Skinny, gaunt, 25-year-old William Ash from Dallas, Texas, strolled up to the wooden shed that housed the prisoner of war camp’s communal latrine block – the Abort, the Germans called it. A fellow POW lounging against the wall by the door gave Ash a nod. This guy was a “stooge,” standing lookout, and the nod indicated the “all clear.” Ash passed into the Abort building.
It was Wednesday, March 3, 1943, a bleak winter’s day. And this toilet block was the main ablutions facility in the Wehrmacht’s Offizierslager XXI-B prisoner of war camp, built on the western outskirts of the town of Schubin, Poland. Here, the Second World War’s largest Anglo-American POW escape to date would soon go forward.
Inside the latrine building, two rows of eighteen boxed-in toilet seats extended down each wall, side by side. The ancient Romans had devised this form of communal lavatory. Just as human plumbing had remained unchanged, nothing much had been altered in latrine design in two thousand years. Every day, from first light, a long line of prisoners snaked away from the Abort entrance, waiting their turn. Now, the Abort was almost empty. Just two toilets, at the far end, were occupied as Ash walked in. Both occupants were “kriegies,” as POWs called themselves, from Kriegsgefangener, German for “prisoner of war.” They were expecting Ash.
Standing and turning to the last toilet on the left, one kriegie reached down and lifted the round wooden seat away, revealing an opening just large enough for a man to squeeze down through. As the trio looked down into the bowels of the latrine, the revolting stink of human waste wafted up from below, hitting them in the face and filling their nostrils. It was enough to make the eyes water, the head spin, the stomach heave. After three months working in this gross environment, Ash was still not immune to the smell. There was only one plus: this same revolting stink was enough to repel their German guards and disguise one of history’s most disgustingly brilliant escape schemes.
With his hands on the wooden surround, Ash lifted his legs from the ground and eased them down into the hole. Letting go, he slid down and dropped into a large underground sump, splashing into a concrete channel that carried urine and feces to an exit hole in the brick wall. Via that hole, the excrement fell into a massive sewage pit beside the sump.
With a grunt, another of the POWs dropped down to join Ash. Above, the third man replaced the toilet seat. He would remain on watch until the underground shift ended. Bill Ash’s companion in the sump was long-faced Quebec native Eddy Asselin. Just 21, Asselin was, like Ash, painfully thin for lack of nutritious food. The tunnel they were digging from the Abort had been codenamed “Asselin,” after the Canadian, because this ingenious escape bid was his idea. Escape participants had several nicknames for the tunnel, including “Eddy’s Exit,” and the “SHJ” (“Shit House Job”).
Ash and Asselin were two of three North Americans participating in the escape. The third was Johnny Dodge, a 46-year-old major from New York City and a cousin by marriage to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Asselin now joined Ash in sliding aside a wooden cover disguising an opening burrowed into the back of the sump’s brick wall. Clambering through to a chamber dug from the earth, the pair carefully replaced the dummy wall behind them, in case an inquisitive German plucked up the gumption to stick his head, and a flashlight, down a toilet and inspect the sump below.
Ash and Asselin were now in a cavern they’d helped hollow from the earth beside the stinking sump. In candlelight, they joined three other waiting POWs hunched in the cramped space, and stripped down to long johns. Including “the Three Stooges” above, this was the digging team, first crew of the day. One man was already seated at a bellows made from old leather kit bags, to push a wooden handle in and out, which would pump air into a low tunnel that disappeared to the west. The other three would remain at the tunnel entrance to retrieve soil the day’s dig produced – and ready to dive in and dig out anyone caught in a cave-in.
After their shift the digging team would be followed by the dispersal team, who would dispose of tunnel earth in the vast sewage pit. One POW had the unenviable job of stirring the earth into the lake of urine and feces. Once a week, contents of the pit were hand-pumped into a horse-drawn ‘honey wagon’ for removal from the camp. The honey wagon’s Polish driver, Franciszek Lewandowski, used the waste as fertilizer on his pig farm. Just as Lewandowski was about to complain that his sewage was being adulterated by soil, POW Josef Bryks had confided the kriegies’ secret to him. Bryks, a livewire young Czech, was a member of “X Organisation,” the compound’s Royal Air Force escape fraternity. His information had brought a smile to the face of the honey wagon driver. Lewandowski kept the secret, and carted away the tunnel soil.
The third team of the day would repair and shore up tunnel walls and ceiling and extend the air pipe beneath the floor, ready for the next day’s digging team. That air pipe was made from used Klim powdered milk cans, which came from Red Cross parcels, fitted end to end. Air now being pushed to the tunnel face by the pump came from the sump; thick and putrid, it nonetheless contained enough oxygen to keep men in the tunnel alive.
