Oberleutnant Franz von Werra


Camps : Camps 1, 13

Died : 25th October 1941


Franz von Werra was born to upper class yet impoverished Swiss parents, and together with his sister, Emma, he was sold to and raised by an aristocratic German family. Von Werra joined the Luftwaffe. He was regarded by some to be arrogant, though a German Prisoner of War, Heinz Cramer, later said of him that he was "an honest and pleasant young man; a bit of a showman with a wonderful imagination, but a reliable and honest chap." This imagination extended to dreaming of imaginary kills, of which he boasted to his friends.


In September 1940, with the Battle of Britain at its height, Oberleutnant Franz von Werra was flying his Me109 over England, close to Love's Farm, Kent. Workers on the farm had been going about their business when they heard a burst of Lewis gun fire from the nearby searchlight battery. Moments later a German fighter came into view, flying low over the farm, and without its wheels extended, the fighter made a safe crash-landing in a field, a quarter of a mile away. So it was that Franz von Werra came to Britain. He was soon placed under arrest and taken to Headquarters, Kent County Constabulary, in Maidstone, where he was locked in a cell and supervised by Police Sergeant W. Harrington. In the evening, von Werra was handed over to the Army, who escorted him to Maidstone Barracks, where he spent the night in a detention cell. In the morning, an officer and two armed guards arrived to collect him and transported him to the London District Prisoner of War Cage. Here he was interrogated until the late afternoon, then ordered back into the truck and taken to Cockfosters, where he was questioned for the next two weeks. At the end of this period he was returned to the London Cage for a further four days of interrogation, following which he was informed that he was to be taken to a Prisoner of War camp. This was Camp No.1, at Grizedale Hall in the Lake District, Cumbria.


It was now late September, and von Werra was convinced that it would only be a matter of weeks before German soldiers invaded and conquered Britain, but nevertheless he was determined to escape. He had only been in the camp for ten days when he had submitted a proposal to the Escape Committee. Every day, the prisoners were taken for walks outside of the camp, through the village of Satterthwaite and beyond. At a certain point along the way was High Bowkerstead corner, where the party was always brought to a halt. Von Werra's plan was simply to make a run for it at that corner whilst a subtle diversion took place to distract the attention of the guards. The senior officer at the camp, Major Fanelsa, asked the Camp Commandant to alter the timing of the walks from 10:30 to 14:00, on the grounds that a morning excursion interfered with the educational classes that the prisoners were taking. However, the real reason for this change was to ensure that von Werra would only be exposed to daylight for three hours, rather than what would have been seven, because under cover of darkness he could move swiftly and put as much distance between himself and the camp as possible.


At 14:00 on Monday 7th October, von Werra and twenty-three of his fellow officers were led outside the camp for their walk. Their escort consisted ten armed guards, including one officer and two NCO's, one of whom was mounted on a horse. It was not usual practice for an officer to accompany the party, all decisions relating to the walk were therefore left to the mounted NCO. The leader of the German party, Hauptmann Pohle, sensed that the presence of the officer may create a little confusion to this accepted command structure, and so as the party drew near to the gate, Pohle called ahead to the NCO to lead the men southwards, and therefore towards Satterthwaite. The NCO, thinking that the order had come from his own officer, thought nothing of this and obeyed his soldierly instinct with unquestioned obedience.


