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A certain grasp of military affairs is vital for those in charge of general policy.
-- Karl von Clausewitz
In July of 1944, two of my roommates and myself were asked to join in a tunnel digging project. It seems that the Germans had been seen digging up a seismic type sensor at the fence-line outside of Barracks 6, West Compound and hauling it off for repair. Such sensors were buried all along the perimeter fences and wired into the German “Abwehr” or Security Office in the Vorlager. Thus the Germans were aware of tunnel attempts almost as soon as they were begun.
They would then find them at will with their long steel probes. Their procedure was to let a tunnel proceed to near-completion, and then "find" it and collapse it with a fire hose and water. This missing sensor gave the Germans a blind spot, and a tunnel in that area might just prove successful. For that reason, we three roommates decided to join in the dig and promptly thought up some appropriate nicknames for ourselves; "Mole" McKenzie, "Weasel" Wangeman, and "Ratsy" Richmond.
There were 27 of us on this project, and we decided to innovate and devise new tunneling techniques in the interest of speed and efficiency. We were of course anxious to complete the job before the Germans could get the sensor repaired and back in place. In our area of the Baltic Sea coast, the soil was all sand with the water table a little over six feet down. Therefore, our tunnels (unlike the fancy ones you have seen in the movies) were about 2 feet in diameter with no bracing or shoring of any kind. We crawled through them using our elbows and toes, and it wasn't hard at all to become quite claustrophobic; in fact it was quite easy. Our security for this job was outstanding. None of the 27 tunnelers lived in Barracks 6, and we wanted to keep our activities from all other "Kriegies" (prisoners) as well as the Germans. Our first task was to dig a "well" under the end room closest to the perimeter fence. There were 3 or 4 dog runs under the barracks so the German police dogs could run through at night to see if anything suspicious was going on. Our plan was to use the closest run to gain access under this end room. With three of four of our own sentries lolling about, several men would enter the dog run. The sides were banked right up to the barracks floor, so about midway through the run, we would remove a portion of the banking and dig out a crawl space to get under the end room. The man remaining in the run would repair the banking and leave. Using this method, the well was completed in about a week, fitted with a wooden cover, and covered over with sand against any snooping Germans.
At the bottom of the well, a bellows type air pump (made from a British barracks bag) was installed. This would be used to pump air to the tunnel digger via a nested tin can pipeline buried along one side of the tunnel floor. One man was our head digger, and once the well was finished, he proceeded towards the fence line with his Kreigie lamp and small compass. Air lines were extended as needed with help from the men in the well. One man pumped air to the digger, while another pulled the pan of sand back when full. This was emptied into other containers for disposal later. The pan had a rope attached to each side so it could be pulled back and forth for filling and emptying.
Everything went quite well until we reached the fence line, where we ran into a concrete wall under the fence. Attempts to penetrate it with our primitive homemade tools proved fruitless. So, we decided to make a right turn along the wall, sloping downward, and try to get under the wall (hopefully before hitting the water table). With the right angle now built into the tunnel, things became more complicated. Our simple rope and pan system would no longer work, so we improvised. Now we used a half-dozen smaller pans (they nested compactly and were easy to handle). This required that men lie in the tunnel face down, head to foot, and pass the smaller pans back and forth underneath them. Using this method, we finally came to the bottom of the wall and the water table as well. Another 90 degree turn left, a gradual slope upward, and we were ready to resume the original course towards the woods.
I was in the middle of the pan brigade one day and began to feel very faint. The men behind me were also feeling faint so we all backed out of the tunnel to get some air and regroup. We decided we must abolish the pan brigade approach since there was obviously not enough air to go around. There was enough air for the digger and one or two men behind him, but very little for the rest of us. If a man passed out, those ahead of him would never get out, so we decided to use a rope and pan idea. To do this, we had to station a man at each of the turns (including the well) to facilitate getting the pans around the corners. This system worked out fine, and in a few weeks we had the tunnel about 75 feet outside the fence. At this point it was into the bushes and small trees just this side of the woods.
