Captain H. A. Woollatt

 

National Archives catalogue reference - WO 208/3307/27

 

Name: Capt Woollatt, H.A.

Unit: 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers.

Captured: L'Escaut Canal, 2nd May 1940.

Escaped: Biberach, 13th September 1941.

Left: Gibraltar, 4th May 1942.

Arrived: Gourock, 12th May 1942.

Army Service: 5 years.

Peacetime Profession: Regular Army.

Private Address: Lowe Hill House, Stratford St. Mary, Colchester.

 

My battalion, 2nd Battalion Lancs Fusiliers in the 11th Infantry Brigade, 4th Division, was holding a defensive position on the bank of L'ESCAUT CANAL. On 22 May 40 I was given the task of joining a flank with my carrier platoon. After placing my sections I was returning to D Coy. H.Q. in my carrier when it crashed into a wall. We were immediately surrounded by Germans and as I had been obliged to leave my Bren gun with one of my sections I gave the order to surrender.

 

I was taken to a German Divisional H.Q. and given food and drink. A very pleasant German I.O. chatted with me about horses. When conversation turned to service matters I always refused to answer whereupon the Germans proceeded to give the answers themselves. Among other things they told me the Order of Battle of the 4th Division, which was correct but for one new battalion.

 

I was sent to various camps in Germany, LAUFEN, POSEN, THORN, and eventually to Oflag V B, BIBERACH, where I arrived on 3 Jun 41 with a number of other officers. That same afternoon three groups of officers approached the camp escape officer with a view to starting a tunnel from the latrine, which lay near the outside wall. On either side of the latrine were barracks which would have offered a much more favourable starting point, but at that time they were unoccupied and locked. They were subsequently opened and tunnel No.2 was started. The latrine was a wooden hut built over a concrete trench with a double row of seats about six a side. It lay about 10 yards inside the wire which was six feet thick and 10 feet high with an extra six feet on the outside wall of wire.

 

Work began by breaking through the concrete wall. To do this we had acquired two hatchets and a cold chisel which we stole in Poland. In spite of muffling the tools with leather and rubber this made a great deal of noise and was a very slow business, as we could only make about 10 blows a minute. At the end of about 10 days we had made a hole 2 ft by 1 ft 6 ins.

 

Having broken through the wall, work was started on the earth and progressed at a rate of about 20 ins. a day. The roof was supported by wood obtained from bed-boards. The distance between supports varied according to the state of the earth, being usually about 18 ins., but in some places the soil was so fine that it was necessary to box the entire tunnel. To being with the wood was cut with a piece of hack-saw blade 4 ins. long, but eventually, by making friends with the German camp quartermaster, I was able to borrow a full size saw on the pretext of making a book-case and some shelves. For lighting we began by using grease lights, but after a few yards the air became so bad that it would not support combustion, so we put in electric light, using stolen flax. Ventilation was provided by an electric razor motor connected to a fan which drove the air down a pipe made of "Lingfo" dried milk tins obtained from Red Cross parcels. The earth dug out was deposited in the ceiling of a barrack-block. Eight officers did the digging, working in pairs. Four officers at a time were employed as "squatters", that is they permanently occupied the seats above the work. Other parties removed the earth and dumped it will others kept up permanent and special patrols.

 

In the meantime another party of officers from POSEN had arrived, and had built a tunnel from the neighbouring barracks, now opened. Their task being easier, their tunnel was finished before ours. As we had begun first and been given priority it was decided that nine of us should leave in the first 18 from their tunnel, and that the total number to attempt the escape should be limited to 26. We were to leave in pairs but I made up my mind to travel alone. The first suitable night was 13 Sep which was dark and wet. We left at intervals of 10 minutes to hr. I left alone as number 11 at 0100 hrs 14 Sep. I wore battle dress, balaclava, gloves, socks over my boots, and camouflaged with khaki wool and grass. I took the following food with me:-

 

        Cheese (in cartons) 2 lbs.

        Chocolate (plain) 3 to 4 lbs.

        Porridge oats and raisins mixed.

        Glucose 2 tins.

