On 10 March it will be 75 years since the Great Escape. The bones of the story are well known. The setting is a camp set up in the Second World War to hold prisoners of war housed in a series of huts ringed by a high barbed wire fence, swept at night by searchlights and patrolled by guards with dogs. Within the compound a group of prisoners, determined to escape, begin to dig a tunnel. Benches are cut up and bed legs are reduced in size to provide wood to shore up the tunnel. Old cans of condensed milk are strung together to make an air pipe to provide ventilation. Prisoners dispose of the earth by spreading it over the camp vegetable garden, a sports long jump pit and within a false wall built into one of the huts. After four months the tunnel is complete. It even has electric lighting. While their colleagues distract the guards with raucous singing and curry powder is thrown along the fence boundary to confuse the dogs, a large group of prisoners emerge beyond the boundary fence. One is shot by the guards but others, disguised in long overcoats with homemade maps, compasses and identity papers, escape into the darkness.
The story has echoes of the escape of 77 Allied serviceman from Stalag Luft III in Poland, which subsequently provided the basis for the film The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen. In fact, the escape on the night of 10 March 1945 was much closer to home, with German officers passing through the tunnel and fleeing into the night from the prisoner of war camp at the Island Farm Camp close to Bridgend.
The Island Farm Camp was built in 1939 to be used by up to 2000 women working at the Bridgend munitions factory. Although it was purpose built, with easy access to the factory, it was not a success, with most workers preferring to lodge locally or travel each day to the factory. Rather than abandon the facilities, Island Farm was later used by the American 28th Infantry Division in the build up to the D Day landings. During their stay the camp had a number of well-known visitors, including the Supreme Commander of Operation Overlord, General Eisenhower, who addressed the men in April 1944.
With the opening of the second front in France there was a pressing need for accommodation for prisoners of war. The camp that had witnessed Eisenhower’s rousing speech only months before was put to use again for German and Italian prisoners of war. The first task for many was to complete the perimeter fencing while others worked on local roads and farms. It was soon decided, however, that it would be used exclusively by German officers. As a result 1600 German officers arrived in November 1944. It was this group that brought Island Farm, renamed Camp 198, into the headlines. After the escape on the night of 10 March many were recaptured within hours and in the following week many more were found in fields, barns and gardens across South Wales. However, one group stole a doctor’s car and travelled by car and train as far as Castle Bromwich near Birmingham. A second group, using goods trains, was eventually apprehended in Southampton. The escape spawned numerous tales, including the suggestion that they planned to rendezvous with a U Boat off the Welsh coast. Most stories of their recapture were humorous and, almost certainly, heavily embellished.
Within weeks the camp was closed, but it was to have a further reincarnation as a prisoner of war camp. In November 1945 it reopened at Special Camp 11 catering for senior German officers all ranked at General or above. Those held at the camp included 4 Field Marshals, von Rundstedt, von Brauchitsch, von Kleist and von Manstein. Many were awaiting trial and some remained at Island Farm until its closure in 1948. Special Camp 11 was a very different regime. With the war ended the officers were given a fair degree of freedom. Letters of the Verity family held at Glamorgan Archives include two from German officers thanking the family for their hospitality in inviting them to spend Christmas day 1947 at the family home.
The escape from Island Farm was a major embarrassment for the British Government. Initial fears that the escape was part of wider plan to attack and disrupt the Bridgend munitions factory and local ports proved to be unfounded. Nevertheless the Government was anxious to confirm that the major manhunt launched across England and Wales had been successful in recapturing all of the German officers within 5 days. Most sources agree that 70 prisoners escaped although there has been some debate as to the exact number. A BBC documentary shown in 1976, Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are, opted for 67. A more recent study argued that it was as high as 84 and contended that several might have escaped through the Kent ports.
For many years the camp was left to decay. Photographs held at Glamorgan Archives and taken around prior to its demolition in 1993 illustrate that, although many of the drawings made by the POWs on the camp walls had survived, the camp itself was in poor condition.
Incidentally the drawings were not entirely innocent given that several were positioned close to the tunnel entrance to distract the guards. Fortunately, Hut 9 was saved and in 2003 the tunnel was found to be intact. What remains of the camp and Hut 9 is now in the care of the Hut 9 Preservation Group and it is open to the public on a number of days during the year.
The Verity family letters can be seen at Glamorgan Archives, reference DXCB/4/2/33. The photographs of the Island Farm camp are at D1051/1/7/3/1-9. There are also photographs of the Americans at Island Farm in 1944 at D1532/1-10.
Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer