(From the January 2016 issue - Volume 22 Issue 12)
By Chuck Lyons
There were 40 known prisoner-of-war camps in Canada during the Second World War, camps that held as many as 33,798 prisoners. There were also 600 escape attempts, but very few of those attempts were successful. Four POWs were killed and another three wounded trying to break free.
But one man did get away.
A far from humble Luftwaffe pilot named Franz Xaver Baron von Werra escaped across the St. Lawrence River and into the then-neutral United States in January 1941. There, his brash personality and exaggerated tales of adventure entertained newspaper readers in both countries and briefly made him a celebrity and the toast of German-American society. Eventually, he made yet another escape, slipping out of the United States and into Mexico while American authorities pondered what to do with him. He then worked his way back to Germany and to the Luftwaffe, where he was giving a hero’s welcome and was able to provide crucial intelligence about British interrogation techniques and security.
There, Adolf Hitler personally awarded Oberleutnant von Werra a Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.
Von Werra had joined the Luftwaffe at age 22 in 1936, where he gained a reputation as a competent officer but one given to boisterousness and what was called “playboy” behaviour. He was captured in September 1940 when his Messerschmitt was shot down over Kent.
The British held von Werra briefly at Maidstone barracks, during which time he tried — unsuccessfully — to escape during a work detail; they then sent him to the London District Prisoner of War “cage” in the Kensington Palace Gardens where he was interrogated for 18 days.
“I saw hundreds of German airmen during the war,” a police sergeant who guarded him later said. “Some were tough and arrogant, others completely deflated. Von Werra was neither. He was quiet, polite, and correct and very much the master of himself. He spoke English quite well. He struck me as being a bit conceited though.”
The British then transferred him to Officers POW Camp No. 1 in Lancashire where, on October 7, he tried to escape for the second time, slipping over a stone wall and disappearing into a field during a walk outside the camp. He was recaptured five days later.
Realizing they had a problem on their hands, British authorities sentenced von Werra to 21 days of solitary confinement and then transferred him to Officers Camp No. 13 in Derbyshire. He was later to write — with barely suppressed pride — that he was recognized during the six-hour trip to Derbyshire and people gathered around his railroad car to gape at him.
At Camp 13, he quickly joined with other prisoners digging an escape tunnel, and on December 20, equipped with money and fake papers, von Werra and four others slipped out of the tunnel under the cover of anti-aircraft fire and the singing of the camp choir.
Von Werra’s four companions were quickly recaptured. But von Werra, dressed in his flying suit, approached a locomotive engineer claiming to be a Royal Netherlands Air Force pilot who had been downed and was trying to rejoin his unit. He was taken to a nearby railroad station where he bluffed three policemen with his story and transportation was arranged for him to the RAF aerodrome at Hucknall near Nottingham. At Hucknall, as his credentials were being checked, von Werra excused himself and ran to the nearest hangar where he told a mechanic he was cleared for a test flight. But as he sat in the plane’s cockpit trying to learn the unfamiliar controls, he was arrested at gunpoint and returned to Hayes under armed guard.
“He had a most engaging personality,” one of the men who captured him wrote. “It was impossible not to admire his enterprise and audacity.”
Enough was apparently enough, however, and in January 1941 the British sent him along with a group of 1,000 other prisoners to Canada; they arrived at Halifax, Nova Scotia, on January 21. The prisoners were transferred to two trains and they departed Halifax in a whirling snowstorm. Early in the train trip, however, von Werra had learned that the group was being taken to a newly constructed camp on the north shore of Lake Superior. This was a vital piece of information that told him the train would pass through Montreal and Ottawa and cross Ontario within 50 miles of the United States border.
He took that as an opportunity.
On the night of January 23–24, as the train picked up speed after a rural station and shielded by a fellow prisoner who stood and folded a blanket, von Werra quietly opened a window and dove head first out the window landing in a snow bank. His companions quietly closed the window behind him. His absence was not discovered until the following afternoon.
After shaking off the effects of his dive to freedom, von Werra took a bearing by the North Star and started off through deep snow toward the United States border. Unknown to him, he was near Smiths Falls, Ontario, some 30 miles from the St. Lawrence River and the border. Shortly after dawn he came to a road where, according to his own account, he stuck out his thumb and got the first of several lifts. (He later claimed one of those lifts was from a local policeman.)
Eventually, he worked his way to the river, which appeared frozen over. He waited for dark and began walking across the river ice through a biting wind and accompanied by the sounds of cracking and shifting ice below him. As he approached the U.S. side, however, he discovered a wide channel of open water. The river was not completely frozen over as he had thought, and he had no choice but to return the way he had come.
Back on the Canadian side, von Werra came upon some summer cottages where he found a boat he was able to pry loose from the frozen ground. He began pushing the boat over the snow, onto the frozen river, and then across it. Almost frozen himself and close to exhausted, he reached the open water and launched the boat paddling it with a board he had taken from near the summer cottages.
The board, however, soon slipped from his icy fingers.
Slowly turning — and out of control — the boat floated downstream; after eventually grounding on the ice of a jutting headland, von Werra leapt ashore. He had successfully entered the United States near the city of Ogdensburg, New York. There he turned himself over to the Ogdensburg police and they, in turn, handed him over to immigration officials who charged him with entering the country illegally.
Jailed in Ogdensburg, he sought help from the German Consul in New York City who got him released on $5,000 bond (later raised to $15,000). While U.S. officials pondered what to do with von Werra, he partied in New York City and made frequent debriefing trips to the German embassy in Washington. By late March, however, it became clear to German officials that von Werra would probably be returned to Canada. To prevent that, he was given cash and put on a train to El Paso, Texas, and told to cross the Rio Grande River into Juarez, Mexico.
Once in El Paso, he studied the border crossing, carefully watching Mexican peasants and labourers crossing into America with little scrutiny. He bought a peasant’s straw hat, a pair of blue jeans, a brightly coloured shirt and sandals, and went to a public park where he roughed up his new clothes, wrinkling them and rubbing them with dirt before changing behind some bushes. In the early evening, as the Mexican workers began to return home from their jobs in the U.S., he headed for the bridge to Mexico and mixed in with them, taking a spot behind an empty manure cart and easily passing over the river into Mexico.
It was his final escape.
From Juarez he travelled to Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro with the help of German officials, then across to Barcelona and Rome before finally arriving back in Germany in April 1941, where he was greeted as a hero. He was debriefed in Berlin, pointing out the importance the British put on the interrogation of downed Luftwaffe pilots, which had not been fully appreciated in Germany. He was also able to reveal the British interrogation techniques he had been subjected to and point out their superiority to the techniques then in use in Germany.
After the debriefing and a tour of German POW camps to assess security, he returned to the Luftwaffe and was deployed to the Russian front. Later, his wing, Jagdgeschwader 53 (JG53), was withdrawn from Russia to fly patrols over the North Sea.
In August 1941, on leave between these two postings, he married his long-time fiancé. Two months later, seven months after his return to Germany, his plane disappeared over the North Sea.
Franz von Werra’s body was never found.