Memories of Stalag 383
Chapter 14 :
Digging before Victory
When someone says to Michael McCallen: 'Four years a prisoner of war, eh! Damn dreary, wasn't it?' I can imagine Mac replying in that quiet way of his: 'Yes, it was rather a bore' - and changing the subject.
If he were to reply, instead, 'Dreary my foot! For me, personally, it was a life of constant scheming, dangerous action and fascinating suspense' he would be nearer the mark. Nearer the mark, but further from character.
The Hohenfels Scarlet Pimpernel once made an agreement with me at the Stalag. In return for my undertaking not to make notes about underground activities - notes which the snoops might pounce on - he would later give me some facts about his escapes organization, which helped dozens of men break out of the camp. Well, that agreement was faithfully kept by both parties, and Mac and I eventually met in a London cafe where he gave me those facts which, together with sidelights from other sources, I shall put down here.
But he told me previous little about his own exploits. He skimmed lightly, for instance, over those dangerous nights of wirecutting when, with searchlights sweeping the Stalag, with machine guns covering every yard, with 'shoot on sight' sentries patrolling the fence, he would lie for hours at a time, clipping away at the barbed wire barriers to cut a passage for escapees.
Instead, he said a great deal about his Kriegie helpers, who must absolve Mac and excuse me if I often have to omit names worthy of mention. What follows is a brief, factual account of escape work at 383. All the hopes, fears, thrills and suspense inseparable from prison breaks must be filled in by my readers many of whom will be only too familiar with them.
The first big break-out scheme involved a tunnel, Badgie Opie, Chief Tunnelling Engineer Sam Floyd, men of Sam's own R.E. Tunnelling Company and a number of miners in the Stalag set to work in Hut 39 in Eight Company linces, which was fairly near the fence in a position where trees and bushes might afford cover for an outlet.
Shovels were 'acquired' from a German store just outside the main camp and from sundry vehicles that came in with potatoes and other supplies. Props were made from bed boards and bed posts and later reinforced with the sides of Red Cross packing cases. The lighting problem was solved for a time by the aid of carbide lamps, but the fumes being pretty poisonous, Sam and his helpers made a tour of empty huts and unused latrines and brought in loads of electric fittings.
Ventilation, all-important in tunnel work, was first tackled by a home-made bellows, but as the tunnel crept nearer the fence this proved inadequate, so an ingenious fan contraption, worked by the motor of a Y.M.C.A. donated gramophone, was fitted up instead. This was a great improvement, but working conditions for the tunnellers were still pretty tough. Red Cross supplies were not coming through regularly at that time, and it took it out of a man to work for long in the underground shaft.
Fortunately, there was never any lack of willing helpers in this type of work, and men to watch for the snoops, others to cart away and distribute excavated earth in safe spots. &c., were soon enlisted from the ranks of would-be escapees. It proved impossible to keep the whole matter secret from the camp, and McCallen was the man chosen to interview and, if possible, employ the services of all the fellows who approached the Man of Confidence, Alan Wiggins, Bill Baxter and others in the scheme.
No fewer than fifty men were to 'gallop' on the first 'Spring Handicap' as it was known, but far more than that were anxious to try their luck, so McCallen not only set up machinery to equip the lucky half hundred with all the manifold things they needed for the break, but he encouraged the others to keep 'escape minded' by arranging classes on the philosophy of escaping, and by giving them drill on practical matters connected with it.
Chief Scout, Ivan Stevens, willingly lent the Scout Den for these classes and every Monday and Tuesday evening nearly a hundred men gathered to hear lectures from men who had escaped from other camps and who could give shrewd tips on such matters as the type of kit to be carried, the best routes to take, &c. A motley collection of maps was produced, and lessons in map reading and compass work were given. Major Brook-Moore, the popular Aussie M.O., turned up on several occasions to give advice on health precautions and the gallopers were given every encouragement to study their business thoroughly.
Meanwhile, secret workshops were busy in odd corners of the Stalag, and a great race went on to keep equipment progress in line with the steady, foot-by-foot advance of the tunnel.
