Barbed Wire
Memories of Stalag 383

 

 

Chapter 13 :

Trip to Vienna

 


Graphic by Raine Alexander
Please Note that due to German censorship laws the Hakenkreuz has been removed from this graphic.

 

PROLOGUE - XMAS 1943

 

Hut Sixteen didn't know them from Adam, but they were such quiet, nice-mannered fellows, and so obviously diffident about asking favours, that we lent them the records they asked for without a murmur. Not till they were out of earshot did we all burst forth about their hair.

 

'Those jokers should borrow scissors - not records' said Jim Tyre. 'They ought to get their hair cut - or buy violins' growled Alf Tuck. 'More like A.T.S. than soliders' said someone else; and, like so many cheated barbers, we slandered the two visitors, putting every unfavourable construction, from laziness to effeinacy, upon their flowing locks.

 

Still, we did lend them the records.

 

STORY - SPRING 1944

 

If, on that pleasant May evening, you had made your way to the Stalag gym, cleaved a passage through the motely crowd of boxers, wrestlers, weight lifters and other hearties, and peered into that peaceful have, Jimmy Jamieson's massage room, you would have been puzzled by the following scene.

 

A big, burly fellow in battledress was tramping slowly up and down the room, a huge well-filled sack over his shoulder. Watching him critically was a small audience, including a fair-haired, ascetic-looking corporal, a smart continental gentleman in a heavy ulster - and a really dazzling brunette. This brunette was slender, beautifully coiffured, dressed in a sophisticated 'three piece ensemble' and had just that touch of distinction about shoes, stockings and handbag which marks the perfect lady.

 

So you would have been startled that such a lady should remark to the company: 'it's damned hard to keep your behind tucked in like that!'; and when the burly fellow with the sack put it down, opened it up, and a human head emerged to comment 'I'll say it is!' you would definitely have wondered what was going on.

 

Well, the scene was a dress rehearsal for one of Stalag 383's best planned escapes, due to take place next day. The ascetic corporal was Michael McCallen, R.A.S.C. (late King's Regt.), Hohenfels' own Scarlet Pimpernel, the continental gentleman and the slim brunette were the prospective escapees, B.Q.M.S. Norman Drummond and Corporal Eddie Freestone, respectively, and the other occupants of the room were sundry stout fellows who were helping Norman and Eddie in various capacities.

 

Since that winter's day when the long-haired couple had shocked Hut Sixteen, Norman had had his hair cut - not to avoid the leg pulling and worse to which he and Eddie had steeled themselves, but because the original plan to both escape as women had now evolved to a sounder one.

 

In its way, this plan was a little miracle, and, like another well known miracle, it took exactly nine months to happen. Nine months of careful planning and attention to detail.

 

Hearing, through McCallen, of a 'contact' in Vienna, the two lads schemed to escape from Hohenfels, reach Vienna, and from there make their way through Hungary and the Balkans to Syria and the Allies.

 

The final guise settled upon was that of a professor and his wife, of 'Volks-Deutsch' origin, travelling from Copenhagen University to Vienna University for the purpose of studying Veterinary Science for the Wehrmacht, and all the documents, passports, clothes and knowledge they needed for this enterprise had to be acquired by degrees. It was hard work for the boys, but they soon found willing helpers.

 

Both lads spoke German fairly well, and Irvine Poppa, Palestinian soldier, one time native of Vienna, helped them to acquire the accent they needed. He also drilled them in the geography of Vienna and gave them helpful hints as to correct behaviour in conversation with German civilians.

 

Keith Gadd undertook Eddie's hairdressing and make-up. Harry Morgan, advised, I think, by Stan Hawkins, performed miracles of tailoring from spare blankets, so that Norman's suit and ulster could vie with Eddie's chic ensemble. Tubby Jaggers' stall produced shoes and stocking in that mystic way the marts produced everything. And the professor and his wife were also fitted up with a week-end case, containing silk undies for Frau Eddie, clean collars for Herr Norman, and everything else that a prosperous professor and his young wife might be expected to carry. A hiding place for all this gear was found by one, Jack Cooper.

 

As for the numerous documents required, McCallen saw to those. He had all the artists, letterers, wood carvers and ex-forgers in the camp working for him and, under his direction, they made perfect copies of German passports, police permits, &c., for all escapees who required them.

