The Big Escape

"The big escape of prisoners from Island Farm occurred on the night of Saturday 10th March 1945"

Less than four months after the first officer-prisoners had started arriving at Island Farm and two months after Darling had discovered the first of the paired tunnels, 70 prisoners escaped. (see Darling's theory of two tunnels - Anti Escape plans)

Note From Brett Exton:

Whilst investigating the actual escape I have found that there are conflicting numbers quoted for the number of POWs to escape. However, the BBC News Report and several newspapers who reported the breakout all quoted 70.

The escape began around ten o'clock at night, after the final roll call and under the cover of noisy singing. A strict timetable was in place to ensure that each person turned up at the escape hut at the right time. A system of electric lights, tapped off the main supply, proved extremely useful, not only as lighting for the tunnel but also a means of warning when a guard was nearing the hut.

Hans Harzheim ( Anti Tank Officer), Werner Zielasko (Unknown), Oswald Prior (U-Boat Commander) & Steffi Ehlert (Luftwaffe Pilot)

It was shortly after ten o'clock when the third escape group, Hans Harzheim and his three comrades, crept through the tunnel into the field beyond the wire. Once outside the camp they made straight for Merthyr Mawr Road (Approximately 1 mile from the camp), where the car was parked as usual (Make: Austin 10. Licence Plate: DTG 688).

An example of an Austin 10

They didn't know it at the time, but it belonged to a doctor, Dr R. Baird Milne. Harzheim and Oswald Prior broke into the the vehicle whilst Zielasko and Steffi Ehlert, hurried to the nearby farm to syphon some petrol from the lorries.

When Harzheim tried to start the car the car failed to start and the escape party were concious of making too much noise directly outside the vehicle owner's house. It was at this time that four guards from Island Farm were walking towards the camp. When Harzheim boldly asked them to give a hand they willing gave the vehicle a push start and waved the POWs on their way !

With the car started, they drove along the A48 towards Cardiff (Cardiff is the capital of Wales and is about 20 miles from Island Farm). The four men had decide to make for Croydon, where they knew there was a large airport. It was shortly after midnight when they drove down Tumble Hill, with its hazardous bend at the bottom, and past the council houses of Ely at the Western approaches to Cardiff. Hopelessly lost, they decided to take a chance, and using the guise of being Norwegians they decided to ask a man walking along the pavement for directions. (This man was a tram driver going home after a late-night shift)

The tram driver was fooled by their guise of being Norwegians and decided that the best way to direct them was to accept a lift to the outskirts of Cardiff where upon, as he got out of the vehicle, he pointed them in the direction of Newport and then the Gloucester road.

Unfortunately, the POWs ran out of petrol somewhere between Chepstow and Gloucester, near the Forest-of-Dean and they had to abandon the car.

Special note from Brett Exton:

Whilst investigating this story, I found 2 conflicting locations for the place where the car was abandoned:

I am inclined to think that the Newnham-on-Severn is the correct location because it was reported far nearer the time of the escape rather than the year of Robert Jackson's book, 1964. Blakeney and Newham-on-Severn are only 4 miles apart using the A48 road which existed in 1945 and are approximately 70 miles from Bridgend.

Because day light was breaking they decided to hide in a thicket in the middle of a field until nightfall. However a herd of inquisitive cows insisted on following them. They crept out of their hiding place but were spotted by some farm workers. Later that day they were caught near Castle Bromwich, approximately 110 miles from Island Farm.

The four POWs said that they had made the last part of their journey via a goods train. They had not damaged the car and one of the German prisoners even apologised when he heard that it belonged to a doctor and offered to pay for the petrol !

1 = Island Farm, 2 = Blakeney, 3 = Newnham-On-Severn approximate distance covered using stolen car until it ran out of petrol and was abandoned
4 = Castle Bromwich final location where the four POWs were apprehended. Distance covered by hiding away on a goods train

The Escape Continued...

For several hours the escape continued uninterrupted. They had lookouts posted to keep a wary eye on the guard who patrolled the escape tunnel exit section of the wire. If the guard approached the tunnel exit then the tunnel lights would be switched off to warn the men crawling inside the tunnel. When the light came on again, they knew it was safe to climb out of the tunnel exit.

