Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Erfolgreiche Flucht!

On September the 5th, 1940, a ME109 was in a dive over England, with a Spitfire behind it. The ME109 pilots name was Franz Von Werra, and things were going badly. Just a week earlier he had returned from a sortie and claimed 9 RAF kills in that single mission, even though he hadn't a shred of proof. He'd been lauded across the German press for this feat. The fame had been welcome for Von Werra, who had been born in Switzerland to an impoverished noble family. Now he was about to start a true adventure which would rightfully make him famous, not the imaginary one which he had relied upon until then.

Escorting a bombing raid against Croydon, Von Werra had seen RAF fighters attack the bombers, and following the lead of his squadron commander they had prepared to dive on the RAF. As they committed themselves another flight of RAF Spitfires bounced them. In the ensuing dogfight Von Werra's ME109 had its engine damaged (some sources claim by frenziedly fire). As he dove away one of the spitfires latched onto his tail and followed him down pumping bursts into his stricken plane. As he roared over searchlight detachment the British soldiers had joined in firing Lewis guns at the ME109. Von Werra arrived in England, unhurt, only a few fields later, near a place called Loves Farm.

Von Werra's ME109
He was quickly taken prisoner by local farm workers and the cook from the Searchlight detachment, and was handed into the police force and then the army. He joined the rapidly growing umber of German airmen who were POW's of the British. During interrogation the British checked the details of Von Werra's story, and found the 9 kills to be false. The BBC made great work of the propaganda victory. However in an oddity of life, the Germans hearing the denunciations against Von Werra's tally thought it must be true and so he was credited with all the kills, this action got Von Werra awarded the knights Cross.

Meanwhile in the UK Von Werra was now at Camp No1 near Grizedale Hall in the Lake District. Where he hatched the first of many escape plans. The POW's were exercised outside the camp each day, and at the same point in the route the excursion party would pause to allow the POW's to rest. Von Werra proposed to simply slip over the wall at that location and escape. With the support of the camp he started making plans. First the senior German officer in the camp asked the British to change the time of the exercise period. With the excuse it was interfering with the German's educational activities the walk was dropped from the morning to the mid afternoon. This would mean Von Werra would only have to avoid capture for a few hours before night. Secondly a German was appointed to cause a small distraction amongst the guards.

On Monday the 7th of October the plan was put into action. The roads in the area were utterly deserted, but as fate would have it a Greengrocer's cart was approaching the corner when the Germans arrived.
The plan was put into action, as the German selected for the Decoy stepped out of line to talk to the British NCO leading the party, he was immediately yelled at and told to return to his place. Von Werra's plan was failing, as he didn't have distraction, and soon they'd move off again. Then the cart and horse passed by, and Von Werra spotted it would block the British guards line of sight to him and at the right moment he rolled over the stone wall. Lying in the shade of the wall he waited for yells from the guards. None came, eventually the party moved off with him unmissed! He was free!

Von Werra was however free in in the Lake District in Autumn. Three nights later he was sheltering in a small stone shed on the hills when two Shepard's in the Home Guard found him. As he was led away in captivity Von Werra suddenly threw his weight about and knocked the two men over and took off into the darkness. He easily outdistanced the two old Home Guards. With a rough location the net tightened, and eventually on the night of the 12th Von Werra was recaptured by a search party whom had just retired for the night to the local pub. When one man saw a lone figure in the distance, the party turned out and combed the area. Eventually Von Werra was found lying almost totally submerged in some mud.

