The only man the Allies didn't beat
They had this cocksure Nazi airman locked up three times, in England and in Canada. Each time he boasted he’d get out and he did, to become one of history’s wiliest and most notorious escape artists
KENDAL BURT JAMES LEASOR
As the passenger liner Duchess of York, prepared to clear from Clydeside in the midwinter of 1940-41—a dank and desperate time of war—there was a sudden bustle on the decks and guards scurried in answer to w'histles and shouts of command. The ship was carrying more than a thousand German prisoners-of-war and about the same number of British trainee airmen. It was bound for Canada. The Britons, most of them young, facing their first adventure, were full of spirit. The Germans, sure of their nation's victory in a blitz war and arrogant in their confidence, were surly and rebellious. What chance to escape from Canada to Germany? It seemed too far.
At the first sounds of alarm on the ship the guards spread swiftly. As they ran they shouted a name: "Wcrra!'' To the prisoners-of-war
standing idly, burdened with luggage and the first food rations they had been issued, the guards repeated angrily: “Werra! Do you know where Wcrra is?” The Germans shrugged or stared blankly at them.
In a small cabin Oberleutnant Franz von Werra heard the commotion and walked out to the deck. He was a small man but sturdy, with flashing clear blue eyes and fair wavy hair. Like most small men, he walked smartly, at his full height. He went directly to a guard officer.
“Werra!” he said.
“Are you Werra?” the guard asked.
“Yes. What have I done wrong now?”
The officer seemed relieved. “You'll have to come with me. There’s a cabin where you must remain under guard until w'e sail. Leave your kit. We have orders not to let you out of sight.” He beckoned to two guards, nodded to Wcrra and watched the German march briskly away.
A dashing Luftwaffe hero or an airbone Munchausen? Baron Franz von Werra was both.
This tableau was neither too dramatic nor too farfetched. Even at that early point in the war Oberleutnant Baron Franz von Werra was one of Nazi Germany’s foremost pilots and its most celebrated escape artist. About the first claim there could have been some doubt—Werra was actually a better liar than a flier—but about the second there was none. He had escaped from two British POW camps; in one flight he had come within an ace of making off with a topsecret Hurricane fighter that the British themselves had not yet put into combat.
Here in pictures is the adventurous career of one of the war’s most enigmatic figures ^ ^
And he was far from finished. Before his strange career reached an end he was to attempt the piracy of a passenger ship-—part of a large, well-escorted convoy—in mid-Atlantic, become one of only three Nazi POWs to escape from Canada and the only one to get back to Germany; he was to create serious diplomatic pressure between Canada and the still-neutral U. S.; and he was—most important of all—to shut off a valuable source of information to the Allied powers.
Franz von Werra was an almost perfect image of the imperious young superman that Hitler created. He was efficient, bold and apparently full of courage. He claimed for himself a Swiss baronetcy that he never owned and which the Swiss never grant. In Germany he surrounded himself with the trappings of a dashing pilot— a racing car and a lion cub named Simba. He wore a red jerkin for a flying jacket and was flattered when German tabloids referred to him as “the Red Devil—the terror of the British Air Force."
To support this lurid reputation he claimed— and was credited with — thirteen British and French planes shot down. Caught in the fire of a British Spitfire on Sept. 5, 1940, he himself was shot down near London. Thus life changed for Baron von Werra from the popularity of a successful young Luftwaffe pilot to the privations of a prisoner-of-war. It also began his career of escape.
After his capture in England Werra was taken to the RAF's interrogation centre at Trent Park, Cockfosters, in Middlesex. There British Intelligence went to work. For ten days he withstood attempts to wean information from him. Then he contemptuously bet a Squadron Leader Hawkes. his chief interrogator, that the British wouldn't keep him six months.
He easily won the bet. At his first prison camp in the Lake district of England he escaped in twelve days. Captured and moved to a second camp, Swanwick. he tunneled his way to freedom with three others. Caught again, he found himself in the first large group of Nazi prisoncrs heading for Canada on a British troopship.
