Friday, 22 November 2013

'X' and the Wire Schemes

Stalag Luft 1V - www.stalagluft4.org

Wire escapes from POW camps in occupied Europe during World War Two were high risk, and statistically very few were successful. Tall barbed wire fencing (single and double), specific exclusion zones in front of these, guard towers, sentries and open areas beyond the wire were all obstacles to be overcome before a POW could even think about clearing the surrounding camp area.

The biggest deterrent to this kind of escape was being shot by the sentries who were under orders to fire at anyone in the prohibited zone without permission or attempting escape through/over the wire. A night escape via this method might have the cover of darkness, but would encounter ‘lock ins’, searchlights, sentries and dogs.

The viability of any wire escape plans would be considered by the Camp Senior Officer and ‘X’ in the normal way.  Even though the odds were remote, if the plan was sound, authority and support was usually given.

In the early months of Stalag Luft 111, Ken Toft an Irish pilot in the RAF and Bill ‘Nick’ Nichols a Californian serving with the RAF’ s American Eagle Squadron  formed a plan of escape. They had walked every inch of the camp’s east compound and spotted a potential blind spot halfway between two of the sentry towers on the east perimeter fence facing the woods.
Members of RAF American 71 Eagle Squadron (Nichols is far right) -  Unknown
They calculated that two men lying or crouching down could remain out of view from the guard towers in a small area by a line of thick coiled barbed wire near the perimeter fence. It might then be possible to cut through the perimeter and make a run for the woods a few yards away. The initial problem was reaching the blind spot without being seen. To get there, they had to cross the lethal area beyond the warning wire. Anyone encroaching into this territory without permission would almost certainly be shot by the guards. If Toft and Nichols had miscalculated the field of vision from the towers and they were seen, the same outcome was likely.
The plan was risky, but they took it to the camp Senior British Officer, Wing Commander Harry ‘Wings’ Day ,who called in Jimmy Buckley (Big X). ‘Wings’ Day was a ‘hands on’ experienced escaper, so rubber stamping of escape schemes as the Senior Officer was not in his nature. Day and Buckley discussed the mechanics in detail, then gave it the all clear with appropriate back up for false papers and concentrated escape rations to be prepared.


Jimmy Buckley*
 

'Wings' Day

As four of the sentry towers had a view of the area around the blind spot, Buckley organised four separate diversions to give the men a chance to get over the warning wire and reach the line of coiled barbed wire. The date was set and on a given signal, the distractions started in front of the towers:

Tower One – A prisoner shouted up to the sentry to telephone for an interview with the Kommandant.
Tower Two - Two men staged a sham fight and one of them was knocked out. (some accounts refer to it as an impromptu boxing match)

Tower Three – Another prisoner called to the sentry to ask permission to get a ball which had been thrown beyond the warning wire.
Tower Four – A man has a bucket of water thrown over him.

It took five seconds for the diversions. During that time Toft and Nichols had reached the perimeter fence and were out of sight from the towers. Nichols had a pair of wire cutters made from two rough pieces of metal, but the cutting was not straightforward because of the makeshift tool. At another signal, a further set of diversions were repeated in front of the guards and the men slid unnoticed through the perimeter fence and across the short distance to the woods. 
The actual escape plan was a success. Regrettably, although the men got clear of the area, they were later recaptured after a German official questioned their papers. 

*Jimmy Buckley was sadly later killed after successfully breaking out of the camp in a separate escape. 

 
Arguably the most successful ‘wire scheme’ was an escape from Oflag V1B Camp, Warburg in Germany which became known as ‘The Warburg Wire Job.’ On the night of 30 August 1942, forty one men in four teams rushed the wire with ladders.

It was an ingenious and bold attempt which had been meticulously worked out. The plan would have been vetted by the Camp Senior Officer and ‘X’ and the necessary teams put in place with the accompanying security umbrella to aid preparation. 
Royal Engineers officer Jock Hamilton-Baillie was instrumental in the design and build of a set of four ‘hinged’ ladders to lean against and straddle the two barbed wire perimeter fences at the edge of the camp. The escape attempt would begin at the same time as the camp search and perimeter lights were fused. A way to control this had been discovered by Major B D Skelton ‘Skelly’ Ginn, who had considerable knowledge of electrics. In the darkness, away from the escape location, a noisy diversion would also be created by around fifty other prisoners.