Great work the factories did, too! The tailors, for instance, working ten hours a day, often in John Rymer's band room, turned out a hundred suits and three overcoats in a few months. Made from German blankets supplied by prospective escapees, these suits were of all styles from lounge suits, double and single breasted, to plus fours and sports jacket outfits. The canvas needed for shaping the collars and lapels of coats came mainly from old mattress covers, filched from a Jerry store. The buttons and cottons were collected from all over the camp, and the linings for the suits were made out of old shirts. Proper fittings were given to the future wearers of these outfits, and narrow escapes from detection were the everyday lot of the tailors, who never allowed Hun searchers to put them off their work for long.
Sergt. H.G. MacKay, K.R.R.C. and Corpl. Ben Woolsey, a Kiwi machine gunner, were two leading lights of a fine team who, working without machines and under jumpy conditions, turned out the goods. The suits they made were more than adequate for their purpose: they were damn good suits by civvy standards.
Another great team working for McCallen was engaged on making maps. Sergt. Blanco White, Jack Hamer and a group of Ordnance Cartographers were leased a special hut near the tunnel and, working at night, they produced some really fine maps for the gallopers. Compasses had to be produced, too, and Ted Hardman of the Black Watch undertook to make them. He utilized white bakelite covers from Gibbs' tooth paste tins, inserting a cardboard disc in the bottom portion with a gramophone needle, point upwards, to support the compass needle - a piece of razor blade cut to shape and magnetized with a small piece of tungsten magnet.
Then there were the documents. Delicate work, and a great deal of it, was needed on the fifty passports for the first entrants in the Spring Handicap. Jimmy Davies and Geordie Nicol forged these with criminal skill, and Tom Hodges was approached to supply the necessary photographs for the passports. Every Monday morning he had a queue of a dozen or so escapees, dressed in their civvy kit, waiting to 'smile and look pleasant' for the camera.
Such things as haversacks, groundsheets, and water bottles had to be made, scrounged or 'acquired' for all the gallopers, and there was also a heavy call upon cobblers to see that the boots were in stout order. The M.I. room chief, S./Sergt. Thomas, saw to it that each man was supplied with a field dressing, and he also donated water purifying tablets to the good cause.
As the great day drew near, and Sam's tunnelling team reached the finishing stages, McCallen was working day and night to co-ordinate all efforts and see that every galloper was properly equipped. It had been decided that each escapee should be provided with rations for fourteen days, and Geoff Hosking, an Aussie escapes enthusiast who had been made quartermaster for the Spring Handicap, conceived the idea of having these rations cooked in the form of cakes.
The Man of Confidence was approached and he, in his usual imperturbable style, donated the rations from the very small reserve stocks available. A great night of cooking followed in No. 2 cookhouse, where John Hamilton and his men converted powdered biscuits, raisins, cocoa, cheese and sugar into cakes. These cakes were undoubtedly nourishing, but were not guaranteed to cure constipation.
All sorts of last minute hitches had to be ironed out. A passport photograph had not come out properly here, ten more sets of maps were needed there, the tailors ran out of blankets and had to make the last few suits out of old R.A.F. jackets, sportingly donated - and always the activities of snoops had to be ceaselessly countered by the scores of Kriegie look-outs. Nevertheless, although there was a decided undercurrent of excitement in the camp, not a trace of anything unusual was discovered by the Huns.
Sam Floyd's team had made a wonderful job of the tunnel. It ran for about 35 yards and came out some twenty feet from the sentry's beat on the far side of the fence, the mouth of the tunnel being just below the crest of a hillock and not far from the little clump of bushes.
A cavity about a yard square had to be made to allow the gallopers elbow room to get out, and the problem was how to conceal this cavity between the times each man went out - it being necessary, of course, that the men should go one by one. Well, a sort of trapdoor was made out of a yard square wooden frame and this was covered on its upper side with the grass sods that had been cut away from the surface. The trap worked on a hinge and was to be lifted upwards when a man went through, after which he would have to crawl on hands and knees, pushing his kit in front of him, till he reached the shelter of the bushes, from whence he would have to make a dash for the heavier cover of a conifer wood.
A series of chambers had been cut into the walls of the tunnel in which contact men were posted, whose job it would be to pass on orders to the room up above, in which the men would assemble in small groups.
