Lieutenant M. G. Duncan

 

National Archives catalogue reference - WO 208/3307/26

 

Name: Lieut. M. G. Duncan, M.C., 65656

Unit: 4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.

Captured: Watou, 30th May 1940.

Escaped: Oflag V B, 13th September 1941.

Left: Gibraltar, 12th June 1942.

Arrived: Plymouth, 16th July 1942.

Army Service: 7 years (T.A.)

Peacetime Profession: Advertising Manager.

Private Address: Skipton-on-Cherwell, Kidlington, Oxford.

 

On 29 May my Bn., which had been defending CASSEL with 2 Bn Gloucestershire Regt and attached troops, including R.A., was ordered to fall back on DUNKIRK, via WATOU and HONDSCHOOTE. The defending force withdrew from CASSEL at 2300 hrs and marched in single file across country, having abandoned everything, except rifles, light automatics, 50 round of S.A.A. per man, and as many Bren magazines and grenades as we could carry. Owing to the darkness and the obstacles of the cross-country march, our column became split up and portions of it were lost. The part of the column with which I was became further disorganized by enemy M.G. fire at a village near WINNEZEELE next morning. From there w went on to a road east to WATOU. I was then in command of A. Coy, which was followed by a platoon of D Coy and H.Q. Coy, with attached troops and 2 Gloucesters in the rear. I halted the column in a sunken lane near WATOU, where Lord RATHCREEDAN, of my Bn, resumed command and decided to push on, making a wide detour. As we moved off we could hear tanks in the village and behind us. When we reached the top of a rise it became obvious that we had walked into a trap, there being a long German armoured column on a road running round three sides of us. The enemy immediately opened fire on us. After some resistance we were forced to give up and were taken prisoner.

 

The first camp at which I was imprisoned in GERMANY was OFLAG VII C/H (LAUFEN) which I reached at the end of Jun, and where I remained until Mar 41. While I was in LAUFEN there were a number of attempted escapes, chiefly by tunnels, of which three or four were made, but none of the attempts was successful.

 

From LAUFEN we were transferred to the "equality" camp, STALAG XXI D (POSEN) as a reprisal for the alleged ill-treatment of German officer P/W in FORT HENRY, CANADA. The Germans provided us with letter cards and told us to write home saying that conditions were appalling. We all said in our letters that conditions were excellent and the Germans tore them up in disgust. It was in POSEN that I first began, along with Capt. H.B. O'Sullivan, 3 R.T.R. (S/P.G.(G)637) to consider seriously the possibility of escape. We were interested in a plan for getting out of the camp concealed among the rubbish. Three people did actually get away by this means, but, as it involved the co-operation of orderlies, it was discontinued as too risky before Capt. O'Sullivan and I had our chance. We remained in STALAG XXI D from 8 Mar 41 till early Jun, when we were transferred to OFLAG V B at BIBERACH.

 

On the train a party of six of us decided to try to get away during the journey, and we actually cut a hole in the floorboards of our carriage. Our plan was to get off the train on the second night of the journey. Unfortunately, one member of the party jumped out prematurely at mid-day on the second day and was spotted by the guards. As a result of this, the journey to BIBERACH was speeded up and we had no further opportunity of escape before reaching the camp.

 

The party who had planned to escape during the journey formed the nucleus of our tunnel party, which was formed almost immediately we arrived in the camp. Besides Capt. O'Sullivan and myself, the other members of the original party were:- Lt. P.M.C. Onions, and 2/Lt. S.J.K. Malloy, Ox and Bucks L.I.; Lt. M.B. M'Nab, Royal Scots, and Capt. H. Westley. We decided that the best place for beginning the tunnel was one of the barrack bungalows which was only six ft. from the perimeter of barbed wire. Outside the wire was a cart track, about 30 yds beyond which a slope rose to a crest. Our intention was to emerge on the far side of this crest. We managed to get a small room in this block for five of us.

 

At that time a party, which had arrived before us from THORN, had already started tunnelling from a deep latrine. Their intention was to come up just beyond the road. At first the Escape Committee would not allow us to begin until the first tunnel was either completed or discovered. After about a fortnight, however, we were allowed to go ahead with our scheme, and began digging in Block 6 about 24 Jun.

 

In the room was a small stove standing on a slab of concrete two feet square, and a hole was made through the floor beneath this just big enough for a man to get through. Underneath we made a chamber just large enough to turn in, and from there dug outwards until we were under the perimeter wire, where we made a chamber 3 ft. 6 ins. square. From there we continued to dig until by Sep 11 we had reached our destination, about 145 ft from the entrance.