The roads in the area were almost exclusively deserted. Von Werra occasionally seen a stray car or passer-by, but no volume of activity that unduly troubled him. When the party arrived at High Bowkerstead corner, he was dismayed, therefore, to be confronted with the sight of a horse and cart heading towards them. As expected the group halted and waited, as the man, a greengrocer, brought on his cart at a painfully slow pace. The prisoners gathered by the stone wall over which von Werra had decided to disappear. They took off their coats, on the pretence of resting, and laid them across the top of the loose-brick wall so that they might muffle the sound of shifting masonry as von Werra went over. However, the plan was falling apart. Time was elapsing as the cart drew ever slowly nearer, and to make matters worse the prisoner who was to provide the diversion, by walking up to the NCO's horse to give it a pat, was ordered back into line the instant he began to move. It began to dawn on von Werra that the cart was not a disaster, rather a positive blessing. It was in itself an obvious distraction, perfect not least because its arrival on the scene was totally unplanned and so would not be suspected. It was loaded with fruit and vegetables, and von Werra calculated that he could slip over the wall as it passed him without being seen. It took several agonising minutes for the cart to draw level with the prisoners, whereupon von Werra, keeping as low as possible, lifted himself onto the wall and lay flat on his back across the coats. He was completely screened from the guards by his companions, who had bunched close together and were chatting noisily amongst themselves. There then came a signal to von Werra in the form of a firm elbow shove, upon which he rolled off the wall and fell into the meadow beyond. The guards suspected nothing.


The Cumbrian landscape is amongst the roughest to be found in England, and in October it was unsurprisingly wet and cold. All over the region were hoggarths, small buildings made of stone and used for farmyard storage. As soon as von Werra's absence was noted, an alert was put out asking all farmers to lock their hoggarths and keep a close eye upon them, as it was believed that sooner or later von Werra would seek shelter in one of these. Each night the Home Guard searched each and every hoggarth in turn. On the night of the 10th October, in pouring rain, two members of the Home Guard, who were shepherds by trade, approached a hoggarth in the vicinity of Broughton Mills and noticed that its lock had been forced. They shone a light inside and were confronted by the freshly shaven, though gaunt and dirty image of von Werra. He was placed under arrest and led down the hill, however his escape was by no means over. His hands were tied behind his back with cord, and the guard who carried the lamp had one hand firmly placed around it. As they neared the road at the bottom of the hill, von Werra dragged his arms to the right, pulling the guard off balance as he did so, and quickly freeing his right arm, he then hit out at the guard and knocked him to the ground, and with him went the light, which subsequently went out. Wrenching his arms apart, von Werra's restraints came loose and he ran back up the hill and into woodland. He was pursued by the other guard, but being a much older man he was unable to keep pace with him.


At dawn on the 12th October, police and soldiers sealed off the area in which they believed their quarry was wandering, and proceeded to methodically comb it with Bloodhounds. No trace of von Werra was found, however the places in which he could be hiding were getting ever fewer and the British were confident that they would find him before long. Having set up guard posts to ensure that von Werra could not escape back into the areas that had already been cleared, the search teams had given up for the day and were drinking in a local pub when they heard shouts of "Tally ho! Tally ho!". A man at the top of Bleak Haw had spotted a figure walking along the side of the fell wall, about half a mile away. By the time the search party had got to this position, von Werra had of course disappeared. Surveying the scene, a Mr Staples suddenly noticed some movement in the damp grass, not twenty yards away. He ran to the spot and almost stood on top of von Werra, who was lying on his back with his body submerged under the mud, only his face was visible. He was handcuffed and returned to Grizedale Hall, where the Camp Commandant sentenced him to 21 days in solitary confinement. However he did not complete this sentence. On the 3rd November, two days before he was due to be released, he was given his few possessions and informed that he was to be transferred to another camp.


This was Camp 13, the Hayes Camp, in Swanwick, Derbyshire. Here he renewed his acquaintance with Major Fanelsa, who had helped von Werra to escape from Grizedale Hall and was now the Camp Leader at the Hayes, though he was by no means happy to see the young Oberleutnant. He was housed, like all prisoners, in the Garden House and soon involved himself with a group of would-be escapers. These consisted of von Werra, his Austrian friend, Leutnant Wagner, Major Heinz Cramer, Leutnant Walter Manhard and two prisoners by the name of Willhelm and Malischewski. They named themselves The "Swanwick Tiefbau A. G." (Swanwick Construction Company) and were intent upon digging an escape tunnel. In the north wing of the Garden House they found a disused room, and it was here that they decided to start digging. The tunnel was to be 13 metres long and pass beneath two security fences, and the lane that lay between them, to emerge in a small patch of waste ground where a few trees and bushes provided some cover. The idea was put to Major Fanelsa, but despite his opposition to the plan, the group started work on the 17th November 1940.


