Next up is, without a doubt, the pride of my collection and will be a VERY long post and it is a condensed version of 5 years of research but it is worth a read.
Anthony Perrinott Lysberg Baber, known as Tony, was born on the 4th of July 1920 in Kingston upon Hull. He was the third son of John Barber and his Danish wife, Musse. Tony’s unusual middles names came from his mother who contributed the ‘Lysberg’ and his French grandmother who contributed the ‘Perrinott’.
His father was secretary-director of a Doncaster confectionary works. He had two brothers: Noel, who became a well-known journalist and novelist, and Kenneth, who became secretary of Midland Bank.
Tony was educated at Retford Grammar School in Nottinghamshire and afterwards became an articled clerk and was commissioned into the Territorial Army Royal Artillery on the 2nd of July 1939 as war was looming.
Tony Barber served in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force and was evacuated from Dunkirk in June 1940.
A gunner under Tony’s command wrote to his local newspaper about the exploits at Dunkirk and this extract sums up the experience:
“I was with him [Mr Barber] on the night of May 31st and the morning of June 1st 1940. During those last hours on the beaches he was ordering guns and lorries to be immobilised in accordance with GHQ orders.
When this had been done, two trucks which had been left intact were used to pick up the wounded on the beach and Mr Barber was seeing to this himself. Eventually we found a rowing boat which was loads up with wounded and a few fit men were told to row out to HMS Salamander where the wounded were taken aboard and made as comfortable as possible.
I remember making inquiries about Mr Barber while on the Salamander and was told he and a soldier had taken the rowing boat back to fetch more men left on the beaches, amongst them Major Matthews, our Battery Major.”
Tony made it back to Britain before the Germans overran Dunkirk and captured the rest of the BEF and he was lucky to have got away and incredibly brave to have reached the safety of a ship but to have gone back in search of more men.
Back in Britain, Tony’s regiment was heavily engaged in air defence in the Battle Of Britain being deployed to Gatwick. In this posting, he saw much of the action unfolding in the skies over the south of England and, as with many men his age, was envious of those taking to the skies. He was determined to become a pilot.
Rather than relinquishing his commission and joining the RAF directly, Tony volunteered to be seconded to the RAF for special duties and was granted the rank of Pilot Officer gaining his pilots wings shortly afterwards. This is how he ended up flying spitfires in the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit. These spitfires were converted so that the guns were stripped out and replaced with cameras.
The PRU Spitfires had other differences to the Fighter Command equivalents; They were stripped to bare bones to allow longer flights, deeper into enemy territory at higher altitudes of up to 30,000 ft. A fighter Spitfire would carry 85 gallons of fuel whereas the PRU spit would carry 220. The PRU Spitfires would also be shed of all radio communication and navigational aid equipment. This meant that if a PRU pilot came under attack, they could not report their location for the Air Sea Rescue Squadrons and therefore casualties were high.
Tony was assigned to No.1 PRU based out of RAF Benson in Oxfordshire where he met, amongst others, Pilot Officer Charles ‘Chas’ Hall and Squadron Leader Thomas ‘Tommy’ Calnan whom he would form deep friendships with.
On the 21st of January 1942 whilst on a return flight from Gibraltar photographing German shipping, Tony reached 30,000 ft when he encountered very thick clouds. This continued until he was at half fuel. Eventually the cloud broke and to his dismay, Tony found himself somewhere over the Bay of Biscay and flying into a strong and wholly unexpected headwind. At this point he knew that he was not making it back to England but plodded on and got as far as the channel coast.
Because of what was thought (erroneously as was later discovered) that the Germans did not know that the PRU aircraft were unarmed, there was a standing order that, in the event of trouble, the aircraft should always be abandoned to destruction.
This was particularly important in Tony’s case as he was carrying some particularly sensitive photographs of ports in neutral Spain which were suspected on harbouring German submarines. Fortunately, a second set were being brought back by more conventional means. The only option was to climb as high as he could and bale out earning his place in ‘The Caterpillar Club’ - a select group of men whose life had been saved by their silk parachutes made by Irvin.
Tony remembered watching his abandoned aircraft spiralling down to destruction whilst he floated down over Mont-St-Michel, a tidal island in Normandy, France. When he landed, he badly sprained his ankle and was captured by a unit of the SS. Although he was ‘In the bag’, Pilot Officer Tony Barber’s war was far from over.
From Mont-St-Michel, Tony was taken to a transit camp in Frankfurt known as Dulag Luft where he was interrogated for a week. The Germans were perplexed as to what an Army officer was doing arriving by parachute on the channel coast when there was no plane in sight (the plane had crashed directly into the sea whilst the strong headwind before mentioned had pushed Tony inland). What sort of aircraft had dropped Tony? How many crew? etc. To these questions, Tony played dumb and refused to give any further information other than Name, Rank, and Number.