 

In this particular case, Mac got Geordie Nicol to prepare the passports, Sergt. McDougall (3rd Hussars) to prepare the University letter heads, and Charlie Kober to write out a letter of introduction to Vienna University in his finest Gothic script. Then there was the delicate little matter of the official stamps necessary to give the documents an authentic air.

 

Bill Jones made these. Now Bill Jones seems an improbable name for a genius, but what else can I call a man who, from the wood of T-squares, carves with old razor blades these beautiful eagles, swastikas and lettering on the wooden stamps before me?

 

Bill also made a fine job of the University of Copenhagen stamp, the joke about this effort being that neither Mac nor Bill had the foggiest notion what the actual University stamp might look like, but guessing that the German plice wouldn't know either, decided to make an imaginary one. Irvine Poppa supplied plausible Latin for the lettering of this stamp, and the centre crest was a horse's head, which Bill copied from the badge of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. The final result looked so impressive that it's a great pity Copenhagen University didn't think of it first.

 

Now the actual escape method used by Norman and Eddie was the original idea of two Aussies, Steve Young and Ted Paton, of whom more anon, and briefly put was this:

 

The Red Cross Store inside the main camp, used for stacking Red Cross parcels and 'personal' parcels from home, was a big barn-like building whihc, from time to time, collected so much refuse in the form of paper packing, straw, &c., that the rubbish had to be cleared by fatigue parties of our own men. The method ordered by the Huns was that the refuse should be put into sacks and carried, under German escort, to a building outside the main camp, where it would be locked up by the guards pending the arrival of salvage lorries.

 

Here was the germ of an escape plan which was painstakingly developed. Experiments proved that a Kriegie in a sack could get into a sort of kneeling position, knees in one corner of the sack bottom, feet in the other, boots off and behind resting of heels, and that if paper and packing was stuffed into the sack with him, the outline of the body could be hidden.

 

Further experiments showed that, even on Stalag rations, 'he-men' could slig these sacks on their shoulders and carry them for long stretches without dropping down dead, and that if the fellow inside the sack was not exactly comfortable, he was usually still breathing after an hour or two's rehearsal - so that was okay.

 

Norman and Eddie practised this sack trick faithfully, and they also rehearsed another necessary detail. Granted that they reached the outside building in the sacks, they would still have to get out of the building, which was always locked. To this end, they used to go to the Camp Scout den, which was situated at one end of a building similar in design to the one outside the camp, and there they practised climbing up a beam and undoing the skylight which led on to the roof.

 

In between times, they were polishing up their Deutsch, studying maps, going over their kit, and, while Eddie was growing his hair and practising the walk and gestures of a girl, Norman was acquiring an impressively professorial manner and 'dealing' with Kriegies who were rude about his partner's coiffure.

 

The great day (May 19th, '44) dawned at last, and the first job was to get their kit across to the Red Cross store, piece by piece, ready for packing into selected sacks, for they were naturally not wearing their man and wife finery until safely out of the camp.

 

Jerries were working in the store as usual that morning, and no Kriegies other than the regular staff were allowed inside, but, somehow or other, Norman and Eddie were smuggled in, too, and hidden from view behind piles of parcels until lunchtime, when the Germans locked the store up for an interval.

 

During this interval, a useful fellow named 'Topper' Brown, kidded the Huns that he had some essential 'overtime' to put in on his store work, so they obligingly locked him in, too, till after lunch. Topper was therefore able to plant Norman and Eddie in their sacks, pack 'em up nicely with paper and deposit their suitcase and kit in other sacks, recognizable by agreed markings.

 

When the Huns got back from their Kartoffels and Sauerkraut, they ordered a Kriegie fatigue party to pick up the sacks and, there happening to be a small cart available just then, to pile them on that instead of, as customary, carrying the refuse sacks all the way to the outside building.

 

As the cart creaked uncomfortably along, the fatigue party walking beside it to unload at the other end, Norman could see the Hun sentries who accompanied them through a slit in his sack. No doubt he wondered what it would feel like if one of the Huns stuck his bayonet experimentally into the sacks - a little habit of theirs when dealing, for instance, with carts of hay.

 

However, both the massive gates were safely passed, the sacks were duly unloaded by the British party into the outside building, which was locked up by the guards, and our two escapees managed, after half an hour or so, to get out of their sacks and bury themselves more comfortably till darkness fell.