As the pump began to wheeze, Ash entered the darkened tunnel. At its deepest, it sank to seventeen feet below ground, to avoid German seismic detectors buried to pick up the sounds of digging. The tunnel was little more than two feet high and two feet across; coffin-sized dimensions dictated by the length of bed-boards taken from camp barracks to line the tunnel walls and ceiling. Ash had personally donated every single bed-board from his own bunk bed, replacing them with a lattice of string, which was concealed from prowling guards’ eyes by his mattress.
On elbows and knees, pushing a flickering candle consisting of a bootlace wick floating in margarine in a sardine tin, Ash slowly worked his way along the earthen tunnel floor. Asselin came close behind, trailing a length of thin rope. All the while, the pair’s ears were pricked for sounds of moving earth above heralding an impending cave-in. This fragile tunnel, source of so much hope, was also catalyst for nightmares in which tunnelers were buried alive.
“Each trip down it required a little more courage,” Ash would later say.
Once they’d crawled to a small halfway chamber, 75 feet in, Asselin halted. Ash kept going, playing out another length of rope. From beginning to end, it took half an hour to crawl to the tunnel face 150 feet from the entrance. According to the escapers’ calculations, the tunnel, growing by two to three feet a day, had passed beneath the pair of high wire fences surrounding the camp. After that, it angled gently upward, and, several days earlier, had arrived beneath an irrigation ditch in a potato patch outside the wire. The last few shifts had been digging vertically, aiming for the ditch.
A wall of earth loomed up in front of Ash. A scoop fashioned from a Klim can lay waiting, along with a large cloth bag. Taking up the scoop, Ash pulled himself to a standing position inside the shaft. Setting his candle to one side, he began to hack into the earth above his head, allowing material freed to fall to the floor. After digging for a while, Ash dropped to his knees and pushed this into the bag. Once he’d filled the bag, he tied it to the end of the rope he’d run out, then sharply tugged the rope twice.
From the halfway chamber came an answering pair of tugs. The bag trailed off into the gloom, as Asselin hauled it in. Once Asselin had the bag, he attached it to the rope he’d played out from the entrance. Giving that rope two tugs, he received a reply, and the bag slid away toward the entrance. This laborious method of earth removal was not as sophisticated as the system of railroad tracks and trolleys that would be employed in the famous Great Escape tunnels at Stalag Luft 3 outside Sagan, Germany, a year after this. But in virtually every other way, methods employed in that later escape were pioneered here at Schubin, below ground and above.
* * *
Bryks had secured a camera to take ID photos of escapees, for use on their forged identity papers. First, he’d wangled his way onto a detail occasionally taken under guard to a German-owned Schubin produce store. There, the detail bought a few “luxuries” for the kriegies, from a fund set up with the paltry sums paid to prisoners by the German Government under the Geneva Convention.
Polish girl Stefania Maludzinska was serving in that produce store, and she soon fell for Bryks’ charms. Before long, she was writing to Bryks’ parents in Czechoslovakia. He hadn’t dared write to them using the camp’s mail system, as this would have alerted the Germans to his true identity and brought repercussions down on family members. Bryks’ parents wrote back to Maludzinska, who smuggled the replies to Bryks when he came into the store. After a while, Bryks confided to the Polish girl that he and comrades were planning an escape, and sought her help. Maludzinska had friends working at the town hall steal German forms, which she passed onto him for copying by X Organisation forgers.
Then came the most fraught task of all. Acquiring a small camera and film from a local who’d been a teacher before the war but was now forced to toil on the roads by the Germans, Maludzinska arranged for them to be smuggled into the camp by a seventeen-year-old youth who worked in Schubin’s German bakery and delivered the kriegies’ black bread ration. The teenager also developed the film in his parents’ tiny apartment. “Mug shots” of escapees found their way back into the camp in bread deliveries. Maludzinska and her helpers would have been shot had the Nazis discovered their activities.
Meanwhile, X Organisation’s security team watched over all escape activities. With the weather improving and frozen ground thawing, seven tunnels were being burrowed by industrious inmates. But Asselin was X Organisation’s gem. Not only had it gone the farthest, it stood the best chance of avoiding detection. Not even the Germans believed that men could be so desperate to escape they would immerse themselves in human waste for months.
Like Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape” movie, Ash had frequently spent time in the solitary confinement cellblock, “the Cooler,” across the street from the camp. While there, he dreamed of far-fetched escapes. Sometimes, he fantasized about a giant catapult flinging him over the wire. Other times, he was flying to freedom with wings on his arms. This Asselin tunnel project was the most realistic, planned, structured and prepared escape bid in which this serial escapee would ever participate.
After digging for an hour, Ash calculated the exit shaft had approximately two feet to go before emerging up into the potato patch. He proved his theory by poking a long stick into the earth above. For approximately two feet, he felt resistance. After that, the stick moved easily. It was time to stop work. When they came to dig that last 24 inches of earth away, it would be the day of the break. The Texan slowly, wearily retreated along the tunnel, dousing candles as he went.
