The escape was under way – albeit an hour later than planned. A little more slowly and a little less surely than hoped for, the escapers edged their way along the tunnel.
As the Escape Committee had predicted, everything did not go without a hitch. One problem was immediately presented by one of the most important members of the X-Organisation. Tim Walenn turned up without his red moustache but with what appeared to be a trunk big enough to carry a kitchen sink in. It was not the modest bag Ker-Ramsay had inspected the night before. Ker-Ramsay was aghast but could hardly send back such a distinguished and dedicated escape artist. Instead, a compromise was arrived at whereby the trunk went on the first trolley, and Walenn followed behind. The two men shook hands awkwardly in the confines of the chamber and promised to stand one another drinks at the RAF Club in Piccadilly in a few weeks’ time.
Walenn wasn’t to be the only transgressor. Others turned up having either forgotten or simply disregarded the rules regarding baggage. Cases got wedged in the tunnel or fell off trolleys, blocking the way. Sometimes the escapers had to reverse along the tunnel and start again. It was becoming apparent to everyone that things were going seriously slowly. Far from getting out at the rate of one man every two or three minutes, it was taking up to 12 minutes a go in some instances. The men’s nerves were beginning to fray and many of them were getting edgy. Tempers flared and Ker-Ramsay began to take a less-than-good-natured view of officers who turned up with outsized baggage. At one stage a rope pulling the trolleys broke, taking several valuable minutes to repair. Then came more mixed blessings as it became apparent that the RAF had chosen that night to pay one of its visits. Thousands of feet above ground, 800 aircraft of Bomber Command began pulverising Berlin.
It was about 11.45 p.m. when the prisoners suddenly heard the familiar wail of air-raid warning sirens. Although Berlin was more than 100 miles away, any city that might act as a beacon for the bombers was blacked out, and Sagan was no exception. Within seconds the lights in the tunnel flickered out and the escapers on their trolleys experienced that most frightful of conditions: total blackout. The Escape Committee had anticipated the problem and had fat lamps on hand. But it took a long time to get them all lit and some of the escapers did panic. Wings Day was number 20 and was waiting in 104. He had been just about to go down the entrance shaft when the lights had gone out. It was another 35 minutes before the traffic controller gave him the go-ahead. Gratefully, he disappeared down the shaft. Sydney Dowse was even more grateful. He had been at the base of the exit shaft far longer than expected and his partner, Danny Krol, who suffered badly from claustrophobia, had already gone. At the sight of Wings Day he thanked goodness that it was finally his time to get out. He had no idea whether he would find Krol in the woods, but at least the escape chain was moving once more, even though it was moving very slowly.
The power blackout had at least brought one welcome side-effect. It had also thrown the perimeter lighting and searchlights above ground into darkness. That was not entirely good news because whenever this happened the Germans always redoubled their guard and sent their men with sniffer dogs into the compounds. However, on this particular occasion the lookouts positioned at the barrack windows throughout the North Compound could not see any intensification of guard activity. Perhaps the German guards had concluded, like Jimmy James’s roommate, that it would be cruel to put even a dog out on a night like that. For a few precious minutes the men found themselves exiting the tunnel at a much faster rate. This came to a conclusive halt when what everybody had feared would happen came about. Tom Kirby-Green’s suitcase snagged on one of the shoring planks. The trolley jerked to a halt. There was a moment’s nervous silence and suddenly Kirby-Green was buried in a fall.
It took an hour of frantic work to pull out the RAF officer and repair the damage, and no sooner had it been fixed than the electricity came back on and the tunnel lit up. Any advantage the men might have derived from the enforced darkness of the air raid had been thrown away. It was not until 1 a.m. that the last of the 30 ‘priority’ suitcase carriers had finally broken out. Had the escape gone according to the most optimistic plans those 30 would have been well on their way to Sagan station by 10.30 p.m., and by now some 105 men would have been out in the woods.
Meanwhile, the station continued to fill up with more escapers, who were all being confronted with difficult decisions, thanks to the disruption to their plans. They had all arrived hopelessly behind schedule and had missed their trains. Wandering about the booking hall a little self-consciously they tried to avoid one another’s gaze with different degrees of success. Most self-conscious of all was Wings Day, who arrived shortly before 1 a.m., a little apprehensive in his disguise of an Irish colonel’s uniform. Wings was hoping against hope that the presence next to him of Peter Tobolski in his Luftwaffe corporal’s disguise would offer the reassurance necessary to any suspicious German. But when he looked around he could see almost nothing but familiar faces. Gordon Kidder and Tom Kirby-Green were there; as were Dennis Cochran, John Stevens, Bob van der Stok and Johannes Gouws. It seemed to Day that the whole of the X-Organisation was occupying the booking hall.
Now three train-loads of prisoners were making their way to freedom and it was beginning to seem as if all the delays and frustrations of earlier in the night were starting to pay off.
