Zero Night: The Untold Story of World War Two's Greatest Escape

Zero Night: The Untold Story of World War Two's Greatest Escape

by Mark Felton


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Zero Night: The Untold Story of World War Two's Greatest Escape by Mark Felton

A thrilling, moment by moment account of an epic World War II escape and the real-life adventures that followed.

On August 30, 1942 - 'Zero Night' - 40 Allied officers staged the most audacious mass escape of World War II. Months of meticulous planning and secret training hung in the balance during three minutes of mayhem as the officers boldly stormed the huge double fences at Oflag Prison. Employing wooden ladders and bridges previously disguised as bookshelves, the highly coordinated effort succeeded and set 36 men free into the German countryside. Later known as the 'Warburg Wire Job', fellow prisoner and fighter ace Douglas Bader once described the attempt as 'the most brilliant escape conception of this war'.

The first author to tackle this remarkable story in detail, historian Mark Felton brilliantly evokes the suspense of the escape and the adventures of those escapees who managed to elude the Germans, as well as the courage of the civilians who risked their lives to help them in enemy territory. Fantastically intimate and told with a novelist's eye for drama and detail, this rip-roaring adventure is all the more thrilling because it really happened.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250073747
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/25/2015
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 470,205
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 5.50(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

MARK FELTON has written over a dozen books on prisoners of war, Japanese war crimes and Nazi war criminals, and writes regularly for magazines such as Military History Monthly and World War II including China Station: The British Military in the Middle Kingdom, 1839-1997. After almost a decade teaching in Shanghai he has returned to Colechester, England where he lives with his wife and son.

Read an Excerpt

Zero Night

The Untold Story of World War Two's Greatest Escape

By Mark Felton

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2014 Mark Felton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8525-7


Barbed Wire Horizon

However efficient you were, there had to be that additional and elusive element of luck that was to favour the very few who 'made it'.

Captain Maurice Few, Royal Sussex Regiment

Columns of dense black smoke puffed into the cold sky as the locomotive, a Nazi eagle embossed on its boiler, hauled a line of cattle cars into Warburg's pretty little station. Lining the platform were dozens of German soldiers bundled up in field-grey greatcoats and side caps, their gloved hands grasping Mauser rifles. Military policemen pulled at the leads of barking Alsatians whose breath plumed in the chilly October air. The wooden cattle car doors were flung back on their runners, the prisoners blinking at the light.

To guttural shouts of 'Aus, Tommis, aus, aus!' and the occasional rifle butt or pushing hand, the British and Australian prisoners jumped down onto the platform with their kitbags and started to line up. Many were extremely thin, their eyes hollowed by months of near-starvation rations. For almost an hour they stood around smoking, blowing on their freezing hands or stamping their feet while their bad-tempered guards counted and recounted them. Then they were herded into ragged ranks by their sentries, who more than once smashed a rifle butt into the face or head of an obstinate prisoner, and a stiff-backed Wehrmacht officer, clipboard under his arm, bellowed out the order 'Marsch!' The 3,000-man column of Army and RAF prisoners began to march its way towards the new camp through the flat north German countryside.

* * *

An hour later the column of prisoners wearily approached the tall wooden gates of Oflag VI-B. Their hearts sank as they viewed the vast enclosure that stretched before them across the treeless plain. Conversation almost ceased – the only sound was thousands of boots pounding the road to prison.

It was late 1941 and most of the British had been prisoners since the Battle of France seventeen months before. They were members of units that had been given the unenviable task of providing a rearguard around the Dunkirk perimeter so that the rest of the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force could get back to England. They had resigned themselves to capture but had fought on, outnumbered and outgunned, until overrun by German tanks and infantry in dozens of short and very bloody engagements. They were men like Major Albert Arkwright of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, a 35-year-old regular soldier with receding blond hair and piercing blue eyes whose life had been saved by his batman taking most of the blast of a German stick grenade that was flung at them on 24 May 1940. Arkwright's batman trudged along behind his officer on the road to Oflag VI-B, his face heavily scarred from the reconstructive surgery that German doctors had performed on his ghastly wounds.