 

Not till 10.30 at night were they able to climb up to the fanlight, get the window off its hinges, and start moving their kit out on to the roof. Progress was slow and not too easy on the nerves, because the seachlight from a nearby watch tower swept the roof every few minutes and the ugly spouts of Spandaus could splatter bullets over every inch of it. Also, there was a sentry beat just below the building, and the lads had to time all their movements by the sound of his jack-boots.

 

By midnight, though, they had all their kit on the roof, the window safely back on its hinges, and Eddie in a position to move down to the edge of the roof, from whence he dropped into a ditch. Norman then lowered the kit down, bit by bit, and by 1 o'clock was able to join his partner in the ditch.

 

There followed a long and cautious crawl, punctuated by flat belly pauses as the searchlights played around them, but pushing their two haversacks and suitcase in front of them, they eventually got outside the immediate danger area and were able to make rapid walking progress towards the village of Hohenfels.

 

Dawn found them six to eight miles from the Stalag, and choosing a thick wood, they hid out for the whole of the day, hoping fervently that McCallen's system of covering up escapees on the morning roll call would not go amiss. An alarm so soon would be fatal.

 

When dusk lent its cloak they changed into their man and wife attire, buried their haversacks containing their uniforms and started on their walk to the railway station of Parsberg. A German civilian they met on the raod exchanged 'guten Nacht' with them, which gave them confidence to inquire of him whether they were on the right route, and although they reached the stations hours too early for the local train and thought it best to retire to the woods for a while, Eddie made himself up again so perfectly that their eventual return to the station was a triumph.

 

The gaze of the first women they encountered displayed admiration, not suspicion, of the young couple, so there was no need to wonder whether the three piece ensemble and the coiffure were okay. French workers on the line gave Frau Eddie that ex-ray scrutiny they reserve for nice girls, and when a German kiddy to whom they had once given sweets sucked his thumb and stared at them without the least sign of recognition, they began to feel more comfortable.

 

Norman bought tickets for Regensburg without any difficulty and, arrived at this important junction, he now asked for first class tickets to Vienna. The booking clerk slammed them down in a manner which made them feel homesick. Perhaps he'd served his apprenticeship in Blighty.

 

Everything was going splendidly so far, and the professor now bought the morning's Volkische Beobachter and conducted his lady to the train, which was soon racing the Danube to the city of Strauss and Freud.

 

During much of the 450 kilometre journey, the couple stood in the corridor, since they did not wish to chance either conversation in a crowded apartment, or a too noticeable silence. They found the newspaper a useful shield at times, but they could not pretend to be engrossed in its lying pages all the time and every now and then they cursed inwardly as soon chatty Teuton or others tried to make conversation with them.

 

Still, these little ordeals were useful in their way. They gave practice in natural behaviour. After years and years inside barbed wire a man feels strange when first talking to the outside world. He feels stranger still if he happens to be masquerading as a girl wife, or a young professor, and has to chat to enemy strangers in their own tongue but with a Danish accent.

 

As the train drew in at one station, a loquacious passenger drew the pair's attention to another train alongside, which was being searched by the Gestapo, and the professor and his wife were prompt to agree how necessary it was to guard the Reich against its enemies. At the same time, Norman and Eddie braced themselves for a stiff test at Vienna station, where it seemed highly probably that there would be at least an examination of papers. An examination, too, by officials whose job it was to be suspicious of everybody.

 

But they missed this trial of nerves. When the train reached Vienna at 3 p.m., the professor and his wife just clutched their suitcase and handbag, respectively, surrendered their tickets at the barrier, and had no contact with officials, save when Norman sought the correct platform for the next stage of their journey - by underground.

 

The short tube ride to the Donau canal district of Vienna was marked by a strap-hanging conversation with a German Wehrmacht officer, who was no doubt proud of his perspicacity as he smilingly asked the young couple what part of Denmark they came from. Those accent lessons from Irvine Poppa were paying a dividend now.

 

However, the lads, though grateful for their luck so far, were not disposed to crow. Till now their fortunes had been mainly in their own hands, but the next stage was wholly in the lap of the Gods. Everything depended upon their luck in making a contact - a contact who could help them on the next stage of bid for freedom. All that they had to go on was the description of a certain cafe and the tip that it was once used by an agent, or agents, friendly to the Allied cause. A gamble, nothing more - but a gamble well worth while.

