by webmaster, 12th October 2022
The harsh reality of Nazi Germany only truly revealed itself to Jimmy James after March 24th 1944 – the day he emerged from the tunnel
For part one of this story, download the autumn 2022 issue of Welsh Border Life here
The elation of freedom for the first time in years was short lived for the escaped POWs as they faced the near impossible task of fleeing from enemy territory to their respective homelands. Dressed as a Yugoslav worker, Jimmy’s plan was to cross the local border with Greek POW Nick Skanziklas, then travel down to Greece and on to Turkey, from where he could make his way home.
“Initially there were 12 in our party and we set off round the woods and walked to a country station about 15km south of Sagan,” says Jimmy. “We managed to buy tickets and catch the train at 5am, which travelled south towards the Czech Border. There was snow on the ground and it was freezing cold when we got off the train at Boberohrsdorf. Luckily, there wasn’t even a ticket master, so we walked straight out into the fields.”
The pair found a deer stall and rested before moving on again after dark. In the freezing conditions, though, it was doubtful they’d survive the mountainous terrain, and with the border still some 40 miles off, they decided to head back to the station and risk another train journey.
“As we approached the ticket office, in the corner of my eye I saw a civilian and policeman in a teapot helmet start to move towards us. They asked to see our papers and we produced our passes. Despite protesting we were foreign workers on leave of absence, they grasped us firmly by the arms and said we had to go to the station to answer some questions.”
Eight of the Great Escapees were caught that night, and all were thrown into a tiny cell before being interrogated separately. The following morning, guards shouted out four names, including Nick Skanziklas. They thought they were going back to Stalag Luft III, the camp they’d escaped from near Sagan. If only. They were later shot by the Gestapo.
Jimmy was left on his own for a week in a cell, until on 6th April he was awoken at 4.30am and taken to Gestapo headquarters in Berlin. “I was very glad to see the building had been bombed,” he smiles. After a short wait, he was once again bundled into a car.
“We’d been driving in the country for a while when we entered a dark pine forest,” he recalls. “A high wall rose up on one side of the road, with electrified wire along the top. We stopped at a door in the wall and I was escorted into a compound containing two wooden barrack huts. I was taken to the end of a hut where I came face to face with Wings Day, who’d also escaped from Sagan. I asked him, hopefully, if we were in Colditz. He said: ‘I wish to hell it was. This is Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The only way out of here is up the chimney.’”
A brutal place, Sachsenhausen housed 40,000 prisoners of all nationalities at the time. Those who weren’t worked or beaten to death were shot or publicly hanged on the gallows in the camp. Once a week, Jimmy and the other officers were taken into the main compound for a shower.
“Had we known the shower rooms had been used for gassing, our pace might have been a bit slower,” he quips. “But I’ll never forget that first sight of a Nazi concentration camp. In front of the barrack huts, many gaunt, halfstarved figures in striped suits were being marched around the area. On their backs were packs containing 30 pounds of bricks. Truncheon-wielding SS guards ensured they kept up a smart pace and sang when required to do so. They were testing boots for the Russian front and covered 25 miles a day. As an added refinement of torture some were forced to wear boots too small for them.
“Screams and groans could be heard in the night, and frequently a burst of machine gun fire, as some poor devil was caught in the search lights attempting to escape, or more likely commit suicide. By day smoke from the crematorium chimney would signal that more brave souls who’d opposed Hitler were out of their misery.”
Amid the hell, escape seemed an impossibility to most. But incredibly, in such devastating circumstances, it wasn’t long before the British officers were planning another tunnel. The trap was made from a shaft sunk at the far corner of the hut nearest the wire. The 120ft tunnel would go under the wire out to the far side of the road.
As it was being dug, while reading an official Nazi newspaper, Wings Day discovered that the other 50 RAF prisoners who’d been involved in the escape had been executed. As well as grief-stricken by their friends’ deaths, the news left little doubt they’d face execution if their escape plans weren’t totally successful. Nevertheless, the officers decided to continue with the tunnel. And after weeks of hard graft, working shifts of two hours at a time, the experienced diggers finally completed their ambitious task.
On September 23rd, the five prisoners broke the exit hole, but instantly memories of ‘Harry’ came flooding back. Their calculations were again inaccurate – as they had been at Sagan – and they came up short, under the road. There was little choice but to back track and make another hole closer to the wire, virtually under the noses of the guards and dogs. This they did, and as they clambered out of the tunnel, miraculously they were unseen. It was a true triumph. From a concentration camp, such an escape was unheard of.
“The plan was for myself and Jack [fellow inmate ‘Mad Jack’ Churchill – no relation] to get to the coast and get on a ship to Sweden,” says Jimmy. The pair left the party of five and headed north west until they found the railway line. Amazingly, over the next few days they managed to cover 100 miles and were not far from the coast when their luck ran out.
“In the early hours of one foggy morning we struck off across a field away from the railway line and had only walked a few minutes when we wandered smack into a procession of Polish women being taken by a German farmer to work. It was too late to run, so when he asked where we were going, I said in German: ‘We are going to Farmer Schmidt’s over there.’
