Captain H. B. O'Sullivan

 

National Archives catalogue reference - WO 208/3307/28

 

Name: Capt. H. B. O'Sullivan, M.C.

Unit: 3rd Battalion Royal Tank Regiment, 1st Armoured Division.

Captured: Guines, 25th May 1940.

Escaped: Oflag V B, 13th September 1941.

Left: Gibraltar, 10th June 1942.

Arrived: Portsmouth, 19th July 1942.

Army Service: 8 years, 4 months.

Peacetime Profession: Regular soldier.

Private Address: The Crest Lodge, Hazlemere, Surrey.

 

I was second in command of B Sqn., 3 Bn. R.T.R., which arrived by sea at CALAIS on 23 May 40. Early next morning the Bn. set off towards GUINES, where it encountered the spearhead of the German 1 Armd. Div. moving up towards CALAIS. The enemy was able at every point to concentrate superior fire power and the Bn. was forced to withdraw on CALAIS. During this withdrawal my tank was twice hit by 2-pdr. shells and damaged beyond repair. I went over and told Colonel KELLER that I would stay and cover his flank attack. He sent two light tanks and a cruiser to help me, but these were all knocked out within a few minutes.

 

Unfortunately, I had no H.E. for my mortar, and neither of my two front machine guns would fit into their mountings. These guns had only been procured at the last minute in CALAIS. For ten minutes after seeing the Colonel we continued to engage the enemy before the offside front turret was put out of action by two hits, the gunner being wounded. The other machine gun I had dismounted with all the available ammunition and was firing at the enemy lorries from the top of the tank and later from a gap in a hedge 15 yds. from it. Twenty minutes after I had seen the Colonel, two direct hits put the machine gun and smoke mortar out of action, killing two of the crew and wounding another. We continued to engage the enemy lorries and the troops in the woods 600 yds to either side of us for a further 12 minutes and succeeded in silencing the anti-tank gun in the wood. During this time everything was concentrated on our tank which was hit repeatedly. When we were within the last 50 rounds of our last box of ammunition the enemy tanks withdrew, our own tanks having withdrawn some time previously. We had endeavoured to draw the attention and fire of the enemy for just over half an hour and had thus accomplished our role. We had certainly caused casualties on both the roads to our front and had made impossible any lorry movement past us.

 

I now decided to join my battalion in CALAIS, taking with me the four survivors of my crew, one of whom was wounded in the head and back and very weak. We walked two miles across country, slowly because of the wounded man and were forced to hide in a barn outside CALAIS by the appearance of German motorised troops and armd. recce units. Early next morning (25 May) German patrols and motorised troops passed our hiding place and there was firing all round.

 

I went out myself to reconnoitre and find food for the men. There were enemy troops very close to the farm. There was reported to be a large tank force - estimated at a Brigade - at GUINES and I approached within a few hundred yards of enemy artillery that were firing from there. I salvaged a quantity of food from a destroyed searchlight unit position, which had just previously been wiped out by Germans tanks, and returned to the farm.

 

I afterwards started across very marshy contry with my men and we were eventually arrested as enemy parachutists by some French infantry and were conducted to Major HARDCASTLE, who was at a farm road junction with a force of men from different units. As they had been attacked for some time, I did not feel justified in leaving them, although I was anxious to get to CALAIS.

 

In the subsequent attempt to reach CALAIS we found ourselves at dawn (26 May) in the middle of an extremely well camouflaged German Armd. Bde. position. The edges of the wood and the roads as far as one could see were packed with every sort of armoured fighting vehicle, while to either side of us there were heavy battery positions (equivalent to 5.9).

 

The tanks opened fire at 100 yds range from two directions. Although tired out, the men were anxious to charge the wood, but as there appeared to be nothing but armoured vehicles and tanks to our front and we had no anti-tank weapons of any sort, a charge of a few men without even bayonets seemed quite futile and incapable of accomplishing any useful purpose. The major, therefore, ordered us to surrender.