After Luftwaffe interrogation, a rather smooth man in smart civilian clothing who spoke perfect English came in and claimed to be from the International Red Cross in Geneva. He stated that he could notify Tony’s next of kin and the allies of his whereabouts if Tony cooperated and answered further questions. Of course, this man from the Red Cross was bogus and it was a rather naive ruse which allied airmen had already by forewarned.
On the 17th of February 1942, Tony was transferred to Oflag IX-A/H at Spangenberg, Germany. This was was a medieval castle in the heart of Germany which was opened in October 1939 to house RAF and French Air Force prisoners. One of the first Prisoners to be housed here was Wings Day, shot down on the 13th of October 1939 in his Bristol Blenheim. Wings Day became a serial POW escaper and was one of the survivors of ‘The Great Escape’ who was sent to Saschenhausen Concentration Camp and contrived to escape again by means tunnel; a very dangerous undertaking.
At Spangenberg, there was a large contingent of Army officers who were captured in the fall of France and Dunkirk. These officers had been at Spangenberg for over a year and a half by this point and had been afforded the luxury of parcels from home. They were much more cleanly turned out than the RAF prisoners.
The Army and RAF prisoners were segregated and the RAF contingent were housed in a block which came to be known as ‘The Arab Quarter’. It was in the Arab Quarter that Tony was reunited with his friends from RAF Benson, Chas Hall and Tommy Calnan. In his memoir ‘Free as a running fox’, Tommy Calnan remembers Tony in the following way: “Complete uniforms were rare in our party, the one outstanding exception belonging to Tony Barber, who was resplendent in an Army Lieutenant’s uniform.”
Due to being the only aviator in the camp wearing a khaki uniform, Tony became known to all prisoners as ‘The Brown Job’.
Tommy had been shot down in December 1941 and was badly burned on his face and neck and had problems with his legs. He was playing up to the role of the wounded airman to get better treatment and throw off the scent that he planned to escape and he was given two walking sticks to assist his travel around the camp.
Shortly after their reunion, Tony, Chas, and Tommy set about devising various escape methods and started to accumulate escape materials. Tony and Chas worked on creating maps and gathering intelligence on the best routes to take to neutral territory whilst Tommy learned the art of manufacturing and using lock-picks. With almost every lock in Germany being of the Mortice variety, this was a very useful skill indeed.
Tommy remembered: “It was natural that Charles Hall, Tony Barber and I should plot to escape together. We had known one another at Benson, before being shot down and we still felt that we all belonged to the same unit.”
The first escape plan came from their walk to the gymnasium which meant leaving the main castle and crossing the moat. The plan was to hide on the other side of the moat and fix the evening roll-call or ‘Appell’ as they were called which would allow them a longer period of time to get away undetected. The problem here was that the men were counted on leaving the castle and re-entering.
Various methods were thought of to address the problem of fewer men coming back from the gymnasium, including smuggling extra men under greatcoats out of the castle who would then emerge and take Tony, Chas, and Tommy’s places for the headcount. However, this was not feasible and the plan was aborted.
The next idea came from Tony. Whilst looking for a hiding place for his contraband property such as escape clothing, civilian clothing, food, maps, compasses etc, Tony realised that the central table leg in his section of the Arab Quarter appeared to be hollow. He removed the top and found this to be true. Inside he discovered, to his surprise, a four-pronged grappling hook with a 30 m length of rope attached.
Unfortunately, this hiding place probably dated back to the Franco-Prussian War and the rope was moth-eaten and frayed beyond usable strength. Tommy was able to put his new lock-picking skills to the test and managed to break into a store room. In here he found 5 coils on rope and successfully liberated the most suitable in length.
The new plan was to escape from the moat in broad daylight using the grappling hook and rope to climb over the perimeter wall. For such a venture, an elaborate system of diversions would need to take place. The idea which was settled on was a game of rugby; the German sentries (who did not play) were fascinated by the sport and the perceived violence of the men who played it. The idea was to throw the grapple over the wall and climb over whilst the guards were distracted by an intense period of scrummage.
On the 28th of April 1942, the Benson trio’s plan came to an end. The Germans with their Alsatian dogs piled into the Arab Quarter before the prisoners had woken up and announced that the prisoners had 30 minutes to pack, for they were being transferred to a different camp: Stalag Luft 3 in Sagan, Poland.
Once the prisoners had packed their belongings under the watchful eyes of their guards, they were ordered to stand at the end of their beds whilst the Abwehr (German Intelligence service) tore the room apart looking for contraband. They found almost everything from: Rice paper maps smuggled into the camp by MI9, German currency, escape rations, civilian clothing and Tommys lock picking set. The maps were very detailed, and despite the fact that the escape committee had kept them secret (which angered Tommy), he knew that he needed to try and get them back.
Tommy walked over to Marcus Marsh and whispered that he had a plan. Marcus had significantly more luggage than the others so he was to take his time dragging his suitcase to the centre of the room where the contraband was placed on a table. At a moment when all but Marcus and one guard were in the room, Tommy would storm back in creating a big scene and distracting the guard whilst Marcus pocketed as many maps as he could.
