The Biggest Maritime Disaster Ever: The M.V. Wilhelm Gustloff

Disasters at sea will always be famous. The R.M.S. Lusitania, the R.M.S. Titanic, the H.M.H.S Britannic and the Oceanos, to name but a few. And they’re all famous for different reasons – War, luxury, mischance, cowardice and bravery…and yet, none of these is the biggest maritime disaster of all. No, not even the Titanic, which this year commemorates the 99th anniversary of its sinking.

This unfortunate honour: The biggest maritime disaster in the world to date, goes to the ill-fated German ocean-liner, the M.V. Wilhelm Gustloff.

What was the Wilhelm Gustloff?

The M.V. (motor vessel) Wilhelm Gustloff was built between 1936 and 1938. Originally, she was a cruise-ship and was named for the asassinated leader of the Nazi Party in Switzerland, who was killed just months before construction was due to begin. The Gustloff was launched on the fifth of May, 1937 in Hamburg, Germany.

Photograph of the Gustloff being launched

The Gustloff had been envisioned as one of the most luxurious cruise-ships of the day. She was to have large communal halls and open decks so that passengers could make optimum use of the space offered by the ship. As near as was possible, her cabins were all to be the same size. This was the same for both passengers and crew, to create a feeling of equality onboard ship…although only the passenger cabins would be permitted to have oceanfront views. To continue the feeling of equality, there would only be one class onboard ship – the cruise-class.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was 684ft long (nearly a full 200ft shorter than the Titanic), she weighed 26,000GRT (Gross Registered Tons), a little more than half of the Titanic and she carried 417 crew and 1,460 passengers, making for a total complement of 1,877. By comparison, the Titanic could take over three thousand passengers and crew. She had eight decks, a top speed of fifteen knots (18mph) thanks to two propellers and engines capable of producing 9,500hp. She had twenty two lifeboats and twelve transverse bulkheads creating thirteen watertight compartments

With all these characteristics, Hitler hoped that the Wilhelm Gustloff would be a floating pleasure-ship, taking Germans all around Europe. She would be comfortable, open and safe to travel on and would be a symbol of German superiority and ingenuity. She was designed to be a cruise-ship for the masses, for ordinary German working men and women, a sign that the Fuhreur and the Reich cared about the ordinary, hardworking German citizen. To the German worker, the Gustloff was to be the ultimate prize and reward as a holiday for all his hard work. But sadly, it was not to be.

In the company of the captain, Hitler (extreme left) tours the recently-completed Wilhelm Gustloff in 1938

Wilhelm Gustloff – Hospital Ship

Whatever Hitler’s plans were for the Wilhelm Gustloff, they barely reached fruition, if indeed they ever did. Barely a year after the ship’s maiden voyage on the Thursday of the 24th of March, 1938, Germany would be plunged into the hell of the Second World War and all thoughts of the Wilhelm Gustloff being the People’s Cruise-Ship were smashed to pieces.

Once the pride of the German KdF (Kraft Durch Freude, “Strength through Joy”) shipping fleet, after several successful cruises throughout 1938 and early 1939, the Wilhelm Gustloff was turned over to the German navy, the Kriegsmarine in September 1939 with the outbreak of World War Two.

In the German Navy, the Wilhelm Gustloff was turned into a hospital ship, a role which she played from September 1939 until November of 1940. After that, she became a floating barracks for German U-boat crews.

The Wilhelm Gustloff as a hospital ship off the coast of Oslo, Norway; 1940

Operation Hannibal and the Last Voyage

For four years, between 1941-1945, the Gustloff had remained at anchor. During this time, it was used mostly to house sailors and submariners, but by 1944 and the Invasion of Normandy in June of that year, the War started going bad for Germany, especially on the Eastern Front. Operation Barbarossa, the attempt by Hitler to invade the Soviet Union, was a complete disaster and now the Russians wanted revenge. By January 1945, the German army was fighting off Italy, Russia, England, America, Commonwealth troops, Free French fighters and resistence-fighters on almost every front imaginable and it was rapidly losing the war.

