The Greatest Escape of German PoWs during the Second World War: the Island Farm Breakout

As the end of the Second World War was coming closer, the Allied powers made preparations for the inevitable stream of German prisoners of war that had to be housed. In total, 1026 prisoner of war camps were established in Britain. They accommodated a bit over 400.000 German PoWs that were shipped there. Among these camps was Camp 198, also known as Island Farm. The camp was situated on the outskirts of Bridgend, South Wales. The majority of the camp has been demolished in 1993, but there is one cabin, Hut 9, that has been preserved. And it has been preserved for a pretty good reason: it is the last remaining building that stood central in the plot of one of the largest escape attempt by German PoWs during the Second World War.

Island Farm was initially built for part of the 40.000 women employed by the Royal Ordnance munitions factory in Bridgend. Yet due to the poor conditions, in reality, the women preferred travel over staying there, and the camp remained empty until 1943. For a short while, it housed American troops participating in D-Day. Following the successful invasion of Europe, the Allied powers started planning around the hundreds-of-thousands Axis PoWs they would undoubtedly capture and have to house in the near future. That’s how Island Farm became a designated PoW camp. 

Location of Island Farm

The camp had capacity for approximately 2000 prisoners. Although German and Italian soldiers were initially housed there, by late 1944 the War Office decided it should house German officers instead. In accordance with the Geneva Convention, the prisoners could not be put to work. But not working didn’t deter the prisoners from digging, albeit not in sight of the guards. Because right after arrival, they began hatching their escape plans. 

It wasn’t like the Allied authorities didn’t realise the officers would plan an escape, though. Superintendent William May, and the camp Commandant Lieutenant-Colonel Darling actually made plans early on to prevent such an escape attempt. They knew a fair bit about escapes: Darling had been captured during the First World War and managed to escape from a German PoW camp, before safely returning to England via Holland. Considering his experience he wasn’t naive. Together with May, he decided that in case of an escape the local police should observe a 3-mile parameter around the area, checking all vehicles, peoples and what not. 

Hut 9 on Island Farm

There were several other escape attempts preceding the main one. Already in January 1945, Darling and May discovered a near completed tunnel in Hut 16. A stove was put over it to hide its presence. Darling and May acted on a tip-off, but when they entered the hut, initially it seemed empty. Only after moving the stove, they found the near-finished tunnel, including prisoners digging in it underground. Talk about getting caught in the act. As the map on-screen shows, Hut 16 was a bit further inwards than the aforementioned Hut 9. And perhaps that’s logical: one of the key consistencies among tales of PoW-camp outbreaks is that soldiers often dug decoy-tunnels to throw the guards off the actual escape plan. Perhaps that was what happened here as well, since the inmates from Hut 16 had to dig their tunnel under another hut. In short: not the most ideal location to start digging an escape tunnel.

Aside from this tunnel that same month two other prisoners were caught attempting to escape. They ripped iron bars from window frames and turned them into crude wire cutters. Merely cutting the perimeter fence, they escaped. Their freedom lasted for a short time, however, because they were soon arrested nearby.

Now, for the final escape, German inmates again decided upon digging their way out of the camp. Hut 9 was chosen because it was closest to the perimeter fence. Fortunately for the PoWs, metal objects were standard components of Red Cross Parcels. Tins, cans and other containers could skillfully be fashioned into useful items. Using these utensils and their hands, the inmates in Hut 9 dug into the heavy clay soil. Although all of this is an estimation: it was never conclusively proven how the inmates actually dug the tunnel. Another thing that the Allied powers didn’t find out until way after the war was where the prisoners disposed the leftover clay and dirt. Usually inmates would put small amounts of dirt and soil in their pockets and dispose of them during walks outside. But this time none of that appeared to have happened.

German PoWs arriving in the United Kingdom

It wasn’t until the 1980s, 35 years after the escape, when vandals kicked down a wall inside the camp that a hollow space behind it appeared. Small clay balls spilt over the floor. It turned out the inmates built a fake extension to an L-shaped bend in their Hut. They crafted a false air vent where they disposed their little clay balls in. The camp’s commanders never figured out where the soil was disposed, and nobody would have, if it wasn’t for a bunch of youths breaking things inside the remains of the camp. 

According to a 2016 research paper on the matter, straight from the beginning, the German officers were highly organised. They worked as a team and had designated escape task duties such as tunnellers and lookouts. They used a system of light switches to warn if guards came closeby. The escape tunnel from Hut 9 measured approximately 90 by 90 centimetres. It ended up 13 metres in length and just 1.5 metres underground, right underneath the perimeter fence. Once inside the tunnel, it was relatively easy to move until one had to climb out again. 

The prisoners used materials from huts to prevent cave-ins and even built ventilation pipes from milk tins, blowing in air with a hand-operated fan. As the photograph shows, the Germans used wood to support the tunnel. Aside from using wood from their hut, they stole oak benches from the canteen and even cut their beds’ legs. They were rather crafty, to be fair. In order to conceal the digging noise, the prisoners sang German choral songs. And I’ve already touched upon their crafted utensils, although it was never conclusively proven if they did indeed use these to dig the holes. 

