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The Escaper

The Story of Franz Von Werra; The One That Got Away.

If you have seen the 1957 classic 'The One That Got Away', starring Hardy Krüger, you may already be familiar with the infamous story of the only Axis Prisoner of War to escape captivity.

Franz Xaver Baron von Werra was a German Luftwaffe Fighter Pilot Ace of the Second World War who was shot down over England on 5th September 1940.

The story of Werra's escape is one of boldness, courage and ingenuity and we can't help but admire the man's steely determination to win his freedom.

The very fact that he was the only successful Axis escaper confirms just how difficult his task was, but he never seemed to waiver from his ultimate goal.

He made a total of four escape attempts; three in England, the final - and successful - attempt was from Canada.

He was a dashing pilot and eccentric. He even had a pet lion cub, called Simba - maybe the inspiration for 'The Lion King' ?

It is no surprise that Werra's escape was heavily publicised by the German Propaganda machine.

But what is perhaps most interesting, following his return from captivity, his report to German High Command triggered an improvement in the treatment of Allied Prisoners of War in Germany.

It is one of his escape attempts that we are most interested in, as it happened less than four miles away from The Stanley Biggs Store in Jacksdale. In fact, Werra would most likely have passed by the store, which was a Public Library at the time.

The escape from Camp No. 13, in Swanwick, Derbyshire was his third escape attempt and most definitely his boldest.

On Werra's arrival at Camp No. 13 on 3rd November 1940, he immediately joined an escape committee. A small band of prisoners who had already begun digging an escape tunnel.

A month later, the tunnel was ready, paperwork and money had been forged and they were preparing for their escape.

They called themselves Swanwick Tiefbau A.G. aka Swanwick Excavations, Ltd.

Having retraced his escape route, starting at Hayes Hall in Swanwick, Derbyshire. It takes you across the fields and railway tracks of the rolling countryside, and ends at the Royal Air Force Aerodrome, RAF Hucknall in Nottinghamshire, also the burial location of Lord Byron.

On the night of 20th December 1940, under the cover of a carol service and anti-aircraft fire, Werra and four others made their escape. The tunnel they had dug in 1940 still exists today.

Werra separated very quickly from the other escapers, heading in an entirely different direction. Much to our delight, the landscape hasn't really changed a great deal.

The hall still remains, and the site essentially mirrors the wartime camp. Sadly the original billet huts where the tunnel was excavated from are long gone but the tunnel exit is looked after and maintained by Hayes Conference Centre for prosperity and clearly shows their initial escape location.

On his escape just outside the boundary of the camp, we believe that Werra would have initially made his way uphill in search of high ground and to seek out the railway line.

He would most definitely have known about the railway line before his escape, as he would have heard the comings and goings of all the steam locomotives.

Looking down across The Amber Valley the busy railway hub of Swanwick Junction would have allowed him to get his bearings and from the high vantage point, Werra would have been able to assess which direction he was best to go.

Werra would have made a dash under the cover of darkness down into the valley, knowing he would be able to meet up and follow the railway line at the bottom.

We are once more fortunate that the railway line remains essentially as it would have been in 1940 as it is part of the heritage railway line of Midlands Railway, Butterley.

Passing under the various bridges, he would have scrambled up the embankment where we would have followed the tracks to the next station.

Now, the area is now a heavily wooded Nature reserve that allows for wonderful walks all year round.

He was wearing his Luftwaffe flying suit, which to the untrained eye of a railway porter in Derbyshire, wouldn't look much different from a Royal Air Force flying suit. So when he arrived at Codnor Railway Station (which was in fact in Jacksdale village, and would have been located about 500 yards from our store), he put into action his boldest move.

He pretended to be a Dutch Bomber pilot of The Royal Netherlands Air Force, who had crashed landed and needed to get to the closest airfield. He expressed the urgency as being a security risk, an incredibly bold move as he drew more attention to himself this way.

Despite initial suspicions, the Railway Porter called the Police, who in turned called the RAF. A car was brought to the station, to escort Werra to the closest RAF airbase at Hucknall in Nottinghamshire.

At the time RAF Hucknall was the center of operations for No. 1 Group Bomber Command, so when Werra arrived claiming he was a pilot of a special squadron of Wellington Bomber's and needed to 'borrow' a plane to fly back to Aberdeen, his story began to unravel.

His 'non-regulation' flying suit, arose suspicious with the servicemen of the RAF, who deliberately kept the Werra by a roaring fire, in the hope he would have to remove his suit, revealing his Luftwaffe uniform.

It was when the RAF wanted to see his Identity tags and papers that Werra realised he would soon be caught. His forged tags that hung around his neck had melted from his body heat.

So in a final determined attempt, and while Squadron Leader Boniface had gone to check on Werra's credentials, he excused himself and managed to jump out of the window of the lavatories, running over to a lone single-seater Hawker Hurricane airplane.

Franz Von Werra very nearly succeeded in his escape. Continuing with his audacious bluff, he managed to convince a flight mechanic that he was a ferry pilot, collecting the aircraft to deliver to another airbase. He had confidently jumped into the cockpit and began familiarising himself with the controls when Squadron Leader Boniface caught up with him just in time, arresting him at gunpoint.

You can't help but root for this young man who was just as daring and dashing as any of the RAF pilots who escaped from German captivity.

Realising Werra was a menace, his captors decided that he was better sent to live out the war in Canada. As far away from Germany as possible.

But, these extra thousands of miles did not deter Werre and on the 21st January 1941, while he was being transported by train to the Camp, Werra jumped out of the train window as it was pulling out of Montreal Station.

Luckily for him, due to other escape attempts, his absence wasn't noticed until the following afternoon.

Werra, by that time, had made his way through the snow covered landscape to Smiths Falls, Ontario.

He planned to cross into the United States, a neutral country at that point of the war.

He walked the 30 miles through the worst winter conditions. On arriving at the border, his only option to cross into the United States was to cross the frozen St. Lawrence River.

It was a mile wide and free flowing in some parts. Once more, Werra's determination and bravery pushed him forward, despite the odds.

Despite the terrible freezing conditions he then made his way to Ogdensburg, New York where he began his return journey back to Germany.

His return journey took 87 days, travelling through the United States, Mexico, South America, Spain and Italy. He finally reached Germany on 18th April 1941. In total, he had been a prisoner for 138 days, made 4 escape attempts from 2 British POW camps, 1 British Army base and 1 Canadian Train.

He would eventually return to active duty where on 25th October 1941, on a practice flight, his single engine ME-109 fighter plane suffered from engine failure, crashing into the North Sea near Vlissingen, in The Netherlands. His body was never found.

We would highly recommend watching the feature film about Franz Von Werra's escapes called 'The One That Got Away.' The film was based on a book by Kendall Burt and James Leasor published in 1956, and is worth a read if you want to learn more of this extraordinary story.

If you wish to follow The Escape Route, please get in touch and we will be happy to provide you with directions and places along the way you may wish to visit.

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Von Werra's Outfit:

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