Dirty and haggard-faced, looking like refugees from the Underworld and smelling like nothing on Earth, Ash and Asselin emerged into the cavern beside the sump. Back on the surface, they would wash themselves as thoroughly as they could. Wearing the same clothes year-in, year-out, and with limited washing facilities, most prisoners stunk anyway. At the twice-a-day outdoor Appells, or prisoner assemblies, called by Wehrmacht camp security officer Hauptmann Simms for headcounts, diggers’ aromas blended in with those of neighbors as guards moved through their ranks, counting them.
Now, with a weary grin, Ash informed his colleagues in the cavern that they had just two feet to go, vertically, to reach freedom. The next dig would be the last.
* * *
In the early evening of March 3, X Organisation’s executive met in the camp theater with Asselin and Ash and the Senior British Officer, or SBO, Wing Commander Harry “Wings” Day. Stooges stood at every window and door to warn of the approach of Germans. In this secure environment, Asselin told his associates that his tunnel was ready to go. Escape clothes, maps and documents were also ready. All that was required was a date for the break.
To help avoid detection, the break would need to take place on a relatively moonless night. According to meteorological experts among them, the best option was two days away, March 5, and the meeting unanimously agreed to break out on that night. Next, they had to decide how many men would go out, and their identities. It was agreed the men making the break should be concealed down the tunnel in the early evening, immediately following the five p.m. Appell, and wait down there until “lock up” at nine p.m. when the goons closed up the barrack blocks and the night guard came on duty. The entry would be sealed up once the escapees were in the tunnel, so, the number of men going out would be dictated by the number who could survive in the tunnel until the exit was dug.
A mathematician among them calculated that 23 men lying head-to-toe along the tunnel’s length, and another ten crammed into the entrance cavern, could survive on the available air. Several of those present voiced concerns that men would suffocate as they lay waiting. But the “experts” were confident there would be enough oxygen for 33 men for six hours, and this was the number finally agreed upon.
Asselin, as the originator of the scheme, would be first man out, with Ash his wingman. Those who’d dug the tunnel would go next, followed by leading lights in the X Organisation.
To mask the mass movement of escapees to the Abort on breakout day, it was agreed that a rugby match would be staged late in the afternoon of March 5: England versus Australia. With details agreed, the meeting broke up, with prisoners hurrying away to make preparations. Rugby players would be aware the match was designed to cover an escape, but details of the nature and location of the break were confined to the men taking part and members of the escape committee.
* * *
At five p.m. on the day of the break, the guards counted the POWs as they stood in ranks on the recreation ground for Appell, then reported to squat little Hauptmann Simms that all prisoners were present. After they were dismissed, most of the eight hundred men flooded to the recreation ground’s perimeter, talking animatedly among themselves. Rugby players and “officials” stripped down to shorts.
The camp’s 130 USAAF men joined the crowd. The SBO had asked Senior American Officer Colonel Charles “Rojo” Goodrich of the 12th Bombardment Group, a native of Augusta, Georgia, to get his men to join the RAF spectators and create as much noise and movement as possible to help cover an escape. Rojo Goodrich and his men had no problem with a little inter-Allied cooperation, especially as it had the potential to cause the “Krauts” grief.
Ash mingled with the crowd, chafing to get on with the break. A greatcoat covered his escape clothes, its pockets stuffed with four-ounce cans of “the mixture,” a high-energy escape food produced by the prisoners. Also in Ash’s civilianized clothes were his forged German papers, an accurate map of the region drawn in the camp, and a homemade escape compass. Ash looked to the heavens. Heavy gray clouds were massing overhead, and gusts of wind blew into the camp from the west, setting the wire humming. German guards on duty in the goon towers on the western side of the camp had turned their backs to the wind, pulling up the collars of their greatcoats, stuffing hands in pockets, and hunching their backs.
The other escapees salted themselves among the rugby spectators and waited their turn to visit the latrines. Clad in greatcoats concealing escape rigs, some even toted small suitcases and haversacks to enhance their traveler status in the eyes of German police and troops. In the closely packed crowd, these accoutrements were invisible to the tower guards.
The rugby game got under way. The ball flew downfield. Aussies and Limeys ran at each other. The crowd roared. Asselin eased in behind Ash and tapped him on the shoulder. Without a word, Ash followed the Canadian toward the nearby Abort. The stooge at the door nodded, and the pair passed in through the doorway. Volunteer helpers waited at the last toilet seat on the left, which was now lifted. As Ash and Asselin removed their greatcoats, Ash, although excited by the prospect of escape, wasn’t looking forward to going down into the filth yet again.
“Let’s pray this will be the last time we do this,” said Ash to Asselin, who nodded, then slid down through the toilet hole to the sump below.
* * *
This is an edited excerpt from “The Big Break: The Greatest American WWII POW Escape Story Never Told”, to be published in January 2017, by St. Martin’s Press, which tells the true story of the escape of 250 American officers imprisoned by the Nazis at Schubin. Visit the publisher’s official website for more information.