Close by was the handsome, fair-haired Major Tom Stallard, second-in-command of the 1st Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, who had watched his battalion being filleted by German panzers on the Lys river, unable to stop the armoured onslaught as they had been bereft of anti-tank weapons. Those who survived the panzers had attempted to escape across a bridge but had mostly been mown down by German machine guns, shot in the back as they fled.

Born in Bath on 13 May 1904, Stallard was of medium height with a slim, runner's build, and at 37 was already a highly experienced combat officer. After Sherborne and Sandhurst he had been commissioned into the Durhams in 1924. Following security duties in Northern Ireland in 1925–27 he had served in Egypt, where he became an accomplished polo player, before moving on to the infamous Northwest Frontier of India in 1929. Here he saw sporadic action against tribesmen in Waziristan on the Afghan border during the Relief of Datta Khel and the clearing of Islamic fundamentalist fighters from the border town of Makeen (both in present-day Pakistan). In 1937 Stallard, by now battalion adjutant, had witnessed first-hand the brutal Japanese assault on Shanghai when his battalion had been rushed to China to help protect the city's International Settlement. The British troops had been forced to stand by while Japanese forces cold-bloodedly murdered Chinese civilians just a few yards away. Britain was not at war with Japan at the time and the Durhams' sole duty was to protect the British section of the city from Japanese molestation.

Stallard did not take kindly to prison camp life – he was too active, mentally and physically, to accept its dull routine, frustrations and complete lack of objective. Instead, he decided that escaping would be his goal – his one and only aim, to the point where it would become an all-encompassing obsession.

Majors Arkwright and Stallard were already fast friends, having planned escapes together in their previous camp, Oflag VII-C at Laufen. Stallard possessed the quiet authority of a true leader and was one of the most determined escape artists in German captivity. Arkwright had only the highest praise for him, remarking that 'his flair for organisation, resourcefulness, and active mind made him in every sense an ideal leader'. Others described Stallard as 'magnetic', and he was all of those things and more. Stallard's unique ability was to be able to concentrate every faculty he possessed on the single objective of escape. Most of the prisoners were happy to spend an hour or two a day on some long-term tunnelling project even though the chance of success was remote in the extreme. As long as the possibility of success remained they were content, and could spend the rest of their time attending lectures, reading books or listening to music. Stallard was not like this. He attacked his subject with unfaltering devotion and single-mindedness.

Other prisoners marching into Warburg camp were men from the 51st Highland Division, sacrificed in Normandy by Churchill in a futile effort to keep the French Army fighting after Dunkirk. One among them had already made five escapes, and his later contribution to the first 'great escape' from Oflag VI-B was to prove inspirational. Of average height, with brown hair and often seen wearing an impish grin, 23-year-old Lieutenant Jock Hamilton-Baillie was known by his friends simply as 'HB' or alternatively 'The Camp Brain', the latter sobriquet being particularly apt. His last escape had taken him literally to within a stone's throw of Switzerland after he had broken out of a German castle and walked to the Alps. Such failure would have broken the spirits of lesser men, but what HB lacked in luck he more than made up for in pluck and determination. The German commandant at Laufen had been so impressed by HB's daring that instead of punishing him when he was recaptured, he had thrown a dinner in his honour.

Many others, including a large contingent of Australians, had been captured following the German invasion of Crete in 1941 – another monumental foul-up that had necessitated the evacuation by sea of an entire British army. The Australians had had a terrible time of it since capture. They had spent six long weeks in a bug-ridden compound in Salonika, then endured a nightmare cattle-truck journey up into Germany and two months in a repulsive camp at Lübeck before a transfer to Warburg. They had not received any Red Cross food or clothing and a number were suffering from the deficiency disease beriberi, or were underweight. The Senior British Officer (SBO), with the approval of all the other prisoners, would insist that the Australian contingent receive two Red Cross parcels per week instead of the usual one for a one-month period to try to build them up.

