They didn’t dig a tunnel under barbed-wire fences and didn’t inspire a Hollywood movie starring Steve McQueen.
However, a new book about the brains behind a bold breakout from a World War II Nazi prison camp insisted theirs may have been even greater than “The Great Escape,” which was immortalized onscreen.
According to “Zero Night: The Untold Story of World War Two’s Most Daring Great Escape,” what sets apart this escape is its innovation. Specifically, wrote author Mark Felton, 40 officers from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa went over, not under, the barriers and created a makeshift bridge with four cobbled-together ladders disguised as bookshelves at Oflag VI-B near Warburg.
Then there were the exploits of British Major Tom Stallard, 37, who at first planned a 250-man escape but whittled it down to 40 — and after several failures digging tunnels dreamed up a plan to scale the barbed-wire fences. With that a 23-year-old Scottish lieutenant, Jock Hamilton-Baillie, figured folding ladders could get them over the 12-foot-high perimeter fences positioned 6 feet apart.
The team got their wood from a hut the Nazis destroyed after finding a tunnel and put the ladders together in the prison camp’s music room where inmates had a fairly free rein — and most importantly where loud construction was muffled by instruments.
When the planners had to hide their handiwork, the ladder sections went up against a wall and were passed off as new shelves filled with sheet music and other items. Even the camp’s chief security officer Hauptmann Rademacher — in what you could call his “Sergeant Schultz” moment — praised the craftsmanship upon inspection.
Soon documents were forged, supplies were gathered — each escapee carried 12 pounds of food that was to last at least a week, as well as a washing kit, cigarettes, a medical kit, spare socks and underwear. They had maps drawn on very fine tissue paper along with compasses smuggled into the camp in Red Cross parcels by MI9, the specialist “escape” arm of military intelligence in London, the Scotsman added.
Then escape day came. On Aug. 30, 1942. At 9:30 p.m., the 40 hopefuls met near the camp’s perimeter. Lights were knocked out and distractions unleashed, including fake orders shouted by German-speaking British officers prisoners and a very loud noise coming from the trusty music room.
Then a quartet of 10-men teams set up the ladders and started across the barbed wire fences.
Unfortunately, after one team saw two men get across, their ladder system collapsed — still a total of 32 prisoners got out in 40 seconds.
The guards figured what was going on and began firing in the dark but only one escapee was hit — by a bullet that ricocheted into his heel — and he still made it out. Later, six of those who got past the fence were recaptured, but the remaining 26 were free.
Wrote Felton, who’s also a military historian: “The escape itself was one of the first mass escapes and to my mind the most daring of the war.”
(H/T: The Scotsman)