The plan came off but when the prisoners arrived at the station, they found the Abwehr were conducting a more thorough search of the prisoners. Tommy went through first to show Marcus (who had the maps in his pocket) how rigorous the search would be. Tommy was stripped naked and had his entire collection of baggage and clothing searched with an eager eye.
Marcus realised that he would not get the maps through the search but noticed a waste paper bin situated against the back wall of the room perfectly situated between the prisoners waiting to be searched, and those who had been searched already. He screwed all of the maps into a ball and stuffed them into the bin and made it clear to Tommy what he had done.
Tommy’s next job was to get close enough to the bin without raising suspicion. He emptied the contents of his suitcases and created a pile of litter in view of the watching guards until they became accustomed to what he was doing. At this moment, Chas Hall spoke to Tommy and was asked to come over with his kit and to bring a friend.
Chas returned with Tony Barber and stood in front of Tommy, still building his pile of litter, to block the Abwehr officer’s view. At this moment and noticing what was happening, Marcus went forward to be searched and used his loud voice to protest about the handling of his possessions. Tommy instructed Chas to lean his kitbag against the wall and kick over the bin in his direction.
In one quick motion this was done and Tommy had the maps and about 100 German marks in his pocket and Chas and Tony helped to refill the bin of its contents + Tommys litter collection. They had successfully stolen back the contraband maps of Germany, Germany’s bordering countries, and the ports which would be invaluable for the future.
A short while later, the prisoners were loaded onto the train. Chas, Tony, and Tommy had agreed that the PRU’s would attempt to cut a hole in the floorboard of their cattle truck and escape in the night. Tony had managed to smuggle a saw through the rigorous security checks and Tommy had a file hidden in his walking stick.
Unfortunately, Tommy had been playing up his injuries so well that he was placed in the comparative comfort of third class carriages along with the senior officers and was thus separated from Chas and Tony. Despite the fact that they were split up, all three attempted to get away from the train.
Tony and Chas spent the entire journey attempting to get through the thick floorboards but sadly did not manage the job in time. Tommy had managed to force upon the sealed shut window in the lavatory which was just about big enough to squeeze through. Once it was dark enough, he waited for the train to slow and flung himself out into the night. He picked himself up and took off running, expecting to hear a German voice cry out and gunshots to start but they never did. His freedom did not last long and he was recaptured and put into a police cell in horrible conditions whilst he was interrogated on who he was and where he had come from. Eventually the truth came out and he was put on a train to Stalag Luft 3 where he would spend 10 days in solitary confinement ( AKA The Cooler) before being reunited with his chums.
Whilst Tommy was spending time christening the new solitary confinement cells, Tony was settling in to his new home. Stalag Luft 3 was built on the orders of Hermann Göring to keep troublesome RAF prisoners together in their own camp, far away from neutral territory to prevent escapes. The camp consisted of wooden huts built on a sand-based compound surrounded by perimeter wire and guard towers. It was a daunting place to find oneself.
Tony set his mind to work looking into various escape methods and also getting to know his new campmates who had arrived just before from Stalag Luft 1 at Barth on the Baltic Coast.
On the 12th of June 1942, Tony came up with a plan to be smuggled out of the camp through the main gate in the laundry cart, mimicking the escape of Flight Lieutenant Eric foster and Pilot Officer Joe Barker from Spangenberg in August 1941 which he would have undoubtedly heard all about. The two escapers, dressed as Hitler Youth’s, were smuggled out in the laundry cart. Once a suitable distance out of the camp from the main gate, one of the orderlies feigned an injury to the ankle and the orderlies and guard marched back to the camp leaving the cart unattended and giving the opportunity to get away. They were recaptured a few days later having managed to get 81km on foot.
Tony’s escape of the same nature failed as the cart was searched before leaving the camp and he was marched off to the cooler. He had been one of the first prisoners to make an escape attempt from Stalag Luft 3 and had more up his sleeves.
On the 30th of June 1942, the Germans were setting about digging ditches between the perimeter wire and the warning wire which was the ‘no mans land’ area in which prisoners were liable to be shot if seen by guards. The purpose of the German trench was to stop shallow tunnels being dug from the huts.
Tommy, who was now out of the cooler, hurried over to Tony and suggested the possibility of digging a ‘mole tunnel’ from the ditch. A mole tunnel meant digging down just 1 or 2 feet below the ground level and pushing the soil behind as they moved along, using a pipe to make air holes as they went. This meant that they could dig a tunnel from start to finish in one day without need for soil dispersal, security measures, and scarce timber for shoring.