We began sloping quite sharply upward until we estimated that we were only about 8 inches deep at the top. The tunnel end was then widened a good deal to accommodate the additional material that would have to be pulled in and packed when the tunnel end was opened. Work stopped and the air pump was removed from the well in order to give us some more room there. The air line noted above was left in place, to be used as a speaking tube so that we could pass signals back and forth during the escape. Still, no one in the barracks was aware that a tunnel had been dug from their quarters. Now we waited for the right weather for an escape attempt. Our maps and emergency food were ready, and we even had some chocolate D-Bars that had been hoarded from Red Cross parcels.
We three roommates planned to stick together once outside. Our plan was to steal a fishing boat off the beach (about a mile away) and head for Sweden (about 100 miles north). There were other groups of two or three who also planned to stick together, so we drew lots to determine the sequence of the groups entering the tunnel. The head digger planned to go alone so we elected him to the number one position, since the tunnel still had to be opened up. Next came a two-some, and then it would be our turn. Finally the right day arrived, cool and breezy. We met and decided to try it that night. With the wind blowing, the fence and the guard towers would creak and groan a bit, and the trees would be rustling, hopefully drowning out any sounds we might make.
At around 1830 hours (6:30 pm) we casually entered the barracks and were locked in by the guard for the night at around 1900 hours. The barracks was full so most of us stood around in the center hallway that ran the length of it. Our leader went to the barracks commander to advise him of our planned escape. It was getting dark and the blackout shutters were closed. We carefully pried up the floorboards in the end room to get to the tunnel and the head digger went down to open up the end. Since we felt it could be done quickly, we made no provision for air for the digger. We became increasingly concerned as the time wore on and he had not returned. Finally another man went down to check and found him weak and faint from exertion and lack of air. The tunnel was still much deeper than we had earlier thought. However, after a rest in the barracks, the head digger went back and soon opened up a hole large enough to get some air in but too small to get through. Finally, he got the tunnel end open and said he was going.
The first man in the two-some now started through while his partner in the well listened for his signal. The rest of us peered through cracks in the blackout shutters and saw the head digger begin to emerge. About that time, the guard in the tower 50 feet from the barracks began playing his searchlight up and down the fence line. As he reversed it, the beam swept across our man just as he stood up. The light wavered past him, then came back and fully caught him. Our man held his hands high in the air as extra guards came running up shouting. We knew the game was up. All of the lights in the compound came on as we desperately tried to get rid of our escape equipment by hiding it or burning it in the stoves. We had forgotten about the two-some in the tunnel until we heard a pitiful muffled scream saying, "They got me, they got me!" The man in the tunnel reached the far end, seen the lights, and began backing out as fast as he could. His partner lying in the well was listening to the speaking tube, not knowing what was happening. When his partner's G.I. shoes came up in his face, he grabbed the ankles to avoid being kicked in the face. His partner screamed in panic, thinking the Germans were holding him so they could collapse the tunnel and smother him.
Soon the Lager Officers and guards arrived with the ID card file for the barracks. After sorting out who belonged there, they marched the rest of us off with our hands clasped behind our heads. It was 0230 hours, and had indeed been a long night! The next morning we were brought before the Commandant for sentencing. My sentence was 10 days in solitary confinement for being in the wrong barrack after lockup. I had to wait about a month or so to serve it, because the jail was full.
Note: by Maj. Gen. Luther H. Richmond (USAF Ret.), POW at Stalag Luft I, Barth, Germany
This Day in History
Puritans jail Governor Stone after a military victory over Catholic forces in the colony of Maryland.
The Secretary of the Navy approves the first formal uniform of the Marine Corps.
The frigate USS Essex
flies the first U.S. flag in battle in the Pacific.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton presents the first Medals of Honor to six of the surviving members of Andrews Raiders. They are the first Medals of Honor ever presented.
The Battle of Paducah Kentucky takes place.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee makes Fort Stedman his last attack of the war in a desperate attempt to break out of Petersburg, Virginia. The attack failed, and within a week Lee was evacuating his positions around Petersburg.
The Battle of Bluff Spring Florida takes place.
The Battle of Mobile Alabama takes place.
Japan invades the kingdom of Liuqiu (Ryukyu) Islands, formerly a vassal of China.
Italian troops invade Abyssinia (Ethiopia).