 

The following are points of interest in the construction of the tunnel:-

 

Tools. For getting through the reinforced concrete floor we used a piece of iron and a double-sided hacksaw blade brought from POSEN and a wooden basher. For digging we used a cut-down poker, a small jabber made of thick wire set in a bit of broom handle, and a scraper made from a piece of a locker. For removing earth from the tunnel we had two trolleys of wood and tin on runners. The system was for the man at the face to fill a trolley, which was then pulled back to the chamber by a man lying there. He emptied it into the second trolley which was then pulled back into the room where the earth was put into Red Cross cardboard boxes and hidden under beds until it was stowed away by the stowing staff.

 

Lighting was done by electric light from the room light, three lamps being used in the tunnel. The wiring was obtained from some rooms which had plugs which were not used.

 

Ventilation. Air was forced down the tunnel by a man working bellows of wood and groundsheet. The first part of the air line was composed of some surplus piping for electric light wiring. When this ran out, we made pipes of stiff paper coated with melted dripping, with tin junctions.

 

Timber. When we first arrived in Oflag V B all beds were merely wooden shelves two tiers high, two officers sleeping on each shelf. After a time some of these beds were replaced with iron ones. We broke up eight of the wooden beds, this giving us ample timber for the whole tunnel.

 

Earth Disposal. Between the ceiling of the bungalow and the roof there was an air space of about 2 ft in the middle, the ceilings being fairly strong. There were two skylights in the roof, and, by removing a pane of glass from these and three boards, we were able to get into this air space, where all the earth was stored. To simplify matters we had a stowage staff entirely separate from the digging party, and Capt. Westley took charge of this side of the operations. We estimated that between 25 and 30 tons of earth and rocks were stored in the roof, the rocks being put on top of the walls and the earth spread over to a thickness of about five inches. By the time the digging was complete there was no space left in the roof, and the ceiling was showing cracks, which, however, were not noticed by the Germans.

 

Guards. Owing to the number of Germans (civilian workmen and N.C.O's) who were constantly moving about the camp, it was essential to have an efficient system of guards. The total number required was three outside the building and two inside. For the outside guards we also had a special staff of five, who did nothing but this duty, while the digging party provided the two inside guards. The window of our room and the window of the bungalow washroom were separated by a thickness of wall, and the system was that as soon as any German entered the camp an outside guard went to the washroom window and reported the fact to an inside guard. The German's subsequent movements were reported in the same way. If he was evidently coming straight towards our bungalow five knocks were given on the door. Everything was then closed down. After practice, it took about 25 seconds to close down, put the stove back, and tidy up the room. The hole in the floor was covered by a board smeared with glue on which was spread some of the floor composition powdered up. When the board was in position and dusted over it made quite an efficient camouflage.

 

Working hours. The work was carried on for 11 hrs a day. Night work was impossible, as one of the floodlights on the perimeter wire was immediately outside our window and sentries patrolled all night up and down the cart track outside the wire. Dog patrols also went round periodically during the night. The five of us who were in the room started work at 0600 hrs and worked till 0800 hrs, when we closed down for parade. Work started again at 0930 hrs until 1200 hrs when we stopped for lunch. Starting again at 1300 hrs, we worked until 1600 hrs and then closed down for afternoon parade. After parade we started at 1730 hrs and continued until lock-up at 2100 hrs or, towards the end, at 2030 hrs, after which the sentries came on and it was no longer safe to work. Each man on the digging party worked a minimum of five hours a day. This consisted of one hour working the air bellows, one hour guarding the room door and pulling the trolley back from the chamber, one hour guarding the room window, one hour working on the face, and one hour in the chamber pulling earth back from the face and passing it back to the room. These hours were naturally increased whenever we had casualties on the working party, and these were fairly frequent. The main reason for the casualties was that if one got the slightest scratch it would immediately fester and never heal. This was a feature of all the German prison camps, and was presumably mainly caused by the extremely low diet. Another cause of casualties was "excavator's elbow". The elbows of all of us became more or less raw. In the cases of two officers they swelled up, making it impossible for them to crawl. One officer recovered in time, but the other had to have an operation on his elbow shortly before the tunnel was completed and had to be left behind.

 

Dimensions. The tunnel was 145 ft long, 1 ft. 9 ins wide, and 1 ft. 6 ins. high.

 

Although there was no competition or racing between two tunnels, various causes helped us to go ahead considerably faster than the other party. Despite the fact that ours was by far the longer, it became clear that the two tunnels would finish simultaneously, if we did not actually finish first.

 

The leaders of the two parties had a meeting with the Senior British Officer, and it was decided that the parties should be amalgamated. It was also decided:

 

        (a) We could get more men out of our tunnel than the others could.

        (b) The exit of our tunnel would be in a far safer place than that of the others.

        (c) In the event of a search our tunnel was the more likely to be discovered.

