BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
The 'Warburg Wire Job'
, August 15, 2015
ZERO NIGHT: The Untold Story of World War Two’s Most Daring Great Escape
by Mark Felton
(London, Icon Books; distributed
in Australia by Allen and Unwin)
Paperback: 262 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
At some stage most of us have spent a Saturday afternoon or a weekend evening watching The Great Escape on television. The film dramatised the mass escape of prisoners of war (POWs) from the German internment camp, Stalag Luft III, in 1944.
Zero Night tells of an earlier mass breakout, in 1942. Unlike the Great Escape, which was done via a tunnel, in this breakout the escapees climbed over the wire.
The prisoners at Oflag VI-B, near Warburg, Germany, consisted mainly of British officers, many of whom had been captured at Dunkirk, together with other Dominion officers, including Australians, most of whom had been captured in Crete.
They were eager to escape. The problem was that previous attempts to escape from Oflag VI-B by tunneling had failed. Guards had always detected the tunnels sooner or later, sometimes after the prisoners had spent months digging.
Then an officer proposed an alternative solution: namely, constructing ladder-like devices that could be thrown over the barbed wire fences at night. The result was Operation Olympia, otherwise known as the “Warburg Wire Job”.
After a test confirmed that shorting the power supply to the lights was possible, the would-be escapees needed to procure beams of wood long enough to construct the escape ladders, and then hide all their equipment.
Other preparations included modifying items of uniform to look like civilian clothing, and prepare survival rations from the contents of Red Cross food packages that the escapees could eat while on the run.
Unbeknown to the Germans, escapees were assisted by MI9, who deftly hid items useful for potential escapees into parcels sent to POWs, such as maps and compasses. MI9 was the branch of British military intelligence dedicated to helping British prisoners of war escape.
Finally, on the night of August 30, 1942, the power supply was shorted. In the few minutes of darkness and mayhem, of the 41 POWs who had planned to escape, 32 made it over the wire, including Australian Doug Crawford. Only six of them were recaptured immediately by the Germans.
Although the escape from the camp itself had been meticulously planned for months, it was only now that the real challenge began for the escapees; namely, crossing Germany undetected. While some escapees planned to travel to a northern port in the hope of stowing on a ship to neutral Sweden, most planned to escape to the Netherlands.
Travelling by night, they hid in wooded areas by day to evade detection. Escapees realised that their chances of evasion were slim; however, they escaped in the knowledge that, at the least, having military personnel hunting for them would divert German manpower from the war effort.
Only one party of three prisoners, Henry Coombe-Tennant, Albert Arkwright and Rupert Fuller, made it across the Dutch border on September 15. Making contact with civilians, they were fortunate in being directed to the Dutch Underground, which organised their surreptitious entry into Belgium.
They then liaised with the Comet Line, one of the most successful underground operations, which specialised in helping allied airmen escape into neutral Spain. Led by Comet Line guides, they crossed into France, at this point almost being apprehended by the Germans as Fuller spoke minimal French.
Fortuitously, Fuller was able to persuade the Germans that he was simple minded, and they released him. All three crossed the Pyrenees into neutral Spain two months after escaping from Oflag VI-B.
Zero Night is a fascinating recount of this lesser known escape story, and would appeal to a wide range of readers. Written in the tradition of other great World War II escape stories by authors such as Eric Williams and Paul Brickhill, Felton’s Zero Night is the first book to recount this escape story in detail.
This was a book that the reviewer found very hard to put down.