|Defiant German prisoners on the march|
Lieutenant-Colonel Edwin Darling was confident that he ran the most secure prisoner-of-war camp in Britain.
Camp 198 near Bridgend in South Wales, known locally as Island Farm, was surrounded by a high-wire fence and equipped with searchlights and guard dogs. At night, sentries made frequent patrols around the site.
There was good reason for the security. By the spring of 1945, the camp housed more than 2,000 German POWs. These included several elite SS commanders and half a dozen Luftwaffe fighter pilots. When these hardened Nazis had been brought to the camp, they arrived in defiant mood, singing ‘we are marching to England’.
|Darling: the man in|
Lieutenant-Colonel Darling knew that any successful escape would be a propaganda disaster. The last thing he wanted was a German equivalent of the Allied break-out from Stalag Luft III. The men involved in that escape were already being feted as heroes and their courage would later be immortalised in the Hollywood movie, The Great Escape.
|Hut 9: site of the great escape|
On the evening of 10 March, 1945, Lieutenant-Colonel Darling retired to bed unaware of anything untoward in the offing. The evening roll-call had brought no unwelcome surprises and the prisoners had returned to their dormitories without trouble.
The only clue that something was afoot came later that night, when Darling’s sleep was interrupted by the sound of prisoners singing. But this was not unusual, for the inmates of Camp 198 often sang until late into the night.
Their rousing choruses were for a purpose. For many months, they had been secretly digging a huge underground tunnel that led from Hut 9 to the outside world. By the second week of March, it was complete and scores of prisoners were now hoping to make their escape.
|Escape tunnel: brilliant German engineering|
The 70-foot tunnel was a consummate work of German engineering. It descended deep into the clay sub-soil before rising towards a small opening in a newly-ploughed field on the far side of the perimeter fence.
The prisoners had excavated it using knives and cooking utensils stolen from the camp kitchens.
The soil was disposed of in novel fashion. The POWs had managed to construct a fake wall at the end of Hut 9, using old tiles and bricks. They then pushed the excavated soil through a false air vent and into the cavity behind the wall.
|German POWs: good reason to be cheerful|
The tunnel’s roof was supported with wood stolen from oak benches in the canteen and the floor was lined with old clothes to ensure that the escaping prisoners would not get dirty. There was even electric lighting, which could be used as a warning system whenever a guard was approaching.
Most extraordinary of all was the tunnel’s air supply. Dozens of milk tins had been linked together to form a tube and air was pumped through this tube by means of a four-bladed fan.
The night of the great escape was meticulously planned. Each prisoner was given an allotted time to pass through the tunnel and many of the men were equipped with maps of the local area. Some planned to steal cars and drive to Cardiff in the hope of smuggling themselves aboard ships heading to the continent. Others, emboldened by their SS training, hoped to steal planes and fly back to Germany.
|The Express records the great escape|
It was shortly before midnight when two of the men, an SS officer named Karl Ludwig and his colleague Heinz Herzler, slipped through the tunnel. They successfully emerged in the field beyond the perimeter fence and followed their fellow escapees into the surrounding woodland.
As they crept along the road towards Cardiff, they encountered a drunken man returning home. They hid themselves in a hedge and waited for him to pass.
It was an unfortunate hiding place. The man staggered over to where Karl Ludwig was crouched in the undergrowth and answered a call of nature, unaware that he was urinating on an SS officer.
Most escapees fled from the camp in small groups. One band of four men made their get-away in a stolen car. Others went on foot, trying to reach nearby train stations before dawn.
Back at Camp 198, Lieutenant-Colonel Darling slept on through the night, ignorant of what was taking place. It was not until 2.15am, fully four hours after the first batch of prisoners had escaped, that the camp guards realized something was afoot. They immediately awoke Darling and then raised the general alarm. A roll-call of prisoners revealed that almost 90 had gone missing.
By daybreak a massive nationwide manhunt was underway. According to The Daily Express, ‘spotter planes flew over the Vale of Glamorgan while troops, Home Guards and police, all armed with tommy guns, searched the woods, fields and ditches.’
Though highly trained, the German prisoners were at a huge disadvantage. They were highly conspicuous and ill-equipped. Karl Ludwig and Heinz Herzler redoubled their efforts to reach Cardiff after their unfortunate incident in the hedge, but it was not long before they were spotted by a local policeman, Philip Baverstock, who promptly arrested them.
|Interior of Hut 9|
Other prisoners were even less successful: most were captured within a few miles of the camp and it was not long before all of them were soon safely back inside their huts.
At least that was the official version of the story. But how many really escaped? And how many were recaptured?
Unofficial accounts suggest that 84 prisoners got out of the camp, eight more than the Allied POWs who escaped from Stalag Luft III. But because 14 were quickly recaptured, officials claimed (for propaganda purposes) that only 70 Germans escaped.
When the issue was discussed in parliament, Minister of War Arthur Henderson assured the country that the actual number was 67 men.
|Allied great escape: the movie version|
There was good reason for him being economical with the truth. Several days after the break-out, three suspicious looking Germans – escaped prisoners - were spotted near Canterbury in Kent. They managed to evade capture and were never seen again.
What happened to them remains a mystery. The most likely explanation is that they stole a boat and tried to make it back to Germany. Whether or not they were successful remains unclear.