 

I found this amount of food more than sufficient and did not eat half of it.

 

On emerging from the tunnel entrance, I had to crawl about 300 yds over a slope which was open to the beams of the camp searchlights. Fortunately these were only switched on at intervals. I succeeded in crossing the open and on reaching cover made for the main road running west from the camp. I continued along this road for the first night. After this I never went on the main road, but kept across country or on side roads and tracks, keeping direction by the stars and my home-made compass. (This compass was made from the bottom of a glass boot-polish container, a piece of cork, and a pin in a wooden sleeve. The card face was covered with black paper on which was a white arrow. I found I could distinguish this arrow on the darkest nights. The two needles on the card I magnetised by stroking them in the same direction about 150 times with an Eclipse razor which had a magnetic core).

 

Route

 

Night 13/14 September.

 

I left the tunnel mouth at 0115 hrs on the 14th September and at 0200 hrs left the outskirts of BIBERACH travelling in a westerly direction along the main road BIBERACH - RIEDLINGEN. On reaching UTTENWEILER I left the road and went by track in a S.W. direction and lay up for the day in a wood approximately 4 miles S.S.W. of UTTENWEILER. Between BIBERACH and UTTENWEILER I saw no sign of the light branch railway shown on maps. Other escapers have also reported their failure to find it.

 

Night 14/15 September.

 

A very dark and wet night. I set off in a S.S.W. direction and crossed the road and single-track railway between KANZACH and BUCHAU. Here I saw a German sentry on a bridge stopping everyone who passed. I avoided him but as I crossed the road further down I ran into another sentry who gave the alarm. I do not think there were more than two or three Germans there, and by running about 1/4 mile and lying in a patch of roots I succeeded in throwing them off. During the chase I lost my gascape and broke my home-made compass. However I continued across country in what I thought was a S.W. direction, but got badly lost and must have eventually lain up for the day in a wood somewhere about 6 miles S.E. of SAULGAU. During the day I mended my compass.

 

Night 15/16 September.

 

I left the wood early and found a signpost on a small track pointing N.W. to SAULGAU and followed it. On reaching the edge of the town I skirted round the north side and crossed the railway and main road SAULGAU - HERBERTINGEN. Keeping a westerly course I struck a small road running west from SAULGAU to MENGEN. I kept to this road passing through two villages and stopped at dawn in a wood 2 miles S.E. of MENGEN.

 

Night 16/17 September.

 

I set off in a S.W. direction along the north edge of the wood shown on the map, with the DANUBE valley on my right. I crossed the road KRAUCHENWIES - PFULLENDORF, also a stream running north and south. After this I got entangled in several woods and passed slightly north of WALD (about 4 miles west of PFULLENDORF) after which I went N.W. until I struck the railway MESZKIRCH - STOCKACH about 4 miles south of MESZKIRCH. I then came to the widest stream I had had to cross so far and I had to follow it northwards until I was able to cross it by the railway bridge about 1 mile south of MESZKIRCH. I stopped in a wood about 1 mile S.W. of MESZKIRCH.

 

Night 17/18 September.

 

I set off in a direction slightly south of west and passed north of KRUMBACH and on to SCHWANDORF (not shown on map but about 3 miles west of KRUMBACH), and on to LIPTINGEN, where I lay up in a wood about 1 mile S.E. of the town.

 

Night 18/19 September.

 

I set off in a S.W. direction through a village HONSTETTEN (shown on the map about 4 miles S.S.W. of LIPTINGEN, but not named). I continued approximately S.W. along a valley with high, steep, wooded hills on either side. I crossed the main road between ENGEN and AACH and kept travelling S.W. for about two miles, when I crossed a stream and railway SINGEN-ENGEN about 1 mile N.W. of MUEHLHAUSEN and finally lay up in a wood about 3/4 mile S.S.W. of WELSCHINGEN (see DUFOUR 1:100,000, sheet 4).

 

Night 19/20 September.

 

I approached the frontier by the route described later (crossing the Frontier), but on reaching the railway the moon became so bright and the visibility so good that I did not consider it advisable to continue and decided to wait another 24 hrs, so I returned to the wood whence I had started.