The underground lighting arrangements were excellent, and a system had been devised to carry heavy kit along the length of the tunnel by means of a sort of sledge drawn by a rope. Sergt.-Major Baxter had drawn up orders for conduct in the tunnel which was approximately 2 1/2 feet high and 2 feet wide.
On a certain Saturday night in March '43, while a play 'Someone at the Door' was being given at the Stalag theatre, the zero hour arrived. It was no fault of the actors in the stage thriller that many of their audience had their minds elsewhere.
Badgie Opie, Eddie Ramage and Bill Hake were the first Kriegies to crawl their way along the shaft. Two of them got away safely ... then the trapdoor caved in - fortunately, without enough noise to attract the guards.
A short hold-up while McCallen and his colleagues took stock of the situation - and it was decided to carry on without the cover of the trapdoor. If the Hun sentries spotted the hole ... well, it would be just too bad!
Mac went to the mouth of the tunnel and, taking up his post in the exit shaft, acted as look-out, passing word along when the next man had to got forward. It was not possible to keep all the guards under observation from his position, but scouts had been posted inside the camp to report sentry movements, and the signals of these scouts were transmitted along the tunnel by means of flashes on the electric light. One flash for 'all clear,' two for 'caution,' three for 'danger.' A piece of sacking, hung just outside the exit shaft, prevented any ray of light penetrating up above, and, naturally, all lights were switched off when one of the gallopers came through into the exit shaft.
So, slowly but surely, the exodus went on. Summoned in their twos and threes from their own huts, the escapees made their way stealthily to Hut 39 ... were ushered down the cunningly camouflaged entrance trap ... crawled along the tunnel, pulling their kit after them ... and, at the word from McCallen, emerged from the exit shaft to the night - and fortune.
Often there were long intervals between departures, while a Hun sentry would stand about within a few feet of the gaping hole, and there was nothing for Mac to do but wait and hope and curse.
However, one, two, three, four ... fourteen or fifteen men had slipped safely away, and two others were set to go before Mac received the three light flash for 'danger.' Three-quarters of an hour passed. Then one solitary flash announced the 'all clear.'
Mac gave the word to the sixteenth man. Over the top he went, and silently he vanished. Then the next man, Eric Domini, climbed through, picked up his kit - and, almost simultaneously ... BANG ... BANG ... and silence.
The first thing that occurred to Mac was that the tunnel had been ambushed; that the Huns had seen someone leaving the tunnel earlier, and had surrounded the exit. Directly after those shots, he expected that they would jump down into the tunnel and fire again, so he ordered a prompt withdrawal of the several men in the shaft.
Easier said than done. A bunch of men can't move smartly in a tunnel - especially with kit on and on the turn about - and Mac, himself, had to do a sort of hurdle race over discarded haversacks till he reached the first bend in the tunnel, where he would be safe from the opening volley.
But ... no volley came. Safely back in Hut 39, Mac and the others found that the surplus population had wisely vanished when they heard the shots, but that the actual occupants of the room (old Sam Floyd included) were 'staying put' and did not appear to be at all perturbed. They were discussing a Sergt.-Major's hat.
Expecting a lightning search for stray Kriegies, Mac and the other visitors now made haste to their respective huts and vied quickly to bed, and, from his own bunk in an Eight Company hut near the fence, Mac presently saw the searchlights focusing on a little group outside. It was two of the gallopers being marched away by a trio of Huns, who were keeping their Tommy guns trained on them.
Oddly enough, though, apart from a number of jabbering Jerries visiting the spot where the gallopers had been picked up, nothing else happened that night. It was not till dawn that the Huns found the actual hole, and then one of them climbed down it, crawled along the shaft and emerged through the floorboards in Hut 39.
What a to-do followed! The Kommandant was sent for, his face a study in purple. The occupants of the room were turned out and the complete floorboards taken up - but the Huns didn't get all the equipment since Sam Floyd had already removed the electrical fittings to a place of safety where they could await use on the next job.
