Wartime issue 52 feature article: An officer’s first duty

A mass breakout from a German prisoner-of-war camp was a success even though it failed.

By Dianne Rutherford

For centuries in Europe the orthodox military view was that, once captured by the enemy, soldiers ceased to be of any real use to their country. This attitude continued well into the First World War. But the authorities came to realise late in the war that prisoners could still aid the nation's war effort: the need to deal with British escape attempts, for example, meant the Germans had to redirect their resources towards recapturing – or containing – prisoners.

Oflag VIIB, looking south-east from the Kommandant's building. In the foreground, wood is being collected; beyond, prisoners play hockey.AWM P01308.002

Oflag VIIB, looking south-east from the Kommandant's building. In the foreground, wood is being collected; beyond, prisoners play hockey.  AWM P01308.002

At the beginning of the Second World War, the British created the Military Intelligence Section 9 (MI9). Among many other duties, MI9 designed escape and evasion equipment, such as silk maps, compasses and survival kits. It also trained military personnel in such techniques as how to evade capture and what to do if captured – including how to avoid accidentally divulging information to the enemy. The key point stressed in the lectures was that it was everybody's duty to evade capture or, failing that, to try to escape to rejoin their unit.

More than 169,000 members of British and Commonwealth forces became prisoners of the Germans during the war. But those involved in the planning and execution of escapes or in the production of equipment were in the minority. Many prisoners felt they had already risked their lives and done their duty, and saw little value in the activities of the escapers. However, all prisoners suffered the repercussions of escape attempts, with the Germans increasing security and parades, and removing privileges such as receiving mail or life-saving Red Cross parcels.  

Mass escapes were particularly embarrassing for the Germans. These often took months to plan and implement and could involve hundreds of prisoners, working in secret under the noses of their captors. A notable instance was the breakout from Offizierslager (or Oflag, meaning officers' camp) VIIB at Eichstätt, Bavaria, in June 1943. On this occasion, 65 prisoners successfully tunnelled their way out of the camp.

Oflag VIIB, established in 1939, was situated in a valley. On the north side was a rocky slope, and to the south a river; beyond the camp was a wooded hillside. The camp itself was surrounded by a double barbed-wire fence, running along the rocky slope. To increase the guards' view of the camp defences, guard houses were placed outside and well back from the outer fence.

In early September 1942 British and Commonwealth officers arrived in the camp from Oflag VIB, Warburg. A few months later, the camp's escape committee adopted a plan proposed by two British army officers, Lieutenant Jock Hamilton-Baillie (known as "HB") and Captain Frank Weldon. The plan entailed digging a tunnel north from Block 2's latrine, under the rocky slope, out of the camp and up to a villager's chicken coop about 30 metres away. The difficult terrain meant the Germans were unlikely to expect a tunnel to be dug there. To help hide its general location, the soil from the tunnel would be dispersed underneath huts in the south-eastern end of the compound.

Albert Comber, Extending the tunnel at the working face, Stalag Luft III, (1945, pen and brush and ink, pencil on paper, 20 x 28.6 cm) AWM ART34781.016

Albert Comber, Extending the tunnel at the working face, Stalag Luft III, (1945, pen and brush and ink, pencil on paper, 20 x 28.6 cm)

In December 1942 the prisoners cut a trapdoor into the floor next to a toilet to hide the tunnel's entrance. They practised soil dispersal techniques and set up a "stooging" system whereby lookouts, known as "stooges", kept watch for "ferrets" (German guards experienced in escape detection). Construction began after Christmas: leading on from the trap door, a large chamber was dug below the latrine building and ventilated by air pipes fashioned from joined sections of stove piping.

Work on the tunnel proper began on 28 January 1943. One of the biggest problems faced by the prisoners was what to do about the large rocks they encountered. Some could not be moved and became features of the tunnel. Near the beginning of the tunnel was an area called "The Coffin", where a large rock protruded from the ceiling, while around the middle was the "Belly Crawl", where three rocks, two in the ceiling and one in the floor, created a space only about 30 centimetres wide. Near the end was a "roundabout" called "Piccadilly", created as the tunnel diverted around both sides of a rock before joining up again.

The tunnellers worked in shifts. One man dug at the face while another behind him loaded the soil into a box on a trolley. This was pulled to the chamber below the latrine by two men, who then filled bags for dispersal. As the digging continued, more men were employed in this role.

Seven Australians were selected to take part in the mass escape from Oflag VIIB. Each had a role to play. Lieutenants Clive Dieppe and George Bolding were two of the men engaged in soil dispersal. Captain Rex Baxter and Lieutenants Jack Champ and Mark Howard were recruited into one of the digging teams. They dug three times a week and also undertook "stooging" duties.

Captain Doug Crawford had taken part, along with Baxter and Champ, in a mass escape from their previous camp, Oflag VIB, a year earlier. In what became known as the "Warburg Wire Job", 28 prisoners had escaped, using four specially constructed ladders to get over the perimeter wire. Baxter and Champ made it out, but were recaptured within minutes. Crawford was more successful, remaining on the run for several nights before being recaptured.