Wings Day and Tobolski were among those left in the booking hall. Wings remained uncomfortable in his unwanted disguise but was reassured somewhat by the fact that some Stalag Luft III guards who had been hanging around the station, obviously on leave, had not appeared to pay him the slightest bit of attention. More to the point, they had boarded their trains and were now gone. Perhaps, reflected Wings, the Escape Committee was right after all and the most unlikely cover stories were the best. There were a handful of other escapers still waiting at Sagan with Wings, also destined for the Reich capital, among them the Norwegians Halldor Espelid and Nils Fugelsang. It was well past 3 a.m. before the Berlin train arrived to whisk them away into the night. Soon the Sagan booking hall no longer hosted the clandestine travellers, who seemed not to have attracted the slightest amount of suspicion among most of their German travelling companions, the station officials and even the prison camp guards. The only other train travellers from Stalag Luft III would be the 12 escapers posing as woodmill workers on leave, but they would be departing from the small country station of Tschiebsdorf, not far from Sagan, from where they would get a local train to Boberöhrsdorf on the Czech border.
Wings Day and Peter Tobolski were arriving in the capital. Their train journey had also gone without incident. Once they disembarked they headed directly for the address they had been given by the Escape Committee of a Danish member of the underground. They discovered that he was a generous host and treated them to a minor banquet, which was comforting after the deprivations of Sagan. However, the contact appeared either unwilling or incapable of helping them. The two men decided he might be more of a hindrance than a help to their plans. After Day helped himself to some of the man’s civilian clothes, they gave him the slip and embarked on a tour of the German capital to explore for themselves other possibilities of escape. They too were surprised at the level of destruction the Allied air raids had wrought on Berlin. After weighing up the options they decided to head for Stettin the following day, Sunday, where Tobolski’s sister lived.
Wings Day and Peter Tobolski left Berlin on March 26 by train for Stettin, where the Polish officer had a sister married to a German. However, they were disappointed to discover that she was too afraid to offer much more than the most cursory help. She allowed them to shelter at the bottom of her garden for the night and left them some bread, eggs and milk. The next day they managed to find some French prisoners of war prepared to help smuggle them on a ship bound for Sweden. They were hiding on board the ship when the German police arrived to arrest them on 29 March. They had been betrayed by one of the Frenchmen. After spending four days in a local prison the two men were separated. They saluted one another as they parted, both men acutely conscious of what fate probably awaited Tobolski. But Wings Day was far from sure what fate he would face as he found himself being taken to Gestapo headquarters in Berlin. There he was confronted by Artur Nebe himself, the head of the Kripo and the man who had decided which of the 76 would live or die. After a desultory interrogation, Nebe told Day that he was being sent to somewhere he would not escape from again. Without giving him any further clues, he was dismissed and two Gestapo men drove him out of the city through its northern bomb-flattened suburbs. It was 3 April.
Jimmy James continued his unwelcome stay at Hirschberg jail for several more days. On his brief exercise walks he learnt that most of the other occupants were citizens of occupied countries who had committed crimes against the Reich. Most expected to be executed sooner or later. James began to ruminate about his own fate as he watched the comings and goings of sinister Gestapo agents. It was not until 6 April that the doors of his cell were flung open once more and he was invited to step out. He was confronted by the police inspector he had first met at the police station after his arrest. The man told him he was to be removed from the jail and James was marched down the streets to the railway station, ignorant of what his ultimate destination would be. He was accompanied on the railway journey by another Gestapo inspector. He refused to enlighten him about his destination but at a fork in the tracks the German indicated that the other route led to Sagan. James understood he was not going back to Stalag Luft III. When the men boarded a northern-bound train at Görlitz he knew he must be bound for Berlin. Sure enough, some hours later the train pulled into the capital. Like the others James was astonished by what he saw. The city lay in ruins before him, flattened by the twin efforts of Bomber Command and the American Eighth Air Force. ‘There was not a pane of glass to be seen and most of the windows were boarded up,’ he recalled. Ironically, it was now in the heart of the Reich that James’s German guard offered to release him from his handcuffs if he gave his word he would not escape. He did. It was quite apparent that escape was not in the least likely.
He was still puzzled by his intended fate. James was taken to the headquarters of the Gestapo in Berlin, where after a short interlude he was sent once more on a car journey through the bombed city in the company of two SD officers, members of Hitler’s elite intelligence and security division. After a while, the car left the suburbs behind and entered a dark pine forest. Presently, the car came upon a high wall, camouflaged in dull black and green, with electrified wire running along the top and sentry posts at varying distances. There was something chilling about the place, and James’s feelings of apprehension were compounded when one of the SD officers said to him: ‘Well, Herr James, no more tunnelling for you – it is impossible to escape from here.’
James was taken through a guardroom into this unknown building. Inside was a small area surrounded by high walls, within which was a further compound surrounded by electrified wire and containing two wooden barrack huts. James was marched into one of these where he was greeted by a tall English officer in horn-rimmed spectacles. ‘Welcome to your new home,’ he said, introducing himself as Peter Churchill. They shook hands and Churchill took James to the end of the barrack block where he was met by a familiar sight.
‘Hello,’ grinned Wings Day. James felt a spasm of relief, though he still had no idea where he was.
‘Is this Colditz?’ he asked Day.
‘No,’ replied the older officer. ‘I wish to hell it was. This is Sachsenhausen concentration camp and the only way out of here is up the chimney.’