vagaries of weekend train travel. Bushell was going disguised as a German Army ski instructor on leave. From his pre-war life he had acquired an intimate knowledge of that part of the Swiss-German frontier around Schaffhausen. Unlike the other escapers, Bushell had managed to acquire a nicely cut civilian suit that would help him meld into the background a little bit better than the rest. Speaking German fluently, with a slight Swiss accent, he thought he stood a plausible chance of bluffing his way to the border and getting over it one way or another. His plan, though, depended upon him getting as quickly as possible to the Swiss frontier by train from Frankfurt and unfortunately the first moonless night fell on a weekend when train services were generally sparse and unreliable.
Therefore, he formulated his plan to go the night before the rest, hiding that afternoon before evening Appell in a goat shed which was a quixotic feature of the exercise yard outside the compound. All prisoners who arrived at Dulag Luft were made aware of the old goat in this shed, a playful and occasionally aggressive beast. Many of them took such a shine to the goat that it was not unusual for them to help out with cleaning his shed and giving him food. Bushell and a colleague seized the opportunity of this apparently innocent activity to excavate a hole in the floor of the shed just large enough to conceal a man. They disguised the hole with a trap sturdy enough for the poor goat not to fall through, and carried the earth away gradually during the course of several visits.
Bushell planned to slip into the shed during the Thursday evening before those using the tunnel were due to break out on the night of the following Friday or Saturday. There was only a single strand of wire that surrounded the practice ground and it presented no obstacle at all to escape. In the past it had proved so easy to falsify the count at roll-calls that he did not anticipate any problems disguising his presence and getting a good 24 hours' start on his comrades in the tunnel. The Escape Committee held a conference and the plan was passed. When somebody made the obvious quip about the problem of the smell in the shed, somebody else replied with the equally obvious: "I'm sure the goat won't mind."
Bushell's strategy went according to plan. While the other prisoners staged a mock bullfight with the goat to distract the guards' attention, Bushell slipped into the shed. He was not discovered that night when the goatherd put his charge to bed, and neither he nor his host protested at one another's company. Shortly afterwards, Bushell was on an express train bound for Tuttlingen. As he had rightly predicted, nobody noticed his absence at the following morning roll-call. From Tuttlingen, Bushell took a secondary line to Bonndorf, from where he set out across country on foot. He was confident that he could sustain a casual conversation if he was stopped, but miraculously he didn't meet a soul. He arrived later that Friday on the Swiss frontier, which was now beginning to buzz with weekend skiers. It would soon be night and Bushell faced the dilemma of waiting until nightfall and trying to cross the border in the dark or making a bid for it in the daylight. He chose the latter. But entering a village on the border he was accosted by a man who emerged from a house halfway along the street. The German challenged Bushell, who, to disguise the problem of his accent, slurred his words, pretending to be happy-drunk and hoping to charm the man with his bonhomie. The villager, however, proved to be an uncharmable character and insisted that he take Bushell to the police station. At that moment, Bushell legged it and, sprinting around the corner, ran into a dead-end. For the time being, once more, Roger Bushell's war was over. "I could have taken a girls' school across if I'd chosen a spot a few hundred yards to the west," he later reflected morosely.
At least he had made better progress than his fellow escapers. The Friday night after Bushell had made his getaway the other 18 escapers made their way through the short tunnel. Their progress was disguised by a party held elsewhere in the compound. All managed to break out of the tunnel undetected and it was not until roll-call the following morning that the absence of much of Major Rumpel's Permanent Staff was noticed. However, all their journeys across Germany were quickly thwarted. Most were recaptured within 24 hours after being given away by their poor documentation and unlikely disguises. Others made basic mistakes — such as Johnny Dodge, who walked down the middle of the Autobahn, not realising this was against the law for pedestrians. Dodge's escape ended when he and his companion arrived at a bridge guarded by Germans. Shortly afterwards they were on their way back to Dulag Luft. The best German speaker got as far as Hanover, but he too found himself swiftly back in the hands of the Germans.
Nevertheless, the RAF had staged the first Great Escape of the Second World War. The Germans were shocked enough by it to begin urgently revising their strategy for keeping Allied air force prisoners. Despite discovering the earlier tunnel, the Germans had been lulled into a false sense that the British officers would not betray Kommandant Rumpel's kindness to them. One of the German officers later lamented that he should have realised what was going on, considering the number of showers the prisoners were in the habit of taking at all times of the day. But now the honeymoon was over. After they were recaptured, all the escapers were made to serve the mandatory sentence of two weeks in the cooler for attempted escape. (Every prisoner-of-war camp had a cooler, slang for a solitary confinement block of single, stark cells, where they were served starvation rations.) But afterwards, the Germans decided that most of the escapers were to be transferred to Stalag Luft I, the new far-flung Luftwaffe camp near Barth to which Jimmy James had been dispatched shortly after he arrived. Roger Bushell was an exception, as he would often prove to be. He was sent to the even more miserable compound of Stalag XC at Luebeck, which rivalled Barth for squalor and was mainly occupied by British Army officers captured in the debacle of Crete.
In the future, escape would prove more difficult from Dulag Luft, and the Germans selected for the British Permanent Staff prisoners who appeared temperamentally inclined to accept captivity. In the meantime, Kommandant Rumpel bore the brunt of the blame for the escape. He was ejected from his job, not a penalty likely to have greatly perturbed him. Before he departed he made sure a case of champagne was delivered to the escapers for them to enjoy on the train to Barth. Accompanying it was a note with his compliments.
Copyright © 2004 by Tim Carroll
Prologue: The Last of the Great Escapers
Chapter One For You the War Is Over
Chapter Two School for Scoundrels
Chapter Three Göring's Escape-Proof Camp
Chapter Four Tom, Dick and Harry
Chapter Five The Wooden Horse
Chapter Six Harry
Chapter Seven Per Ardua ad Astra
Chapter Eight The Führer's Fury
Chapter Nine The Ones That Got Away
Appendix I The Great Escapers
Appendix II Excerpts from the Testimony of Hermann Göring Relevant to the Treatment of Air Force Prisoners
Posted July 13, 2011
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Posted May 11, 2011
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Posted February 18, 2011
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Posted March 24, 2011
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