Thousands of Luftwaffe pilots and aircrew were shot down in the Second World War and a large proportion of these found themselves in hostile territory as fugitives or prisoners of war. But, whereas British airmen were aided by the ‘rat-lines’ famously established and maintained by MI9, German aircrew had no such help because Nazi Germany had no analogous organisation to MI9.
Despite this, some Luftwaffe PoWs did develop a ‘culture’ of escaping, with tunnellers and forgery groups active in a few camps. But a number of factors hindered their efforts. For one thing, living in enemy territory, they had no ‘friendly’ civilians to aid an escape. And though they could pose as Polish or Dutch servicemen when on the run, it was hard to keep up a convincing pretence for long.
The most important obstacle, however, was that large numbers of prisoners found themselves being shipped to the British Dominions in 1940 and 1941, for fear that they might form a ‘fifth column’ in the event of a German invasion of the UK. The distances and logistics involved in returning to Germany from Canada or Australia tended to dissuade even the most fervent would-be escaper.
That said, there were some escapes. Famously, pilot Franz von Werra escaped from a Canadian PoW camp and made it back to Germany in 1941. In March 1945, there was a breakout of around 70 Germans from a camp near Bridgend in South Wales. Though all the escapers were recaptured, some had got as far as Birmingham or Southampton.
These were the exceptions, however. The vast majority preferred to wait patiently for peace and repatriation.
Answered by: Roger Moorhouse, author of Killing Hitler (Vintage, 2007)