The German Great Escape? The tale of the WW2 Island Farm escape attempt
Names like Colditz and Stalag Luft III have been immortalised as brutal (and occasionally escapable) camps holding Allied prisoners of war. For captured Germans, though, it was Camp 198, or Island Farm, in Bridgend, Wales. Emma Slattery Williams explores the events of Germans' own Great Escape in 1945
“This is the BBC Home Service. Here is the midnight news for today, Sunday 11 March. Seventy Germans escaped from a prisoner of war camp at Bridgend, Glamorgan, last night.”
These are the words that first alerted the public to the largest escape by German captives in Britain during the Second World War. Dozens of soldiers had managed to tunnel under the perimeter fence of a prisoner of war (PoW) camp in the south Wales valleys, and by the time the bulletin had gone out, only 23 had been recaptured – a fact that probably wasn’t too comforting for those living nearby. But how did the incident unfold in the first place? And what were the consequences?
Originally known as Island Farm, the camp had been built in 1938 to house female workers for the nearby Royal Ordnance Factory – the largest of Britain’s munitions works at that time. However, the employees soon realised that they would rather take the bus from their homes to the factory each day, rather than live away from their families. The site lay dormant before becoming a barracks for US soldiers ahead of the 1944 Normandy landings, with even General Dwight D Eisenhower himself said to have paid a visit to the men stationed there.
As the Allies pushed into Nazi-occupied Europe after D-Day, there was a sharp increase in the number of Axis soldiers being captured, and more camps were required to hold them. As a result, Island Farm was converted into a new facility to house PoWs, becoming one of the hundreds of such camps to be established in Britain during the war. Some camps consisted of hastily erected Nissen huts on open land, while others were based in abandoned factories and country estates.
At its peak, Camp 198 (as it officially became known) housed more than 1,600 prisoners, and concerns of escape attempts were raised by worried locals even before any attempts had been made; the thought of enemy troops running riot in the Welsh countryside and within short distance of a major ordnance factory, didn’t bear thinking about.
Unfortunately for the authorities, there had been no way to keep the camp’s new purpose a secret – as soon as the first internees stepped off the train at Bridgend railway station, huge crowds had gathered to gawp at them. The locals’ fears were not unfounded: some of the prisoners began plotting their bid for freedom from the moment they arrived at Camp 198. Much like the Allied troops behind the famous ‘Great Escape’ from Stalag Luft III in March 1944, the Germans planned to dig a tunnel leading from their accommodation blocks to the other side of the perimeter fence.
- Read more | 5 myths of the Second World War's Great Escape
Those with prior mining experience were quickly set to work, and the plan swung into action. In January 1945, the entrance to an unfinished tunnel was uncovered by one of the camp’s commandants, located inside Hut 16. Although the Allies concluded that this was a diversionary tunnel rather than the true escape route, they failed to find any others. In fact, the ‘real’ tunnel was cleverly concealed beneath a bed inside Hut 9.
Around 30 feet in length, its construction had been no mean feat: the local landscape was composed of heavy clay soil, meaning everything from tin cans to cutlery had to be used as part of the digging efforts. To hide the evidence, the men would stow the handfuls of excavated soil in their kit bags, before depositing it in one of the camp’s garden plots, or within a secret hole they had created behind a false wall. And, somewhat conveniently, the sound of tunnelling activity was drowned out by the camp’s very own choir, which rehearsed nearby.
On the night of the escape, curry powder was sprinkled near the perimeter fence to throw the camp guard dogs off the scent
The resulting tunnel was surprisingly hi-tech. The men had managed to connect a set of electric lamps to the camp’s main power supply, which not only helped illuminate the passageway, but also functioned as a warning light system that could be triggered if guards were seen approaching. Pieces of wood from bunk beds were refashioned into structural supports, while condensed milk cans were used to build a ventilation tube, which was pumped with air by a hand-operated fan. If that wasn’t enough, on the night of the escape, curry powder was sprinkled near the perimeter fence to throw the camp guard dogs off the scent.
More like this
But the escapees were also aided by aspects of the camp’s makeshift design. Island Farm lacked both sentry towers and adequate lighting around its perimeter fence, meaning that once prisoners had made it through the tunnel, they would be practically invisible under cover of darkness.
- Read more | A homemade ouija board, a treasure hunt and fake madness: the great escape of the First World War
At around 10pm on Saturday 10 March, aided by some of their fellow captives who were staging a loud theatre performance nearby, the first of the escapees made their way through the tunnel and slipped into the moonless night. Four of the men had already earmarked a local doctor’s car as an escape vehicle and set about unlocking it. But to their horror, they found that the engine would not start, and to make matters worse, they had attracted the attention of several camp guards who were wandering through the town.
The game was up – or was it? Fortunately for the fugitives, the guards failed to twig that the men were escaping Germans, and even gave them a ‘push start’ to get the car going. The fugitives then drove off into the distance, eventually boarding a train when the vehicle ran out of petrol. Soon they had made it to Solihull near Birmingham, 110 miles from Bridgend.
During the early hours of Sunday 11 March, as the final group of escapees exited the tunnel, they were spotted by the camp guards. Shots were fired, and in the frantic moments that followed further prisoners were discovered hiding in nearby bushes. Initially, the camp commandants thought that all of the escapees were accounted for, but the relief dissipated when a nearby police station reported that they had two Germans in custody.
- On the podcast | Ben Macintyre discusses Colditz, one of the most infamous German PoW camps of the Second World War
So began one of the largest manhunts in UK history, with alerts put out across Wales and the rest of mainland Britain. As well as soldiers, policemen and members of the Home Guard, hundreds of civilians volunteered to take part in the search efforts. Most of the escapees were discovered within a couple of days, but two would elude the authorities for nearly a week. After fleeing the camp, the duo had stowed away in the back of lorry with the intention of escaping to the continent on a boat from Southampton, before eventually being apprehended.
By Saturday 17 March, all the escapees had been recovered, with most offering little resistance once caught. There has been a suggestion that 84 men, rather than the official figure of 70, actually managed to get out of Camp 198 that night. This theory stems from the fact that 14 men were captured almost immediately, enabling the authorities to omit them from the total – perhaps to spare them any further embarrassment. Similarly, it has also been claimed that a number of the fugitives were never actually found (a trio of escapees were apparently later sighted in Canterbury), a rumour that again, may have been buried for propaganda purposes.
Once the dust had settled, Island Farm was emptied of prisoners, who were transported to other camps around Britain. The site was later used to imprison some of the most high-profile Nazis awaiting trial at Nuremberg after the war, including Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, who had played a vital role in the 1940 invasion of France.
Today, Hut 9 and its escape tunnel are all that remains of Camp 198. The hut is now home to a colony of bats rather than PoWs, but German graffiti is still visible on the walls – a small reminder of an incident that has now largely faded from living memory.
This article was first published in the March 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
Emma Slattery Williams was <BBC History Revealed’s staff writer until August 2022, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirate queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiled HistoryExtra’s Victorian newsletter and interviewed historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.. She studied both History and English at Swansea University.
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine for £21.99 every 6 issues + receive a £10 M&S gift card (use online instore).
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99