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Stalag Luft I, Barth7920 Reads  Printer-friendly page

POWThere were various ways tried by prisoners to get beyond those double barbed wire fences; climbing them, slipping between the wires, cutting through, tunneling under, or some sort of disguise to pass the guards at the gates.
Here’s the one I know every detail about. To begin at the ending, we spent three months of work involving over eighty men ending in heartbreaking failure. Starting from barracks seven, we dug four feet below the surface, three tunnels at once. The caved in remnant closest to the guard tower with two 90 degree turns in it, was actually a success though I was captured a half minute after I had crawled out into the grass. Since I was first, no one escaped. It was plain foolish to start a tunnel, claimed most of the men in Luft 1 who had seen over ninety tunnel attempts caved in by the Germans since the camp started in October of 1943. I was just that foolish, that much of an egotist to think that the plan I had would beat the Germans, and it was easy to find many eager men who felt that anything that might get them home was worth a try. The original plan based itself on the Germans knowing by seismographs (which we knew were located around the camp) not only when we were digging but where, and also we knew many tunnels were discovered through the difficulty of dirt disposal or through carelessness of tired diggers. Originally all these weaknesses were to be overcome by enough men and preparation that we would tunnel to the outside so rapidly that though Jerry knew we were working, we would get out because he always seemed to let the eager diggers keep busy, where they could watch them, for a few days. The block we chose was picked because it was only a sixty foot dig to a fair place to come up, whereas most barracks were at least a 150 feet to dig and still not a choice spot to come out. The entrance to our job was hidden from the Germans for two months until the first of our three operating tunnels was discovered. Three complicated tunnels, a far cry from our comparatively simply original plan, was soon found necessary as we realized how slow the digging was going to be. To form this final plan and hold to it was my responsibility,. as I started it. Actually, I used to have meetings of all the workers, until our numbers got too great, to hear suggestions from all; and it was through these meetings, out in the middle of an open spot where no microphones or listening Germans could hide, that we reached agreements on tactics. Against us was a camp designed, through escape attempts of WWI prisoners, to be as near fool proof as possible. Officers were not allowed to leave on work details as they had caused too much trouble in the past trying to escape, so we set out to beat the camp with its many guards, guns, dogs, barbed wire and its determination to keep us. Still on the principle that the Germans knew by seismograph we were working, we hoped to fool them by digging three at once. Then after they, typically, let us keep busy for a while, we would push three jobs as far as possible, hiding two for further work when they came around with their “cave in squad.” And this is exactly what happened. The day after the number one tunnel had been discovered, I rounded up those who were still willing to work...some had changed their minds about escape when they saw so many marched off, under guard, to the cooler. Back we crawled under the barracks, only this time our method was very short periods of “quiet digging”, disturbing the ground as little as possible. We were digging in the left tunnel, as the right tunnel had been so badly exposed when the Germans caved it in that we could not easily operate the number two tunnel on the right of the lost one. However, we kept it concealed from the Germans, in case the second attempt in tunnel number three failed. Also, for three months or more, not using it ever as the Allies were doing so well in their advance across France, escape did not seem wise. It was another example of the lesson we learned. Optimism didn’t pay. We stayed ten months longer than we might have had to in this camp, as the tunnel was cleverly hidden by filling in the entrance with sand, extended almost to the fence. You might wonder why it should take us so long, in sandy soil, to dig sixty feet. I wish there was room to write all the interesting details to you could realize the answer to this question. Sometimes the tunnel would get ahead of the air supply crew as they hammered pipe out of margarine tins. Often there were workers, especially in the soppy tunnel who got sick and work was held up for replacements, actual weeks were wasted because of the suspicion of the Germans, as we valued our efforts enough to stop work completely if we thought they were getting more that their usual close attention to our activities. They had a large crew of men working day and night doing nothing but watching for escape attempts. This crew was led by a mean, blond former New York butcher boy, a Nazi. Our chain of guards could really only warn us of the approach of the crew in time for us to come out of the tunnel and fill the entrance with sand. No one was to attempt to come from under the barracks if we thought extra attention was being directed, by Henry, the butcher boy, and his henchmen, to the barracks we were working under, as that might give our efforts away needlessly. Charlie Epstein was over the guards. The only time one of the guards worked in the tunnel was when one of the visual workers became sick but not too sick to replace the guard on his position . We tried to avoid extra people knowing about our work as it would have been easy for the Germans to send a spy in our midst. The first tunnel had not been a total loss as we had learned much by it. I for one learned why armies insist on discipline, the importance of details and meetings to be sure everyone knew our days plans. We learned after using a hundred of hard to obtain cartons, for passing dirt from the 'well' to the disposal area, in one day that we would have to find another container. We had been using some of our metal eating bowls in the tunnels as there wasn't room to pass the foot square six inch high Red Cross carton. So, though the Germans had taken some of these bowls in their first raid, we rounded up thirty five of these and used them, between times they were used for meals, in passing the wet smelling sand all the way to the disposal area. The first tunnel we expected them to find by seismograph and by the extra sand under the low barracks, tho' the sand was hidden for a couple of months thanks to the earlier tunnel done by those men that chipped the hole in the concrete wall. They had in a hurry, packed their sand alongside the 'dog runs' in a fairly thin wall extending to the floor, then inches above. We merely made a four foot 'T", pushed this wall of sand along the ground, far back where we could not reach it without the pusher and put our sand in front where the wall had been. Finishing it with dry sand made it look so much as it had before that the search squad, as they looked under the barracks every three or four nights, did not find our work for those two months. But after the discovery of number one and its exposed well where number two was hidden we had to work, bending every effort to hide it, number three. Since all available room under the low floor had by this time been filled, except new areas without even a wall to hide mare sand, we had to use an area saved for this emergency. To lift the barracks away would be the best way to show the dog runs, our own hidden runs where we put our dirt; our cold wet workshop for three and a half months.
Note: by Edwin Dunlap


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