The tunneling, mostly the work of von Werra and Walter Manhard, was able to proceed at a brisk pace through the clay soil. Getting rid of this dirt was something of a challenge, however. To begin with they stored it in the roof space and then in the latrines, however such was the volume of material that needed to be excavated it was clear that another solution was needed. It came when Manhard discovered a hole, two feet in diameter, beneath a stone slab at the front of the Garden House. Six feet beneath this they could see water. Having stolen some flower canes from the potting shed, which incidentally was out of bounds to prisoners, they fitted these together and began to probe the hole, which they thought was a well but soon realised that it was a large tank, built for holding rainwater. They calculated that it could hold double the quantity of soil that they needed to dispose of. On the 17th December 1940, the tunnel had been completed.


The Swanwick Construction Company prepared to depart, though they were not to be accompanied by Malischewski, who had opted out of escaping half way through the digging process. Forgers at the camp had provided the five escapers with props and papers, whilst Willhelm had obtained some British money by selling a ring to one of the guards. At 20:15 on the 20th December, shortly after final roll call, von Werra, wearing a beret and pyjamas over the top of his flying suit so that he might keep it clean, made his way into the tunnel and began to work on fashioning the exit. As anti-aircraft guns opened up on German bombers over Derby, the camp choir burst out into song, though louder than usual. They sang "Muss i den, muss i den, zum Stadteli hinaus" ("I must away into the great wide world"). Von Werra was suitably amused. Once out of the tunnel, von Werra, Cramer, and Manhard had to lie low in the meadow next to the Hayes as civilians from the surrounding area were walking up and down the path. Once all was clear, the five escapers went their separate ways with a pledge to meet up again in Berlin.


Manhard and Cramer stayed together. They intended to walk to Somercotes and then catch a bus to Nottingham, from where they planned to get to the East Coast. Unfortunately they took a wrong turning and Cramer was captured in South Normanton whilst in the act of stealing a policeman's bicycle. Manhard proceeded alone and caught a bus, but was recaptured in Sheffield. Willhelm and Wagner also stuck together, but they were found on the outskirts of Manchester, hiding in the back of a lorry.


Von Werra went his own way and had concocted a cavalier escape plan. Taking off his pyjamas so that he was now in his flying suit, he intended to pass himself off as a Dutch pilot serving with the RAF, and then enter the nearest airbase and steal a plane. Whilst in the camp, he had taken the time to read as many English papers as possible in order to be familiar with current events, and so possibly be able to bluff his way through a conversation should anyone he encounter doubt his story. Conscious of the fact that British bombers flew at night, von Werra waited by a barn until 3am, whereupon he made his way across fields until he reached a railway line. He saw an engine driver and told him that his name was Captain van Lott, a member of the Royal Dutch Air Force who now served with the RAF. He claimed to have been on a bombing raid that night, but his Wellington had been hit by flak over Denmark and he had been forced to down the aircraft nearby. He asked the driver, who agreed, to help him on his way to the nearest RAF base.


At 05:30, the train pulled in at Codnor Park Station and von Werra was left in the care of the signalman, a Mr R. W. Harris. Von Werra wished to make a telephone call to the nearest base to arrange for a car to come and collect him, but the signalbox was not connected to the public telephone system, so Mr Harris suggested that he should wait until Sam Eaton, the booking clerk, arrived at 06:00 as there was a phone in his office. When Eaton arrived, he listened to von Werra's story but was not at all happy with it and felt that he ought to contact the police. Needless to say this rather annoyed von Werra, who had no desire to undergo close inspection, but an hour later he was able to convince Mr Eaton to call the nearest base, RAF Hucknall, and arrange for a car to come and collect him. The police, however, arrived first. They questioned von Werra, but due to their inexperience and the young flyer's knowledge of current events, they were soon satisfied that his story was genuine.