The only man the Allies didn't beat continued
Even then, faced with the prospect of being four thousand miles instead of four hundred from home, Werra did not give up his idea of escape. The Duchess of York was no sooner at sea than he began making quiet friendships with the kitchen crew. He volunteered to peel potatoes and was accepted. He ingratiated himself with others in the crew and began penetrating into forbidden parts of the ship. He got as far as the engine room. He was never challenged.
These excursions gave him an idea. Would it be possible for prisoners to seize the ship and sail it into a German-held French-Atlantic port under the noses of the British?
He discussed the matter with several U-boat commanders, one of whom had been an officer on the Bremen in peacetime. A plot was hatched. It was taken for granted that the Duchess of York would separate from the convoy, which was bound for North Africa. Half a dozen prisoners disguised as crew made sorties, getting past sentries without being challenged. Between them they reconnoitred the wireless cabin, armory, bridge, engine room.
A plan of action was worked out. Assault parties would be formed, each assigned a single objective. First, the wireless operators were to be overpowered. Next, the armory would be captured and weapons distributed to assault parties. The prisoners would then deal with the guards and RAF personnel. If the operation succeeded, all the U-boats in the Atlantic were to be called to escort the ship into port.
Werra and the other conspirators went to bed in a fever of excitement. At dawn next morning one of them looked into Werra’s cabin and beckoned him to go outside.
Not a ship nor a smudge of smoke to starboard. They ran across the ship. Not a ship nor a smudge of smoke to port. They ran aft to look behind.
it. They found a bathroom with a sea-water cock and daily they would immerse themselves in the ice-cold water in the hope they would be tised to it if the opportunity offered.
Hitler gave hom an Iron Cross for feats of valor and daring that he never performed.
And there, a few hundred meters dead astern, was the battleship Ramilhes, last of the escort squadron but formidable enough to discourage any attempt at piracy. Werra was desolate, but only momentarily. When the ship reached harbor, he thought, there might be a possibility of dropping overboard and swimming to shore. He had only a dim notion of Canadian winter, but he and a companion named Manhard tried to prepare for
But they had no idea of what Canada’s cold could he like. Coming out of the heated cabin as the ship approached Halifax Werra felt the thin air stab into his lungs like ice. Everything was aglitter. the sea. a string of red buoys across the harbor mouth, the snow on land, the windows of tall buildings, icicles on the superstructure of the ship.
First the Ramillies and then the Duchess of York sailed into the western passage of Halifax harbor. There were curiously exciting smells of fish, oil, tar and fresh-sawn timber.
Werra looked at the water and looked at Manhard. They both shook their heads. After a couple of hours the prisoners began to leave the ship. They were a seed)' crew. With their cardboard cartons or kitbags of belongings, their undersize civilian coats, some with white padding protruding from burst shoulder seams, their hang-dog air. they bore no resemblance to the immaculate officers of propaganda pictures.
German air-force officers were being sent to a camp north of Fake Superior in Ontario, they learned from the guards. In the coach in which Werra was to travel there were thirty-five officer prisoners and tw'elve guards. There were far more seats than prisoners and they were able to spread themselves in comfort.
Three guards were on duty at a time. '1 hey stood in the aisle, one at either end of the section occupied by the prisoners, the third in the middle. They were armed with pistols. The coaches were heated and had double windows for insulation against the cold. One army blanket was loaned to each prisoner.
Werra sat by a window with his friend Manhard beside him. Facing them were two other prisoners, Wagner, by the window, and Wilhelm, next to the aisle.
The train left Halifax at about 7.30 p.m. It was snowing heavily. The outer windows were almost completely covered with ferns of frost on the inside. Soon after the train started a Canadian officer entered and gave the following orders, which Wagner interpreted:
Prisoners could move about within the coach, but in each bay of four seats not more than one man was to stand up at one time. Anybody wishing to go to the toilet was to hold up his hand. Prisoners w'ould be escorted to the toilet one at a time in turn. Windows were not to be opened or tampered with. Ehe guards knew what to do if they saw anyone violating this, order.