 

After a good deal of careful 'recce' work, Norman and Eddie decided that one particular cafe more nearly answered the description given than any other, so they marched inside, sat down and ordered coffee.

 

Few people were about, the aged waiter was obviously not their man, and a female in the corner was far too much like an 'agent' to possibly be one, so the professor and his wife decided to return later in the evening and get a line on the types who normally used the place.

 

In the meantime, they felt a bit 'lost' wandering about the place with a suitcase, so they went to a cinema and enjoyed their first film show for four years.

 

It was about 6 o'clock when they returned to the cafe and the place was filling up. Just a typical little continental cafe, with a spot of faded plush, some large, once gilded mirrors, and a family clientele. Notices of the 'Walls have ears' types adorned the walls, enjoining patrons not to talk too freely, lest enemies of the Fatherland be listening.

 

And Eddie and Norman were listening. They were straining every nerve to try and catch some clue - some phrase which might provide a pointer to the place. Was this cafe, or was it not, the rendezvous they sought? They had to find out soon.

 

So Norman took a chance. Ordering more coffee and some ersatz bread and jam, he got into conversation with the cafe manager. He had been in Vienna before the Anschluss he told him. What did the manager think of conditions now?

 

Not much, apparently. Vienna was not the same gay place at all since the Germans came, said the Austrian. In fact his private opinion was ...

 

And he launched forth in such a manner that Norman and Eddie felt faint hopes stirring. It was a promising start, anyway, and, win or lose, they must follow it up. Which Norman did.

 

Did the manager, he asked, know where he and his wife could spend the night? And his tone and his gaze said more than that.

 

The Austrian stared at them silently. 'I'll send my wife to talk to you,' he said at last, his manner conspiratorial, tinged with a certain reserve.

 

Prepared for anything, the lads waited, knowing at least that the die was cast.

 

The manager went - and his wife came. She sat down at the table and chatted freely, her manner friendly as possible, and her talk more and more anti-Nazi as time went on. Norman gave her some chocolate - English chocolate. She took it without a flicker. Things seemed to be going well. Then ...

 

Through the mirror Norman saw them. Squads of police outside the cafe, their helmets visible through the plate glass window. The next instant, three plain clothes men (Gestapo) burst in, flashing revolvers like Hollywood gangsters.

 

Commotion in the cafe ... squeals from some women ... a quick slip-away by their late companion ... and the Gestapo closed in on the table, dramatic and trigger-nervous, the manager behind them.

 

There was one thing to do - and the lads did it. Up went their hands above their heads and, as per previous instructions, Norman said his piece.

 

'We're British soldiers ... escaped prisoners of war,' he explained briefly. No sense in heroics now. They must establish that they were not spies.

 

But is wasn't easy. 'Britische Soldaten, ja?' rasped the chief Hun ironically. 'And your woman is a soldier, too, I suppose? So, my friend, you think you deal with fools, do you!' and, in typical Hun fashion, he worked himself up, poking his L�ger almost down Norman's throat and shouting question after question, while Norman could only keep his arms upstretched and repeat again and again that they were escaped soldiers and could prove it.

 

Eddie's attempt to end this farce with an impatient movement towards his neck almost brought disaster, but though the L�gers swung round to cover him and the cafe patrons ducked apprehensively under tables, the Gestapo gallants finally tore open his 'blouse' to reveal - not a revolver, but a pair of false breasts.

 

Further sensation in cafe, followed by a certain calming down on the part of the Gestapo leader, who now conceived the bright idea that he could question them better elsewhere.

 

So, handcuffed together, and escorted by a large crowd, including some highly delighted youngsters, Norman and Eddie were marched throuogh the streets to the nearest police station. Here they were able to produce their P.o.W. Stalag identification discs, and after a great deal of questioning it was grudgingly accepted that they might really be escaped British soldiers.

 

The attitude towards them improved slightly after this, but since they were locked up for the night in separate cells with their hands handcuffed behind their backs, it was not exactly matey. Early the next morning they were taken on to the main Vienna police station where they were questioned for hours on end by Army police, civilian detectives, Gestapo and several other varieties of human bloodhound.

