4 ̶ The Greatest Escape
In the evening of Friday, April 18, 1941, more than 100 German prisoners prepared to break out of Camp Angler. For three months, they had been digging a tunnel in the sandy soil that led from Hut 5B, under the southern barbed wire barricades, to freedom.
They could wait no longer. Buckets of meltwater were accumulating in the 150-foot tunnel, six feet underground. All that day, people who knew where to look had noticed the long, telltale depression in the ground as the warm spell and spring rains thawed the icy crust. The plan for the mass breakout was scheduled for Sunday, April 20, Hitler’s birthday, but they could wait no longer.
Soon after their arrival in camp on January 10, a small committee implemented plans for an escape tunnel. First, short tunnels were excavated to link Huts 3 to 5. The original builders had constructed the huts perched on short posts, in turn enclosed by wooden panels and insulated with snow banked up against them. The escape tunnel, measuring about 3-by-3 feet, was shored up with planks cut from floor joists and lined with more planks to guard against cave-ins. Working in parties and shifts, prisoners excavated sand and spread it under the huts or flushed it down toilets.
Other parties manufactured civilian clothes and homemade rucksacks and prepared survival kits to include concentrated rations, makeshift compasses, table knives, and maps. In his memoir, Paul Mengelberg described surreptitiously borrowing a CPR timetable and map from the civilian interpreter, arranging for copies to be drawn, and returning it.
Friday morning the rain stopped, the temperature dropped, and still the water accumulated. The escape committee in Hut 5B advanced their schedule, determined the order of departure. The excitement was palpable but escaped the notice of the Veterans Guard. The final roll call at 8:00 p.m. took place indoors, as usual. Lights out inside, searchlights on outside. It was raining again.
In his book(4), John Melady provides a detailed narrative of events. Cramped inside the tunnel, in total darkness near the face, dozens waited for the last few feet to be excavated. Boots lashed around shoulders, civilian clothes floating in fire buckets and large frying pans, one by one they exited in a shallow gully screened by some trees, not than anyone could see anything anyway.
Along about 11:00 p.m., a guard going off-duty on the southern perimeter, heard an unusual sound, which he reported(5). It wasn’t until about 1:00 a.m. that someone stumbled over an assortment of buckets and pans and discovered the tunnel exit. The exit was promptly sealed. By telegraph, the Commanding Officer, Major Charles Lindsey, enlisted in the search all available police and military from Sudbury to the Lakehead (aka Port Arthur and Fort William). All had to catch scheduled trains and travel hundreds of miles to Angler.
A raw wind had sprung up overnight, accompanied by sleet. Escapees now had two choices. Hitch a ride on a scheduled train, or bushwhack. All but two bushwhacked. They would successfully ride the rods for days, heading west.
By 4:00 a.m., a roll call, after multiple delaying tactics by prisoners, had revealed 28 missing prisoners. All but a handful fled eastward, on foot, not wandering far from the CPR right-of-way. The C.O., Major Lindsey, had already ordered searches of all east- and westbound trains.
Some escapees had successfully changed into dry clothes only to find them wet again. Melady’s narrative says, “. . . Slogging through knee-deep snow would have been difficult enough in itself; but the searchers [Veterans Guard] also had to climb over fallen trees, through dense underbrush, over ice-coated rocks and up and down the treacherous slopes and ravines that traverse that forbidding land.” The water-soaked snowdrifts retained traces of the fugitives. Shortly after 8:00 a.m., in daylight, they caught up with the first three prisoners, who readily gave up.
By mid-morning, searchers received reinforcements: Ontario Provincial Police, RCMP officers, 52 officers and men of the Lakehead’s Algonquin Regiment, and more Veterans Guard.
Two soldiers surprised four POWs warming themselves in an old cabin. When one made preparations to run, one soldier shot his nose off. All surrendered. Later, at the inquiry convened on April 28, no one could explain how the supposedly fleeing man was shot in the face. Soon two more stragglers were caught. By nightfall, eleven POWs had been returned to camp. The sleet had turned to snow and shrieking winds.
Since Saturday, radio and newspaper coverage had been massive. Hitler’s birthday, Sunday, April 20, passed without celebration, but there was some grieving when two escapees were shot and killed (more about that later). By Sunday nightfall, six more prisoners had been captured.
Two Toronto reporters arrived at Angler on Sunday and found themselves arrested. Their newspapers had carried stories questioning the security of the camp that led to the escape. Star reporter Douglas MacFarlane was detained at Camp Angler. Scott Young of the Telegram had his notes confiscated and a draft of his story burned in the camp stove. They left on the next train to Toronto.
