May 3, 2006
World War II POW Escape Story: The Wooden Horse
Last night I finished reading The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams, illustrated by Martin Thomas (New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1958). The book tells the exciting true story of the author's escape from a German prison camp during World War II. The escape was also the subject of a 1950 movie, The Wooden Horse.
[May 23, 2008 note: This post is about a version of The Wooden Horse written by Eric Williams for teenagers at the request of Williams' publisher. In the introduction Williams says he decided to write the book as a fiction to make the story more "vivid". - Jon Maloney]
Eric Williams was an Englishman in the Royal Air Force who was shot down over Germany in his bomber in December 1942. He was taken prisoner and sent to the Stalag-Luft III prison camp. (Stalag-Luft III consisted of several enclosures. The north enclosure of the same prison was famous for the 1944 escape known as The Great Escape.) The camp was built in a cleared area of a pine forest. The eight barracks were in the center surrounded by clear ground, and elevated to discourage tunneling. German soldiers frequently inspected the ground beneath the buildings. There were also a couple of soldiers who wandered around the camp entering buildings without notice and generally snooping on the prisoners. The open area around the buildings was enclosed by a single trip wire. Anyone crossing the tripwire was shot. Several feet beyond the trip wire was a high fence with barbed wire and guard towers. Arc lights illuminated the area between the trip wire and the fence. At night soldiers in the towers scanned the yard with searchlights and guard dogs were released into the compound. If a prisoner was able to leave his hut and avoid the searchlights he would probably be caught by the dogs. The ground's surface was covered with a powdery gray dust. The dirt beneath the surface was yellow sand, which made hiding dirt from a tunnel and hiding the entrance to a tunnel extremely difficult. The buildings were so far from the fence that any tunnel would require hiding large amounts of yellow sand.
The author and another RAF officer had the idea of starting a tunnel from out near the trip wire and concealing the entrance underneath a wooden horse, the type used for vaulting in gymnastics. The plan was approved by the escape committee. It would be a two-man operation, and a two-man escape. Every step of the plan was exceedingly difficult. For example, they had to brave the dogs and searchlights at night just to get nails and wood with which to build the horse. They had to acclimate the guards to men carrying out the wooden horse to near the trip wire, vaulting for a couple of hours, and then carrying the horse back to the canteen every day. After a couple of weeks of assuaging the guards' suspicions and seeing the guards inspect the horse in the canteen at night, the men began the next steps of the plan. The horse was hollow and one of the two RAF officers would be inside the horse when it was carried out every day. He would fill a shoe box with the gray surface dust, start digging, and fill cloth bags made from trouser-leg bottoms obtained by convincing other prisoners to make shorts out of their trousers. The digger would hang the dirt bags from hooks inside the box. He had a wooden trap that was deep and sturdy enough that it would not give way if a guard walked on it. After he filled all the bags that could be carried with him in the box he would place the trap in the hole, fill it with yellow sand, pack it down, and spread the gray dust from the shoe box over the surface. Then the vaulters would carry the horse containing the digger and the dirt back to the canteen. The digger would have to get out, wash, and dress, and the bags of sand would have to be distributed around the camp. It was slow, tedious, and dangerous work. The digger was alone lying in pitch darkness in a narrow tunnel as he dug. The difficulty increased with the length of the tunnel. The air was bad, it took a long time to wriggle to the end, and it was hard to drag the dirt while wriggling backwards. They devised a container and a rope with which larger amounts of dirt could be pulled back to the entrance. At least once there was a cave-in and the digger had to save himself. There were many close calls with guards. Once guards searching a hut were covered with dirt when the hut's ceiling collapsed due to the weight of the dirt hidden there. The guards found a tunnel from the hut and incorrectly believed all the dirt they found was from that tunnel, so the tunnel under the wooden horse escaped discovery.
When the tunnel was almost complete a third man was added to the escape team to help with the work. The train schedule the men had obtained was only good for October, and October was almost over. The three men escaped at dusk on October 29, 1943. The escape committee had been able to provide them with forged papers, German money, a little food, pepper to stop the tracking dogs, and clothing that would help them pose as French workers. The two RAF officers were going to try to escape Germany openly by riding trains and staying in hotels, although neither man spoke much German and only one of them spoke French, badly. The third man was going to pose as a margarine salesman and try a different route alone. Every step of the journey across and out of Germany was hard. The cold weather, rain, language barrier, and lack of knowledge about everything from curfews to shipping practices made whatever they did a challenge. They went north by train, had trouble finding a hotel room, slept outside, frequented cafes, tried to make friends with French workers, found a hotel, forged passes in their room, finally made it to the Baltic Sea where they were chased by a soldier on the docks, and (with help) made it on board a Danish ship to Copenhagen (which was under German occupation). The Danish Resistance hid the two men and managed to get them onto a boat to Sweden. In Sweden the two escapees joined the third escapee who had also made it to Sweden. Eventually the three men made it back to an English base. The author noted that the British officers who interviewed him were less polite than the German officer who had interrogated him when he was captured. Later the three men were each awarded the Military Cross. The author was then sent to work with American forces in the Philippines. He wrote much of The Wooden Horse during his long voyage home.