- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Richard (Dick) Bradley
- Location of story:
- Stalag VIIIB Prisoner of War Camp, Upper Silesia on the Czech-Polish border
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 November 2005
SECOND BID FOR FREEDOM
In a few days, full of hope, we were on our way again. This time our working party placement was a cardboard factory in a place called Gross-Zeidal. This was in the area Kattowitz-Gleiwitz, famous for coal mines, and very convenient for the main line to Breslau, but what a shock we had when we arrived at the camp. There seemed to be more wire than at the main Stalag. We were working with a large number of Polish people so the chances for clothing and money looked good, but the chances of escaping during working hours seemed poor, therefore we had to make plans to break out of camp before the roll call at 8.00 pm. The way out would have to be through a large gate in which was an ordinary door with an old-fashioned lock which shouldn’t prove too difficult to open.
It was now the middle of October 1943 and all our clothing problems were solved except a jacket for me so I had no option but to wear a jacket from an old RAF uniform which was in a bit of a state after alterations. If I held my hand on my chest it looked passable. It was now 20th October, 1943 and the weather looked perfect so we decided that next day would be it. At 7.30 pm on Thursday 21st October the three of us, Alf, Jim and I, crept out. It was pitch dark and the guards had every faith in their barbed wire, so they were convinced that no-one could get out of their camp. Jim got cracking on the lock and it seemed like a lifetime before it clicked, but click it did and what a relief! We hadn’t walked four hundred yards when we saw a light coming towards us. Jim and I jumped in the ditch, but Alf walked on. The light, when it came, was a cyclist. He got off his bike and shouted at Alf, “What are you doing here?” Alf said calmly “I’m waiting for a Frauelein across the bridge”. The cyclist answered, “You’d better be careful, otherwise you’ll get your head bashed in”. He then carried on cycling.
That was our first shock. The next was soon to follow. According to our information the train should be leaving at 8 o’clock, but when we walked in to the booking office it was pitch black and deserted. We just managed to see the timetable in the dark where it said departure for Oppeln, 20.30. The only option open to us was to take a walk for twenty minutes. Back at the station Alf and Jim stayed on the platform while I went for the tickets. Walking in to the booking office I had my third shock in one hour for there stood a policeman. Nothing daunted I asked for the tickets and all was well.
Again, what a relief when I saw the train arrive and we were safely on our way. There was a change at Oppeln and enough time to get tickets for the last train to Breslau, where we arrived about midnight. We checked for the early train to Dresden then we sat on the floor to rest, as did hundreds of others at this huge station. We couldn’t have sat there for more than ten minutes when we saw the Gestapo going round checking identity papers. That was more than our lives were worth so again we ended the short night in a cemetery. No-one disturbed us there.
The nights were very cold and as we had no blankets or overcoats a good night’s sleep was out of the question. At 5 o’clock on Friday morning our train was on its way to Goerlitz, Dresden and Hof, where we spent the night in the same cemetery as in July.
Early on Saturday morning our journey took us again past Bayreuth to Nuremberg. Somewhere along the line we were standing in a crowded carriage when a little Girl pointed at me and said to her mother, “Mutti, das ist Kohlenklau” (“What a horrible jacket this man has on”).* Her mother told her to keep quiet because ‘it’s the only jacket that he might have’.
* “Mutti, das ist kohlenklau”. Kohlenklau was a hunchback old man carrying a bag of coal on his back, wearing a dirty old jacket. Kohlenklau means ‘stealing coal’. There were huge posters of Kohlenklau in all German stations warning people to go easy on using coal.
On arrival in Nuremberg, having looked at the departure for Ulm, we queued for a wash and a shave. While waiting in the queue a Sergeant of the Luftwaffe asked me if we were the new recruits he was looking for. My answer was “Nein, nein, wir sind auslandische arbeiter”. (“No, no, we are foreign labourers”). We were now on our journey to Ulm and again everything went well.
As it was pitch black when we arrived at Ulm we thought it best to stay on the busy platform, so once again we were on a slow train to Tuttlingen, but this time we did not see any Gestapo with any alsatian dogs to frighten us. Arriving at Tuttlingen we made our way to the same woods as on our previous escape. We spent the next two days there, Saturday and Sunday, deciding to wait until evening and then to walk the last twenty or thirty miles towards Switzerland. We did not pass many people, but every time we did I just told Alf and Jim a story of my childhood speaking in the local dialect.
Walking through the villages the barking dogs seemed the biggest nuisance. We remembered every inch of the way from last July and we kept well away from the sentry who had shouted “Halt, wer da” in the summer. After keeping well away from the guardroom we walked a few hundred yards up the hill far in to the woods and there decided that we had done enough for one night and we would stay and hope for the next night. It was bitterly cold and the ground was white with frost, so sleep was out of the question.
As the mist cleared a bit on Monday morning, 25th October 1943, we saw a large sign in the distance which read “Gott-Madinger FussballKlub”. The thick mist stayed with us all day which was a godsend despite the freezing condition. We waited patiently until it was well in to late evening, then went down the hill, past the football club and across the main road. Once across we knew that our big moment couldn’t be far away.
I led the way when all of a sudden there came a shout of “Halt, wer da?” In that second I knew we were in Switzerland. This guard’s dialect was totally different to the German. Just to make certain I asked him if he was Swiss and he assured us that he was. In due course he took us to the frontier guardhouse from where we could see the German guards over the barrier about one hundred yards away.
What a sensational feeling. The guard commander phoned the only policeman in the village to fetch us. Walking though this village was the nearest thing to entering heaven - everything and everywhere was lit up. The shop windows looked full of fruit and goods the like of which we hadn’t seen for a long time. It was past midnight when we arrived at the police station, which was also the policeman’s home. He woke his wife who got out of bed to cook us a meal. What a meal! We ate whatever food this good lady put on the table. After all these years I say thank you again to this wonderful couple. Also many thanks again to Switzerland and the Swiss for their hospitality.
A lot of planning, hard work, anxiety and discomfort are all part of escaping. Looking back after all these years I must agree with the German Herr Major when he said, “Das ist unmoeglich” (“That is impossible”). To cover approximately one thousand kilometres (600 miles) twice in a matter of a few months, in wartime Germany just does not seem feasible.
The destroyer Campbeltown, with its 5 tons of high explosives, blew up in the Normandie dock during the morning of Saturday 28th March 1942. The dock was out of action for the rest of the war and for a long time after.
Over 620 army and naval personnel took part in the raid. Of these, 169 lost their lives, many were badly wounded and a large number were taken into captivity. Five managed to make their way to Spain and in due course back home. Four escaped to Switzerland - Lt Cmdr Stephens from Colditz and Alf, Jim and myself from a working party in Poland. What a wonderful achievement!
My father was awarded the Military Medal for his skilfully executed escape from prison camp and for achieving a ‘home run’.
On arrival in Switzerland, almost the first person my father met was the girl behind the post office counter where he went to report his arrival. This was in German-speaking Switzerland, and the couple had no trouble communicating. The girl behind the counter, Beatrice Buehler, joined him in England on one of the first flights out of Switzerland at the end of the war in Europe, and they were married in November 1945. They went on to have six children, Bernadette, Rita, Helen, Monica, and twins, Celia and Tom.
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