Prominent among the antipodean escapers was 28-year-old Captain Doug Crawford, a tall, well-built Australian Rules footballer with a predictably dry sense of humour and a smart military moustache. Other Aussies who were later to play an important role in the Warburg Wire Job included 29-year-old Lieutenant Jack Champ, an inveterate escaper with a cheeky grin, and Captain Rex Baxter, a tall, rangy officer from Melbourne. Baxter had been captured in hospital in Athens in 1941 when the city had been overrun while he was recuperating from a bomb splinter wound.

Marching proudly with a straight back and an appropriately grim expression at the head of the column of POWs was the most senior British officer in German captivity, Major General Victor Fortune, former commander of the 51st Highland Division. Captivity had come hard to a man of Fortune's age, rank and disposition.

Flanking the column every twenty yards was a German soldier, a rifle slung over his right shoulder, leather equipment jangling as he trudged along, eyes darting suspiciously from prisoner to prisoner. The POWs could see the looming guard towers and perimeter fences as they drew level with the main gate, the muzzles of machine guns in the towers covering the lines upon lines of wooden single-storey accommodation huts that stretched off into the distance. Fastened to the fence at regular intervals was a neatly painted white sign, its black lettering chillingly announcing in both German and English:


Bei Überschreiten Des Drahtes
Wird Geschossen

P.W. Trying To Cross The Wire
Will Be Shot At!

Before the POWs entered the main camp they marched past a smaller compound close by. What they saw here took away any remaining illusions they may have harboured concerning their enemy. Three filthy-looking men in tan-coloured uniforms lay prostrate on the smaller camp's parade square as several German soldiers mercilessly beat them with pickaxe handles amid much shouting and cursing. 'What on earth?' muttered an astonished Major Stallard, walking at the head of a group of officers from the Durhams. 'Russians, sir', replied a younger officer. 'Looks like the Jerries are using them for heavy labour', added another. British prisoners cursed the Germans up and down the column as they passed the brutal little scene, but they could do nothing for the Soviet soldiers.

Just as Stallard and his group passed through the gates into their own camp a pistol shot cracked out from behind them, making them jump. 'Christ almighty, they've just shot one of the Russians!' shouted an RAF pilot several paces back. A large German NCO holstered his Walther pistol while shouting orders, the body of the Soviet prisoner lying at his feet in an ever-widening pool of blood. He turned and stared challengingly at the passing British, who stared back with equal hatred. Some shook their heads in quiet despair. The response of their Wehrmacht guards was predictable, yelling 'Raus! Raus!' or 'Schnell!' as they hurried the British prisoners into the camp as fast as possible, pushing them along with their rifle butts.

An hour later and almost 3,000 prisoners were arranged in neat ranks on the camp's main sports ground facing a small wooden dais. After much counting and more shouting by their guards, the POWs had been given a short speech of welcome from the commandant, Oberst (Colonel) Stürtzkopf. Tall, immaculately turned out, with highly polished leather jackboots, service cap worn at a slightly rakish angle, Stürtzkopf looked every inch the upright Prussian officer. The prisoners would soon learn that their estimation of the man was accurate – he was tough but fair. The man standing next to him, however, was cut from different cloth entirely. Hauptmann (Captain) Rademacher was chief security officer, responsible for preventing escapes and punishing infractions against camp rules. Aged about 50, with grey hair and rather handsome Teutonic features, he was unashamedly theatrical, gesturing wildly as he spoke. The prisoners soon discovered that the man was unhinged. He would often pull his Luger out and wave it around while yelling at them, occasionally loosing off a shot or two into the air. He also owned a beautiful sword that he would wear when he wanted to create an impression. This was unsheathed and brandished with vigour when Rademacher's emotions got the better of him, which was often.

Rademacher was most infamous for his 'bastard' searches, cruel and unnecessary treatment that focused on the prisoners' few personal belongings. Accompanied by two of his henchmen, Rademacher would march into any hut and at first apologise for the inconvenience to the startled prisoners. His personality would soon change. If less contraband was found than he expected, his rage would grow deeper. He would stamp back and forth across the wooden floor, ordering the guards to find the radio and tunnel that he knew must exist, waving his pistol and/or sword about to emphasise his superiority in front of the silent British prisoners.