 

It was therefore agreed that our tunnel should be used first, but that, as the others had already been given the prior right, nine of their party should go out in the first 18, leaving in pairs alternately with members of our party.

 

The S.B.O. decided to limit the number of escaping officers to 26, 17 of our party and 9 of the other. This meant that two of our party were left to go out of the latrine tunnel.

 

On 11 Sep the tunnel was complete except for a few final details and we waited for a suitable night, which came on 13 Sep. That night was dark and wet. Having been chosen by the party to go first, I went down the tunnel at 2100 hrs to prepare the exit. We had already dug right up to the turf, which we had propped up with a board supported by a post. I had expected to complete the exit in about an hour, but the job actually took about twice that time. The exit was ready about 2245 hrs, and I left first at 2300 hrs followed by O'Sullivan.

 

At the point where we left the tunnel it was possible for the searchlights to focus on us, but we had all prepared camouflage. Personally I had grass tied on to a badminton net, and, as the searchlights were all over 100 yds away, it was likely that they would pick us up on a wet night, provided we lay still while they were on.

 

It was necessary to crawl 30-40 yds before any dead ground could be reached, and from there a further 200 yds or more across a field, where at least one searchlight could always pick one up. We had spent ten nights checking up on the searchlights and had found they very rarely did more than a cursory sweep or two or three seconds duration across the whole field, so that we did not consider them a serious menace.

 

I met Capt. H.B. O'Sullivan at a rendezvous, as we intended to travel the first part of the journey together. With one exception, everyone who had tried to take the direct route from BIBERACH to SWITZERLAND had been caught. We therefore decided to make a detour and take about ten days on the journey, making it entirely across country.

 

I had with me the following equipment:-

 

Provisions:- 4½ lbs chocolate

                   2½ lbs cheese

                   1 lb German ration biscuits

                   1½ lbs mixed oatmeal and glucose.

 

This food was supplemented with apples which we had found growing in profusion everywhere.

 

Maps: (1) 1 very indifferent map (11 3/4 miles to the inch), obtained in POSEN, giving towns, rivers and railways.

          (2) 1 map of the SCHAFFHAUSEN area, 1:200,000 as sent out from England.

 

Compass: A magnetised needle sent from England.

 

The following is a daily summary of my journey during the whole of which I walked by night and hid by day. O'Sullivan and I were together during the first part of the journey.

 

13/14 Sep:- Course N.W. through the forest to UTTENWEILER. Along the RIEDLINGEN road for 2 km. to AHLEN, then S.W. for 6 km, eventually hiding in a larch wood. Nothing particular about the route. Plenty of apples growing beside roads. During afternoon all woods in our neighbourhood were beaten by inhabitants of local village - whether for us or game is uncertain, but probably for us.

 

14/15 Sep:- Started on S.W. course, but difficulties of penetrating the forest turned us South to KAHZACH and DURNAU, after which we turned West, hiding towards dawn in a fir wood.

 

15/16 Sep:- Continued West to HERBERTINGEN and the DANUBE, following the latter to MENGEN, where we had great difficulty in finding a hiding place, as all the woods in the district turned out to be apple orchards.

 

16/17 Sep:- Followed line of railways to KRAUCHENWIES. Soon after starting we were spotted by a civilian on a bicycle and had to run. We continued along railway, through GOGGINGEN and MEMMINGEN, where we hid.

 

17/18 Sep:- After making a detour round MESSKIRCH we set a course across country for KRUMBACK, very shortly entering the forest again. We eventually emerged 2 km from KRUMBACH and stayed there for the day.

 

19/20 Sep:- After making a detour round KRUMBACH, we followed the line of the road to SCHWANDORF. After passing through BÜHL the road forked and, as there was no indication which was the correct road, we followed the first line of a stream and then a line of telegraph poles which led us to SCHWANDORF. Our next objective was LIPTINGEN, but immediately after leaving SCHWANDORF we got back in the forest again, and it became a question of taking whichever forest track seemed to go nearest to our destination, none of them being marked or sign-posted. Before reaching LIPTINGEN we had to lie up.

 

Up to now our night marches has been much shorter than we had intended. Unfortunately, shortly after leaving the Camp at BIBERACH, I fell into a hole and damaged my left knee. This had continued to give trouble and had now reached a stage where I could only travel with the help of two sticks. It was pointless to allow this to hold two of us up, and I persuaded Capt. O'Sullivan to go on.

 

20/21 Sep:- I had to abandon the cross-country route and decided to make for TUTTLINGEN and from there follow the railway down to the frontier. That night I accordingly made for NEUHAUSEN and followed the line of the main road to TUTTLINGEN where I lay up that day. From there on I followed the line of the railway, walking on a path beside the track. Walking beside the railway is easy, and except at occasional big level crossings and stations, where I had to make a detour, I did not see a soul on the track from 2200 hrs to 0430 hrs.