Several hours later German orderlies carried in containers of food. Grinning broadl) and winking, the) whipped off the covers. There were exclamations all over the coach. Potatoes fried crisp in bacon fat. baked beans with tomato sauce, thick slices of fried ham! Afterward there was canned fruit. And coffee! Not concentrated coffee and chicory diluted from a bottle, as in British camps. But real cotfee. with sugar to taste!
After the meal the prisoners were in a benign mood. So this was Canada! Werra was tickled to see that one good meal had been enough to undermine the determination of half a dozen escapers, men who had talked about escape ad nauseam during the crossing.
From the guards Werra learned that the train would in all probability pass through Montreal and Ottawa. According to Wagner, who had been in Canada, the best place to escape would be between those two cities, for the Canadian-U. S. border, the St. Lawrence River, was within a day’s hitchhiking distance.
How to get the windows open?
There were other places where the U. S. border would be closer—in northwest New Brunswick the railway ran near the border of Maine. But Werra decided it would be best to try to escape as late as possible in the journey. This would allow time for the excitement of an\ other escape attempt to die down. Above all. he did not want to get off the train in the backwoods. The point where he escaped must be close to the U.S. border, w'ithin reach of main roads. The obvious choice was somewhere between Montreal and Ottawa.
There was no chance of getting out the lavatory window. The door was wedged wide open and a guard stood near the doorway all the time the prisoner was inside. It would have to be the coach window. But with a guard standing only a few yards away, this looked impossible.
The attempt would have to be made while the train was in motion. As soon as it stopped, at signals or in stations, the three guards in the coach were immediately on the alert, and other guards kept both sides of the train under observation. The other prisoners would have to stage a diversion at the critical time for the benefit of the guards—perhaps a quarrel farther along the coach would be the thing. And Werra would have
to choose a moment when the train was traveling slowlv. preferabl) just after it started following a halt. He would need the cover of darkness the best time would be shortly before dawn.
But how was Werra to get the windows open unnoticed? He observed that when the train halted the heat inside the coach partly melted the frost on panes and the ice on the frame between them. After a long stop it should be possible to open the inner window fairly easily. After the next halt Werra put this plan into effect. Wagner stood up and kept an eye on the guards while Werra, hidden by the backs of the seats, knelt down in front of the window anil raised it a quarter of an inch. He wedged it with paper in case the vibration of the train closed it again. Thereafter, whenever a guard happened to pass. Werra or Wagner would lax his arm carelessl) along the window sill to conceal the tin) opening. During the next halt the) had the satisfaction of seeing water from the melting ice trickle from the gap.
The ice between the windows was greatly reduced in the next twenty-four hours, but freeing the frame would be speeded even more it the coach temperature could be raised to maximum. Werra therefore arranged with other prisoners to open all heat regulators to "Full” as soon as the train left Montreal.
Hiere were other difficulties to overcome: how to keep watch on three guards at once and to open the window when their attention was dis traded: how to conceal the open window; how to shut both windows afterward, for it would make all the difference if his disappearance were not discovered for some time: he must be wearing his overcoat when he dived out. but how;. having been sitting in his shirt sleeves, could he put it on without arousing the guards' curiosity?
An escaper must have luck, and luck solved most of these problems for Werra.
The train reached Montreal late the following night. There was a long halt during which the heat was cut off while the locomotive was changed. The temperature in the coach dropped rapidly, and it was quite natural for the regulators to be opened full when the heating was reconnected.