 

Shortly after capture I was interrogated in the open near GUINES in full view of the other prisoners. The interrogation lasted four or five minutes. In addition to asking the usual questions, the interrogator  was very keen to find out how many and what kind of tanks there were in the vicinity of CALAIS. Although I had removed my Tank Corps badges, he apparently suspected which Corps I belonged to, and asked several times when we had arrived in CALAIS. He appeared to be under the impression that there was an Armd. Div. in CALAIS itself and I encouraged him in this idea and told him we had very heavy tanks, as that seemed to worry him most. I afterwards discovered that the Germans had taken our unit to be the spearhead of the British 1 Armd. Div. and that they did not push past CALAIS because they believed that by doing so they would be leaving their left flank exposed. When I did not answer any questions except in a very general way, the interrogator did not try to force me. He did not ask any questions about the infantry or the R.A.F. I was not interrogated again on Service matters.

 

I was taken from GUINES to CAMBRAI and then sent to German via TRIER and MAINZ and arrived in OFLAG VII C/H (LAUFEN) about 13 Jun, where I remained until early Mar 41. Six of us dug the first tunnel out of OFLAG VII C/H. I had malaria when the tunnel was completed and could not go myself, but six others got out. They were making for YUGOSLAVIA, but all of them were caught. From LAUFEN we were sent to STALAG XXI D (POSEN) and were three months in the reprisal camp there. In LAUFEN Lt. M.G. DUNCAN (S/P.G.(-)639) and I got together and prepared a plan of escape which I considered would have succeeded had we had another black-out before leaving for Oflag V B (BIBERACH) in Jun 41.

 

The construction of the tunnel by which we escaped on the night of 13 Sep is described in Lt. DUNCAN's report. Duncan and myself organized and planned the entire escape (which got out 26 officers) as a military operation. All the available information was distributed among those taking part and each pair chose a different route by mutual agreement, the routes spreading out fan-wise from BIBERACH covering the frontier from the East end of LAKE CONSTANCE to STRASSBOURG. By this means we hoped that those who did not escape would return to the camp with valuable information about conditions at many points on the frontier. We also shared out all the available escape equipment, including compasses. I was exceptionally lucky in being able to buy an oil compass from an Australian. For the actual escape from the tunnel, we gave a great deal of thought to the question of camouflage and we decided that, whatever else the escapers might wear underneath, all of us would have khaki on top throughout with grass sewn completely over. We wore balaclavas and gloves similarly treated, so that no part of our body except our eyes was showing. We arranged that our haversacks should be as flat as possible so that they would not show up in the searchlight through which we had to pass. The haversacks also were camouflaged. We had a dress rehearsal for the camouflage before we left.

 

Lt. DUNCAN was the first to leave the tunnel and I got out a few minutes after him at 2316 hrs. on 13 Sep. We had a slope of over 400 yds to crawl across under the direct beam of searchlights at either end of the perimeter. We crawled across the line where two fields, one of stubble and the other of clover, joined. Although the searchlights passed directly over us two or three times, we were able to avoid detection by lying still. We were further assisted by the exceptional darkness of the night and by rain, which helped to deaden the noise.

 

I had agreed to meet DUNCAN at a wood about a mile from the camp. Thanks to my oil compass, I reached the wood about 15 minutes before him. We had decided to keep together for as long as was mutually helpful and to separate before making ultimately for the WEIZEN district of the frontier. We had also decided to keep well out of the area between BIBERACH and the nearest part of the SCHAFFHAUSEN Salient, as previous escapers had all been caught on the more or less direct route OSTRACH - ASCH - STOCKACH. On the first night, therefore, we went well away from our ultimate course, going through heavily wooded country to just past AHLEN on the main road to RIEDLINGEN. From there we struck S.W. across country and lay up in woods about 2 miles from RIEDLINGEN. Villagers beat this wood during the day and passed within a few yards of us, but we escaped detection by remaining perfectly still.

 

For the first six days DUNCAN and I travelled together on the following route:- 13 Sep, BIBERACH; 14 Sep, UTTENWEILER; 15 Sep, DURNAU, HERBERTINGEN; 16 Sep, MENGEN, KRAUCHENWIES; 17 Sep, MESSKIRCH; 18 Sep, KRUMBACH; 19 Sep, SCHWANDORF, LIPTINGEN, EMMINGEN. On the night of 14/15 Sep the sole came off one of my shoes in marshy country. I had been unable to get large enough boots in the camp and had worn my own very old shoes which had been badly resoled in the camp cobbler's shop. On the night of 20/21 Sep - I had parted company with DUNCAN - my route was ENGEN, HATTINGEN, ZIMMERHOLZ, STETTIN and LEIPFERDINGEN. That night the sole came off second second shoe and for the rest of the journey I had to walk on my heels with my feet bound with rags and straps. This slowed down my progress tremendously.

