The Big Escape

"The big escape of prisoners from Island Farm occurred on the night of Saturday 10th March 1945"

Less than four months after the first prisoners arrived at Island Farm and two months after Darling had discovered the first of the paired tunnels, 70 prisoners escaped. (see Darling's theory of two tunnels - Anti Escape plans). This was the largest escape by German PoWs from a camp in Great Britain of the Second World War.

Note From Brett Exton:

Sadly, several authors and newspapers have tried to tell the story of the escape but do so with little research or effort and consequently the figure of 70 Germans varies wildly! I have read figures of 67 and over 80 but the confirmed figure is definitely 70 Germans escaped making it the largest escape from any German PoW camp in Great Britain.

The escape began around ten o'clock at night, after the final roll call and under the cover of noisy singing. A strict timetable was in place to ensure that each person turned up at the escape hut at the right time. A system of electric lights, tapped off the main supply, proved extremely useful, not only as lighting for the tunnel but also a means of warning when a guard was nearing the hut.

For several hours the escape continued uninterrupted. They had lookouts posted to keep a wary eye on the guard who patrolled the escape tunnel exit section of the wire. If the guard approached the tunnel exit then the tunnel lights would be switched off to warn the men crawling inside the tunnel. When the light came on again, they knew it was safe to climb out of the tunnel exit.

Once out of the tunnel, they made their way along the newly ploughed field (ploughed only that day by Garfield Davies) to a tall tree 150 yards away which they had marked out as a rendezvous point. At 4:00am on the morning of the 11th March 1945 the escape was suddenly to come to an end. Hermann Schallenberg, a Luftwaffe officer exited the tunnel and was making his way to the rendezvous point he heard a shout from a British guard followed by a shot. Allegedly, in the confusion which followed a British guard, who was giving chase, fell down the tunnel exit, much to the hilarity of a group of POWs who were hiding in the bushes. This gave the game away and the first eleven POWs were arrested.

The prisoner who was shot later received treatment at Bridgend General Hospital. His name was Lieutenant Tonnsmann and, ironically he had no rightful part in the escape at all. He was, in simple terms, a gatecrasher, and it was his lack of basic preparation that had betrayed his presence to the guard. Tonnsmann had been carrying a white kitbag - and this had shown up in the dark !!!