The German public never learned of the secrets lie stole from Britain and gave the Nazis
BARON VON WERRA i ____
BARON WERRA, ESCAPOLOGIST DIES ON RUSSIAN FRONT
By FRANK MACHIN. " Dally Herald "
B\RON FRANZ VON WERRA, E*caP No. 1 of tkr Nasi Air Force, the man lobe« Io his rar», i» dead. Heb* boei*. I, ik* It muían front. I
At the evening meal that night they had tomato soup, goulash, and a whole case of dessert apples. The prisoners were starved for fresh fruit, and they ate the lot. This surfeit of apples proved too much for the men. In Wer ra's coach from midnight on there was a long queue for the toilet. In spite of the heat in the coach, some prisoners, white-faced and shivering from sickness, wrapped coals or blankets about them. Werra was able to put on his overcoat without arousing the slightest suspicion. Then he sat with his head in his hands. The guards expected no trouble from prisoners in this condition.
continued on page 42
The only man the Allies didn't beat Continued from page 29
“It was madness. Suicide. But the next moment Werra vanished through the open train window”
Mill the train would not slow down. It went on and on at an exasperatingly high speed. It seemed hours before the brakes were applied and the train gradually came to a halt. Werra glanced at his companions. All were wide awake and looking at him questioningly. Manhard and Wilhelm sal facing one another in the seats beside the aisle, each watching a guard. Their thumbs protruded from the blankets over their knees. Werra watched those thumbs. One thumb was horizontal, the other vertical.
Now both were sticking up. Werra stood up, opened out bis blanket and shook it. Wagner knelt down behind it in front of the window. A second later he was back in his seat. Werra finished folding his blanket and sat down again. The inner window was wide open. No word had been spoken.
As the train stood in the station the frost quickly melted on Werra's outer window. Soon he could see the silhouettes of the guards walking against the station lights. If he could see them, could they see him? All the other windows were white and opaque from frost. His was like a gap in a white row of teeth.
A bell clanged. The guards climbed aboard, banging snow from their boots. Two of them got in the prisoners’ end of the coach and walked down the aisle toward their seats. They would have to pass the defrosted window. Werra, his head in his hands, peered at them through his fingers. The first guard walked by, looking straight ahead. The second walked in a stumbling way and Werra saw his glasses were misted. He passed by too.
Werra glanced at his friends. They were all ready.
There were several prisoners now with raised hands, for during the halt there had been no visits to the toilet. A guard escorted the first man out. Two guards were left.
Wagner, holding two corners of his blanket in his lap, looked at Werra. Werra nodded. Wagner stood up, and opened out the blanket. Wilhelm slid along into Wagner's corner seat. Masked by the blanket. Werra stood up. caught hold of the outer window, and jerked upward. It did not move. Another fierce jerk and then a steady lift.
A rush of cold air pressed the blanket against Wagner’s body. He continued to shake the corners up and down, looking up the coach toward the two guards. Von Werra felt the icy blast on his face. Snowdrifts flashed by at a terrifying speed. It was madness. Suicide. He couldn’t do it.
I he next moment Wilhelm saw Werra's boots disappear through the middle of the open window; he saw Werra's body, rigid, arms straight out above his head, suspended almost horizontally a foot or so outside the coach. It dropped back and was gone.
Wilhelm shut the outer and inner windows and si ill back along the seat. Wagner folded the blanket slowly and sat down. No word was spoken.
All three were aghast. A few seconds before Werra had been sitting there, his head in his hands. Now he was gone. They watched the ferns of frost spread over the window. In a minute it was covered. It was as though the window had never been opened and Werra had never been with them.
It was not until the next afternoon that Werra’s absence was discovered. The train was then several hundred miles from the point where he had dived out the window.
Werra landed on piled snow at the side of the track. He lay for a minute, feeling sick from the shock. Dizzily, he stood up. The cold struck him like a blow—he had jumped from stilling heat into zero temperature. The perspiration froze on his skin. Heavens, il was cold! He would have to do something or his ears would drop off. He pulled from his pocket a tartan scarf he had bought at Swanwick, and wrapped it over his head.