After a period in solitary confinement Von Werra was transferred to a new camp, Hayes Camp, in Swanwick, Derbyshire. Here he worked with a number of other prisoners to dig an escape tunnel. On the 20th of December Von Werra and his fellow escapee's broke out. A diversion was provided by Germans singing loudly. The song they chose was a German folk song "Muss I denn, muss I denn, zum Stadtele hinaus", which translates as "I must away into the great wide world".
The next morning wearing his Luftwaffe flying uniform he claimed to be a Dutch pilot whose bomber had been shot down at a local railway station. Eventually through guile he managed to convince the station staff of his identity. After a phone call a car was dispatched from the local airbase, RAF Hucknall, to pick up Von Werra. When he arrived on the base he was questioned by a very suspicious squadron leader. While the Squadron leader attempted to contact Von Werra's invented unit and airbase, Von Werra excused himself to visit the toilet. Once out of sight he made a break for it, looking for a plane to steal and fly back to Germany! As luck would have it he climbed over a security fence and ended up in a Rolls Royce factory. A group of civilian mechanics approached and assumed he was an Air Transport Auxiliary pilot here to ferry a fighter plane to a front line unit. So after getting him to sign into the visitors book he selected a fighter.

But the engine wouldn't start. The mechanics went away to find a starter trolley to get the Merlin engine to turn over, while Von Werra sat in the cockpit, head down, familiarising himself with the controls. When he looked up he saw the squadron leader with a revolver aimed firmly at his face.
In January 1941 Von Werra was moved to another camp. This one was quite a bit further away, in Canada. The British assumed it would be extremely difficult for a German POW to escape across the Atlantic.
The Germans were shipped safely with a large escort, and when they had been disembarked they were placed upon a train. Each carriage had a couple of guards in it, but was otherwise a normal carriage. As the train moved across the Canadian countryside Von Werra worked at freeing the window he was sitting next to. It had been iced up by the harsh Canadian winter. Eventually he had it free, and at an opportune moment he signalled one of his fellow Germans, who stood up and started to fold his coat, blocking the guards view. At which point Von Werra went out the window of the moving train. After trudging through the snow he came to a river, which was partially iced up. The centre of the river was still flowing water. To get wet would have been deadly. Luckily Von Werra managed to find and steal a rowing boat and so crossed into the United states. Which at that time was still neutral.

Von Werra turned himself into the US police and was charged with entering the United States illegally. He contacted the German consul in the US, and while the Federal government was deciding what to do with his case, Von Werra had been smuggled out of the country, and through several other neutral countries until he returned to Germany.
Publicity photograph taken by the Germans of Von Werra and his pet Lion cub Simba
For his exploits he was awarded the Iron Cross. Von Werra was also asked to inspect the German POW arrangements for the British. He said upon viewing the conditions "Better to have been captured by the British than the Germans!". It was his comments that lead to the massive improvement in POW conditions for Western allies.
Von Werra returned to flying, and was lost over the North sea to mechanical failure on a training flight.


  1. A really interesting story, I had never heard of before. Thanks!

    1. They made a film of the story in 1957:

  2. It should be pointed out that of the 9 Hurricanes 4 were confirmed as his 5th to 8th aerial victories and the other 5 credited as ground kills, as can be seen in pictures of his Bf 109's tail rudder.

    Also, in order to have received the Ritterkreuz he must already have been awarded the Iron Cross 1st and 2nd class, although on occasion all three could be awarded for the same action if the Ritterkreuz was justified, as the sequence of merit classes was:

    Iron Cross 2nd Class
    Iron Cross 1st Class
    Grand Cross of the Iron Cross

  3. Von Werra must have been very sour when the plane didn't start. To get so close...

    1. On the other hand, if it had worked he would have risked being shot down by his own friends when he got over France.

  4. Nice, though a bit sad. von Werra had much better luck escaping PoW camps than actually flying and would probably have survived the war in relative comfort in Canada if he hadn't escaped.

    1. You'll often find stories like that, of people who have done their duty had an exit, but then gone back into action and been killed.

    2. Yes, that kind of reminds me of Norwegian fighter pilot Rolf Arne Berg: http://www.spitfirepilots.com/?p=218

      A veteran of many missions who had now flown his last one, he still managed to persuade his superiors into letting him go for one last flight at the very end of the war, in which he was shot down and killed...

  5. This reminds me of the Ripping Yarns episode where Michael Palin is a PoW who attempts to escape every day before breakfast, and 3 times on weekends

  6. what a shitty way to die after having escaped so wonderfuly, on a training mission drowning/freezing on the frozen north sea....