Book records over-the-top escape from Nazi camp

One of Hamilton-Baillie's ingenious scaling contraptions photographed across the fences the day after the escape, 31 August 1942.
One of Hamilton-Baillie's ingenious scaling contraptions photographed across the fences the day after the escape, 31 August 1942.

WORLD War II's greatest escape, which involved Australian and Kiwi officers scaling barbed wire fences instead of the previously favoured method of tunnelling, has been told for the first time.

Mark Felton's Zero Night: The Untold Story of World War Two's Most Daring Escape tells of the events surrounding the night of August 30, 1942.

Forty officers from Britain, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand staged the audacious escape from Oflag VI-B camp in Nazi Germany.

They built huge, folding wooden ladders in the camp's music room under the cover of raucous playing of instruments and choir practice.

While final preparations were made, the ladders were disguised as bookshelves to dupe the guards.

The notorious "Warburg Wire Job" was overshadowed by the Great Escape tunnel two years later, immortalised in the classic film starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough.

Scottish lieutenant Jock Hamilton-Baillie, 23, came up with the ingenious ladder plan after witnessing many futile tunnelling escape attempts.

Major Tom Stallard, 37, with early help from RAF hero pilot Douglas Bader, planned Operation Olympian.

Of the 26 men who clambered over the ladders just three successfully made the "home run" back to Britain.

The book's blurb says Kiwis took part in the escape, but the book fails to contain any details of their heroics.

NZ military historians Christopher Pugsley and Professor Glyn Harper are in the dark over the Kiwi link.

Military historian Dr Damien Fenton, a research fellow at Massey University, is unaware of any personal account or memoirs by New Zealanders at Oflag VI-B.

He said the camp crammed in about 2500 British Commonwealth officers, including nearly all the New Zealand Army officers captured in Greece and Crete in 1941 and a smaller number of New Zealand RAF officers shot down over occupied Europe.

The over-crowded jail was shut down after repeated escape attempts.

"The August escape was the last straw," Dr Fenton said.

While the cramped and unsanitary conditions were condemned by the International Red Cross, morale remained high.

"As you'd expect from a camp of mostly well-educated officers with the qualities of intelligence, initiative and leadership to match, the prisoners were exceedingly well organised and the de facto camp administration run by the POWs second to none," Dr Fenton said.

Inmates organised and ran sports competitions, camp concerts, a library, theatre groups, educational courses, and even a Maori language course.

"All these activities were a great help in giving cover to the work required to plan and carry out the various escape attempts," Dr Fenton said.

Topics:  anzac world war two

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