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15 October 2014
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WW2 from the other side - "The One that Got Away"

by Jon Layne

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Archive List > World > Germany

Contributed by 
Jon Layne
People in story: 
Franz von Werra
Location of story: 
Mainly North Derbyshire, Canada, USA
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A5957733
Contributed on: 
29 September 2005

The tunnel behind the protective door - taken in the early 1990's

If you visit North Derbyshire and are interested in railway museums, you may well have visited the Midland Railway Centre near Ripley. Its main station is at Butterley and the next one along the line is Swanwick Junction - site of most of its museum sheds. If you continue to the end of the line, it meets a main line.

Across the fields from Swanwick Junction, you can see in the distance a collection of buildings - the Hayes Conference Centre. This Christian establishment has housed conferences since the 1930's but its activities were halted during WW2 when it was commandeered as a POW camp for German Officers (mainly Naval and Luftwaffe personnel)

Probably its most famous inmate was Franz von Werra, described in the book and the film "The One that Got Away" as the only German to be captured in this country who made it back to Germany.

He was captured in 1940 following a crash landing in his Messerschmitt. After interrogation, he was sent to a POW camp in the Lake District, where he was surprised to find that no escapes had been attempted. During an exercise march, he absconded and was on the run for five days before attrocious weather made him surrender.

He was then transferred by rail to Derby for captivity at Camp 13 (aka the Hayes Conference Centre). Whilst waiting for road transport at Derby, he was able to study a large scale map on the wall which gave him some idea of where he was and where the railway lines were.

On arrival at Swanwick, he was given a single room (as were all prisoners) in "The Garden House" which formed the main accommodation for the Conference Centre. In fact, it was in use until around 2003 when it was replaced by more modern buildings.

Von Werra soon started another escape plan and, with four other prisoners, started digging a tunnel from a disused bedroom at the rear of the Garden House. The room was in the best position since the double barbed wire fence passed very close to the building at this point. Construction took about four weeks,

On the night of 20/21 December 1940, the five crawled out through the tunnel. They were badly prepared, had no forged documents and little money. Four were soon recaptured; one only got as far as the next village where he stole a bicycle which belonged to the village policeman.

Von Werra had already decided to go it alone and had his own plan. He escaped wearing a flying suit (bought from another prisoner), albeit of a non-standard pattern.He had a story ready to tell - he was Captain van Lott, a Dutchman, flying with the RAF. His Wellington bomber had crashed and he needed to contact his RAF base as quickly as possible. He chose Aberdeen as "his base", reckoning the greater distance would make contact more difficult.

He made his way across fields until he reached a bridge over a railway line. If you ride on the Museum Railway, you go under this one - the last bridge before the line meets the main one. Up to the 1960's what is now the Museum line was a busy freight line and, because of its gradient, a banking engine was kept in steam to assist the coal trains up the hill. Von Werra heard steam being given off from this engine and reasoned that railways meant signal boxes and stations which meant telephones.

He clambered down on to the line, told his story to the engine crew and was taken to nearby Codnor Park Station. He repeated his story to the booking clerk who agreed to telephone Hucknall, about ten miles away, which was partly an RAF station and partly a Rolls Royce facility. First, however, he phoned the local police who were soon on the scene.

The police questioned von Werra but accepted his story - they explained that they had to be careful because some prisoners had escaped from Swanwick!!

The RAF Duty Officer at Hucknall was suspicious but sent transport, with armed driver, to collect "Captain van Lott". Having listened to the latter's story, he said that he would try to contact Aberdeen. Franz realised that drastic action was required.

On the pretext of a toilet visit, he got through a window and, by chance, got himself into the Rolls Royce facility. This, his non-standard flying suit and his assumed rank of Captain (foreign pilots with the RAF were given standard RAF ranks)proved to be to his advantage. He was assumed to be a ferry pilot who had come to collect a new Hurricane, fresh from the production line. The mechanic summoned the manager who told von Werra that he needed to come to the office to sign for the aircraft. The signature having been given, the mechanic was told to show Captain van Lott to the Hurricane and explain the controls etc.

So, there was Franz, in the cockpit, controls explained, compass set (on a course he reckoned would take him back to France) when a problem arose. There was no starter trolley to fire up the engine. Off went the mechanic to find one but the would be pilot then felt something hard in his ribs - a loaded revolver held by the Duty Officer.

It is said that for the first time, von Werra feared for his life, not from the Duty Officer but from the RAF personnel - most of whom were Polish and he knew full well their hatred of Germans. However, he was given a good breakfast and sent back to Swanwick and fourteen days solitary confinement.

Soon afterwards, it was decided to ship all the Swanwick prisoners to Canada and so the whole contingent was taken to Butterley Station for rail travel to Glasgow and voyage to Canada. Once there, they were to be taken to their final camp but von Werra had other ideas. Despite bitterly cold conditions, he managed to undo the inner window so that the outer one was warmed with air from the carriage and unfroze. He'd again managed to study a few maps and jumped out of the moving train near to the US/Canadian border.

The St Lawrence River formed the boundary and von Werra hoped to cross it on foot because it appeared to be frozen. It was - except for a stretch in the middle - so he had to retrace his steps, steal a rowing boat and push it back across the ice. He finally made it into the USA.

At this time, the USA was still "neutral" but the Canadians made various diplomatic attempts to have him, an escaped POW, returned.The Americans were worried, however, about interpretations of International Law. Von Werra was released into the keeping of the German Consul on the payment of substantial bail whilst the legal wrangles continued.

Whilst he was with the German Consul, von Werra sent invaluable intelligence back to Germany about the sophistication of British interrogation methods - a far cry from the brutal tactics which German pilots had been warned to expect. As a result, the Luftwaffe rewrote its instructions to aircrew. He also is said to have negotiated a contract with a German firm for the publication of his memoirs (these were subsequently banned by the German Government because they were thought to contain some pro-British sentiments)

The Canadians then tried a clever ploy. They dropped the demand for the return of an escaped POW and, instead, demanded the return of a thief who had stolen a rowing boat !

The German Consul thought that this demand might succeed and decided it was time for von Werra to get out.He was supplied with money and escaped into Mexico, dressed as a peasant, mixing with the itinerant workers who crossed the border each day.

From there, he flew to Germany via Spain on civil airlines and, back home, was treated as a Hero of the Third Reich. He was given the Knight's Cross by Hitler in person but was not too popular with Goering with his views on British interrogation techniques. "I would rather be interrogated by three German Intelligence Officers than a single Britich one".

After a spell on the Eastern Front, von Werra was killed in October 1941 when engine failure caused his plane to crash whilst on a routine North Sea patrol. His body was never found.

Meanwhile, at Swanwick, the entrance to the tunnel in the Garden House had been sealed off but, during building extensions some years ago, the tunnel remains were found in a bank behind the building. They are now protected by a door bearing a plaque:

THE REMAINS OF A TUNNEL EXCAVATED BY GERMAN PRISONERS IN DECEMBER 1940 TO ENABLE FIVE TO ESCAPE. THEIR EXPLOITS WERE RECORDED IN THE BOOK AND THE FILM "THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY"

Behind the door, the tunnel can still be seen - whether this is a tribute to German engineering or to the qualities of Derbyshire soil is anyone's guess !!

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