When German Prisoners Staged Their Own ‘Great Escape’

“…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.” —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 Führer 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”