 

21/22 Sep:- The only place of interest on the stretch in IMMENDINGEN, where there is a large railway junction. When I passed at about 0100 hrs there was a great deal of activity in shunting goods traffic. Passing a warehouse near the centre of the village - which I was compelled to go through as I could not skirt it - I heard a number of men talking French. I presumed that these were French P/W employed on the railway.

 

22/23 Sep:- I left the railway about six miles from BLUMBERG, as I wanted a place called ZOLLHAUS. A large factory, which I believe to be a cement factory, is situated in or just by ZOLLHAUS and the machinery can be heard from a distance of six to seven miles at night. Running North from ZOLLHAUS is a large concrete Autobahn under construction. At the point where I crossed it, level with BLUMBERG, the Autobahn is half completed, i.e., it is a single track road.

 

23/24 Sep:- From ACHDORF I again had to cut across country. North-East of LAUSHEIM I came on a landing ground for aeroplanes, surrounded by red lights. It was difficult to estimate the extent of the area surrounded by these lights, but I had the impression that it was about 20 acres. I spent one day in a small copse near the landing ground, but saw no planes using it. My final objective before approaching the frontier was the BONNDORF-WEIZEN main road, which I found with no difficulty.

 

26/27 Sep:- I approached the frontier, keeping South of the line of the BONNDORF-WEIZEN road. This road runs through thick forest on both sides. On the North side the forest comes down to the road, while on the South there is a stretch of fields varying between 200 yds and half a mile in width between the road and the forest. The South side is by far the more satisfactory route. I had intended to keep to the forest at this stage, but gave up the idea because of the noise I made walking on fallen beech leaves and twigs. I kept along the edge of the forest, travelling quickly and quietly on the grass and keeping the road under observation, thereby keeping direction easily and at the same time watching patrols. The BONNDORF-WEIZEN road was patrolled about every quarter of an hour by two motor cyclists, operating in opposite directions. These patrols appeared to cover the stretch from UNTERWANGEN to STÜHLINGEN, S.W. of WEIZEN. The motor cyclists carried lights. On the same road was a patrol of three men on ordinary cycles, without lights, who passed every hour. Both the motor cyclists and cyclists kept to the main road. I saw no sign of any standing patrol on the edge of the forest. I saw no wire on the WEIZEN-STÜHLINGEN stretch of the SCHAFFHAUSEN salient, though there was thick hedges along the streams. I saw no dogs at the frontier. There are, however, dogs at all the railway level-crossings.

 

Keeping all the way to the edge of the forest I had no difficulty in skirting either SCHWANINGEN or WEIZEN, neither of which stretch out to anywhere near the forest line. About half a mile after passing WEIZEN a tall chimney and some dim lights can be seen in the valley by the road. As soon as this is sighted care must be taken, as much of the ground becomes marshy and difficult. There are also some steep drops which might be dangerous on a dark night. There is, however, a semi-cleared track through the forest just above this point. The trees have been cut, but there are a lot of brambles and other undergrowth which make silent progress difficult. I found this clearing preferable to the marshy ground and it brought me out on to the main road about half a mile below the point where it turns to run S.W. parallel to the frontier - i.e., about half a mile below WEIZEN station.

 

From behind the hedge I saw a motor cyclist, with lights, go past and a party of three cyclists without lights, after which, the road being clear, I crossed it and came to the single-track railway. On my left was a small level-crossing, where I believed that I could see a guard. I therefore crossed about 300 yds lower down. This line, unlike most German lines, can easily be crossed quietly, as the sleepers are almost flush with the ground instead of being built up into an embankment of flints. Beyond the railway there was an open stretch of 150 yds of grass, beyond which I came to a stream 8 ft wide and 2 ft deep. There is a thick hedge of the West side of this stream which makes it difficult to cross quietly. I could find no gap in the hedge and had to push through. Beyond this stream is another stretch of about 60 yds of grass before the river WUTACH is finally reached. The WUTACH itself is about 20 ft across and 2 ft 6 ins deep and easily fordable.

 

From the time I left the railway, I saw no sign of any guard, though as I crossed the first stretch of grass I heard a rifle being unloaded some distance away on my left. I may, therefore, have crossed as guards were being changed, the time being them approximately 0100 hrs on 27 Sep. On the Swiss side I saw no guards at all. After crossing the WUTACH, I crossed about 300 yds of field, climbed a steep, thickly wooded hill, and followed a ride due East through the forest for about 2 km. This brought me out to a road which let into SCHLEITHEIM. I knocked on a door where I saw a light and was very well received by the inhabitants, who put me in touch with the local police.

 

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