Escaping A Nazi Prison With A Wooden Horse
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Escaping A Nazi Prison With A Wooden Horse

August 14, 2019


You might have heard of the story of the Trojan
horse, when the Greeks hid a strong force of armed warriors inside a wooden horse and
got that horse into the city of Troy, after which they were able to spring their trap. Today we have a kind of Trojan horse story
with a twist, in which a wooden horse was used to get out of somewhere, not in. This is one of the most dazzling prison escape
stories ever told, and the best thing is it’s completely real. The story starts with a Canadian-born British
man called Oliver Philpot, or “Ollie” to his friends. During World War II this man became an excellent
air force pilot and he joined what was then called The Norwegian Campaign, which was to
liberate Norway from Germany. Things didn’t go too well for Ollie, though,
and his plane was shot down on 11 December 1941. The plane ditched in the North Sea, and Philpot
with three other guys floated at sea in a dinghy for a couple of days until they were
picked up by a German ship. First Ollie had to spend a bit of time in
a prison hospital in Norway, but was later transferred to a prisoner of war transfer
camp in Germany. From there he was moved to a place called
Stalag Luft III, which translates as “Main Camp.” This was located in a town called Sagan in
Western Poland. There he joined other RAF men, got transferred
again, but later sent back to this same camp. As the story goes, many of the captured men
brewed up escape plans all the time, but escape was obviously problematic. Not only was it extremely difficult to get
over or under the walls of the camp, but if the men were seen it’s likely they’d be
shot. Even if they did breach the fences the problem
then was getting to a safe place. British men wandering around western Poland
at this point in time weren’t exactly in a safe place. Ollie was quite a creative man, though, and
he came up with the idea of inventing an identity for himself. He would become a Norwegian man that sold
margarine, and if he was stopped, well, he was just on business. His name would be Jon Jörgensen. The reason he chose this line of work was
because he had worked in a similar field when he was a civilian and also because he was
aware not many people he would come across in this part of the world would speak Norwegian. So Ollie had his character and he had a very
convincing back story which its said he spent many days and nights creating. The problem now of course was coming up with
a way to get out of the camp. Well, two other guys called Lieutenant Michael
Codner and Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams already had a plan and this plan kind of involved
a reverse Trojan Horse trick. In 1943, they told Ollie about their plan
and he was enlisted into the escape. The men constructed what is called a wooden
vaulting horse, a piece of equipment used to keep fit. This was then placed about 100 feet from the
camp fence. Throughout the day lots of the men would vault
over this thing as part of their exercise routine, and this didn’t look strange at
all to German soldiers who were used to watching these fit and strong men exercise each day. What the Germans didn’t know was that a
lot was going down under that horse, because each day at the beginning of the routine either
Codner or Williams was taken out hidden inside of that horse and they would then start digging
a tunnel from underneath it. The problem with this was what to do with
all the and earth that was removed? That’s where Olli came in, because his job
was to take what had been dug up and get rid of it around the camp. After each session of digging the hole was
then covered. The way they kept the tunnel from collapsing
was by lining it with wood the men had taken from Red Cross parcel boxes. For three hours every day the digging would
be done, while the German soldiers looked on at all these men competing to see who was
the best vaulter. This was all worked out with finesse, with
the men always filling the same number of bags of sand for each session. They did change the system around, but they
stuck with an agreed upon number of bags each time. One of the problems when they increased the
session time was the guys doing the vaulting would get really tired, but by October the
tunnel was almost complete. It reached farther than the fence. That’s the only place they wanted to be. It’s said the men were almost caught on
several occasions because part of their tunnel crumbled after digging or the guards almost
fell through it. The diggers knew how far from the ground the
tunnel was because they used a sharp object to measure the distance. It was only 30 inches (76 cm) from the ground. The men decided that on the moonless night
of 29 October, 1943, they would make their escape. In total the tunnel had taken them 114 days
to dig. At 1 pm that day Codner was taken out and
sealed inside the tunnel. There was a count that day, but the other
prisoners managed to falsify the number. At 5 pm, both Williams and Philpot were also
sealed inside the tunnel. The only thing to do now was wait until a