Shortly after the RAF car turned up. The guard was armed. Von Werra did not know it, but the Duty Officer at Hucknall, Squadron Leader Boniface, was already suspicious of his reported tale and so had sent the car out to pick him up. When he was brought to Hucknall and questioned by Boniface, von Werra claimed that he was based at Dyce aerodrome, near Aberdeen. Whilst in the process of getting in touch with Dyce to confirm this, Boniface asked von Werra for his identity disc, but to his horror he realised that the fake disc had melted with the heat and perspiration of his own body. Von Werra quickly made his excuses and asked if he might go to the toilet to wash his hands. Once out of the office, von Werra ran back in the direction from where the RAF car had driven him so that he might get to the nearest hangar. There was nobody to be seen and so he attracted no attention, although once inside the hangar there were numerous civilian builders at work on scaffolding, who looked with surprise upon this hasty individual. Moving amongst a collection of damaged and partially repaired aircraft, mostly bombers which were clearly not best suited to a speedy getaway, von Werra proceeded to climb over a security fence and, without realising it, was now in the Rolls Royce factory. He spotted a number of Hurricanes and walked towards them. Before he reached them, however, he encountered a group of mechanics, one of whom insisted on taking him aside to sign the visitors book. The man in question had assumed from von Werra's uniform, which was very similar in style, that he was one of the ATA ferry pilots who, frequently hailing from foreign lands, were a common sight at Hucknall, from where they flew Hurricanes out to bases around the country. However, one or two of the mechanics were getting suspicious at the actions of von Werra as they differed much from the ferry pilots that they were used to. Again he slipped away from their sight and managed to convince a different mechanic that he had been told to make a test flight, on the orders of Squadron Leader Boniface. The mechanic, who even gave von Werra a quick explanation of the cockpit controls, left to fetch a trolley-accumulator to start the engine for him. While he was gone, Squadron Leader Boniface appeared alongside the aircraft and, with a revolver aimed at von Werra's head, ordered him out.


Von Werra accepted defeat and stepped from the aircraft. He was taken back to the RAF Adjutant's office, where he gave a true account of his identity and where he had come from. As they waited for the police to arrive and collect him, RAF courtesy was not forgotten and the prisoner was allowed to have some breakfast. In Nottingham Police Headquarters, von Werra spent the next 24 hours locked in a cell before a military escort arrived to return him to the Hayes, where his punishment was 14 days in solitary confinement. Once again, the strict definition of life in the cooler did not proceed according to plan as von Werra and his fellow escapers, who by now were sharing the same fate, were all allowed their Christmas Dinner and some wine.


The administrative decision had been taken to move all German prisoners of war to Canada, and this process began in January 1941. Taken to Greenock on the River Clyde, von Werra and other German prisoners were put aboard the ship, the Duchess of York. He was as determined as ever to make his escape, a fact which was not lost on his British captors who placed him under an armed guard until the ship set sail. On the 10th January, the ship left port, carrying 1,250 German prisoners and 1,000 Royal Air Force recruits, who were going to Canada to receive their training. Von Werra, from his temporary home in Cabin 35, began to consider methods of escape that bordered on fantasy, if not insanity. He had noted that the convoy in which he was travelling was being escorted by a number of warships, amongst which was the battleship, HMS Ramillies. He began to dream up ways in which the prisoners could take control of the ship by force in the event that these escorts turned back at any stage of the voyage. In the event his plans counted for nothing as the escort remained with the convoy all the way to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they disembarked.


