The Greatest Escape?

It has to be said, the odds of escape from a Prisoner of War camp were not great. Take Stalag Luft III’s ‘Great Escape’, for instance. The initial thought was that 100 prisoners should have a good chance of getting out through the tunnel, and an extra 100 men were selected to try their luck if the opportunity arose, though it was considered less likely that they’d have a chance. Of 76 men who made it outside the walls of the camp, just three managed to make it all the way home. That’s just three per cent, then, of the expected escapees, and one-and-a-half percent of the most optimistic estimate. 50 of the culprits were randomly selected and executed in retribution. Still, the slim odds didn’t seem to deter the many restless prisoners, as attempt after attempt was made to escape the various camps, often aided and abetted by the UK government.

One breakout that equalled the Great Escape for success (or arguably topped it, if you compare percentage of successful escapees who made it to safety, in this case 10%) was the escape from Oflag VI B, documented in a brand new book by Mark Felton called ‘Zero Night’. Two of the figures he focuses on are Major Tom Stallard, from Bath, said to be the mastermind behind the plan, and Scottish Lieutenant Jock Hamilton-Baillie, who came up with the idea of creating folding ladders to scale the double-sided barbed wire barrier fence. If these men are the same Major Stallard and Lieutenant Hamilton-Baillie noted in our records, it’s no wonder they were both later moved to Offlag 4c, Colditz; Colditz, a medieval fortress and the only high security camp in Germany, especially catering for escape-artists, trouble-makers and important hostages, was considered by the Germans to be ‘escape proof’.

As ‘POW: Allied Prisoners in Europe, 1939-1945’ by Adrian Gilbert explains, really no German Prisoner of War camp was easy to escape from, since they tended to be well-protected and surrounded by hostile territory; the smart thing to do was to attempt an escape while en route to the camp, when there would be more opportunities to evade guards, friendly territory was within reach and the Germans would likely not yet have recorded the prisoner’s details. This was easier said than done, though, as the majority of prisoners were exhausted, wounded or otherwise unfit to contemplate such notions at the critical moment.

Once at the camp, planning often began in earnest. Would-be escapees could tunnel under the fence, as in the ‘Great Escape’, go through the gate, which usually required some form of deception or concealment, or go over the fence. This last, the method fixed upon in the escape from Oflag VI B, was considered to be the highest-risk option. It was extremely difficult to climb high without being seen from the guard towers, and if a prisoner was spotted in this vulnerable position, they ran a high risk of being shot on sight. The prisoners of Oflag VI B, however, had an ace up their sleeves. The camp had been constructed by forced labourers, and a fault within the system- which some believed to have been deliberately engineered by the crafty workers- allowed the prisoners to control the flood and spotlights from within the camp itself.

Once the design for the hinged ladders was settled upon, the prisoners set about surreptitiously constructing them in the woodworking shop, where the sounds of sawing could be obscured by loud hammering, and in other locations around camp. The guards saw at least one of them in construction, but the prisoners passed it off as a harmless bookshelf. On the evening of 30 August 1942 the prisoners made their extremely daring attempt, named ‘Operation Olympia’. They simply fused the lights, grabbed their four ladders and sprinted for the walls. The guards, nonplussed by the suddenness of the descent into chaos and the inky darkness, fired blindly at the source of the commotion, but only succeeded in grazing the heel of one prisoner out of the 41 involved. 29 had fled the premises before the guards figured out quite was happening, and though most were summarily rounded up, even some of the men eventually recovered managed to evade capture for 10 days.

If the Germans hoped to quench Major Stallard and Lieutenant Hamilton-Baillie by sending them to Colditz, they underestimated the cunning of the typical inmate. Colditz, the ‘unescapable’ prison, was indeed hard to break out of, but the creative and energetic men sent there found kindred spirits aplenty to plot with. According to ‘Colditz: The Definitive History’ by Henry Chancellor, Reinhold Eggers, Security Officer there for four years, calculated that an escape attempt was launched on average every 10 days. There were so many plots and intrigues going on that the prisoners were forced to establish an ‘International Escape Committee’ to stop the different cliques from inadvertently tripping their comrades up and duplicating each other’s plans. Each nation put forward an ‘Escape Officer’ who was made privy to the secrets of all the other nations, but was himself forbidden from escaping to avoid having to answer awkward questions.

If that wasn’t enough, MI9 launched attempt after attempt to aid would-be escapees with concealed maps, compasses, emergency provisions and money, all designed by Christopher Clayton Hutton, a ‘showman with an interest in escapology’. Up to 1,642 ‘naughty’ Red Cross parcels were dispatched to various Prisoner of War camps by the government. One way or another, it sounds like the German guards had their hands full trying to keep the energetic young men of Britain and other Allied nations captive. The numbers of successful escapes may have been comparatively low, but who knows what good the prisoners did in keeping the eyes of many a German on them rather than on the Front, and the rare liberated prisoner could be a veritable goldmine of information to our side. Perhaps after all he who dares wins!

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