When German Prisoners Staged Their Own ‘Great Escape’

By Will on Monday, March 31, 2014
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“…it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, then it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability.” โ€”The Great Escape (1963)

In A Nutshell

Bridgend, in Wales, was home to a POW camp for housing German POWs (prisoners of war) from late 1944–1948. The authorities weren’t worried about an escape as the war was almost over, but some inmates were fanatical Nazis who would have liked nothing more to get back to Germany. On March 10, 1945, 66 prisoners escaped from a tunnel, much like in the classic Steve McQueen flick, The Great Escape. All were recaptured, with the last group being found near Swansea, Wales.

The Whole Bushel

During World War II, it wasn’t just Allied troops who attempted to escape from prisoner of war (POW) camps. German troops captured by the British were held in camps in Britain, as well as in other countries throughout the commonwealth. One such camp was situated in Bridgend, South Wales. Originally built to house the workers for a nearby munitions factory and used by American troops in 1943, it was changed over to a POW camp due to the large numbers of German soldiers being captured in Western Europe. Built to hold 2,000 men, the camp became an officer-only location after the War Office decided it was “too comfortable to hold the ordinary ranks.” The first officers arrived in November 1944.

With the war drawing to a close, the authorities came to the false conclusion that no one would want to escape; the conditions in the camp were much better than in Germany. However, most of the inmates were hardened Nazis, wanting nothing more than to be able to fight for their Fรผhrer once again.

When a tunnel was discovered in January, it felt like a good win for the Allies . . . until, that is, the camp commander realized it was a decoy tunnel. So where was the real tunnel?

Two months later, they found out. On March 10, 66 prisoners crawled through the 18-meter (60 ft) tunnel to freedom. The prisoners were spotted at 2:30 AM by the guards, with one being shot. Eleven men were recaptured quickly, some of whom had given away their position due to laughing at a guard who had fallen into the tunnel hole. So great was the confusion that four drunken guards on their way back from a pub gave four escapees a push start in a stolen car.

Despite the early and quick recaptures, there were still plenty of prisoners out there. Two more were recaptured at a police station. The two, Karl Ludwig of the SS and Heinz Herzler (unit unknown) had climbed into a goods train that, unfortunately for them, was heading in the wrong direction. On top of that, before they had gotten onto the train, they had hidden in a bush from a drunken man, who then happened to relieve himself into the bush and onto the two men (something millions would have liked to have done during the war!). After jumping from the railway car and becoming hopelessly lost, they were arrested by a policewoman. They had gone a total distance of 13 kilometers (8 mi).

Road blocks and army patrols were set up, but most escapees were well away from Bridgend. Equipped with compasses, food, and maps copied from railway carriages, they operated in groups of three. The basic maps caused great confusion among the ex-prisoners, but two managed to get as far as Hampshire, 164 kilometers (102 mi) away. Others got as far Birmingham (the four in the car.) All of the Germans were re-captured, with the last being found hungry, tired, and lost in the nearby Swansea valleys (not even out of Wales) a week later.

After the escape, the prisoners were moved to other camps and the Island Farm camp became one for senior officers. It was closed in 1948.

Show Me The Proof

Island Farm: Prisoner of War Camp 198 / Special CAmp XI
BBC News: The Great Escape—in Wales?
People’s Collection Wales: The German “Great Escape”

  • oouchan

    The movie The Great Escape is one of my favorites. After watching the movie, I read up on the “stories” it borrowed from to learn more. It’s amazing just how they were able to do so much with so little.

    Awesome info.

  • Lisa 39

    All that time in my childhood spent watching “hogans heros” and it never occured to me that maybe there were german pows trying to escape also, good article will!

    • TheMadHatter

      Emphasis on trying.

      • Lisa 39

        They were much more successful on hogans heroes!

        • OziGuy

          Yes, but the escapades of the Germans in the article were funnier … e.g. getting caught because you started laughing at a British soldier for falling into the tunnel; Getting urinated on while hiding in a bush; Getting a push start by drunken camp guards while escaping in a stolen car; Being combat trained soldiers and arrested by a police woman (undoubtedly unarmed as per English police custom) … Hilarious stuff. I’d love to see all of that in a Hogans Heroes episode.

          • Lisa 39

            I agree that this was funnier than hogans heroes, but i think i’d rather see it be made into a movie, it would be funnier than mchales navy! Especially because its based on real events, i’ve never seen a “Based on true events war comedy” so it would be original, i think clyde should write the movie, he’s very knowledgeable about this, i think i’ll read it again :p

    • Will

      Thanks!

      • Lisa 39

        You’re welcome ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Joseph

        That really puts the P in POW! It’s a good article, I enjoyed reading it.

  • Clyde Barrow

    I live within a few minutes of an old German POW camp here in NorCal. There isn’t much of the camp left, the foundations mostly, but they do have a ‘station’ where there are old photographs with a few paragraphs of information. It’s interesting to see.

    • Lisa 39

      That’s very cool, i didn’t realize there was a pow camp here in the states, thanks clyde ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Clyde Barrow

        There were over a two dozen camps. The U.S. government even went as so far as to try to acclimate the over 150,000 German POW’s. For instance, German Africa Korps POW’s were sent to warm dry climates like Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and eastern Colorado. German Mountain troop POW’s were sent to Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota. Standard German infantryman were sent to midwest plains states and parts of the South.

        After the fall of Germany in 1945, they went through ‘de-Nazification’ and were repatriated back to Germany by 1947, and 1949 for hardcore SS members. Many (non SS) were allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship after the war and eventually moved to the United States.

        • Lisa 39

          Wow, do they teach this in school or was that taught when i was skipping? Whatever, that’s pretty awesome info, i had no idea about any of that, thank you for sharing clyde, i feel much smarter now, next time i travel i’m going to google this and see if i can fit a visit in, maybe the one by you, when my next marine graduates!

  • chema

    This was a hilarious article

  • OziGuy

    I think that if I were a German soldier I’d rather be in an English POW camp than in the German armed forces in the dying days of WWII – Pun intended on the ‘dying’

    • Marozia

      I’d rather not be in POW camp at all!!

  • Marozia

    The American POW camps in Germany were apparently some of the worst camps. The prisoners (military & civilian) had no shelter or heating and men and women were imprisoned together. There are some who think that Eisenhower was more brutal than Hitler.

    • percynjpn

      If you’re one of them, you are a truly pathetic idiot (or perhaps just a neo-Nazi).

      • Marozia

        Surprisingly, no, I’m not one of ‘them’. Being of Romani extraction, I would be classed as an ‘undesirable’ in Nazi eyes.
        Do you really think the Americans treated their German prisoners any better than the Germans treated theirs?