On Monday morning, nine POWs were still at large. Three more escapees were picked up. Stories in the Toronto Star relate the incidents. Heading east from Angler, they found the route blocked by Veterans Guard patrols on the railway trestle over the Pic River, and by the formidable barrier of the Pic during breakup, with “ice and tree trunks, [tossed] against sharp rock cliffs”. The three airmen walked up to the door of Hotel Heron Bay and said, “We give up, we are beaten, we can’t make it.” A Veterans Guard corporal confiscated crude maps, shaving knives, rucksacks, and even a pipe one fugitive was smoking. The prisoners were shipped back to Angler on a westbound freight train.
On Tuesday, more tracking dogs and Indian guides participated in the search. An amphibian plane arrived and covered 200 square miles of bush without result. A cortege of camp prisoners and soldiers attended a ceremony to bury the two German dead in a newly created cemetery.
Two hours before dark on Thursday, four prisoners, Luftwaffe veterans, snuck out of the bush and hid themselves in a boxcar on the Heron Bay siding. Five hours later they were discovered and arrested by RCMP officers. They had travelled about 12 miles from Angler. In a detailed interview with Desbarats in 1964, one fugitive described a tale of woe, of taking shelter in cabins, wading through streams and wet snow drifts, huddling beneath fallen trees, and building a makeshift shelter which subsequently burned down,
That left two prisoners still at large. On Friday, April 25, when everyone despaired of ever finding them, Karl-Heinz Grund and Horst Liebeck, accosted by the RCMP, surrendered ̶ just outside of Medicine Hat, Alberta. No one imagined the two remaining POWs at large had covered 1,200 miles by riding freight trains hobo-fashion. In the city, the two U-boat crewmen received a warm welcome: “We felt more like Hollywood celebrities than recaptured prisoners”, he recalled later. Back home in Angler, the C.O. shook their hands and remarked, “Congratulations! Good sport!”, and gave them 28 days’ detention in solitary on short rations.
The darkest aspects of “the greatest escape”, the largest mass escape of German POWs on Canadian soil, remained the shooting incidents. One occurred on Saturday morning, April 19, when Oskar Broderix had his nose shot off by, in his opinion, an overeager guard. In his 1964 story, Desbarats wrote, “Plastic surgery has removed any noticeable sign of the injury”.
However, what happened on Sunday morning led to an official inquiry. The previous evening, after dark, six soldiers of the Algonquin Regiment, armed with .303 Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles, set up surveillance of a cabin which contained escapees’ unclaimed food caches. The temperature dropped, the snow fell unceasingly. At 4:30 p.m., the squad leader, Sergeant Davies, sought out another position accompanied by Private Saunders. After some detours they wound up at the right-of-way cut out for the TransCanada highway. As dawn approached, they came across a rock cut and a lean-to used to shelter horses. Davies played his flashlight on the structure and discovered several men sleeping.
According to author Melady, “We shall never really know what happened next.” In a matter of seconds, several rounds were fired. Two men were shot dead, two others wounded. Before very long, the four men who had been guarding the food cache joined Davies and Saunders. Sergeant Davis and another man left for Camp Angler to report the incident before ascertaining the exact number of casualties. Private Saunders and the three others found one POW unscathed, two wounded, and two others dead.
It was some hours later that Sergeant Davies returned with a 16-member carrying party, complete with dogsleds. Meanwhile, no one had received medical treatment. The bodies of Herbert Loffelmeier and Alfred Miethling were lashed to the sleds. The camp doctor, with two assistants, performed surgery on the two survivors. Kurt Rochel had wounds in the arm, foot, chest, and groin. Hans Hauck sustained a leg wound.
In his interviews of escapees, conducted in Germany in 1964, Desbarats reported Rochel still harboured bitter thoughts. He claimed he had not been given a chance to surrender. The only weapon he carried was a homemade knife, and he considered the deaths of Loffelmeier and Miething to be tragic and unnecessary. Their plan, said Rochel, a Luftwaffe pilot, had been to make their way west to the Lakehead and cut south to the States.
Rochel was transferred to Kingston, Ontario, and underwent two more operations. As a result, he would never be able to father children.
The court of inquiry exonerated both Sergeant Davies and Private Saunders of all blame.
4 Melady, John. Escape From Canada! : The Untold Story of Germain POWs in Canada, 1939-1945. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1981.
5 Desbarats, Peter. “They Tunneled to Freedom in Wartime Canada”. Hamilton Spectator : Weekend Mazazine. Parts 1, 2, & 3. 25 January, 1 February, & 8 February 1964.