As the Russian army pushed westward across Eastern Europe towards Poland, Operation Hannibal was executed.

Operation Hannibal was nothing less than the biggest seaborne evacuation in military history. It even eclipsed the famous Dunkirk Evacuation when the “little ships” were used to evacuate Allied soldiers from the beaches of France in 1940. In total, Operation Hannibal was going to try and evacuate about one and a quarter to two million people in roughly a thousand ships over the course of fifteen weeks.

One of those ships, was the M.V. Wilhelm Gustloff.

On the 22nd of January, 1945, the Wilhelm Gustloff is given the order to prepare to take on thousands of escaping German refugees. Many are women, children and wounded soldiers. German civilians are terrified of what retributions the Russians might unleash as they sweep westwards and many want to escape back to Germany as fast as possible. The Wilhelm Gustloff is at anchor in the port city of Gdynia, German-Occuped Poland. The crew are worried. Apart from the fact that they have to house so many thousands of people, they are worried about the mechanical strain; the Gustloff’s engines have been cold for the past four years while it was in harbour, and there is no time to run the necessary maintenance and safety-checks.

On the 28th of January, the Gustloff’s crew receive the order to prepare for evacuation. Thousands of refugees, mostly sailors, nurses, civilians and wounded soldiers file onboard, each person bearing a permit of travel that allows them refugee status and permission to board the Gustloff.

Gustloff’s last voyage took place on the 30th of January, 1945. On this day, the ship is ordered to raise anchor and steam westwards towards the German city of Kiel. The official passenger manifest lists about 3,000 people onboard (the Gustloff is rated to carry only 1,800 passengers and crew), but even this is not even close. In the panic of evacuations, thousands of people who aren’t supposed to be there, force their way onboard the already dangerously overcrowded ship. Even as the Gustloff leaves the harbour, people are offloaded onto the ship from harbour-tugs which pull up alongside while their passengers climb on, using the ship’s boarding-stairs. In total, the Gustloff is carrying about ten and a half thousand people.

January 30th, 1945. The Gustloff leaves Poland. This is the last photograph ever taken of the ship

Onboard the Gustloff, things are far from easy. The ship is crammed so far beyond capacity that even with extra safety-equipment onboard, there is only enough lifeboats, flotation-vests and life-rings for less than half the ship’s full complement of passengers and crew. The passenger-quarters are so full that any space at all is fair-game as a sleeping-area during the voyage back to Germany.

On the bridge, the Gustloff is in the combined command of four captains, three civilian captains and one military one. They argue constantly on the best precautions to take. Do they turn off the ship’s lights to prevent detection? Do they stay near the coast where Soviet submarines will find it harder to patrol? Do they go into deeper water away from the shoreline where lights from cities will certainly outline the shape of the ship? Do they go straight ahead to make the most of what short time they have, or do they steer a conventional wartime zig-zag course to try and throw off enemy submarines who might try and torpedo them?

The only thing that the captains seemed to agree on was that their escort was wholly inadequate. All they had was one torpedo-boat, the Lowe, to protect them from the formidable force of the Russians and anything that they could throw against them. The ship was a sitting duck.

The Lowe, originally a torpedo-boat in the Royal Norwegian Navy. It was captured by the Germans in 1940 and was returned to the Norwegians in 1945 at the end of the War

The Sinking

With such disagreements over defensive actions and with such a useless escort-vessel, the Wilhelm Gustloff was easy pickings for the Russian submariners who hunted down fleeing German shipping. The submarine that’s after the Gustloff is the S-13, under the command of Capt. Alexander Marinesko.

Just before 8:00pm on the 30th of January, the S-13 spots the Wilhelm Gustloff. It’s in deep water with all its lights on, as a warning to other shipping, but to the crew of the Russian submarine, it’s a big, fat target. For a whole hour, Capt. Marinesko orders that no actions be taken. The Wilhelm Gustloff is a big prize and the Russians must be patient, lining up the perfect shot before they try and take the ship down.

