The German Great Escape – Seventy Years On

When I try to tell people about the story of Bridgend’s Island Farm, or rather, Prisoner of War (POW) Camp 198 or Special Camp XI, more often than not, they do not believe me. Only half an hour’s drive from Swansea, this camp was the location of the largest escape of German POWs in Britain during the entirety of WWII. Often termed ‘the German great escape,’ 70 officers of the Third Reich (the number differs greatly according to the source and method of counting), among them V2 rocket engineers, U-boat commanders, Luftwaffe airmen, and even some SS, tunnelled out under the cover of darkness and fled into the surrounding Welsh countryside on March 10-11th 1945. The answer as to how this happened is a potent mix of ingenuity on the part of the Germans, negligence on the part of the British camp staff, and as always with daring escapes of this kind, mostly down to luck. None got as far as Germany, most were recaptured very quickly in fact, but having stolen a local GP’s car and pretending to be Norwegian engineers, a group of four POWs were finally recaptured scouting Birmingham airport for an adequate plane to take them home.

A drawing by a German prisoner of war on the wall of one camp 198's huts.

A drawing by a German prisoner of war on the wall of one camp 198’s huts.

This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the escape and Brett Exton, Richard Williams, and the Island Farm preservation team are finally receiving their fair due as national news outlets cover the story in print and broadcast (the preservation team would advise caution as much of the recent coverage is poorly researched, there is a list of more reliable sources at the end of this article). As many reports have shown, little remains of the camp. Luckily, whilst conducting research for my BA dissertation last year I had the opportunity to visit the camp and its last remaining hut, number 9, which housed the actual escape tunnel which is now colonised by bats and off-limits. Since then on that muddy overcast afternoon, something has stuck with me, aside from the warm and enthusiastic efforts of the volunteers in their period attire. Likely because I am a student of history, and decidedly not one of preservation, it was clear the focus thus far, overwhelmingly, has seemed to be on how the escape happened, but not on why it did, especially for so late in the war, two months from its end, when there seemed to be so little to gain for risking being shot in the back by an overly-enthusiastic guard.

POW studies in general, and especially those of Germans held in Britain, are quite limited. However, outstanding works such as Roderick de Normann’s For Fuhrer and Fatherland, which covers the background, events, and fallout of the failed Devises escape plot, reminds us that the structures of authority amongst POWs – be these military in character, or more political, in the form of strict National Socialist hierarchies – did not lessen after capture, and were ingrained in the POW population, particularly amongst the younger soldiers who knew of little else. Moreover, in the cramped and isolated prison-like conditions of a POW camp, those who openly expressed defeatism or any form of ‘anti-Nazi’ sentiment were often targeted for intimidation by their fellows, and even potentially fatal acts of violence. This may have actually happened at Island Farm, in the unfortunate case of Otto Iskat, an Austrian engineer and talented poet, who died on January 26 from health complications following a particularly severe beating allegedly as a result of comments he had made on the futility of the war. Island Farm, with its population disproportionately made up of officers, and many of these from the more elite branches of the German military, would likely have ensured a climate of Nazi loyalties stronger and more pervasive than most camps. As a matter of fact, the one reference I found to Island Farm in my research at the Imperial War Museum and National Archives was the open acknowledgement that the ringleaders of the escape would go on to dominate and strengthen the National Socialist hierarchies of camps they were sent to afterwards. As an official response to such incidents, the British authorities attempted the widespread categorisation and ‘re-education’ of Nazi POWs from 1945 to 1948, but the overall impact of this novel and ambitious programme to ‘democratise’ the POWs is hard if not impossible to measure on a precise basis.

On reading about the later stages of the escape, however, I was struck by the ease with which the police would recapture the escaped POWs. In the vast majority of cases there was little to no resistance, most were happy to talk politely to the locals in whatever English they knew, and many waited patiently, often with customary mugs of tea in hand, for the police to arrive and process them. The impression this conveyed to me was that most of the POWs, at least at this late stage, were almost indifferent to the ‘final victory’ as they called it, and interviews with the recaptured POWs focused more on their desire to return home to their families and ensure their safety, whom they feared for quite legitimately, as the Red Army advanced deep into the German interior. There was, of course, still an active and influential minority who strongly believed in Hitler and the cause of Nazism, or as is so often forgotten, many men who simply considered themselves patriotic Germans, but the events of the escape at Island Farm should remind us that the POWs were ultimately very human and relatable in their motivations and desires, even in the case of a story that is so thrilling and fantastical it can hardly be believed.

Written by Julian Wojtowicz (wojtowiczj1@cardiff.ac.uk)

Sources:

Brett Exton, ISLAND FARM PRISONER OF WAR CAMP: 198 / Special Camp: XI Bridgend, South Wales. (Bridgend: Hut Nine Preservation Group, 2011) < http://www.islandfarm.fsnet.co.uk/> [accessed 9 March 2015].

Henry Faulk, Group Captives: Re-education of German Prisoners-of-War, 1945-48 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1977).

Herbert Williams, Come Out, Wherever you are: The Great Escape in Wales (Llandysul: Gomer Press, 2004).

Peter Philips, The German Great Escape (Bridgend: Seren, 2005).

Roderick de Norman, For Fuhrer and Fatherland: SS Murder and Mayhem in Wartime Britain (Stroud: The History Press, 2012).

M. Hawthorne, Island Farm: Special Camp 11 for Prisoners of War (Bridgend: Brynteg Comprehensive School, 1989).