Around 10 pm on the night of 10 March 1945, POWs began escaping from a makeshift tunnel, scrambling 30 feet towards freedom located on the other side of a barbed-wire fence. The well-coordinated mass escape led to 70 men tasting freedom once again and triggered one of the largest manhunts of the war.
This, however, isn’t the story of Allied servicemen escaping from Stalag Luft III, which was forever immortalised in the 1963 Steve McQueen film The Great Escape. This is the lesser-known story of the ‘The German Great Escape’, the biggest prisoner of war escape attempt in Britain during WWII.
As Hitler’s Third Reich began to crumble around him with Allied forces squeezing his army on two fronts, the number of captured German POW’s began to increase. Britain needed more places to house the vast amount of enemy soldiers now flooding into the UK and so numerous camps began cropping up.
Camp 198 was set up on Island Farm just outside of Bridgend in South Wales and was able to hold up to 2,000 POWs. Originally built as a hostel for women employed at the local munitions factory, it had also been used as accommodation for American troops in the build-up to D-day.
It wasn’t long before the War Office came to the belief that Camp 198 was too comfortable for your average private and declared that only German officers would be held there. In November 1944, the first captured officers began to arrive. Residents described the moment the POWs arrived at the local train station and began marching towards their new housing, singing as they went and giving the impression of an occupying force rather than a captured one.
It wasn’t long before the German officers turned their attention to escape. The majority of the prisoners at Camp 198 were devout Nazi’s and many of them members of the SS. Although the war was turning against their cause, they had no wish to see it out behind a barbed-wire fence.
It was well known during the war that prisoners often created more than one tunnel simultaneously in case any should be discovered. This was the case at Camp 198, as the German officers began digging two tunnels. One was indeed uncovered by camp guards in January 1945 and, seemingly pleased with their discovery, did not attempt to find any more. Construction on the second tunnel continued and its creation was no less ingenious than the one at Stalag Luft III.
The tunnel entrance was dug under a bed in Hut 9 and went down to a depth of around 4-5 feet, significantly shallower than the one at Stalag Luft III, which went down some 30 feet. The tunnel under Hut 9 was around three-foot-wide and ran under a concrete path for about 30-40 feet and into an adjacent field beyond the barbed-wire perimeter.
Pieces of wood were taken from the prisoner’s bunk beds and fashioned into digging tools to excavate the tunnel. A choir was formed in an adjacent hut and sung to drown out any sound of digging.
The soil into which the men dug was clay, very different to the sandy soil beneath Stalag Luft III. Although the clay was harder to dig into, it needed very little internal support. Only a few bits of timber, mostly salvaged from bed legs, were needed to shore up the tunnel and its roof. To ensure the guards didn't notice wood missing from the bed legs, all the beds were cut to the same height to keep consistency.
The prisoner’s solution to dispose of the bright orange clay was equally as clever. Since it was winter, the POWs couldn’t feign a sudden interest in gardening to hide the excess soil, plus it was bright orange and would hardly blend in. Nor could they flush it down the toilet, as the clay wouldn’t dissolve. Instead, they remarkably built a false wall inside Hut 9 and cleverly blended it into the surrounding brickwork. They then shaped the excavated clay into balls and posted them into the cavity behind the false wall via a fake air vent. The false wall would remain a secret until it collapsed in the 1980s, spilling the clay balls across the floor.
Ventilation was provided in the form of condensed milk cans connected together to create a hollow tube, which was then run down into the tunnel. A POW at the entrance to the tunnel operated a makeshift device that acted like a bellow, blowing fresh air into the shaft below. The tunnel even had electric lighting, which was tapped off the main supply. It also acted as a warning system during the escape; fellow prisoners would turn the lights off in the tunnel when the coast wasn’t clear, warning those within to stay put.
To confirm the tunnel had breached the perimeter fence, a prisoner at the end of the tunnel would shove a piece of iron through the roof until it broke through the soil above. He then blew cigarette smoke through the hole and other POWs above could then confirm whether the smoke was coming from beyond the barbed wire fence.
Fake identity papers were mocked up for the would-be escapees, the idea being the men were Norwegian engineers. People were also divided into small groups and each one issued with a homemade compass, a map and food supplies. Planning for the operation was so secret that the POWs only knew the names of those in their small group. Even to this day, the masterminds behind the escape are unknown.
One group stole the local doctor’s car and after it didn’t start they boldly enlisted the help of three British soldiers who happened to walk by
As night began to fall on 10 March 1945, distraction plans were put into action. The choir broke into song whilst a raucous play began in the POW camp theatre, helping to distract the attention of the guards. Curry powder was also spread on the ground close to the perimeter to put the guard dogs off the scent.
Final preparations were made including lining the tunnel with clothes to ensure the men didn’t exit it covered in mud. At around 10 pm, the first prisoners ascended into the tunnel and exited into the neighbouring field. Aided by the lack of sentry towers and proper lightning on the fence line, 70 men were able to make it to the other side before a British guard finally put the alarm up at around 4 am. Fourteen prisoners were re-captured quickly but the hunt for the others had just begun.
Since the escape was so large and posed a significant security threat, armed soldiers, the Home Guard, police officers and civilians were called upon to assist in the search. Many of the escapees were rounded up within a few miles of the camp, however, others made it much further afield.
One group stole the local doctor’s car and after it didn’t start they boldly enlisted the help of three British soldiers who happened to walk by. The group made it as far as Birmingham before finally being apprehended. Others made it Swansea and even Southampton but in the end, all 70 prisoners were successfully rounded up within the following three days.
It has been claimed that a group of three Germans were spotted in Kent just three days after the breakout. Nobody knows what happened to the men but suggestions have been made that they were escapees from Camp 198 and British authorities kept them off official records for propaganda reasons.
Just three weeks after the escape, all of the officers were transferred out of Camp 198 and it was re-designated as Special Camp 11, the new home for senior German officers, many awaiting trial at Nuremberg. In 1948, the camp closed for good and all prisoners returned to Germany. In the 1990s it was demolished, only Hut 9 remains today, saved due to its listed building status.