Eventually, shortly after 9:00pm, Capt. Marinesko gives the order to fire. The S-13 lets loose three of a possible four torpodoes into the water. The fourth torpedo misfires and jams in its torpedo-tube. Quick thinking on the part of the S-13’s crew prevents the malfunctioning torpedo from exploding and destroying the submarine. The captain has no idea what his target is because it’s so dark outside. All he knows is that it’s a big German ocean-liner with all its lights on.

At 9:16pm, disaster strikes.

The first torpedo slams into the Wilhelm Gustloff, forward of the bridge, blowing a hole in her port bow. The second torpedo strikes the ship further back, below the ship’s swimming-pool. The third torpedo hits the vessel amidships, destroying the engine-rooms.

To prevent the ship from sinking, the captains order all watertight doors to be closed at once. This unwittingly drowns many of the ship’s crew who would have been essential in manning lifeboats and organising evacuations. The second torpedo kills hundreds of the Women’s Naval Auxilliary who have used the empty ship’s swimming-pool as a sleeping-area. The third torpedo arguably creates the most damage of all.

By striking the ship’s engine-room, the third torpedo simultaneously disables the ship and isolates it from the outside world. With the engines crippled, the Wilhelm Gustloff is unable to move, but even more unfortunately, the damaged engines will no longer power the ship’s generators – all electrical power, from lights to telephones and even the ship’s wireless radio, suddenly lose power, plunging everything into darkness. If not for the ship’s emergency generator (for the wireless-room only), the Gustloff would have sunk without anyone knowing what had ever happened to it.

Although the wireless-radio is still operational (if just barely), its transmission range is only two kilometers. Within that radius, only the Gustloff’s escort-vessel, the Lowe, picks up the ship’s desperate S.O.S message. It immediately steams towards the ship.

Onboard the Gustloff, panic reigns supreme.

Whatever people are not immediately killed or drowned in the opening minutes of the attack are now desperate to get off the ship. There are barely enough lifejackets to go around and certainly not enough lifeboats. The three huge holes in the ship’s hull causes a dangerous list to Port and the ice on the ship’s boat-deck sends many people sliding into the freezing January waters. Whatever lifeboats there are, become next to useless because they are frozen to their davits by the freezing temperatures. Any crew who might be able to free them and lower them safely are probably dead already, trapped inside the ship’s hull.

In the chaos, only one lifeboat is lowered successfully. Most people just jump or slide into the water where lifebelts provide little protection against the freezing water. People jumping into the water wearing one of the few life-vests that are available are susceptable to broken necks. As their bodies hit the water and sink, their chins hit the floating vest, whipping their heads back and causing spinal injuries. What few lifeboats are lowered are done so incorrectly or haphazardly, causing them to break free from the ship and crash into the water. At least one lifeboat is smashed to pieces when an anti-aircraft gun on the boat-deck breaks loose as the Gustloff continues a steady list to port.

The Gustloff’s woefully underpowered wireless set only manages to raise the Lowe, the Gustloff’s one and only escort-vessel, which is able to reach the stricken cruise-ship’s side within fifteen minutes. She manages to rescue 472 people in the water and in lifeboats. The Gustloff continues to sink. The severe list to port means that it becomes impossible for people to get out of the ship. Stairways and corridors are packed with panicking passengers who can’t find their way up to the boat deck due to the lack of lights and the inability to climb the stairs due to the tilting of the ship. Soon, it is a case of “Every man for himself” as people take their lives in their hands and fight to find any way off the ship and on to safety. Soldiers and sailors shoot their own families and then commit suicide rather than freeze to death in the water. Firearms are also used by the ship’s officers to try and maintain order on the boat deck, but in a scenario where even the “Birkenhead Drill” (more famously known as “Women and Children First”) is being ignored by everyone, they do little more than add more panic to the already frantic situation unfolding all around them.

In less than forty-five minutes, the Gustloff had been struck by three torpedoes, it had listed to port, capsized and finally, vanished beneath the waves.