The car shield read “Police”
Having taken a bearing on the pole star, he crossed the railway track and set out south across a stretch of open country. Sometimes he was in the open, kneedeep in snow, sometimes groping, stumbling in the blackness. After a while he hit a broad avenue of trees. The snow had been flattened by a tractor. He hastened on, sometimes running. Suddenly he heard the sound of an engine. He listened intently. The noise grew louder, and after a few moments a car flashed across the open half a mile ahead of him. A road! In a few minutes he had reached it.
For an hour he followed it without seeing any vehicles. Then he heard a sound and resolved that he would seek a ride. He half raised his arm as the engine noise grew louder. It was a big car. On its bumper there was a red shield bearing the word "POLICE.” Werra pretended to ignore the car as it drew level, but the driver pulled in beside him.
The policeman was beckoning him to got in. He had no option. Police cars wore probably out scouring every highway looking for a short, fair man wearing a blue overcoat and no hat. But from the policeman's opening remarks it appeared that he was more concerned with Werra’s half-completed hitchhiking gesture. What Wagner had been unable to tell him was that since the war begging a lift had been made illegal in Canada. "You changed your mind just in time." the policeman said. "If you’d hailed me. I'd have run you in. But I’ll give you a ride."
Whether any policeman ever did help Werra on his way no one knows for certain. If the policeman did not exist, at least he could not have come forward to contradict Werra’s story. The indisputable fact remains that Werra did arrive at Johnstown on the north bank of the St. Lawrence and saw the twinkling lights of the United States on the other shore—lights he was able to identify from a map he had picked up at a gas station.
He had no idea how he was going to cross the river. According to his map, there were international bridges at Cornwall, forty-five miles downstream, and at Thousand Islands, forty miles upstream. Between the two bridges there were ferries at Morrisburg, Prescott and Brockville. Prescott was the nearest, only a few miles away. But would the ferry be working at that time of year?
He walked south and came to what appeared to be a wide, fiat snow-covered valley. It was a few seconds before he realized that this was the St. Lawrence. He was tremendously excited. It was frozen. All he had to tlo was to wait until it was dark and walk across. But the size of the river was terrifying. How wide was it? Five hundred metres? A thousand?
He set out along the bank, wading through the snow. He was dead tired and ravenously hungry. He had eaten nothing for twenty-four hours. It had been cold enough all day but with the approach of night the temperature dropped rapidly. There was a bitter wind at his back. It pierced his clothing like a knife.
He had struggled for about two miles through the snow when he saw a haze of light across the river. Ilis map said it must be Ogdcnsburg. lie shivered in the quiet desolation of snow and waited. At seven o’clock, long after dark, lie set oil across the open ice.
The snow had been blown into drifts near the bank, lie floundered, fought his way forward. Fifty yards out the going became easy, but the wind swept over the ice straight up the river. It seemed to be laden with splinters of glass.
Now and again he heard the sound of ice cracking, loud and menacing. But he knew' that if ice were freezing the cracking wasn’t dangerous. Still the shock waves and the rumbles frightened him. He tripped over something and went sprawling. He lay for a moment, numb from cold, winded and shaken, almost overcome by a desire to sleep. It seemed he was on a lake near Berlin on a summer evening, green reeds rustling, white sails billowing, ripples lapping against shining varnished wood . . . lapping . . . lapping.
The sound of a car horn brought him back. He got up. aching all over, slipping and stumbling on slabs of ice. He was only a quarter of a mile from the American shore. Cars rolled along the waterfront, headlights blazing. He hurried forward, then stopped. Ten, fifteen yards . . . the snow seemed to turn black. The shore already?
Then he saw the lights reflected on the blackness: water! He could not grasp it. How could there be w'ater when the river was frozen? He frantically hacked with the heel of his boot at a slab of ice. A corner broke off and he tossed it into the blackness. It fell with a hollow' splash. There was an ice-free channel between him and the American shore.