Tony and Tommy immediately went to Lt Cdr Jimmy Buckley of the Fleet Air Arm who was in charge of the escape committee and relayed their plan. Jimmy accepted in principle but notified them that another prisoner had registered the same idea not 5 minutes before. The deal would be that they could only go if they agreed to wait until the next night and they took along the third man - this delay would also mean Jimmy could organise suitable distractions of the 3 guard towers whilst the men jumped one by one into the ditch and opened their mole tunnel. Tony and Tommy agreed; the escape was on.
The next day on the 1st of July 1942, Tony and Tommy got their necessary kit together and prepared to make their descent into the ditch. Immediately after evening roll-call, their began to make circles of the camp until they got the signal from the lookouts. Eventually both men and their ‘passenger’ were in the ditch and starting to dig their mole tunnel. The third man was somebody they had never met who was 6 and a half feet tall; an unwelcome surprise for the two thin and average height men.
As the tunnel progressed under the wire and towards the woods, the third man’s claustrophobia grew to the point that he could not move. Tony and Tommy dug around him and would drag him forward up the tunnel to push the soil behind him. This slowed the progress down significantly and, in the early hours with daylight fast approaching, they realised that they could not get out under the cover of darkness. Tommy, who was the face of the tunnel slowly and carefully made a big enough hole to see out; the tunnel was 60 feet in length but it was still 60 feet from the trees. They decided to rest during the day and carry on digging the next evening to make their break from the tree-line.
At just after 11am, the camp Alsatians began digging their tunnel up and unfortunately the three men were taken off to solitary confinement. It was a bitter disappointment and Tony and Tommy knew that they would have gotten away if it wasn’t for their companion. He was not the first would-be escaper to panic and shutdown due to claustrophobia and he would not be the last.
In September of 1942, the numbers of airmen being shot down were growing rapidly and the RAF camps were becoming overcrowded. In order to relieve the strain of these prisoners on the camps, batches of men were selected to be transferred Oflag XXI-B at Schubin, Poland. The list of men who would be transferred was announced and it happened to include all of the ‘Naughty Boys’. Perhaps, the Luftwaffe wanted to be rid of these difficult prisoners and fancied handing them off to the Wehrmacht. Tony was on this list along with: Tommy Calnan, Jimmy Buckley (the escape officer), Wings Day (Senior British Officer), Major John ‘The Dodger’ Dodge (a cousin of Winston Churchill) and many more persistent escapers.
Tony and the rest of the naughty boys left for Schubin on the 28th of October 1942. Similarly to their transport from Spangenberg to Stalag Luft 3, the prisoners were placed into cattle trucks of wooden construction and barred windows. This time, the prisoners were forced to remove their boots to dissuade escapes. This however, did not dissuade The Dodger, who managed to squeeze his 6’4 frame through the lavatory window and leapt out in broad daylight. He was recaptured almost immediately and there is a very famous photograph of him being marched back to the train, hands in the air, with 7 guards accompanying him.
Oflag XXI-B at Schubin was a Polish boys school which was requisitioned by the German army who additionally built a barracks there. Initially, Schubin was a camp for Polish officers and in 1940 it was used for a number of French officers captured in the fall of France. The camp was supposed to be a tougher, and more escape proof destination and despite the harsher conditions, escape proved easier.
Soon after arrival, an enterprising 21 year old RCAF pilot named Eddie Asselin had a brilliant idea. Previous tunnels were almost always discovered due to the entrance of the tunnel being too obvious or in an easily searchable location. His plan was to start a tunnel where ‘No goon would poke him head’. The idea was to start the tunnel in the camp latrine block.
Eddie enlisted an American pilot who had volunteered to fly with the RCAF named Bill ‘Tex’ Ash. Tex is without a doubt the inspiration behind Steve McQueen’s character in the 1963 film ‘The Great Escape’. They registered the plan with the escape committee, which Tony now sat on, and got their approval. The committee would supply clothing, forged documents, maps, compasses, genuine German currency, and escape rations. This was to be the first well-organised mass escape of the war and very much was the dry run to the Great Escape from Stalag Luft 3 in March 1944.
Over the course of 6 months, the tunnel was painstakingly dug until it reached a length of just over 150 feet and had run out of the camp, under the perimeter wire and into a vegetable patch near the woods which provided excellent cover.
With the news that the camp was to be closed imminently, Wings Day the Senior British Officer decided that the tunnel must break as soon as the necessary documents, clothing and provisions were ready.
The plan was to stage a particularly exciting rugby match in the main camp courtyard, near the latrine block, and gradually the prisoners would slip into the latrines, through the end lavatory space where the tunnel shaft and ante-chamber were situated and down the tunnel to wait until nightfall. Eddie Asselin calculated that 33 men would be able to lie head-to-toe in the tunnel with the amount of oxygen the camp-made bellows would provide.
In the course of digging the tunnel, the Polish worker in charge of removing the sewage from the latrines had approached the prisoners to let them know that he had discovered rocks and soil in his sewage trucks and wished to help them. Two airmen, Flight Lieutenant Josef Bryks (a Czech fighter pilot serving with the RAF under the Nom de guerre of Joseph Ricks) and Squadron Leader Morris, befriended the Pole and worked out a plan with him.