 

On the road near LEIPFERDINGEN a patrol of two policemen on bicycles came on me from behind about 0330 hrs. This was the first time I had walked on a main road and I had been tempted to do so to spare my feet. The cyclists came on me very swiftly and I was not aware of them till I heard their brakes. They shouted "Halt! Papiere!". DUNCAN and I had decided to run if we were thus challenged so I darted up the bank on the nearest side but it was too steep and I could not escape that way. I, therefore, dashed back across the road, passing within 7 yards of the policemen, who fired three shots at me, but I was able to scramble down a steep slope on the right-hand side of the road and get away. I discovered later that my water bottle had got lost in the encounter. This made lying up during the day a very thirsty business for the rest of the journey. I knew the patrol were on their way to LEIPFERDIGNEN and I could hear other patrols being posted on the road through LEIPFERDINGEN, which lay across my natural line of advance towards the frontier. I, therefore, doubled back and made a detour towards AUFLINGEN, in the forest some distance from LEIPFERDINGEN.

 

Next night (21/22 Sep), my tenth out from BIBERACH, I skirted ACHDORF on the South side and lay up for the day of 22 Sep some 1000 yds S.W. of it overlooking the plain towards LAUSHEIM. ACHDORF is easiest passed on the South side, the river being easily forded and there being no woods in the way, while to the North is very heavily forested and most difficult country.

 

On the night of 22/23 Sep I set off for LAUSHEIM on a compass bearing direct across country. After crossing the road between EWATINGEN and BLUMBEG, I passed a large landing ground, marked very cleverly with red lights which could only be seen from very close. I had seen two planes on it during the day, but no hangars or ground equipment. The plain was easy walking - being cultivated land - and LAUSHEIM is easily skirted on either side. From here, having verified position by sign posts, I went on a bearing slightly West of South and lay up on a thickly wooded hill overlooking LEMBACH - WEIZEN road for the day of 23 Sep. From this spot I could hear the church bells of both WEIZEN and LEMBACH very clearly and I decided to make a detour to LEMBACH that night and follow the line of the village to WEIZEN. I intended to make a thorough and unhurried reconnaissance of the frontier before crossing and this seemed the safest line to take, especially as the hill overlooking the WEIZEN - LEMBACH road was densely forested and precipitous in places and quite impassable by night and a big detour towards WEIZEN seemed dangerous.

 

On the 11th night (23/24 Sep) I followed the top of this ridge towards LEMBACH till I came out into open fields. I then found a small foot track leading down to the road just South of the village. I followed this to the road and waited in the wood till it became very quiet. Then I crossed the road and drank at the small stream beside it before going down  the valley, hugging the line of the trees to either side as necessary. The West side is the best line to take till the road turns almost due East towards WEIZEN. I then crossed the road and followed it, keeping well above it. Just before the main BONNDORF road joins it I swung S.E. and crossed both the roads and the river and went up through the woods. There I lay up for the day at the edge of the plain on top, overlooking the line of 70-foot pylons and within 500 yards of them. From this point I could see the 100-foot towards at point 891 metres and I could get my exact line of advance to hit the Swiss frontier a safe distance from WEIZEN station.

 

I decided to cross the next night (24/25 Sep). Once more I completely camouflaged myself by sewing grass on to my coat and balaclava. I tried khaki handkerchiefs round my hands and crawled some 300 yards past the pylons. (I had watched this plain during the day from a high beech tree and had seen no sign of guards, but only a lot of field workers.)

 

Having watched the woods for some time and satisfied myself that there was no one there, I entered the forest and continued S.E. by compass. It was very difficult to move quietly in this forest as it contained a large proportion of beech trees and there was a wide belt where all the trees had been stripped of their lower branches, which had been left strewn over the ground. As it became impossible to move without snapping twigs, I lay down under a tree on the downward slope of the hill and awaited the dawn. During the night (24/25 Sep) there had been traffic on the road and I had heard trains pass, so I knew exactly where both ran. I could also hear the trains starting and stopping some way off, which enabled me to judge I was a safe distance from WEIZEN Station. I could also hear the river WUTACH running.