 

The lads were grieved that they had had no chance to destroy their forged papers, particularly since they were told that these documents would have passed muster anywhere. A paper specialist at Gestapo headquarters examined them minutely for a long time before he convinced himself that they were not genuine German documents, stolen from somewhere; but no amount of questioning drew any information from Norman and Eddie. They just shrugged their shoulders and looked dumb.

 

Wheat chiefly annoyed the German plice was the thought of the great distance the lads had covered, but several Wehrmacht officers, who arrived at the station and asked to see the escapees, were quite sympathetic in tone. Realizing that it is a soldier's duty to try and escape from captivity, they expressed admiration for the ingenuity of the attempt.

 

Much to Eddie's disgust, they had to bear the gaze of girl typists at Gestapo Headquarters, but Norman told me that the open mouthed wonder and girlish giggles at Eddie's ensemble and coiffure were not unmixed with admiration. No doubt the smart professor also had his fans.

 

What both Norman and Eddie wanted far more than sympathizers, however, was something to eat; and the infamous Vienna Zuchthaus, to which they were taken next, was the wrong place for square meals.

 

Actually a remand prison for criminals, and a distribution centre for concentration camps, this unholy place was packed to overflowing with everything save comforts. Still in their smart attire, the lads were thrust into a small cell which already contained twenty-seven other captives.

 

There they were just left, day after day, with no clue as their next move. There were twenty blankets to provide for twenty-nine men in the cell, and from five in the morning till eight at night, when they were given a palliasse to lie on, there was nothing to do save stand and wait and starve, the little bread and thin soup provided being 'extermination' diet.

 

It is typical of both lads that, when giving an account of their experiences, they would relate only that outline of their own story which I have put down here, but were full of tales about the Nazi's victims they met in jail - tales, alas, painfully familiar to the whole world now.

 

However, Norman and Eddie were not destined to rot in the Zuchthaus much longer. When the Hun police first contacted Stalag 383 they were told that no one was missing from the camp - a tribute, this, to the 'cover up' system on roll calls.

 

Later, though, when their fingerprints arrived at Hohenfels, Security Officer Blum was forced to admit that the birds had indeed flown from his cage, and whe, through his own grapevine, McCallen sorrowfully heard that the lads had been picked up, he dispensed with the 'cover up' arrangements on roll call so that the next time the numbers were checked it was plainly disclosed that two men were 'away to the woods.'

 

It was deliciously comic to hear the various Huns responsible for counting us indulging in furious mutual recriminations as to which of them had been at fault in the prvious miscounts, and since all sane men will agree that Huns are never better employed than when abusing each other, no Kriegie minded that it cost us all a few extra hours on check parades.

 

A German N.C.O. and two men were now sent to Vienna to pick up the truants, and Norman and Eddie, after a full week in the stench of the Zuchthaus could breathe real air again on the way back to Hohenfels - the journey back taking them twenty-four hours, although they had done the first trip themselves in nine hours.

 

From Parsberg station they had to march the ten miles or more to the Stalag, and there were many open mouths amongst the locals who had seen the professor and his wife set out on their journey.

 

The 'three-piece ensemble' now looked like a 'Utility' model, and the shoes from Tubby Jaggers' mart were pinching painfully, but Keith Gadd's coiffure had survived the Zuchthaus and Eddie still looked more glamorous than most Frauleins as he and Norman grinningly acknowledged cheers from the few Kriegies who saw them return.

 

As for the professor's suit and ulster, there are fellows willing to swear that a certain Hun officer later wore them on his leave, but if so he must have had them cleaned, for - unromantic, but obvious to relate - both the professor and his wife were lousy after their stay in the Nazi jail.

 

The rest is soon told. The lads were taken to Blum, the Security Officer, who could not help being amused at their appearance. After hours of fruitless questioning as to how they got out, where the clothes and documents came from, &c., he gave it up as a bad job and sent them both to the bunker, whic, though no boudoir, was certainly an improvement on the Zuchthaus. No sentence was ever passed on them, but they were kept in the cooler for fourteen days, anyway, and were then let out 'on licence.'

 

For months after the trip, the Gestapo were still asking questions about it; but, eventually, Professor Joe Stalin also made a trip to Vienna, and the Gestapo rather lost interest in earlier cases.

 

And nobody blamed them for that. Least of all, Norman and Eddie.

 

 

 

 

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Music : Take the A Train

 

 

 

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