The final Australian, Lieutenant Jack Millett, from Western Australia, was one of the prisoners who mass-produced maps for the escape. These were based on maps smuggled into the camp or stolen from the Germans. Millett would copy the map onto a master sheet of waxy paper; this was then placed, wet ink side down, onto set jelly (obtained from Red Cross parcels), which transferred the ink onto the jelly. The master was removed, and a reproduction was made by placing a sheet of blank paper onto the jelly. Using this technique, dozens of maps could be made more quickly than by drawing each copy individually.

There was a potential disaster in March when the soil dispersal site was discovered. However, as anticipated, the Germans thought the tunnel was being dug in the southern area of the camp, called "Garden City", and conducted an unsuccessful search there. With the loss of this dispersal site, the prisoners began to use the chamber beneath the latrine to store the spoil.

As the prisoners tunnelled further up the hill, the rocky ground made digging even more difficult. By the end of April they were only about 60 centimetres away from the chicken coop, but could not dig the rest of the way because of the rocks. Time for a change of plans: the tunnel had passed under a garden fence near the coop, so it was decided to exit here. It was hoped the fence and nearby bushes would provide enough cover.

When the main digging was completed, HB and Weldon spent time improving the tunnel; for example, they expanded it to the left of the Belly Crawl so that the escapees could get through with their coats and packs. During this period men who had been selected to escape, but who had not yet been down the tunnel, made practice runs to ensure they could get through.

The plan was to break out in the beginning of May, on a night when there was a slight wind to help cover any noise they might make, and little or no moonlight. On 4 May the wind was blowing so the prisoners made their final preparations – but before they could break through the exit, the wind died down and the escape was postponed.

In a strange incident a few days later, a note was found pinned to the door of the latrine near the senior British officers' quarters. Its author had an idea something was going on in Block 2, but did not know the full details. He disclosed that the Germans knew of a tunnel being dug from the staircase (not the latrine) in Block 2 and warned of loss of life should the escape go ahead. It was signed "A German friendly to the British". The next morning a similar note was found pinned to the latrine at Block 3.

With fine weather and a waxing moon, the escape continued to be postponed. Meanwhile the committee quietly tried to find out who had posted the notes. Was it a German guard, or a disgruntled prisoner, perhaps even a mentally unbalanced one? The language in the note pointed to someone with English as a second language, yet surely a German in the area where the notes were found would have been spotted. Handwriting checks were done on the most likely suspects (both German and Allied) and on the outgoing mail of 90 per cent of the prisoners, but failed to turn up a match.

Nevertheless, since the Germans were still focusing their tunnel searches at the southern end of the camp, it was decided that the escape should go ahead as soon as the conditions were right. Even those taking part would get only short notice, so the note-writer would presumably have little time to warn the Germans. Indeed, after the breakout another note was found in a tin inside the camp; it had been made to look as if it had been thrown in from the outside. It was also later revealed that the guards did receive a tip-off about a tunnel being dug from the Block 2 staircase. Luckily, the Germans thought it was a hoax, especially after "ferrets" sent to Block 2 to investigate found nothing.

Despite the notes, and the posting of a warning that men escaping dressed as civilians could legally be shot as spies, all 65 escapers entered the tunnel on the night of 3–4 June. About 10 pm Weldon and HB broke through and climbed out of the tunnel. It was a slow process, with each prisoner taking as long as 20 minutes to crawl through the length of the tunnel. By dawn, all 65 were out. They travelled in pairs or small groups, following different paths, although most headed south, hoping to make it to Switzerland.

Baxter, Champ and Howard had been allocated positions 35, 36 and 37. Like the other escapees they slept by day and travelled by night. They generally avoided villages, but on their third night out, in an effort to make up time, they elected to go through one; unfortunately, they were seized by some soldiers and armed civilians. Although Clive Dieppe suffered chronic ill-health throughout his captivity, he was able to escape with George Bolding. They were on the run for two nights before they were recaptured while attempting to cross a bridge. Doug Crawford escaped with Lieutenant Pat McLaren of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, but they were captured by a group of armed civilians who turned them over to the local police. They had almost succeeded in convincing the police that they were Serbian workers visiting McLaren's sister, when the Gestapo arrived; a quick search turned up their escape equipment.

Millett and Lieutenant "Hamish" Hamilton of the Royal Artillery were among the last to go through the tunnel. They found it hard going as the air had become quite foul, as the air pipe had been removed to allow the escapees more space in the tunnel. Thinking the Germans would initially focus the search on the area south of Eichstätt, they planned to head north, before turning east and finally south to make for the Swiss border. They were on the run for five nights before being captured on the road to Regensburg by two armed members of the Hitler Youth with a couple of Alsatians on the leash.

Eventually, all 65 prisoners were recaptured, but the men saw their escape as a success because their efforts had tied up over 50,000 police, soldiers, home guard and Hitler Youth for a week. After 14 days' detention on meagre rations in the dungeon-like rooms of nearby Willibaldsburg castle, the escapees were sent to a different camp – the infamous "bad boys" camp, Oflag IVC, at Colditz castle in Saxony.

For performing their duty as escapers, the seven Australians who took part in the Eichstätt breakout spent nearly two years imprisoned at Colditz. Some continued to assist with escape attempts, and most were still there when the Americans liberated the camp on 16 April 1945. All seven had initially been captured in May 1941 – after four long years they were finally free.

Dianne Rutherford is a curator in the Military Heraldry and Technology section of the Australian War Memorial.