84 Ger­mans tun­nelled their way to free­dom

Wales On Sunday - - NEWS -

AS WEAPON pro­duc­tion in­creased shortly be­fore the start of World War II a large mu­ni­tions fac­tory was built in Brid­gend. Known lo­cally as The Arse­nal, the Royal Ord­nance Fac­tory oc­cu­pied what is now Brid­gend In­dus­trial Es­tate and its of­fice block is now the red-brick build­ing South Wales Po­lice use as their head­quar­ters.

At its peak it em­ployed 40,000 peo­ple, mainly women, filling shells for the front line and the Royal Navy. It is said to have been the largest ever fac­tory in Bri­tain’s his­tory.

Such was the need for staff that they trav­elled in from as far afield as Car­marthen and Mon­mouth. Their bosses thought that the trav­el­ling might be too much for the work­ers, es­pe­cially in the black­out, so they com­man­deered land at Is­land Farm next to the A48 and built a num­ber of sin­gle-level huts for them to stay in.

But the women re­fused to live there, pre­fer­ring in­stead to travel into work and home again ev­ery day.

It meant the camp lay empty un­til Oc­to­ber 1943 when the Amer­i­cans ar­rived ahead of D-Day.

Brett Ex­ton, who has spent years re­search­ing the his­tory of Is­land Farm camp and is part of the Hut 9 Preser­va­tion Group, found that it was the 2nd bat­tal­ion of the 109th in­fantry reg­i­ment that stayed there.

The Amer­i­cans left in 1944 in ad­vance of D-Day and the camp lay empty once more un­til, post D-Day, scores of Ger­man pris­on­ers be­gan ar­riv­ing on Bri­tish shores.

Des­ig­nated as Camp 198, Is­land Farm be­came home to Ger­man of­fi­cers – many of whom were in the SS, the Nazi para­mil­i­tary group which was fiercely loyal to Hitler.

Au­thor Peter Phillips, who pub­lished The Ger­man Great Escape in 2005, said: “The SS still had to­tal con- trol. The POW camp was re­ally a mi­cro­cosm of the Ger­man Army.”

Peter said while the camp was of­fi­cially un­der the com­mand of Lieu­tenant Colonel Ed­win Dar­ling it was the fer­vent SS who re­ally had con­trol be­hind the barbed wire.

He said one of the ways pris­on­ers liked to in­con­ve­nience their Bri­tish guards was to write Christ­mas cards to Hitler. The Geneva Con­ven­tion meant they had to be sent but one pris­oner who re­fused to send one was ap­par­ently beaten un­con­scious.

On his web­site is­land­ Brett said two naval of­fi­cers were so se­verely beaten they had to be taken to Brid­gend Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal for treat­ment, telling staff they were set upon for re­fus­ing to send Hitler a birth­day card.

An­other man, Otto Iskat, a 53-yearold Army con­struc­tion of­fi­cial who had been cap­tured in France, was re­port­edly beaten be­cause of a ca­sual re­mark about the fu­til­ity of war. He died later on in Jan­uary 1945 and, al­though his death cer­tifi­cate cites heart dis­ease and high blood pres­sure, Brett be­lieves the beat­ing had a fa­tal ef­fect on his frag­ile health.

Dar­ling was well aware of the threat of escape and had even dis­cussed what should be done in the event of a breach with the lo­cal po­lice Su­per­in­ten­dent Wil­liam May. In Jan­uary 1945 two of his of­fi­cers also dis­cov­ered a tun­nel be­ing built from hut 16 com­plete with a pris­oner busy dig­ging.

Two other pris­on­ers ac­tu­ally suc­ceeded in es­cap­ing by snip­ping through the barbed wire with crudely-fash­ioned wire cut­ters. Se­cu­rity was poor at Is­land Farm, where there were no raised guard tow­ers or search lights, and the escape wasn’t de­tected un­til the men were caught in Port Tal­bot.

The escape tun­nel which would take 84 men to free­dom was started un­der a bed in hut nine, which is the only re­main­ing part of the Is­land Farm camp. On his web­site Brett states that it was the near­est to the field that farmer Garfield Davies ploughed.

“It went down 2.7m from the floor of the hut to the roof of the tun­nel and the tun­nel was 90cm x 90cm (3ft x 3ft) square. It then branched out­wards for about 60ft un­der the wire to the field. Un­til the tun­nel be­gan to rise to­wards the open­ing it was wide enough to move along with ap­par­ent ease.

“Air was supplied, as it is of­ten done, by a hand-op­er­ated fan forc­ing air through a long pipework of con­densed milk cans with ei­ther end re­moved. The tun­nel it­self was lined with old clothes on the night of the escape so that those that es­caped didn’t emerge cov­ered in mud.

“Ex­actly how the tun­nel was ex­ca­vated was never dis­cov­ered be­cause no tools were ever found but it is be­lieved that knives and other kitchen uten­sils were adapted or used for the job.

“The soil was dis­posed of in an ex­tremely bold way. On the end of an L-shaped bend in hut nine, the POWs built a false ex­ten­sion to the main wall and blended it in to cam­ou­flage it. The ex­ca­vated soil was shaped in to round clay balls and then passed through a false air vent into the cav­ity be­hind mak­ing sure to keep the soil be­low a frosted glass win­dow level.

“When the POWs were cap­tured they never di­vulged how they had got rid of the ex­ca­vated soil and the se­cret re­mained a mys­tery un­til the mid-1980s when van­dals kicked the false wall down, spilling the clay balls all over the floor.”

David James, who now lives near Am­man­ford, re­called how his late un­cle Garfield Davies no­ticed he was be­ing care­fully watched by the POWs while he ploughed the field ad­ja­cent to the camp on the eve of the escape which took place overnight be­tween Satur­day, March 10, and Sun­day, March 11, 1945.

He said Garfield thought they were ad­mir­ing his “plough­ing ex­per­tise”.

“Lit­tle did he know that the large stone he was ex­pertly avoid­ing hid the exit of the tun­nel – if he had hit the stone the escape would have been foiled,” said David.

Af­ter fi­nal roll call at around 10pm, and un­der the cover of noisy singing, 84 Ger­man POWs be­gan mak­ing their bid for free­dom.

It took hours and the es­capees made their way along Garfield’s newly-ploughed field to a tree which

An in­spec­tion of the escape tun­nel at Is­land Farm pris­oner of war camp in Brid­gend –


Is­land Farm escape tun­nel

One of the pic­tures from The Ger­man Great Escape by Peter Phillips

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