At the height of his rage Rademacher would order the POWs' belongings to be thrown out of the windows and door, regardless of the weather outside. Soon a tangled mess of blankets, clothing, and personal effects would pile up. Tins of milk and jam from the Red Cross would be tipped over the hut floor and then walked in. Rademacher would often squeeze toothpaste all over the prisoners' bunks. As the prisoners who arrived at Oflag VI-B soon discovered, they could do nothing about Rademacher or his 'bastard' searches – to complain or intervene would have meant instant punishment.

* * *

Stürtzkopf had the POWs subdivided into five 'battalions', as the Germans termed them, each of roughly 600 men and given its own section of the camp and its own German security officer, though a British POW was also appointed to each battalion as senior officer.

The prisoners had come from four POW camps that the Germans suddenly emptied to create the vast Oflag VI-B at Warburg. Among the thousands of men was a hardcore of escape artists who had already made life very difficult for the Germans in their first camps – men like Stallard, Arkwright and Hamilton-Baillie – and it seemed to many of the POWs that the intention of the Germans in sending them to Warburg was to place all of their bad eggs into one well-guarded basket.

The hardcore escapers were busy quietly comparing notes as they waited on parade, eyes taking in everything, scanning their surroundings for opportunities, kicking the dusty soil with their boots. Tom Stallard chatted with Major Arkwright. 'I say, Tom', said Arkwright, 'what's that for, do you reckon?', indicating with his eyes a long wooden hut set in its own little compound just outside the main gate, strands of barbed wire hammered across its narrow, high windows. 'Cooler', said Stallard, using the POW colloquialism for the solitary confinement punishment block. 'Jolly large', said Arkwright.

'I think they might be expecting plenty of trade', replied Stallard with a grin.

Although it was Oberst Stürtzkopf's primary responsibility to keep the prisoners firmly under lock and key in one of the biggest camps in Germany, he was also a realist. He knew that it was every soldier's duty to attempt to escape, and no matter the camp, escape attempts would occur. It was the German staff's job to minimise the number of attempts and their success rate, and to punish those who were caught.

The camp seemed to stretch for ever, enclosing almost three-quarters of a mile of dusty plain between Paderborn and Kassel in north-western Germany. The perimeter fence was twelve feet high and doubled, meaning that there were two parallel fences with a barbed wire-filled void in between to make climbing it impossible. Floodlights illuminated the fence at night, and sentries patrolled its length or stared down from a dozen wooden watchtowers that were equipped with machine guns and searchlights. A road ran from one end of the camp to the other, passing through heavily guarded gates at each end.

Stallard and his cohorts' eyes soaked up every aspect of the camp's layout and security. But only when they were dismissed from the parade and assigned to their huts did the absolute necessity of escape become clear. The accommodation at Warburg was like nothing they had seen before.

'They must be joking', said Arkwright, as he and fifteen of his colleagues were herded into one of the rooms inside the 29 large huts the Germans had allocated for prisoner accommodation. In other camps only six to eight POWs shared a room. Double bunks lined the walls, straw-filled palliasses giving off an unpleasantly musty smell. Rodent droppings lay beneath the bunks. The windows were grimy, the rooms smelly and the huts generally in a poor condition and extremely draughty.


Excerpted from Zero Night by Mark Felton. Copyright © 2014 Mark Felton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 Barbed Wire Horizon

2 Trial and Error

3 The Wire

4 Short Circuit

5 Diversions

6 'Big X'

7 Operation Timber

8 Practice Makes Perfect

9 The Road Less Travelled

10 Pack Up Your Troubles

11 Fifteen Yards to Freedom

12 Zero Night

12 'Another British Evacuation'

14 A Walk in the Woods

15 'Hande Hoch!'

16 The Bitter Road

17 Three Blind Mice

18 Comet Line

19 The Last Frontier


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Zero Night: The Untold Story of World War Two's Greatest Escape 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
only on p.69 bit doubt l will finish. Very boring and not interesting. Not recommended and sorry I spent the $ Forget what the Wall Street Journal said about this book