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Click to escape. Subject to Crown Copyright.
Category: Battles/WW2

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Prisoners walking around the perimeter in the Exercise Area, Stalag Luft 3, overlooked by a watchtower, or Goon Tower as they were known. Note the thin boundary wire running at thigh-height, beyond which the prisoners were forbidden to go on penalty of being fired upon. Copyright: Special Collections Branch of the USAF Academy Library.

This page is dedicated to every sailor, soldier or airman who ever tried to escape,  as the mere trying tied down thousands of enemy troops. To those that made it all the way can I say "bloody well done".

Late in 1943 hundreds of locomotives drawing long lines of cattle trucks lumbered slowly into the foothills leading to the mountain barrier between Italy and the neighbouring countries of Austria and Switzerland.

Except for some German troops clustered in the guard vans no sign of life could be seen. In actual fact the trains carried thousands of men, mostly Australian prisoners of war. In some of these trucks the chief occupation was tearing up floorboards. As night fell and the trains, every now and then, jerked to a halt, Australians would drop on to the tracks, climb up the truck's side, unlock the door from the outside and rejoin those in the vehicle. The result was that through the hours of darkness hundreds of Australians, under the noses of their German guards, disappeared into the Italian countryside and eventually found their way to freedom.

At one wayside station an Australian darted from a rail truck, vaulted a fence and in full view of everyone grabbed a startled civilian by the arm. He then walked down the street with the man until he was able to slip away into the countryside.

Another, sighting a railway official waving a red flag, leapt from the train, grabbed the flag and in an act of sheer bravado casually walked down the platform and out of sight. Yet another, seeing Italians unloading apples from an adjoining freight train, joined the workers, seized a case of fruit and disappeared into the night.

More than 7000 men of the AIF became prisoners of war in Europe during World War 11, all of them captured during various campaigns in the Middle East. About 2000 fell into enemy hands in the aftermath of the disastrous Greek campaign while more than 3000 were left behind when Crete was taken by the Germans. Then in the deserts of Libya and Egypt, 1900 were captured when overrun by Rommel's Afrika Corps at places like Ruin Ridge, EI Ridge, El Regina, the Tobruk Salient and El Mechili.

Those captured in the desert were held at various coastal ports before being sent to Italy. Their camps were primitive, conditions harsh and food short. But as their chief task was unloading stores they were often able to acquire extra rations. While most camps in Italy were well organised, others commanded by dyed- in-the-wool fascists were veritable hell-holes.

Such a camp was at Gruppignani near the Yugoslav border where the sadistic commandant kept prisoners handcuffed for days in the punishment cells. Men still clad in light desert clothing were forced to work in freezing conditions while several were shot as a result of altercations with the guards. Many Australians made their escape from this camp and linked up with Tito's partisans, some continuing to fight until the end of the war.

The other main Australian camp was at Bologna where in 1943 after hearing rumours of Italian capitulation, prisoners cut the encircling wire at several points in readiness for a mass breakout. But the plan came to nothing when in the pre-dawn darkness German SS troops moved in. Some captives made a run for it but the Germans, with sweeping bursts of submachine gun fire, cut down the vanguard and herded the rest back inside. Within days they were packed tightly into railway cattle trucks bound for Germany.

It was during this journey that hundreds escaped. Some crossed the Alps into Switzerland, some fought with Italian partisans, others, after months of hide-and-seek, finally made the haven of the Allied lines.

Meanwhile, those Australians captured in Greece and Crete were gradually being assembled in appalling conditions at Salonika in Greece. In this camp with little food and no sanitation, dysentery was rampant. Men collapsed and died, their bodies lying in a corner of the compound until prisoners were given permission to bury them. It was forbidden for prisoners to use the latrines after dark and the bodies of those shot while trying to do so were hung on the surrounding wire as a warning to others.

After a series of escape attempts all Australians remaining at Salonika were crammed into cattle trucks bound for various camps in Austria, Germany and Poland.

At Hohenfell in Bavaria, Leo Murnane, of the 2/2 Battalion, made several abortive attempts to escape. On one occasion he and his group spent months building a 100-metre-long tunnel. The men were congratulating themselves on progress when suddenly the section of the roof beyond the wire caved in. A small aperture at the tunnel's end could be seen and that inspired 30 men to risk making a break. Ten had scrambled out when a guard, noticing movement in the darkness opened fire. And that was the end of the escape attempt.

Although all 10 men were recaptured Leo Murnane was soon free again. This time he fled from a work party and hid on the wooded foreshores of the River Danube. It was here Murnane met up with an American airman who was on the run after being shot down. Deciding to escape together, they waded down the river shallows until they came to a rowing boat. In their haste to examine it they disturbed a flock of geese which made such a racket a nearby farmer became suspicious and called the troops. The same day Leo Murnane was back inside Hohenfell camp.

Late in the war when a rumour spread that the camp was to be evacuated in the face of the rapid Allied advance, Murnane and two others decided to get away before the prisoners were moved to another location. After sprinkling carbide on the floor to throw the camp dogs off the scent, the three men secreted themselves under a hut floor. They stayed there for several days before creeping out and threading a path through the loose German lines. That was when they were picked up by an American infantry patrol.

Determined to hit back at their captors, the Australians stayed with the Americans for some weeks, fighting in several actions before being sent to the rear for evacuation to England.

By this time thousands of prisoners were on the move over all the territory still held by the Nazis. Some were under guard but others roamed in leaderless mobs looking for the Allies to catch up with them.

Half-starved and living off the land as best they could, they were constantly strafed by the Luftwaffe and the marauding hordes of American fighters who blasted anything that moved in Germany. Consequently untold numbers of prisoners died both from air attacks and hunger and cold.

In April 1945 American tanks smashed the gates of Stalag VII D in Germany.

The armistice was signed a few weeks later. Within weeks Australian prisoners had been collected from all over Europe and were on their way to transit camps in England. Then, as shipping became available and their health improved, they were gradually returned to Australia.


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Digger History:  an unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Forces