“He asked a boy who was with him to take us back to the house. After a short while the fog came down which gave us the opportunity to run. After three miles we managed to find some undergrowth in the woods where we hid all day.
“In the afternoon, while we were resting, I saw a figure nearby in the bushes. We hastily packed up our things, but it was too late. The bushes suddenly parted and we found ourselves looking down the muzzles of three shot guns aimed at us by three home guard types. They asked if we were Russian or Polish, and when we told them we were British officers, they became very friendly. They escorted us back to the local inn where we ate all our rations (which we knew would be confiscated) and had some beer before the SS turned up.
“When the SS did arrive there was a very different atmosphere, with lots of screaming and shouting. We were put in the local cells for the night and taken back to Sachsenhausen.”
As he sat alone in his tiny cell, Jimmy thought back over the previous days’ events and naturally assumed he’d be executed, little realising the German commandant had decided officers would be useful as hostages later, and so would be spared. The Germans certainly made them suffer for their escape, though, and Jimmy was sentenced to five months’ solitary confinement in Sachsenhausen’s notorious Zellenbau (cell block). Few incarcerated there ever survived to tell their friends about it.
“We were woken up the same time every morning to slop out, with the guards screaming,” Jimmy recalls. “I got sick of this and one morning I started screaming back. He actually piped down after that!
“But I had to build a pattern of life in this empty existence, and gradually I established a routine for myself. In the morning, after a mug of ersatz coffee, munching on any bits of black bread from the night before, I’d sit on my little stool with my back to the wall and meditate for some hours. For at least an hour I would walk up and down, up and down my cell. Soon after this I got some black bread, blood or liver, or a piece of smelly cheese wrapped in silver paper. I made chessmen out of the silver paper and in the evenings would play chess with myself. I could claim credit for whichever side won, so it became a daily morale booster!
“By the time lights went out I felt I’d had a full day, so at least I was tired enough to sleep – an important factor in the circumstances.”
After five months, Jimmy was released from his tiny prison and sent back to the compound. His friends greeted him with the welcome news that the tide had turned on the war and what remained of Hitler’s Germany was fast crashing into ruins. But for an airman, it wasn’t the only surprise he faced.
“A startling phenomenon in the skies was a type of aeroplane having engines without propellers,” he remembers. “These passed low overhead at tremendous speed and we thought at first our five months in solitary confinement had brought on hallucinations, until we were told they were the new jet propelled fighters, ME 262s and ME163s, which were operating against the Russians in a ground attack.”
On 3rd April 1945, Jimmy and his fellow prisoners were told to pack by SS guards, as the compound was being evacuated. They were put on buses, taken to the railway station and on to Flossenburg – another barbaric death camp. As the Allies drew ever nearer, the Nazis were ‘liquidating’ as many inmates as possible through various means.
But on 15th April, the officers were piled into lorries and were once again on the move. They were the lucky few left surviving – the prized captives, maybe – and by now their travelling companions included several prominent dignitaries including princes, ambassadors, generals and bishops of all nationalities – including prominent Germans who’d defied Hitler.
The group were housed in an SS brothel at Dachau concentration camp for a couple of days before being taken on to Austria bound for Italy. Still more big-name prisoners had joined them along the way, including the ex-prime minister of France, Leon Blum.
Throughout the journey, their collective fate lay in the balance. The worst was feared when a notebook retrieved from an SS officer while he lay in a drunken stupor one night revealed orders to shoot all British officers. Yet on 29th April, in the town of Niederdorf on the Austrian/Italian border, the increasingly erratic SS guards were overcome in a growing air of open prison, following hastily arranged plots involving local Italian Partisans and regular German officers.
In relatively festive mood following the overthrow of their potential murderers, the party continued on to Italy, to a hotel in the Dolomites. Though with the immediate landscape harbouring German deserters from the Italian front, and with pockets of SS forces not far away, danger was still all around.
News soon filtered through of Hitler’s suicide on 30th April. The war was over. But tortuously for Jimmy, safety and freedom was still in the balance. It wasn’t until three days later that signs of the end of the war manifested themselves, as leaflets dropped by Allied aircraft revealed the surrender of the German armies in Italy. Soon after, a regular German company arrived to assure the group of its safety until any Allied unit could reach them.
The very next day, the 4th May 1945, as Jimmy returned from mass at the little chapel on the lake shore where he and the rest of the party were holed up, the 339th American Infantry Regiment arrived. It was all, finally, at an end.
“There was great relief and joy, but after the years of imprisonment, often with little hope of survival it was difficult to grasp the reality of freedom,” Jimmy now recalls.
Nine days later, he was flown back to England in an RAF Warwick – a transport version of the Wellington, the very same aircraft Jimmy had been shot down in.
“Finally we passed over the sunlit white cliffs and landed at Blackbushe,” he recounts. “We stepped out onto the soil of our native land and with tremendous relief breathed in the air of freedom.”
Jimmy was five years late back.