Once out of the tunnel, they made their way along the newly ploughed field (ploughed only that day by Garfield Davies) to a tall tree 150 yards away which they had marked out as a rendezvous point. By 2:15am on the morning of the 11th March 1945, 65 men had escaped from Camp 198. The 67th POW to go into the tunnel was Hermann Schallenberg, a Luftwaffe officer. As he exited the tunnel and was making his way to the rendezvous point he heard a shout from a British guard followed by a shot. Allegedly, in the confusion which followed a British guard, who was giving chase, fell down the tunnel exit, much to the hilarity of a group of POWs who were hiding in the bushes. This gave the game away and the first eleven POWs were arrested.

The prisoner who was shot later received treatment at Bridgend General Hospital. His name was Lieutenant Tonnsmann and, ironically he had no rightful part in the escape at all. He was, in simple terms, a gatecrasher, and it was his lack of basic preparation that had betrayed his presence to the guard. Tonnsmann had been carrying a white kitbag - and this had shown up in the dark !!!

The first two POWs, who got away from the camp, to be caught were Karl Ludwig (S.S. officer) and Heinz Herzler (Unknown). They had planned to get aboard a truck, the type of which passed Island Farm most nights. These trucks were usually bound for Cardiff Docks where their contents were loaded on to ships and sent across the channel to France. Unfortunately, on the night of the escape, there were no trucks passing the camp. Failing to get aboard a truck the two POWs decided to try and catch a train at Bridgend railway station..

As Ludwig and Herzler made their way, they encountered a drunken man returning home. Ludwig and Herzler decided to hide in a nearby garden, but unfortunately the garden they chose to hide in belonged to the drunken man. As the man entered through the garden gate he decided that his call of nature was too great and decided to urinate into one of his garden bushes. Unfortunately, this was the hedge which Karl Ludwig happened to be hiding ! Having releaved himself the drunken man went into his house unaware that he had done something to an SS officer that many people in Britain would have given up 10 years of their lives to do!

Upon reaching Bridgend Railway station, the two men hid in a goods wagon, but the train's progress was slow and was, unbeknown to them, going in the wrong direction. When it stopped at a little marshalling yard they got off, tried to get their bearings but were lost. They had ended up in Llanharan only 8 miles from Bridgend. Hoping to reach a main road going to Cardiff they started walking and unfortunately encountered a policeman (PC Philip Baverstock) who was on patrol who arrested them.

In the police station, what intrigued Baverstock most, was the tail of a shirt. On it was a map, drawn with painstaking accuracy showing the main railway lines and ports in southern England and Northern France. During WWII all roadsigns across Great Britain had been deliberately removed in the hope that it would confuse the Germans if they ever invaded or parachuted in to Britain. However, when the POWs had been escorted to Island Farm initially, one of the POWs had noticed that a map of Great Britain, and its rail system, was on the wall in one of the railway carriages. Thinking that this map would prove useful, in the event of an escape, he had traced the map on to the tail of a shirt.


Shirt Tail Map Drawing Found On A POW
Handkerchief Drawing Found On A POW

The whole of the Bridgend area became alive with people keen to capture a German prisoner. Two prisoners came across a girl guide camp and asked the way to Porthcawl. Their foreign accents gave them away and it wasn't long before they were captured in Danygraig Woods. The drama had an unforeseen result, for at the next Guide meeting fifteen new recruits turned up in the hope of more thrills in the future.

It was at Laleston, two miles west of Island Farm along the A48, that the most dramatic method of warning the population was employed. The church bells were rung for the first time since Winston Churchill had ruled in 1940 that they were to be used henceforth only as a warning that Britain had been invaded.

The sector commander of the Home Guard, in Bridgend, was Colonel William Llewellyn, who found the grounds of his large country house (Court Colman) being searched by policemen and soldiers. As a good patriot he didn't object, but thought it all rather a waste of time. "I could have told them there weren't any escaped prisoners there because my gamekeepers used to go around the covers first thing in the morning, and they could tell from footprints in the dew whether anything had happened overnight. They could read the signs, and what's more they were in the home guard too !"

Escape Tunnel Exit With Hut 9 Behind