The friendly Pole would clean out the sewage wagon and smuggle the two men out of the camp on the day of the escape and drive them out into the countryside so they could get a head start on the rest of the men.
On the day of the escape, there was a rush of excitement around the camp as the final preparations and plans were being finalised. Tommy Calnan had been asking Tony to be his escaping partner but the two could not come to an agreement of which direction to head in. Tony wished to go North and Tommy wished to go South West to Switzerland and so they decided to split up from one another.
Tony’s plan was to travel by train from the Polish city of Bromberg back into Germany and up to the Baltic port of Kolberg, where he intended to get to the Danish island of Bornholm. His hope was to make contact with his Danish relatives on Bornholm who would be able to arrange for a herring fishing boat to take him over to neutral Sweden. Tony spoke good German and any deficiency in his accent was account for by his posing as a Danish freiwilliger - a Danish volunteer workman.
He had a forged foreign worker’s identity card and had prepared dyed brown trousers, an RAF raincoat which to the Germans bore no resemblance to a military coat, and a cap which a helpful Pole had conveniently left behind on one of the visits to clear the latrine. He carried a small attaché case containing concentrated food, shaving kit, a cloth to keep his shoes clean and so on. From his memoirs, Tony recollected “ Most of my fellow escapees would be walking by nights and hiding by day. For them appearance was secondary. For me, travelling by train it was essential not to appear dishevelled”.
After evening roll-call on the evening of the escape, the diversion started and the men started to trickle off in small groups to the latrines and into the tunnel. One by one, the 33 men started to make their way down the tunnel lying head to toe and waited for 5 hours until nightfall when it would be safe to break the tunnel and make their break for freedom. In addition, 10 other men were cleverly hidden in the attics of one of the central buildings in the camp and were to become known as ‘ghosts’. The additional 10 men would be believed to have escaped and then could either escape at a later date without the Germans raising any alarm, or they could take the place of other prisoners who did escape to delay the inevitable manhunt.
On the night of 5th/6th March 1943, Eddie Asselin and Tex Ash broke the tunnel and to their delight, it opened right into the middle of a hollow in the potato patch they were aiming for. They looked back at the camp and could see the searchlights trained in on the camp and guards walking their beat with guard dogs at their heels.
One by one, the men were succeeding in breaking out of the tunnel without a hitch until one very large prisoner caused a cave-in. Luckily, the cave in was not severe and the repairs did not take long. The same man got stuck whilst squeezing through the tunnel exit which caused another delay but eventually he and the rest of the 33 men in the tunnel were free without a stir from the unknowing Germans.
Tony takes up the story of his immediate escape from the tunnel exit:
“I had sixteen miles to walk to the railway station at Bromberg and I had to be there to catch the morning train. I walked mainly on the railway track itself, but skirted stations and signal boxes which was very time-consuming. Walking along the track was awkward because the sleepers were just too close together for a normal stride. Anyway I got to the outskirts of Bromberg and cleaned myself up before walking into the town.
My plan was to leave the train at Schneidemuhl and then to travel north up to Kolberg. I had plenty of German money, cleverly smuggled into the camp from London, and I was therefore able to ask for a return ticket, as a means to avoid suspicion. It was with some trepidation that I went up to the ticket office and said ‘Schneidemuhl, hin und zuruck, bitte’. Not problem, so I checked the platform and who should I see walking up and down but Tommy Calnan and Robert Kee who were travelling together.”
Tommy remembers the encounter as such:
“I was watching a very smart young man as he walked up and down the platform. He was wearing a neat blue-grey raincoat, carrying an attaché case and had a folded newspaper tucked under his arm. He looked like a superior bank clerk. There was something vaguely familiar about him, but I did not recognise him until he passed close to us. It was Tony Barber!
Tony recognised me at the same time and very deliberately looked the other way but I could not resist greeting him. He look of panic when he saw me coming should have discouraged me, but I was enjoying the moment too much. I gave him. Nicely casual Nazi salute and greeted him. ‘Heil Hitler’ I said. He was forced to respond in the same way and to return my salute.
I then shook hands with him and told him how delighted I was to see him. ‘Go to hell’ said Tony. He was shaking with anger. ‘And stay away from me, you look like a tramp’. With great self control, he shook hands again and bowed himself away. When the train came in, he made a point of boarding it at a considerable distance from us.”
There were three classes of travel on the train but although Tony had plenty of money and was reasonably well dressed, he was not quite smart enough to appear as an obvious first-class passenger. Because the Germans would naturally assume that any escaped prisoner travelling by train would be short of cash, they would expect him to travel third class, so he opted for second.