This was a blessing. A greater one was that the two gallopers picked up were unharmed. The guards had fired at Eric Domini from short range, but had missed him by inches - which was enough. There was a long, long check parade for the whole camp that Sunday morning, but it was weeks before the last of the gallopers who had got away were recaptured in various parts of the Reich.
This coup obviously shook Jerry - especially as the escapees were found to have such splendid outfits and documents - and one sequel was the posting to the Stalag of a team of six special snoops, headed by the infamous Mr. Moto, the job of these ferrets being to go through the huts with a tooth comb - especially those huts near the fence.
Highly business-like were these searches. No Kriegie would be allowed to enter or leave any room in the block being searched, and the snoops would take their time to give each hut a thorough going-over. Kit would be opened up, mattresses fifled, boots examined, tins turned out, washing on the lines pulled down, and the floorboards lifted while the damp course of glass wool and waterproof felting between the double floors was thoroughly prodded for concealed articles.
In the course of a long and dishonourable career, Moto and Co. found plenty of contraband, ranging from radios and cameras to arms and ammunition - but what they didn't find was the main gear of the escapes organization.
To anticipate a little, it may be said that McCallen, by means which cannot be revealed, eventually received from England a great deal of highly valuable escapes kit. This included stacks of maps, compasses, photographic material, wire clippers of every size and shape, dies, drawing material, civilian clothes and hats - everything, in fact, which had previously had to be made in the secret workshops of the Stalag.
Now it was of high importance that the Huns should not find this kit - not only because of its great intrinsic utility, but because it would at once be recognized as of British origin.
McCallen and his chief digger, Alan Clarke, therefore got busy. Breaking into an empty hut - room 143, Ten Company - they lifted the floorboards and dug a hug cavity in the ground beneath. Into this cavity they sunk two big plywood boxes which had once held Canadian Red Cross parcels, and into these boxes they crammed all the civvy suits the tailors had made, and some of the stuff from Blighty, the boxes then being camouflaged with a layer of soil. This underground wardrobe served its purpose and is probably still intact to this day, although the hut was later occupied by Jimmy Davies and other Kriegies.
Another hiding place for smaller articles was made in the latrine behind the school. Ex-patrons of this social centre will remember that there was a partition down the middle supporting troughs on either side. This partition, which did not reach to the roof, being constructed of two parallel rows of planks. It occurred to McCallen that between these planks there would be excellent cupboard space, so with Alan Clarke and Chief Middlemore he attacked it one night with hacksaw blades.
They cut away one of the planks halfway up and, releasing the nails that held it fast to the horizontal beams running along inside, found that by sliding the cut-away portion upwards (it was tongue and grooved) they had an extensive space at their disposal. There was nothing to show that the partition had been tampered with, because the crosscut in the upright plank was hidden by the metal trough, and the only snag to an ideal hiding place was that the establishment was so well patronized that they often had to wait till after midnight before they could get at their cupboard in secret.
Apart from these permanent hiding places, it was always necessary to have temporary ones where stuff could be stowed away, or got at, quickly. Mac therefore records his thanks to the occupants of rooms 69 and 73 for an act of self-sacrifice only to be really appreciated by those who endured the winters of Hohenfels. They forbore from burning their under floor boards and, right to the end, Mac could temporarily slip his precious gear between their double floors.
As for his own hut, there was nearly always verboten material tucked away in his boots, mattress and elsewhere, but the only haul the snoops ever made was a packet of German photographic paper, which was small compensation for missing the three civvy suits concealed in a paliasse that they only half rifled.
McCallen heard nothing more about that paper, which was surprising, since, when exposed, it would have shown photostat copies of some perfect maps, covering all the area from Hohenfels to the Swiss border.
This photostat map making was a constant occupation of the escapes expert, who turned out many hundreds of copies from original maps on rice paper. In an earlier chapter I have mentioned the underground secret chamber in the Scout Den, used as a radio listening post. Its ceiling was two and a half feet below the floor and its eight foot by eight foot space was utilized also as a dark room during the six months or so that it remained undiscovered.
Later, McCallen was obliged to rig up a dark room in his own hut, which he did by suspending a blanket from the bunk above his own and working on his bed, borrowing his hutmates' soup bowls for rinsing and developing the prints.