At any rate, four months after the first German officers entered the camp, on the night of Saturday, March 10th 1945, the escape was set in motion. Sources vary whether 70 or 83 PoWs escaped that night, but it is safe to say it was the largest prison break by German PoWs during the Second World War. At around 10 PM that night, after the final roll call, Officers went to the hut and down into the tunnel at their assigned times. You see, the escapees divided themselves into groups and each group had a map, a homemade compass and food. The way the map was devised is fascinating in its own right: during the war, all roadsigns across Great Britain had been deliberately removed in order to prevent German spies from orienting themselves if they parachuted into Britain. A PoW Officer, however, during his transport to Island Farm, noticed a map hanging on the wall of the train wagon. He traced it on the tail of a shirt. Using this as a blueprint to create multiple maps, it led to the Germans having surprisingly accurate maps.

Hans Harzheim was part of one of the first groups. He later relayed how they crept through the tunnel, into the adjacent field and then stole an Austin 10 car. It belonged to the camp’s doctor, Dr. Baird Milne. The car didn’t start, and the noise polluted the quiet night. According to Harzheim, guards from the camp walked up to figure out what the noise was all about, when they saw the four men in a barely illuminated car. Boldly, Harzheim’ asked them to give him a hand with the vehicle, which they did. Due to the darkness the men appeared as just four silhouettes in the car, and unbeknownst to the guards, they were helping prisoners start the car. It worked, though, and the men drove off. 

After driving around and getting lost, the men had to abandon the car and continue on foot. It didn’t last long, and the day after they were arrested near Castle Bromwich, about 110 miles (so 177 kilometres) away from Island Farm. 

The tunnel under Hut 9

As for the rest of the escape, it continued uninterrupted for several hours. As mentioned, there were designated look-outs, using lights to make sure the escapees would not get discovered. The group that stole the car was a bit of an exception because after crawling out of the tunnel, most escapees made their way to a tall tree nearby, where they gathered. By 2:15 am 65 men had escaped. 

The 67th PoW to escape was Hermann Schallenberg, a Luftwaffe officer. According to his testimony as he left the tunnel he heard a shout from a guard, followed by a gunshot. Next thing he knew guards were giving chase, during which one fell down the tunnel exit. Several PoWs hiding in bushes nearby allegedly couldn’t hold their laughter, leading to the first eleven POWs being arrested right away. Realising just how many prisoners escaped, a manhunt ensued which lasted for well over a week.

The next two PoWs to be arrested were SS Officer Karl Ludwig and Heinz Hertzler. They planned on hitching a truck ride to the docks, but no trucks passed the road they chose on the night of escape. As such, hiding in bushes and hedges, they slowly made their way to the Bridgend railway station. According to testimony, as they were hiding in a hedge a drunk man decided to relieve himself. Unbeknownst to him there two German escapees were hiding in it. At any rate, the men reached the station and managed to climb into a goods wagon. And unbeknownst to the men, it travelled in the opposite direction. When they got off, they ended up in Llanharan, just 8 miles from Bridgend. Over here they encountered a police constable who subsequently arrested them.

A traced map

Not too soon after the escape was first noticed, the entirety of Bridgend and its police force were informed dozens of German PoWs escaped. Newspapers across the country reported the population about them, speaking of  “a manhunt at a scale never seen before” and often times curious stories of men hiding in goods wagons or woods being arrested by locals made headlines. American and British forces tracked down the Germans, aided by civilians, home guards, police and even teenagers who considered it quite the spectacle.

By Friday 5 PM the next week, two prisoners that travelled the furthest were brought into the local police station. They told police they travelled to Brynna, climbed onto a goods train, arriving near Southampton. Their plan was to sail to France on a cargo ship, but climbing out of the wagon they were spotted and subsequently arrested. According to official reports the escapees were not punished upon recapture.

Yet a few weeks after the escape, British authorities transferred all 1634 inmates to Camp 181 in Carburton, Worksop Nottinghamshire. This transfer is not necessarily a punishment, as far as I could find, but the new fate of Island Farm is yet another curious twist of this already strange story. From now on, Island Farm was renamed to Special Camp Eleven. It was the designated prison camp to receive German Officers captured in the battle for France. 

Although Special Camp Eleven opened in November 1945, its first special prisoners arrived in January the next year. Among these special prisoners were generals and field marshals, awaiting their trial at Nuremberg. Some of them were close advisers of Hitler, such as Generalfeldmarschalls Gerd von Rundstedt, commander-in-chief of the German armies in the West. Feldmarschall Erich von Manstein, who was dismissed by Hitler in 1944 but before that played a vital role on the Eastern front. Generaloberst Heinrich von Vietinghoff, the Supreme Commander of the German Army in Italy, involved, although not directly, in the rescue of Mussolini and most combat in Italy. In short, after the escape attempt, Island Farm became the designated prison camp for incredibly high-ranking Wehrmacht officers. Many of them spent several years there, and the camp was only closed in 1948 when the last prisoner was returned to Germany. And as mentioned, all that remains of its high-ranking inmates and one of the greatest PoW escapes is Hut 9, where it all started. 

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