BIGGEST WW2 POW ESCAPE HAPPENED IN WALES
84 Germans tunnelled their way to freedom
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 islandfarm.wales 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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