In total, nine ships and boats of varying sizes rush to the Gustloff’s aid. Between them, they save a total of 1,252 people. The last person to be rescued was a baby which was found alive in one of the Gustloff’s lifeboats, seven hours after the ship went down. Of approximately 10,500 people onboard the Gustloff, anywhere from 9,200 to 9,500 people (the exact figure is unknown because no official record exists of how many people were really onboard) either drowned inside the Gustloff when it went down, or froze to death in the water trying to escape. It remains to this day, the biggest loss of life at sea from a single disaster.

The Aftermath of the Sinking

Despite the appalling loss of life, the Wilhelm Gustloff is probably the most forgettable and unknown maritime disaster in the world. The reasons for this are numerous and some of them are more obvious than others.

– The Wilhelm Gustloff sunk during the dying months of the Second World War. There was little interest in the popular news press about anything that wasn’t directly related to an eventual Allied victory in Europe.
– The Gustloff was an ‘enemy ship’ carrying ‘enemy soldiers’ and civillians. It wasn’t in the best interests of the Allies to take notice, or care.
– Dozens of ships were being sunk every day during the War. One more barely made a difference.
– The German government, already aware that their country would lose the war, suppressed the news, fearful of what it would do to already-shattered German morale.
– The Gustloff carried no famous celebrities, unlike the Titanic, which carried nearly all the movers-and-shakers, socialites and big businessmen of the Edwardian era.

Capt. Alexander Marinesko, the Soviet submarine-commander who torpedoed the Gustloff was shunned by almost everyone, even in Russia! Within years of his successful action against the Gustloff, Marinesko had been…

– Discharged from the Soviet Navy.
– Arrested and sent to Siberia for three years’ hard labour.
– Diagnosed with cancer.
– Reinstated with his title of captain.
– Given a military pension.
– Given a ceremony honouring his actions during the Second World War.

Just three weeks after these last three incidents, Marinesko died, in October of 1963. He was fifty years old.

Today, the Wilhelm Gustloff is a protected war-grave. It lies in 44 meters of water, off the northwest coast of Poland.


Vaulting to Victory: The Story of the Wooden Horse

Most people think of the Wooden Horse as the famous Wooden Horse of Troy or the Trojan Horse, with which the ancient Greeks tricked the Trojans into bringing about their own downfall. Hidden inside an enormous wooden model of a horse were thirty Greek soldiers who after gaining access to the city, opened the gates to let in the rest of the Greek army who laid waste to the city and finally defeated the Trojans, ending a ten year siege-war.

Just as famous, and perhaps just as forgettable, is the other Wooden Horse with which its builders didn’t break into, but rather, broke out of a fortified complex.

This article is about the Wooden Horse of Stalag Luft III, the famous German prisoner-of-war camp for Allied airmen during the Second World War. It will detail how the horse was made and how it facilitated the escape of the three men who dug this tunnel to freedom. The facts and figures in this article are supplied chiefly by my first-edition copy of “The Wooden Horse”, written by the escaper Eric Williams in 1949.

Stalag Luft III – Sagan, Poland – 1943

RAF Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams was shot down over Germany in December of 1942. While in a POW camp, he met and became friends with Lt. Richard Michael Codner. When they escaped from the camp where they were captives, they were hunted down and recaptured. As a punishment, both men were sent to Stalag Luft III near the town of Sagan in Poland. Considered escape-proof, Stalag Luft III was the most secure Allied airman POW camp in all of German-occupied Europe. The security-measures in place meant that it was virtually impossible to get out. There was barbed wire, fences, watchtowers, searchlights, armed guards, microphones buried into the ground to listen for tunnelling and a dusty grey topsoil and an annoyingly pale yellow sandy subsoil that made tunnelling (but more importantly, disposing of the excavated sand) especially hard.

The problem with the Germans’ logic was that they built the most secure camp to house their most troublesome and escape-hungry POWs. To them, this made sense. To the Allies, it merely served as a challenge to find out just how escape-proof this camp really was. And they put the Germans to test countless times. Tunnels were being dug out of the camp on an almost around-the-clock basis. But the problem was that the tunnels had to be aggravatingly long before they were the slightest bit of use to the POWs as a means of escaping.