The prisoners were loaded aboard two trains, and von Werra learned that the German officers were to be taken to a camp on the north shore of Lake Superior, Ontario. He realised that this journey would bring him close to the border with the United States, to where he planned to escape on account of the fact that the country was still neutral at this stage in the war. Although heavily guarded, von Werra decided that towards the end of the journey he would jump off the train. The only possible exit from his carriage was through a window, though it was so high up that the only way he could get through it would be head first. The weather was expectedly cold for the time of year and as such the window was barred by ice. Von Werra worked at thawing it so that he could get it open, a task in which he was assisted by his old escaping partners, Manhard, Willhelm and Wagner, but also from the remaining German prisoners in the carriage who unwittingly donated their own body heat to raising the temperature. Von Werra considered that in such wintry conditions he would have to make his escape near to the US-Canadian border, but at a point where there was plenty of human habitation, and therefore food and good roads. It occurred to him that the obvious place to jump out was somewhere between Montreal and Ottawa. As they left Montreal station, the prisoners worked to accelerate the thawing process, which had been completely achieved by the time they stopped at the next station. This proved to be a tense moment as the window was the only one along the entire length of the train that was mysteriously free of ice, however nobody on the platform noticed. As the train moved away, von Werra readied himself to jump. He made a signal to a fellow prisoner, who got to his feet and held up his blanket by the corners, as if he were in the process of folding it up, and now shielded from sight, von Werra dived out of the window.


He had jumped from the train in the area of Smith Falls, 30 miles from the St Lawrence River, which formed the border with the United States. His absence was not noted until the following afternoon. In total, a further seven prisoners tried to escape from the same train, but all were recaptured. On his way, von Werra obtained a local map from a garage and noted that the nearest point of the river was at Prestcott. Upon arrival, to his delight, he found that the wide river was frozen over. On the other side, in the darkness, he could make out the lights coming from a town that he supposed must be Ogdensburg. He walked two miles downstream and then began to make his way across the ice. Unfortunately, in the middle he found a channel of unfrozen water and so had to return to the other side. He searched around for a time and eventually encountered a deserted holiday camp, around which he found an upturned rowing boat. It proved to be extremely difficult work for just a single man, but he succeeded in turning it over and began to push it in the direction of the river. After considerable effort he arrived at the riverbank once more. He pushed the boat in and began to make his way across. Von Werra had succeeded in escaping to neutral territory. He immediately headed towards Ogdensburg. The first landmark he could make out was the New York State Hospital, and from here he handed himself over to the first policeman he could find.


By showing his uniform and possessions to the police, he was able to convince them that he was an escaped German prisoner of war, and so he was handed over to the Immigration Authorities, who charged him with entering the United States by illegal means. It was at this point that he began to worry what would happen to him. He was only the third German prisoner of war to make a successful escape from Canada. The first man had managed to return home via Japan and Russia, but the second had been handed straight back to the Canadians. Not wishing to suffer the same fate, von Werra contacted the German Consul in New York and in so doing received a great deal of press attention. Revelling in his new found status as a hero to those in the USA who sympathised with Germany, von Werra was only too happy to recount tales of his escape, the details of which he chose to wildly exaggerate. Making his case known to the world, however, was not the end of the matter because the British and Canadians were negotiating with the United States for his return. The process continued until April 1941, whereupon it was discovered that, following his secret stay at the German Vice-Consul's home, von Werra was already in Berlin, having been helped to the Mexican border, from where he made his way through South America to Rio de Janeiro, and then on to Barcelona and Rome, and then to Germany.


Adolf Hitler, much impressed by the young Oberleutnant von Werra and bestowed upon him, in recognition of an, as yet, unproven flying achievement, the Iron Cross. He returned to Germany as a national hero, and shortly after he married a girl that he had known since before the war. Von Werra was taken to see a prisoner of war camp, in which British servicemen were held captive. His remarks, upon viewing the poor conditions in which they lived, that he would much rather be a prisoner under the British, is believed to have led to there being an effort to improve the lot of prisoners in German custody. Returning to military service, von Werra was first posted to the Russian Front but later flew fighter patrols over the North Sea. On the 25th October 1941, von Werra was flying a routine patrol from Holland when his engine failed and his plane disappeared over the sea. No trace of either aircraft or man was ever found.


The story of von Werra's escape was later made into a film, "The One That Got Away", starring Hardy Kruger in the title role.


Thanks to Margaret Byard of the Hayes Conference Centre for her help.


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