Jock Hamilton-Baillie - SWNG

The double perimeter fence of barbed wire was constructed around wooden frames,  set about 8 feet apart and around twenty feet in height. At the bottom of the gap in between the fencing, a thick tangle of more barbed wire had also been positioned.

The ladders were ingenious in both construction and improvisation of materials. The apparatus was in two halves which fitted together – the first a simple ladder with widely spaced rungs and a hook at the top to engage the overhang of barbed wire, and the other part a basic running board with duckboards and a swing bar at the far end for the men to hang on to and drop off. The two parts fitted neatly together one on top of the other whilst they were hidden away.

Scale model built by Jock Hamilton-Baillie and demonstrated by Ben Hamilton-Baillie

When the lights were fused and distractions began, the ladders were slid out and run up against the top of the wire. The running board section which fitted over the basic ladder was pushed up and slid across, until it cantilevered to rest on the top of the outer fence. The base part hooked into place over the inner fence. Short ropes on either side of the ladder and duckboard section were suitably  tensioned preventing the two sections from further movement.
 
As previous picture. Shows how apparatus cantilevers to rest on opposite fence


Shows how apparatus locks with the rope attachments preventing further movement
As the two joined sections slotted rigidly in place, the plan was for a team of fifteen men to run up the ladder, down the duckboard and jump off after swinging on the trapeze bar at the other end, so they were close enough to the ground to drop without injuring themselves. (About a 6-8 foot drop.)


Close up of rope assembly and outward hang of barbed wire
The ladder apparatus could be assembled in about fifteen seconds and fifteen men could get over in ninety seconds. It was very light and constructed of approximately ‘five by two inch’ timbers taken from a ceiling Bed boards were used for the duckboards and swing bar at the end. During the escape attempt, one of the ladders failed as it was not sufficiently reinforced in the middle and the ropes broke so that the duckboard became loose and ineffective.   

Accounts vary on how many POWs managed to get over the wire and clear the camp. It is likely that it was twenty one. What is certain is that three made it back home after finally crossing the Pyrenees via the Comete Escape Line. They were Major Albert Arkwright, Captain Rupert Fuller and Major Francis Edwards. (More about their escape in a future post)  

To watch the full clip of how the superb escape ladder apparatus worked as shown by Ben Hamilton Baillie click on:  
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYsYBkfauRQ


Sources
The Great Escape - Paul Brickhill
POW - Adrian Gilbert
Author's notes
Warburg Wire Job scale model (You Tube) - Ben Hamilton Baillie
 

©Keith Morley
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2 comments:

  1. Another informative and entertaining post from Keith. There was a very prolific escaper who hailed from Dallas, Texas. A William, aka Bill, Ash who was an American Spitfire pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force, battling in the skies over Britain and France. When shot down over Calais in 1942, he became one of the legendary POW ‘escape artists’ of the war, staging more than a dozen break-outs, over, through and under the wire in Nazi Germany.
    He was one of a handful of real life ‘Cooler Kings,’ named after the Cooler of Solitary punishment cells where the Nazis sent him when recaptured. Ash’s adventures are similar to the fictional role played by Steve McQueen in the iconic film The Great Escape, but as the veteran POW escaper recalls, “in the real world, there was never a motorcycle around when I needed one.”
    He flew combat missions over Britain and France and was eventually shot down in 1942. Helped by the French Resistance, he was eventually captured by the Gestapo, tortured and sentenced to death as a spy. Minutes before his execution, he was rescued by the Luftwaffe who put him in their famous Great Escape camp, Stalag Luft III.
    In his book ‘Under the Wire’ co-written by Brendan Foley, he tells of how he thanked the Luftwaffe by making 13 escape attempts from POW camps across Europe in the following years – clambering over the wire under the eyes of machine gun posts, under the wire in tunnels, and sometimes straight though it with home-made wire cutters. His frequent bids for freedom made him one of the most prolific American escape artists of the War.
    “We knew the more escapes we tried, the more men they would need to guard us and the fewer men they would have to throw at our troops when D-Day eventually came. And there was always the slim chance of a home run to freedom.” Ash eventually escaped for good in the last days of the war in 1945 and was awarded an MBE, one of Britain's highest honors, by the then King, George VI.

    “Gold medals aren't really made of gold. They're made of sweat, determination, and a hard-to-find alloy called guts.”
    Dan Gable.

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  2. Thanks Helen. Look out for William Ash. His book is a good read and will feature in future posts

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