 

Night 20/21 Sep. Crossing the Frontier.

 

At about 2200 hrs on Saturday, 20th September, I started from the south edge of a wood on a hill, which lies 1 km. S.S.W. of WELSCHINGEN (17 km. N.N.E. of SCHAFFHAUSEN). This wood lies within a triangle bounded on the west by a track running S.W. from WELSCHINGEN to SEEWEILER, on the east by the road running S.E. from WELSCHINGEN to WEITERDINGEN, and on the south by a track and stream running from WEITERDINGEN westwards into a small lake at SEEWEILER.

 

On leaving the wood I proceeded in a S.W. direction crossing the above-mentioned track and stream. I continued in the same direction, keeping the road SEEWEILER - BINNINGEN about Km. on my right and on my left the HOHENSTOFFELN Pt. 846, for about 3 Km. until I crossed the stream running off the HOHENSTOFFELN into BINNINGEN from S.S.E.

 

This stream is not wide but has scrub and small trees on its banks. I then crossed the road running S.E. from BINNINGEN to RIEDHEIM about Km. south of BINNINGEN.

 

From this point I went due south and the next feature I struck was a single-track railway with fir hedges on both sides. This point must have been about Km. S.E. of STORTZELN.

 

From this point I kept a general course S.S.W avoiding small copses and crossing two roads. These must have been (i) Road STORTZELN - RIEDHEIM and (ii) Road BUESSLINGEN - RIEDHEIM.

 

I next struck the stream shown on the map running N.W. - S.E. This was practically dry but about 4 ft deep and the banks are well defined by trees and bushes. I continued in the same S.S.W. direction for about 1-2 Km. and hearing the church bells of what turned out to be THAYNGEN. I stopped to wait till dawn to verify my position. The time was then about 0400 hrs. I did not see BARZHEIM but I think I passed just N.W. of it.

 

At about 5.30 a.m. I was picked up by Swiss frontier police on the outskirts of THAYNGEN.

 

Escape Hints.

 

(1) Switzerland

        1. Swiss frontier guards at THAYNGEN were very friendly.

        2. Having crossed the frontier advise waiting until dawn to verify position as it is very easy to cross back into Germany.

        3. Swiss guards recommend all frontier N.E. to east of THAYNGEN as being easy to cross.

        4. They said that the RAMSEN area is not wired and has been used with success.

        5. Many French cross by railway from GOTTMADINGEN, which is the German control station, by jumping trains after they have passed the control.

        6. It appears that no permit or pass is necessary to travel on the German railways, and it is quite possible for German-speaking officers to take tickets. This has been successfully done by several Dutch officers from LEIPZIG.

 

(2) During approach to the frontier.

        1. At Oflag Vb, BIBERACH, after the alarm had been given, patrols were put out on all main roads in the vicinity running west, south and S.W. It is not certain to what depth they extended, but officers have been recaptured by them as far as 40 Km. from the camp.

        2. Armed civilians (special constable type?) on bicycles patrol main roads and have retaken officers 50-60 Km. from the camp. NOTE: I considered all metalled roads to be "main" roads.

        3. There appears to be no form of night watch kept in villages and small towns.

 

(3) On the frontier.

        1. HOHENHOWEN Pt. 848, 2 Km. N.W. of WELSCHINGEN, and HOHENSTOFFELN Pt. 846, 2 Km. west of BINNINGEN are very good landmarks and can be seen from some distance at night.

        2. German post known to be on the road west of SCHLATT am RANDEN (2 Km. N.N.W. of THAYNGEN).

        3. BUESSLINGEN (3 Km. N.N.W. of SCHLATT am RANDEN) appears to be H.Q. of German frontier guards in this area. Officers recaptured at SCHLATT am RANDEN report this.

        4. Woods right on the frontier are patrolled with dogs in the day time.

        5. I saw no wire at all. I was told there was some near STUHLINGEN.

        6. I saw only one German. He was on a railway about Km. S.W. of STORTZELN, and may not have been a frontier guard.

 

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