Tony entered the compartment and took his seat as casually as he could and raised his eyes to glance around. He froze. There sitting opposite him and looking out of the window was a German NCO whom he immediately recognised as coming from the camp. He dared not change compartments for fear of arousing suspicion so he stayed put. The man never recognised him and in fact, although Tony did not know it at the time, no alarm had been raised at the camp yet.
Back at the camp, morning had risen and the tunnel exit had still not been discovered by the Germans and they were unaware that they were short of 45 prisoners. This tally included: The 33 tunnellers, Bryks and Morris who successfully got away in the sewage wagon, and the 10 ‘Ghosts’ who were in hiding in the attics. One enterprising South African Pilot, Squadron Leader Don Gericke, who was involved with the escape committee and knew of the plans seized this opportunity and rushed back to his room to grab his makeshift escape kit. He casually strolled over to the latrines, hurried down the tunnel as fast as he could and got joined the others on the run.
When the train reached Schneidemuhl, Tony joined Tommy and Robert and they walked together out of the town. In Tommy’s words:
“Tony had completely recovered his good temper. There was nobody about and we talked freely and happily, relating our experiences of the night before. We were all in high spirits. Soon Tony left us to return to the station. He was taking a different route, aiming at the Baltic coast. He had some rather mysterious plan for getting to the island of Bornholm. We wished him luck, sorry to see him go.”
When Tony arrived back at Bromberg station, he found that there was no train going north until the following morning so he walked out of the town again and into the woods where he settled down for the night. He had nothing to keep warm and by midnight it had started to drizzle and he was shivering in the damp cold of the east European March night. With the temperature falling, it was impossible to spend the night in the open and in any event he had to keep up a reasonably clean appearance.
He would have stuck out too much if he had continued to walk around in the middle of the night and so with all the confidence he could muster, he walked back into town and went to the railway station waiting room. It was packed with German soldiers drinking beer from the buffet. There were virtually no civilians. Tony went up to the counter and got himself a beer and a bowl of potato soup. He started conversation with members of the crowd and ended up having a few more beers and the occasional doze.
The next leg of Tony’s journey was more troublesome. On his next train, some plain clothes police officers came through checking the papers of each passenger. It seemed that this wasn’t a routine check and his suspicions were confirmed when he overheard a reference to escaped prisoners of war but all went well. Tony’s identity papers were accepted without demur as was the story that he was going to visit his brother who was unwell.
Tony described his feelings:
“My confidence was growing, I was getting used to being in the company of Germans, the sense of being hunted was receding and more than ever before I really began to believe that I was going to make it. I had now reached a small town in northern Pomerania and had only one more comparatively short train journey to complete before reaching Kolberg.
There were a couple of hours to wait for the train, it was a crisp and sunny Sunday morning, and I set off to walk round the town with a purposeful air. I was many miles from the camp and there was nothing to arouse suspicion.”
Tony then saw two elderly SA men, Brownshirts, walking slowly along the footpath towards him. Quite casually, it seemed almost on the spur of the moment, they stopped and asked for his papers. They were not in the least bit aggressive but they exuded the dogged perseverance of the minor official. They returned his identity papers and accepted the story but they pointed out that, as a foreign volunteer worker, he should have a letter from his place of work. Tony knew before the escape that this was one document that he was lacking but the camp’s forgery department had simply not had time to prepare it.
Tony takes up the story:
“You say you are here to visit your sick brother. Where is he living? One of them asked. I had noticed we were in a street called Friedrichstrasse. ‘Friedrichstrasse siebzehn’ I replied hoping that they would leave me to go on my way. Not so. They may not have looked particularly bright, but they were stubborn. They said they would come with me. We arrived at the door of No.17 and I rang the bell. A lady answered the door.
I explained that I had come to visit my brother who was ill but she replied that the only people who lived in the house were her own family. I knew in my heart that the end was not far away but I thought that there might be a chance that , although the SA men were armed, an opportunity would arise to make a dash for it so it seemed worthwhile to play along with it.
We walked together to the police station where they said they would telephone my employer. Once we had entered the building, all chance of escape had gone and the game was up. ‘Ich bin tin Offizier in Der Britischer Luftwaffe’.”
Tony was bundled into the back of a car and taken to the Gestapo headquarters back in Schneidemuhl. Kept in solitary confinement for a week being interrogated for long periods of the night and being forced to stand in his cell for several hours during the day, Tony could hear the screams of other unfortunate souls being tortured.
One day, during the afternoon, Tony was collected from his cell and taken upstairs to what turned out to be his final interrogation. His reaction to the questions was the same as on all the previous occasions. This time, there were two interrogators and one of them pointed out that, as far as Tonys comrades were concerned, he had simply disappeared and was entirely at the mercy of the Gestapo and that unless he co-operated, he would be taken outside and shot right there.
Tony lamely referred to the Geneva Convention, there was a short silence met with smiles. Then he was taken roughly by the arms, out of the room, down the stairs and into a yard against a wall and told that this would be his last chance to co-operate.