Between the prisoner sleeping-quarters (large huts or barracks built on stilts about a foot off the ground) and the perimeter fences, were several yards of open ground. And between the perimeter fences and the safety of the woods were even more stretches of barren, empty, treeless, stumpless, hillless and bumpless ground. Even digging from the huts nearest to the fences, tunnels were well over a hundred or more feet long before they reached the trees, and the soil that had to be excavated for such a long tunnel was a constant headache to the POW escape-committee, a group of POWs whose job it was to fund and assist all escape-attempts within the camp.

Overcoming an Obstacle

Williams and Codner were quick to realise the problems associated with tunnelling out of the camp, but the problem was that this was the only way to escape. When Williams saw how hard and long a struggle it would be to dig a conventional tunnel from a building to the edge of the outlying woods, he knew he had to come up with a solution. When Codner mentioned an attempt by POWs to dig a tunnel right out in the middle of the ‘No-Man’s Land’ between the huts and the fences by digging the hole with their hands and hiding the sand in their pockets and covering the hole with bed-slats and sand, Williams was inspired to try and find a way to disguise a tunnel’s trapdoor out in the open, in plain view of the guards while the tunnel was dug underneath. Codner considered the idea stupid, it was impossible to disguise a trapdoor thoroughly enough that the “Goons” (the German sentries) wouldn’t notice it at once. But Williams persisted that there had to be a way.

He struck on the idea when he thought of the vaulting-horses that they used to have in school gymnasiums. Such horses, used for gymnastics, were about three feet high and about two feet wide at the base, hollow inside and with solid sides. Prisoners could put the vaulting-horse in the middle of the space between the huts and the fence and vault over it all day long while inside the horse and under the ground, a prisoner (transported inside the horse) could dig a tunnel. At the end of each tunnelling session, the prisoner climbed out of the tunnel, attached bags full of sand to the underside of the horse and held onto the inside of the horse while men carried it away to a safe place where the sand could be dispersed. The trapdoor to the tunnel would be covered with excess sand and the grey topsoil could be sprinkled on top. This would make the ground under the horse (once it had been carried away) look completely untampered with.

This still from the 1950 film “The Wooden Horse” shows a faithful reproduction of the actual horse used in the 1943 prison-camp escape

The third man in the escape, Oliver Philpot, a Canadian RAF pilot, acted as the ‘behind-the-scenes’ man during the escape. While Williams and Codner did most of the digging, Philpot helped with disposing of the excavated sand and organising the horse and the vaulters necessary to create the illusion of harmless exercise, to fool the German guards. In return for all his help, Codner and Williams promised him a spot in the escape.

Digging the Tunnel

Digging of the tunnel did not start right away. For the first few weeks all the vaulting-horse was used for was…vaulting. It was necessary to vault over the horse every single day for several weeks so that the German guards would get used to the sight of it…so used to it that they would pay absolutely no attention to it when it came time to dig the tunnel underneath it. There was always at least one vaulter in the group who acted as a total klutz. He would foul up his jumps and knock the horse over…deliberately…to show the Germans that there was nothing hidden inside. The Germans themselves took no chances – Within the first few days of the horse being built and used, it was scrutinised minutely by the guards to make sure there was nothing abnormal about it…which there wasn’t. It was a vaulting horse and that was all that it was meant to be. To the Germans, at least.

Once the Germans had gotten used to the sight of the horse, it was time to start digging. The plan was simple.

On every vaulting day, a man (either Williams or Codner) would hide inside the horse, holding onto the framework inside while men carried the horse out of the hut where it was stored. To carry the horse, they had a pair of long shafts which could be slid through two pairs of holes on the sides of the horse. Apart from making the horse easier to carry, the four holes also served as air-holes inside the horse.

The area where the tunnel was to start was marked by two pits in the ground which were eventually created by the constant scraping and landing of the feet of the vaulters over several weeks. By putting the horse between these two dents in the sand, it was easy to correctly access the tunnel mouth every single time.

Working alternatively, it took Williams and Codner four days to sink the shaft for the tunnel. It was to be two feet and six inches square and five feet deep. The shaft and the start of the tunnel were shored up with bricks and planks of wood. The trapdoor was set eighteen inches below the surface and was covered by a foot and a half of topsoil. This would prevent any German guard who walked over the top of the shaft to hear any hollow echoes underneath.