One big job in the photographic line was to produce copies of all sorts of maps to issue to Company Commanders and Warrant Officers in the event of the Huns marching us to another camp, the idea being to distribute the maps in case there was an opportunity of making a break en route.
This job involved the production of eight hundred different prints, and Mac had to take a chance and hang them up to dry in rows all over his own room. His pals cheerfully put up with the drippings down their necks and pretended not to notice that he was making maps. They must have chuckled, though, over a typical Stalag rumour that developed about Mac's activities.
In order to cope with this big printing order he was obliged to borrow from the cookhouse three huge frying trays which, being enamelled, were ideal for photographic work. To avoid even the appearance of evil, mac used to collect these trays at night, but on one or two occasions he was forced to return them during daylight, with the result that anti-racket busybodies passed the word round that he was making cakes to flog on the marts!
However, enough has been written to show that plenty of hard work and midnight oil were involved in escapes 'staff work' and that those gallopers who sought Mac's aid could rely upon his organization to equip them properly. Now to see how the gallopers set about getting out of the camp and making use of all this kit.
Tunnels are fascinating things - though easier to read about than dig - and it is not to be supposed that the rumbling of the Hut 39 shaft stopped work on other tubes. On the contrary, every hut within striking distance of the fence seemed to be stretching out underground arms, and the whole place became such a rabbit warren that it's a wonder we weren't all undermined and buried - Kriegies, Huns and all!
Some of these tunnels were so ingeniously concealed that you couldn't find them even if you were invited to inspect the hut. One in room 20, a few doors from me, had its entrance in the tiny porch between two doors, and it was quite impossible to detect where the trap had been made. This tunnel was designed to go right beneath the Hun administrative offices, the other side of the wire, and could truly said to be 'under the Kommandant's nose.'
Nine Company had another tube in No. 1 Hut and also one in the latrine, which was very near the fence at a point where thick foliage was close. A Hun watchtower loomed gauntly above the unaesthetic architecture of the latrine, and a sentry beat nearby proved that Jerry realized that this was a likely spot for an attempted break. As the earth was excavated from this tunnel it was distributed and flattened down under the duck boarding which formed the floor of the latrine, with the amusing result that customers found their heads getting nearer the roof each day. In fact, a visit there might be called an 'uplifting experience.'
Two Company had a tunnel in the Spaniards' room and another in the next row of huts towards the bunker. Tuggle Heath and Phil Meikle started one of their own in Once Company, and the lads of Six Company chose the wash-house in the company lines as a good place to start burrowing.
There were at least two tunnels in Five Company, that in room 263 being a particularly ambitious effort. It had a cement floor - the cement being lifted from stocks near the ironically termed 'swimming pool' - and it was well staved up with packing-case wood, adequately lighted by electricity, and had its entrace trap concealed by a dummy oven.
This tunnel was twelve feet beneath the surface and was planned to run to eighty feet in length. Despite being able to work only at night, when the electric current was on, the lads finished more than half in six weeks, and would have been even quicker, but for the handicap of constant wet in the tunnel.
One night in June, Corpl. Alan Morrison, A.I.F., descended the twelve-foot entrance shaft, crawled along the tunnel and got busy with this shovel. He was very unlucky - and decidedly fortunate. Unlucky that the tunnel roof collapsed and buried him; fortunate to be only seven-eighths suffocated when his room mates dug him out, after five or ten minutes of pretty desperate shovelling.
Next afternoon by 2p.m. there was water two foot deep around the hut. Away came the oven ... up went the tunnel trap - and the worst was known. The water was up to floor board level and it was obvious to one and all that a main water pipe had burst. Fred Stuckey, a Kiwi, paused only to contribute his fair share of language about this. Then he stripped off, dived into the tunnel, and by submarine feats possible only to New Zealanders rescued the electrical fittings. This act was generally considered more praiseworthy than the previous day's rescue of Alan, since there was a greater shortage of electric light fittings than of Aussie escape enthusiasts in the camp.
However, once this gear was safely away, the Jerries had to be called in to deal with the flood situation. They got a bit nasty when told to work out for themselves what had happened, but all their wild accusations about ein tunnel were met only with shoulder shrugs, or bland speculations as to whether the previous occupants of the camp, Serbian officers, could have dug it.