“I accepted that the end had come and I longed for just one friend. I said nothing” Tony later recalled.
Fortunately, this was just a dirty ruse by the Gestapo to extract valuable information and he was taken back to his cell. An hour or so later, he was taken to the station and travelled under the escort of an armed guard back to the camp at Schubin. Just before he had left his cell at the Gestapo HQ, he had torn off the bottom of the prison instructions which were hanging on the wall. On that bit of paper was a large and very clear rubber stamp with the swastika in the middle and around the edge the dreaded words ‘Geheime Staatspolizei’ - Secret State Police, or Gestapo. He had hidden the bit of paper in his shoe and knew that the forgers back in the camp would be thrilled.
Tony arrived back at Schubin to find out that all of the ghosts had been found, and that 32 of the 34 tunnellers had been recaptured. The head of the Escape Committee, Jimmy Buckley and his Danish escape companion Jorgen Thalbitzer were not back and had, in fact, been killed whilst trying to cross from Denmark to Sweden. Thalbitzers body was washed ashore but no remains were ever found of Jimmy Buckley.
Tony was crammed into the solitary confinement cells (which were actually now occupied by 3-4 men a cell. On one occasion Squadron Leader Ian Cross DFC, a pre-war pilot from Hayling Island, Portsmouth shouted in German ‘Halt, a prisoner has escaped out of the window’. At this, the German guards all panicked and went off in search of the ‘escaped’ prisoner.
Although the escape had not seen any ‘Home Runs’ and had resulted in the deaths of two gallant officers, there was a silver lining. The Gestapo Chief from Breslau was shot dead by his own guards when he failed to stop at a road block that he had ordered. It is believed that the chief thought his own men would recognise him and his car, but he had instructed them to shoot anybody who does not present identification. The escape also sparked a colossal manhunt distracting scarce resources from the war effort and many valuable escape lessons were learned by those who got out, which could be passed on to future escapers.
In early April 1943, the prisoners were transferred back to Stalag Luft 3, East Compound, where numerous escape plans were cooked up with varying levels of success. Tony was appointed ‘Little X’, the second in command of the escape committee.
In the Summer of 1943, two of the Schubin escapers, Lieutenant Michael Codner Royal Artillery and Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams came up with an ingenious scheme. Inspired by the Trojan Horse used by the Greeks to enter the city of Troy, Codner and Williams proposed to build a vaulting horse which could carry two men inside which would be carried out to the exact same spot near the perimeter wire every day for ‘exercise purposes’.
The men inside would construct the entrance of a tunnel and build a trap door to start a tunnel out of the camp and into the woods to freedom with the soil being brought back in in sacks attached to hooks inside the horse.
The Senior British Officer of the East Compound requested permission from camp commandant Von Lindeiner to build such a piece of fitness apparatus and this request was granted. On its first outing, the men did not hide inside but put on a big show of fitness resulting in one prisoner ‘accidentally’ crashing into the horse and toppling it over. The German guards rushed forward to inspect what had happened but only found an officer on the ground in pain and a hollow horse. The ruse worked and the Germans had no suspicions that two men would be hidden inside, digging a tunnel in the future.
Tony was one of the organisers of the vaulters and struggled to keep the men motivated. This was not on account of unwillingness to help their fellows escape, but due to the malnourishment of the prisoners and depleting their energy reserves. Nonetheless, Tony gathered a dedicated team who carried out the vaulting every day for months during that summer.
Codner and Williams realised that the tunnel could be used by three men and quickly came to Tommy Calnan to invite him onto the escape. Unfortunately for Tommy, he was already planning his next escape from the washhouse and truly believed in his plan so turned them down, but offered to help in whatever way he could when he wasn’t working on his own plans. Instead, they turned to Flight Lieutenant Oliver ‘Ollie’ Philpot DFC, a good friend of Tony’s who had been with him at Spangenberg and Schubin.
After his return from Schubin, Ollie realised that it would be wisest to adopt an escaping alter-ego before any escape attempt was made so that he could fully immerse himself into the character and have it perfected. Ollie’s persona would be Jon Jorgensson, a Norwegian businessman.
On the 29th of October 1943, 114 days after digging commenced, the tunnel was ready to break and the 3 escapers made their final preparations. In the morning vaulting session, Codner and Philpot were carried out in the horse to the spot. Codner made his final dig up close to the surface and Philpot sealed the tunnel, carrying back the bags of soil. Later in the day, Philpot was carried out again with Williams and another man called McKay who would seal them in.
When darkness fell, Codner broke the surface of the tunnel which came out exactly as intended in the woods. Codner and Williams went off as a pair and Philpot went solo. Ollie reached the Baltic port of Danzig within 24 hours and checked into a hotel, having to share a room with another guest. The next morning, he managed to smuggle himself aboard a neutral Swedish ship. On the 4th of November, Ollie presented himself to the British Legation in Stockholm and was joined a week later by Codner and Williams who had sneaked aboard a Swedish ship in the port of Stettin. The three were flown back to the UK in time for Christmas and all were awarded the Military Cross.
