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The German Great Escape

Heard of The Great Escape? This is the tale of a group of German prisoners of war who escaped from Island Farm camp near Bridgend in March 1945.

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Island Farm Special Camp 11, Bridgend, 1974

A familiar story?

No doubt we are all familiar with the story of the attempted escape of Allied soldiers from a German Prisoner of War camp during World War II. Based on a true story, ‘The Great Escape’ film has immortalised the tale of the men who attempted to break out of Stalag Luft II in Sagan. Having spent almost a year constructing three tunnels: Tom, Dick and Harry, the men finally made their escape via ‘Harry’ but, of the 78 that escaped, 73 were captured and fifty of those men were executed, the rest sent either back to prisoner of war camps or to concentration camps.

You may not, however, be as familiar with the story of 73 German officers who escaped from the Island Farm POW camp near Bridgend during World War II.

Island Farm

Island Farm had originally been built to house workers at the Bridgend munitions factory. The Royal Ordnance Factory at Bridgend employed 40,000 workers at its peak, the largest in Britain at that time. The workers were mainly female and travelled from as far a field as Monmouthshire and Carmarthenshire. Believing that most would want to lodge near the factory, the authorities built a ‘village’ of wooden huts at Island Farm to house the workers but it remained empty as the women preferred to travel back and forth in order to stay living at home.

The camp was empty until 1943 when it was used to house American troops who were to be involved in the invasion of France. During this time, it is said that Eisenhower himself visited the camp to address the troops shortly before they left for France.

The following year, Island Farm was designated as a prisoner of war camp: Camp 198. As the Allied forces advanced in Europe, a large number of Axis soldiers were taken prisoner and finding accommodation for them was becoming increasingly difficult. Island Farm was a perfect location; ready-made barracks set in open fields. All that needed to be done was to convert the barracks and erect barbed wire fences and some of this work was carried out by the first prisoners.

The camp was to hold almost 2000 prisoners but the War Office decided that conditions were too comfortable to house the ordinary ranks and Island Farm became a camp for German officers, the first of which arrived in November 1944.

Their arrival caused quite a stir in the small town of Bridgend and the authorities had no hope of keeping it secret as crowds of locals gathered at the train station.

The Escape

From the outset, those in charge at Island Farm were acutely aware of the risk of escape by the prisoners and the potential risks that an escape would pose. Sabotage of vital war work was feared as the camp was within a mile of the munitions factory which employed 39,000 and in the heart of industrial south Wales which was so crucial to the war effort.  

Their fears were well founded. In January 1945, a tunnel was discovered and though the camp commander and guards realised that it was likely to be a diversionary tunnel, they failed to find the other. It was through this second tunnel, with its entrance in Hut 9, that the officers made their escape in March 1945.

On 10 March, the German soldiers gathered in the hut to make their way through the 60-foot long tunnel in a bid for freedom. A constant flow of men passed through the tunnel throughout the night, emerging into a newly-ploughed field just beyond the camp perimeter. It was a moonless night which provided the escapees with additional cover while making their initial escape. One group of four were aware of a doctor’s car that was parked on a nearby road each night and had decided to take it for their escape. However, its battery was flat and the men had a great deal of trouble starting it. As they attempted to start the car, four guards from the camp approached on their way from the pub. Having had a few too many, they did not realise as they helped push-start the car and waved them on their way, that they had helped the four Germans in their escape!

Failure

At around 2.30am, the sixty-sixth and sixty-seventh man had just left the tunnel and were crouching in the field when they were spotted. One man was shot by the guards and it appears that, in the confusion, one of the guards fell down the tunnel hole which caused much amusement to the escapees in the nearby trees and gave away their positions. Around 11 men were captured there and then and for a while the camp guards and commander believed that all the prisoners were accounted for. Indeed, it seems that unless two prisoners had been captured at a nearby police station, the camp authorities would have been none the wiser that over fifty prisoners were on the loose.

Soon the alarm was raised and forces and authorities across South Wales were hunting for the escaped prisoners. Some were captured quite soon after their escape but others travelled much further; two, for example stowed in the back of a lorry which, after five days, arrived in Hampshire. From there, they intended to make their way to Southampton and stow aboard a ship but they were captured climbing out of the lorry.

At the end of the week, all the escaped prisoners had been accounted for. The exact number of escapees is uncertain as the figure today stands at 67, though newspapers at the time reported that 70 were missing.

Whatever the actual figure, what is certain is that this escape was the largest of its kind in Britain and is a story which rivals that of the men of Stalag Luft II and the ‘Great Escape’.

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