Oflag VI-B, Warburg, Germany: On the night of 30 August 1942 - 'Zero Night' - 40 officers from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa staged the most audacious mass escape of the Second World War. It was the first 'Great Escape' - but instead of tunnelling, the escapers boldly went over the huge perimeter fences using wooden scaling contraptions. This was the notorious 'Warburg Wire Job', described by fellow prisoner and fighter ace Douglas Bader as 'the most brilliant escape conception of this war'. Months of meticulous planning and secret training hung in the balance during three minutes of mayhem as prisoners charged the camp's double perimeter fences. Telling this remarkable story in full for the first time, historian Mark Felton brilliantly evokes the suspense of the escape itself and the adventures of those who eluded the Germans, as well as the courage of the civilians who risked their lives to help them in enemy territory. Fantastically intimate and told with a novelist's eye for drama and detail, this is a rip-roaring adventure story, all the more thrilling for being true.
The officers 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.
One of Hamilton-Baillie's ingenious scaling contraptions, photographed 31 August 1942, the day after the escape
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.
In this video, Hamilton-Baillie's son demonstrates the mechanism with a scale model (sound is rather weak on this video, unfortunately):
• Zero Night: The Untold Story of World War Two's Most Daring Escape, by Mark Felton. Published by Icon Books. ISBN-13: 978-1848317192. Article published in New Zealand Herald, 6 December 2014
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