What accorded some satisfaction to the Huns, though, was that the Kriegies of Hut 263 ahd to continue living in the place, which now resembled Noah's Ark, and it was a fact that the next week or two, with walls down and floor up, proved more uncomfortable than that stay in the bunker the lads had expected.
Talking of the bunker - which was a building just outside the Stalag, and just about that time was housing a Russian officer escapee from another camp who was awaiting execution for the alleged killing of a Hun guard - it was later the site of a tunnel started by one of the Stalag's most gallant gallopers - W/O Tadeusz Baronowski.
This Polish 'Battle of Britain' pilot, holder of the Polish D.F.C., was shot down over Brest and, when brought to Hohenfels, soon became familiar with the bunker for his attempts to escape. While doing one of these stretches, Baron managed to raise the floorboards of his bare, whitewashed cell and start a tunnel with his pocket knife!
Now, it is related elsewhere how McCallen and others used to smuggle in food and cigarettes to the bunker. Suffice it to say here that at the time Baron was doing this particular stretch the bunker guards were rather sociable and used to let the cell occupants into the guard-room every evening to make tea and have a smoke. In fact, these Jerries were gracious enought to accept cups of tea and cigarettes for themselves, too, and their preoccupation gave Baron and other bunkerites a chance to get really cracking underneath the floorboards.
They soon completed the short, rough tunnel necessary to take them under the wire, and McCallen was then contacted to try and get some escapes kit through for the prospective gallopers, who included Bill Jones and little Friedman.
This was a bit of a poser for Mac, since at that time everybody going to the bunker was searched twice - once at the main gate of the Stalag, and again on arrival at the gaol. However, choosing a certain Sunday when the regular searchers were not on duty and an issue of soup was to supplement the usual dry bread and water diet, Mac enlisted the services of the Kriegie whose job it would be to carry the soup from the Stalag cookhouse to the bunker.
This lad made two or three trips and succeeded in getting all the necessary gear across. Overalls to be worn by the gallopers he concealed under his own uniform. Tins of food were dropped into the soup, and money and compasses were hidden in his socks. Everything, in fact, seemed set for a triumph, so it was the sheerest cussedness of fortune that a German specialist searcher happened to visit the gaol that afternoon and to observe that the floorboards were not secure. Even then, he never probed further to discover the tunnel, but merely had the boards nailed down again - and since subsequent bunkerites never had an opportunity of getting at it, Baronowski's tunnel is quite possibly intact to this day.
If so it is probably the last of the network; for it must now be recorded that, after the room 39 affair, no gallopers actually left the camp by the tube route, but that, one after another, the tunnels were discovered and filled in by the Jerries.
But was this a triumph for the Hun? Not at all. Right from that very first breakout, the Kommandant was forced to apply for extra snoops and guards and dogs - which, in intself, justified the Kriegies' sweat. Then, although the use of special sound detector apparatus enabled snoops to pounce on many tunnels, they were never too confident about the use of this apparatus, since they were always being led on wild-goose chases by jokers who dug especially for the benefit of the detector. Apart from this, there were tunnels like that water flooded one in Hut 263 which owed their discovery to chance, not science, and the Kommandant was always worried lest he wake up one morning to find that the twentieth or twenty-first tunnel had carried away half his charges.
So, one way and another, the tunnels probably cost the Huns more sweat than they did the Kriegies, and no man who swung a shovel need deem it wasted effort.
But I am glad, all the same, that the tunnels were mere sidelines. Mere sidelines, that is, of the Gallopers Club. McCallen would be the first to congratualte those Kriegies who dug and hewed so doggedly, despite the odds; but, after the Hut 39 effort had put the Huns on their guard, Mac and his colleagues regarded the tunnels more as usefull distracters of Jerry attention than as likely avenues to the world outside, and they ceaselessly sought for other means of escape.
That they did not seek in vain, and that their plots and plans, their dodges and deeds were a permanent pain to the Huns is part of Hohenfels' history.
I shall rejoice to record that history in the following chapter.
Music : Moonlight Serenade