The first seven feet of the tunnel itself was shored up with wooden bedboards all around: bottom, roof and sides. This was a necessary precaution: the initial few feet of the tunnel were directly below the landing-area of the vaulters. Without sufficient shoring, the constant force of men landing on top of the tunnel would cause it to collapse. This was the only part of the tunnel, with the exception of the shaft, that was shored up. Because the tunnel was so near the surface, the weight of the sand above was not so great that cave-ins would be a likely possibility.

The conditions in the tunnel were terrible. Fresh air was almost nonexistent. The men dug with trowels or crude spades fashioned from food-cans. Their only source of light came from candles. They often worked naked or stripped to their waists because of the warmth in the tunnel, but also to prevent the German guards from seeing yellow subsoil (a telltale sign of a tunnel-in-progress) on their clothing. The tunnel was also extremely cramped. It averaged only two and a half feet by two and a half feet, giving the men barely any room to move. At the end of forty feet (a distance that took them eight weeks to dig), the men had almost given up. The lack of fresh air in the tunnel was chronic and the physical toll on both the tunnellers and the vaulters who covered for them, was beginning to show.

Tunnelling was not without risks. Cave-ins were a serious and constant problem. In the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III (In 1944), tunnels that were thirty feet below the ground required solid wood shoring and supports all the way along the tunnel to prevent cave-ins. This tunnel, just five feet below the surface with barely any shoring at all, was in just as much danger of a cave-in as one that was six times deeper under ground.

Miraculously, though, cave-ins on this tunnel were few. In fact there was only one major one to speak of, when Codner was in the tunnel. Some of the roof gave way, burying him alive. The cave-in was so severe that the surface of the sand was broken, opening a hole into the tunnel. A vaulter jumping over the horse spotted the hole and deliberately tripped when he landed, falling over the hole and covering it with his body. He laid there, pretending he’d twisted his ankle, while below, Codner managed to scoop away the fallen sand and shore up the cave-in with planks taken from the tunnel-shaft.

Eventually, though, the exertion of the digging and the sheer fetid nature of the air in the tunnel began to seriously effect the mens’ health. Williams was suffering severely from exhaustion brought on by the strain of the work and the lack of fresh oxygen. He was so ill that he was confined to the camp hospital for nearly a week. Although the tunnel didn’t progress very far in the meantime, his convalesence did give him a chance to pump other patients in the hospital for news about the outside world and what his chances were for escape.

Preparing for Escape

Provided your tunnel wasn’t discovered and it didn’t collapse, getting out of a prisoner-of-war camp in German-occupied Europe was pretty easy. The real problem in escaping was the struggle that many prisoners faced after getting beyond the wire. To get across occupied Europe, anyone who wished to travel anywhere at any time at all, required a whole armful of passes, letters, certificates, passports, identification-cards and travel-permits. All these things had to be forged by forgers inside the prison-camp for use by the potential escapee.

Apart from the paperwork, prisoners also required civilian clothing. All prisoners were put into camps wearing their military uniforms. To make it through occupied Europe, they had to have civilian clothes so that they didn’t stand out as the enemy. Tailors inside the camp would churn out suits, waistcoats, overcoats, shirts, jackets, shorts, jumpers and any other article of clothing that might be needed to dress a prisoner-of-war up as an everyday civilian. They used everything from bedsheets, blankets, curtains and any old and discarded uniforms that they could find, to make new clothing.

Escaping prisoners also needed cover-stories. All potential escapees had to clear every stage of their escape-plan with the ‘Escape Committee’, the group of prisoners whose job it was to oversee all escape-attempts within the camp. This wasn’t just a formality – the Escape Committee had control over the forged papers, money, passports, stockpiles of clothing, food, equipment, maps and anything else that an escapee might need during his bid to freedom. But he could only get these if the plan that he had for his escape was considered feasible.

