The Great Escape - in Wales?
Stories about escaping from prisoner of war camps are legion. We all know about Colditz and the various other Stalag camps. And is there anyone out there who has not seen Steve McQueen try to jump that barbed wire on his motorbike in the film The Great Escape?
In May 1945, 66 German prisoners escaped from the Island Farm camp
The one thing all these stories have in common is that they are about British soldiers or airmen trying to escape from German camps. But during World War Two German soldiers were also kept in prisoner of war camps, in this country and in various parts of the British Commonwealth. And, like their British counterparts they, too, often attempted to escape.
The largest of these escape attempts actually took place in Wales. The camp was called Island Farm and it stood just off the main road outside Bridgend.
Island Farm camp was originally a series of huts built for women working in the munitions factory at Bridgend but few of the women liked the idea of living away from home and the camp was, first, underused and, then, left empty. It was next used as a base for American troops, prior to D-Day, but after the invasion of Europe on 6 June the camp was again abandoned, empty and without purpose.
With hundreds of Germans soon being captured on a daily basis in France and the Low Countries, it was decided to convert Island Farm into a prisoner of war camp. The theory might have been a good one but the execution was very wrong.
The camp was not even finished when many of the prisoners arrived at Bridgend towards the end of 1944. As a result, the prisoners were employed in adapting the hut accommodation and even in putting up the barbed wire entanglements, thus giving them a pretty good idea of the locality and of the camp defences.
Most of the camp guards were either old men or soldiers with little or no interest in doing much except sit out the war in as much comfort as possible. And yet the plan was to incarcerate as many as 1,500 prisoners in the camp.
The authorities might be excused from too much blame because, with the war almost over, conditions at Island Farm were probably far better than they were on the streets of Germany. Nobody, they thought, would be interested in escaping. There was one small flaw to that way of thinking: the prisoners at Bridgend were mostly fanatical Nazis and for many of them getting out of the camp and returning to Germany was of paramount importance.
It was inevitable that an escape attempt would be made. A tunnel was discovered by the guards in January 1945 but the prisoners did not give in. The original tunnel might even have been a decoy. Then, on the night of 10 May 1945, 66 prisoners made their bid for freedom through a second tunnel leading from the floor Hut Nine to a spot outside the barbed wire fence. It was the largest successful escape ever made by German prisoners of war in mainland Britain.
The tunnel stretched for over 60 feet and was even equipped with a basic ventilation system. When investigations were carried out it was discovered that the earth from the excavation had been taken out, yard by yard, and stored in one of the huts. The prisoners actually constructed a partition wall in front of the waste, in order to hide it.
The fact that nobody noticed the room had suddenly been reduced by 10 feet says, perhaps, as much about the quality of the guards and the slack nature of the watch they kept as it does about the ingenuity of the escapees.
Eleven Germans were quickly re-captured, one of them being shot and wounded by a guard. Road blocks and army patrols were immediately established across the surrounding area but many of the prisoners were already well away from Bridgend. Operating in escape groups of three, they were equipped with basic maps and compasses and most of them had supplies of food - pilfered from the camp food store - to stave off hunger as they tried to reach the coast and find a way back to Germany.
Their escape maps, however, were of little use. They had clearly been copied from the maps in the railway carriages that had brought the Germans to the Bridgend area, with the result that railway lines were shown but there was little or no acknowledgement of the road system. It caused more than a little confusion for the escapees.
Like all escapes from prisoner of war camps, German or British, there was a varying degree of success. Some prisoners were apprehended before they had gone 10 miles; some were found hiding in nearby woods with little idea where to go or what to do next. Others, however, managed to get as far as Birmingham and Southampton before they, too, were hauled in by the police or army.
The public was, understandably, terrified at the thought of dozens of Nazis adrift in south Wales. When a woman in Porthcawl was shot and fatally wounded, rumour said that it had been done by the escapees - in fact, it was her estranged lover who had carried out the killing.
Slowly but surely the escapees were recaptured. Not one of them managed to make good his escape and reach Germany. The last group, who were caught a week after the escape, had not even managed to get out of Wales. They were found in the Swansea Valley, tired and hungry and with very little idea where they were.
Following their re-capture the Germans came back to Island Farm. It was a brief sojourn. By the early spring of 1945 all the prisoners had been moved to other, perhaps more security conscious, prisons and Island Farm became a Special Camp, designed to hold only senior officers. Several significant German Generals were subsequently held there, the most notable being Field marshal von Rundstedt.
Island Farm prisoner of war camp closed down in the summer of 1948, three years after the end of the war. By then, of course, the men held in the camp were allowed considerably more freedom than those who had planned and carried out the Welsh Great Escape. In fact, several of them forged friendships - and even found wives - in the locality and settled down to make their homes in the area.
The huts of Island Farm have now virtually disappeared although, several years ago, the discovery of wall paintings made by the prisoners did bring the escape back into the limelight for a brief period. The escape remains a fascinating and most unusual episode in Welsh history.