This was a triumph for Tony and the rest of his escape committee and they had proven that escape from Sagan was not impossible as many were starting to believe.
Around the same time, murmurs of a large scale escape from the North Compound were circling and many prisoners offered to transfer including: Chas Hall, Wings Day, Johnnie Dodge, and Ian Cross.
On the 24th of March 1944, these four men were part of the 76 men who successfully broke out in ‘The Great Escape’ popularised by the 1963 film starring Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Charles Bronson, and Steve McQueen.
Chas Hall, Tony’s friend from the PRU at RAF Benson and fellow escape conspirator was recaptured and murdered by the Gestapo on the 30th of March 1944 at Liegnitz.
Ian Cross, a fellow Schubin escaper was recaptured and murdered by the Gestapo on the 31st of March 1944 at Gorlitz.
Wings Day and Johnnie Dodge were recaptured but spared execution. Instead, they were sent to Sachenhausen Concentration Camp along with fellow escapers Jimmy James and Sydney Dowse. Remarkably, these four men dug a tunnel and escaped from the Concentration Camp but all were recaptured. Johnnie was taken to the Swiss border where he was released in order to send a peace treaty offer to his cousin, Winston Churchill whilst James, Dowse and Day were released at the end of the war.
After The Great Escape, the attitude to escape changed and even MI9, the intelligence service dedicated to escape and evasion, warned POW’s not to try to escape as the risk was too dangerous.
Tony started to study Law and sat his exams under the invigilation of a Wing Commander in the camp. He achieved a first class honours from Oxford University.
On the 27th of January 1945, the prisoners of Stalag Luft 3 were marched northwest away from the advancing Russians coming in from the east. The conditions were terrible and treatment of prisoners was awful. At the end of February when the prisoners finally at Stalag 3a, Luckenwalde just outside of Berlin, they found over 16,000 allied prisoners of every nationality on the allied side.
The prisoners were held in wooden huts of 200 men in three-tier bunks. There were no indoor toilet facilities, no heating, and the Russian prisoners who had been there for months were literally dying of starvation all around them.
Towards the end of April 1945, the Russians finally came and took over the camp from the Germans. This, however, was not the good news that the POW’s had been hoping for.
The Russians were holding the men hostage. One day, the Americans turned up with a series of trucks to take the prisoners away. Tony stepped onto the back of one of the trucks when a volley of machine gun fire went over his head. He was ushered back down and the Americans left in bewilderment.
Finally, on the 30th of May, the prisoners of Luckenwalde were freed by the Russians and made their way home.
Tony made his way home and was reunited with his Mother and Father in England. In summer of 1945, Tony’s mother was killed when a civilian Air France Dakota had engine trouble and crashed on the way from Copenhagen to Paris.
Tony’s mother was terrified of flying but he had convinced her to fly to Paris and see his brother Noel rather than sail back to England from Copenhagen after visiting family. The hardest part of this for Tony was that whilst having breakfast with his father, they were reading the Daily Telegraph and saw the news of the plane crash. The press had released the story and named the victims before the next of kin had been informed.
Tony flew over to Copenhagen to identify remnants found in the wreckage. When he walked into the room, he noticed amongst pieces of personal items, a gold pin. This was his Caterpillar Club Badge, a 9ct gold caterpillar with ruby eyes and engraved on the back to the member of the club. Tony had been inducted into the club when he bailed out of his stricken Spitfire in 1942 and had given the badge to his mother only weeks before.
After the war and his discharge from the RAF, Tony enjoyed a career as a Barrister before getting into politics in 1951. He worked his way up in politics and eventually found himself as the Chancellor of the Exchequer under Ted Heath. A notable policy which Tony brought in, was the replacement of the purchase tax with Value Added Tax.
During his term, the economy was suffering from stagflation and miners strikes. His 1972 budget, which was a hope to get the Conservative party re-elected, was later known as ‘The Barber Boom’.
As the Party was not re-elected, Tony left the world of politics and became the chairman of the Standard Chartered Bank which he held under 1987. He was also a Director at BP between 1977 and 1989. In 1987, he was appointed to be a Deputy Lord Lieutenant of the County of West Yorkshire.
In later years, Tony was the Chairman of the RAF Benevolent Association which raised £26m for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, Visited Nelson Mandela in prison, and sat on the Franks Committee which investigated the Falklands War.
Tony suffered from Parkinsons Disease and passed away in Suffolk in 2005.
I was delighted to acquire Tony's Caterpillar Club badge about 5-6 years ago as they cannot be faked and it is a wonderful piece of history; It was only recently that I discovered the history of Tony giving it to his Mother.
I hope that you enjoyed this post and wish me to continue posting my collection, I have several more interesting posts in the pipeline due to the National Archives re-opening after over a year of closure.