 

At early dawn (25 Sep) I made my way rapidly down to the road, being lucky enough to strike a path with sufficient low cover of young beech trees. There was nothing about, so I crossed the road and saw that the railway to the S.W. had a very high embankment, while in front of me it was almost level with, and only 30 yards from, the road. A party of Nazi cyclists aged about 14 - I think there were eight of them - came very silently and quickly round the corner, spotted me and shouted, "Halt", recognising by my beard that I was an escaper. It was still fairly dark, so I ran back into the forest and hid near the top of the hill in a sort of fox hole, in some very thick bushes. Although a lot of people seemed to be looking for me in the wood later that day, none found my hiding place.

 

That night (25 Sep) I made my way very quietly down to the road, moving only when traffic or trains passed to obscure the noise. By midnight I was hidden just at the side of the road. I saw cyclist patrols pass and one sentry flashing a torch, and ocne a guard ran past. (During the day - at 1903, 2010 and 2030 hrs - I had seen three cavalry patrols pass on the road.)

 

I crossed the road into a small apple orchard at 0100 hrs on 26 Sep and from there crossed the railway, going 50 yards S.W. to avoid a piece of marshy ground from which a lot of duck flew at my approach. Under cover of the noise of a passing train I went down and through a small stream, then due S.E. over a strip of open field, then a wider stream (10 ft), then the WUTACH, which at that point was 20 ft. across and 2 ft. deep. I had had no water to drink since just before WEIZEN, over 50 hrs before, so I drank here before pushing on up a very steep and thickly wooded hill. It was necessary to climb up, clinging from root to root and tree to tree in places, but I kept on up to the top on the same bearing before lying up in a bush at about 0200 hrs. I knew I was well over the frontier and at dawn I saw SCHLEITHEIM just below me. I could pick out the features of the country easily on the map from the spot height 609 and the straight church spire of SCHLEITHEIM was very different from the bulbous German ones. The buildings were also unmistakably Swiss. I slept till noon, when I debated on the advantages of getting on unnoticed to SCHAFFHAUSEN.

 

At 1215 hrs I heard a twig snap and from my hiding place I saw a Swiss Guard coming along the ridge of the hill some 60 yds off. He looked so genial that I went down to meet him and told him I was a British officer. He welcome me very warmly without any challenge. He walked down towards SCHLEITHEIM, choosing a grassy route, as I was walking on almost completely bare feet - my socks and straps having down through, and the walking through forests and over stubble for over a week without shoes had made them very swollen.

 

From my observation it was quite clear that the German-Swiss frontier was not guarded in depth between WEIZEN and STÜHLINGEN, all the guards being along the road and railway. I think that in the bigger villages near the frontier there were probably about four guards permanently on duty - two stationary and two on bicycles. The guards know the country very thoroughly and the cycle patrol, who carry no lights, can come up behind a pedestrian very quickly and silently. During my observation of the frontier I noticed an occasional motor cyclist and an occasional light car, both apparently on patrol, but I could not discover what system these patrols were worked on. As mentioned above, I saw that seemed to be three separate cavalry patrols of about eight men in the evening, but these may merely have been mounted troops on the move. I did not see any wire on that sector of the frontier. The woods in that district are most difficult at night and the noise of an escaper walking through the undergrowth might very easily give him away to the guards or dogs. The railway runs along a high embankment and anyone crossing it might be observed from a considerable distance.

 

On my journey I tried to observe the following rules which DUNCAN and I had agreed on before we made our attempt:-

 

        1. To keep to the woods and off main roads and not to be seen at all. The only time I broke this rule was near LEIPFERDINGEN when I was surprised by the cycle patrol.

        2. To find a hiding place at least an hour before dawn, make it comfortable and stay there the whole day. When we were together we refrained from talking and coughing.

        3. Never to move before dark.

        4. To avoid villages of any size and never to walk through small farms and holdings before midnight or after 0400 hrs, when the country people start getting up.

        5. Never to cross a bridge or level-crossing without careful reconnaissance.

        6. Always to move quietly so as to hear the other fellow first.

        7. Never to build fires and never to light a match in an exposed place.

        8. To make a thorough and unhurried reconnaissance of the frontier before crossing.

 

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