bit later when they had a cover of darkness. That they did, but things didn’t exactly
go as planned. When they decided to go up from the tunnel
they were actually 12 inches short of their target place, and on any other night this
would have likely led to the capture of the men. Fortunately for them, the sentry that could
have seen them was late that night. The guys, covered in earth and sand, emerged
from the ground like moles. They were dressed all in black and had black
masks covering their faces, and so once they had made it to the nearby woods they weren’t
exactly easy to spot. It was then decided that both Codner and Williams
would go to a place called Stettin and Ollie would head for Danzig, a somewhat longer trip. He had his story all worked out as we said,
and if he should meet anyone on the way he would just say that he was selling margarine
and he was from Norway. What he really hoped was he wouldn’t bump
into anyone who understood Norwegian because while he might be able to mimic the accent
he actually couldn’t speak a word of the language. He at least looked the part, because he had
managed to acquire a black civilian jacket which he wore with some RAF officer’s pants. These just looked like any pants. He was carrying a small briefcase and inside
were only cleaning and shaving essentials. He also had grown a moustache that looked
a lot like the bristles on the top lip of a man called Adolf. He had some money and so travelled by train
to a place called Frankfurt-on-Oder, and from there his plan was to get to a place called
Küstrin and then onto Danzig. All this seemed to be going quite well, but
at one point he was approached by a police officer. It seemed, though, that the false papers he
had were good enough to fool the cop. On another occasion on the train he got off
lucky. He’d fallen asleep only for the train to
jolt and knock him from his seat. Without thinking he cursed out loud, but not
in German, in English. All the other passengers did, though, was
laugh at him. So, there he was, 23 hours after the initial
escape, in Danzig. A job well done, so he bought himself a beer. He then headed to the docks where he got a
room and thought about getting out of Danzig. The next morning he saw a Swedish ship in
the water that was loading up on coal. That’s a place he wanted to be so he snuck
onto that ship after darkness fell. He then crawled carefully into the galley,
only to find a cup of hot chocolate. Ollie drank that and then hid in a coal bunker. It’s said that the captain of this ship,
a vessel named Aralizz, saw Ollie while he was hiding and demanded he get off the ship
as he was a risk to the crew. If the Germans discovered an escaped POW on
that ship that certainly would have gotten the Swedes into a lot of trouble. He didn’t get off the ship, though, and
he was helped by a seaman and an engineer and hidden some place. When the ship was finally far from land Ollie
again greeted the captain who by this time said ok, we are far away now, you are a guest
of the ship. Nonetheless, when the ship arrived at the
Swedish town of Södertälje he had to spend a night in the police cells. The next day, though, he was let out and he
went in search of a British diplomatic office. He’d been on the road for a total of five
days, and he was met with cheers when he found safety at something called a legation, which
is similar to a consulate. And guess what he found out there? His two comrades Codner and Williams had also
found safety after their journey. They too had gone to Sweden and with all three
men safe their escape became known as the “home run.” Ollie would not fly planes for the RAF again
during the war, and after being debriefed by MI9 he was given the post of senior scientific
officer at the Air Ministry. He was also awarded the Military Cross. He lived until the ripe age of 80, had a successful
business career and had five kids during two marriages. We know all about his story because he wrote
a book about his escape called Stolen Journey. If you are wondering how Ollie managed to
find his way around many strange places during his ordeal, part of his escape pack included
a homemade compass. A guy called Jerry Dawkins, a fellow prisoner
at the camp, had put this together from bits of a gramophone, parts of a razor blade, and
also cardboard and phosphorous from broken watches. While it all might sound like a wonderful
adventure, if you read that book Stolen Journey you’ll find that escaping a prison camp
for Olli was a rough ordeal and a very unpleasant experience from start to end. Well, not the very end. Part of that book reads, “Escape is all
coldness. Coldness and waiting. It’s heat sometimes in digging and running
away. But mostly it’s coldness and hunger and hanging
about waiting.”

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  5. Stalag Luft III is an amazing story. You should definitely watch "The Great Escape" made in 1963 starring Steve McQueen. It's a great movie!

  6. Love hearing about this, just to know that a few Poms made it through the war with a brillient idea such as this. Also to hear how long he got to live post war. A full life with a great adventure, laughed at the train incident as well.

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