All three escapees, Eric Williams, Richard Codner and Oliver Philpot, had their cover-stories that they would be French labourers. To this end, they were supplied with money, tools, working-class outfits and work-permits and passports in French. When they escaped, Oliver would go his own way while Williams and Codner would go as a pair, Codner spoke fluent French and so was able to liase with any friendly French workmen that they might find and through them, contact any local resistance-movements.

The Breakout

With the distance between the tunnel mouth and the safety of the forest around the camp greatly reduced by their ingenuity, Williams, Codner and Philpot finished their tunnel at the end of October. At six o’clock at night on the 29th of October, 1943, the three men made their escape.

Codner had been left in the tunnel all day to dig the last few feet towards the safety of the woods. He survived in the dark with the help of a candle and a length of metal pipe, which he stuck up through the soil every few feet to create air-holes to ventiliate the tunnel and compensate for the increasingly oxygen-deprived air below the ground.

Shortly after five o’clock, Codner and Williams, together with a third man, were transported towards the tunnel inside the horse, where Codner and Williams made their way down, with the third man left above ground to seal the entrance of the tunnel and obliterate all evidence of its existence. The three escapees stayed below ground in the interim period, preparing for the escape by continuing to dig and handing each person their allotted escape-materials – food, money, equipment, necessary identity and travel-papers and their outfits of civilian clothing.

At six o’clock, the tunnel was broken open, safely within the cover of the forest and the three men climbed out. With the guards in the camp concentrating on the prisoners within the wire, they paid no attention to the three men who were making their getaway outside the wire.

The Escape

Oliver Philpot, the Canadian, headed off alone. He thought that having a partner would slow him up. Williams and Codner stuck together, travelling as a pair of French labourers. Codner spoke fluent French and this helped them bridge any language-barriers and gave them a chance of contacting any local resistance movements. Williams, who spoke nothing but English, was advised by the members of the Escape Committee to just play dumb, or at best, to merely say the words: “Ich bin auslander, nicht verstehen”, or: “I am a foreigner. I don’t understand”.

Williams and Codner travelled by train, hopping from city to city, heading northwest. They saw this as the best way to put as much distance between themselves and the camp and travelled by rail as far as the Polish port city of Stettin. Here, they managed to contact French labourers and dockworkers who were part of the local underground movement. After interrogation to ensure that they were who they claimed to be, the French agreed to try and help.

It took several days, but eventually, Williams and Codner managed to secure passage (that is to say, they would be smuggled aboard) a ship leaving Stettin for the city of Copenhagen, Denmark. Although the two officers believed that this was a waste of time (Denmark being occupied by Germany), their contacts assured them that it would be easier to get to Sweden from Poland via Denmark than from Poland to Sweden directly, since the quantity of ship-traffic between Denmark and Sweden was much greater.

The journey was a very unplesant one. The ship was searched by S.S. officers with sniffer-dogs before it was allowed to leave port. The captain plied the Germans with schnapps to distract them from their work and peppered the dogs’ noses to prevent them from smelling his hidden ‘cargo’. To keep well out of the reach of the Germans, Williams and Codner were confined to the chain-locker in the ship’s bilge. Despite being provided with blankets, the journey was uncomfortable at best.

In Denmark, their initial plans for escaping to Sweden were foiled by resistance-activity. Acts of sabotage had caused an increase of guards around important parts of Copenhagen such as the docks, which made escape by a large ship impossible. Instead, Williams and Codner were taken to Sweden in a small fishing-boat by one of their resistance contacts.

By the next morning, the two men had reached the Swedish city of Goteburg where they managed to contact the British Consulate. To their surprise, Oliver Philpot had also made a successful escape to Goteburg, taking a train to Danzig and then a boat from there directly to Goteburg, beating his fellow escapees by a full week! After spending another week and a bit in Sweden, they were flown back to England and eventual safety.

Eric Williams died on Christmas Eve, December 24th, 1983. He was seventy-two.
Oliver Philpot died on the 6th of May, 1993. He was eighty.

Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to find any birth and death records of Flight Lt. Richard Michael Clinton Codner.

Left to Right: Richard M. Codner, Eric Williams, Oliver Philpot