IS YOUR SUBSCRIPTION DUE?
Subscribers receivingnotice of the approaching expiration of their subscriptions are reminded of the. necessity of sending in their renewal orders promptly.
The demand for copies to hit new orders is so great that we cannot guarantee the mailing of even a single issue oeyond the period covered by your subscription. To avoid disappointment, your renewal order should be mailed to us promptly when you receive the “expiration” notice.
Werra fought his way back to the Canadian bank and headed for Prescott. He came to a deserted summer camp. He floundered about in the snow and eventually found an upturned rowboat. Then he found a wooden fence. After kicking and wrenching he managed to free tw'o palings. He used one as a shovel to dig away the snow from the boat. He finally got it free. But he still had to turn the boat the right way up. It took all his strength and the aid of the two boards but finally he righted it. His pulse banged in his ears. He nearly collapsed with exhaustion.
He tossed the boards into the boat and began pushing it. He advanced a foot to eighteen inches at a time. He became an automaton, oblivious to everything except the rasping of his breath and the taste of his saliva. At last he reached the open ice. He tried to tic his scarf to the mooring ring to act as a pulling rope but his fingers were without feeling and he could not tie a knot.
Werra kept pushing on his nightmare journey toward that strip of open black water. He tipped the boat into the water with the last of his strength, jumped in and pushed off against the ice with one of the boards. The boat slid into the water, rocked violently and in the struggle to regain his balance the board slipped out of his numbed hand.
He sat down and picked up the remaining board, trying to use it as a paddle. But it was too long, too heavy and too clumsy. He could neither feel it nor grip it. It slid out of his hands into the water. He had the impression the boat was spinning in the darkness, hurtling down to the sea. When it bumped and grated against a margin of ice he leaped. He managed to fall on the ice. The last he heard of it. the boat was still bumping and scraping downstream.
He got to his feet, staggered across the ice and scrambled up on the bank. It seemed to him that he had been in the boat for hours, and that he had drifted miles downstream. But then he saw lights and two cars parked ahead of him. He walked toward them. The hood of one car was raised and a man was tinkering with the engine. A young woman in a fur coat stood by him and there was another girl sitting in the car.
Werra moved across in front of the car. The headlamps shone on his overcoat, stiff with ice. His legs cast long shadows on the snow. The woman stared at him and then in the direction of the river from which he had come. She asked lightly:
“What’s the matter w'ith you?”
"Excuse me. Is this America?”
"Are you sick, or something?"
"No, truly. What is that house over there? What is this place?”
“That is the New York State Hospital. I am a nurse there. You are in Ogdensburg.”
Instead of having drifted miles dowmstream, he had traveled barely half a mile.
“I am an officer of the German Air Force,” he said. “I escape across the river from Canada. I am”— he corrected himself—"I was a prisoner-of-war.”
Werra gave himself up to police in Ogdensburg and things moved fast after his arrest. When he arrived at police headquarters reporters milled around him.
And now the other side of Werra’s character took over. He committed one indiscretion after another. He boasted, exaggerated outrageously and spoke of the British war effort w'ith contempt. The next morning, January 25, the story of his escape, and pictures of him, were front-page news throughout America. The Times, of London, published an account from its New York correspondent:
Baron Miinchausen Escapes German Airman Fells The Tale
... He said that he shot down three British planes that day, but had come into collision with another German plane when coming out of a dive. He said he had flown over England so many times he was unable to count the flights. He had escaped this time, he said, so as to take part in a ‘‘knockout blow” against England in March. He asserted that United States help was "too late” to “save” England, and predicted a British capitulation in September.
Werra got in touch by telephone from Ogdensburg with the German consul in New' York. The consul instructed an Ogdensburg lawyer, James Davies, to take up the case immediately. Davies was present at the resumed hearing by an immigration Board at Ogdensburg the day after Werra’s arrival. Werra waived examination on a charge of “entering the United States without reporting to an immigration officer” and elected to appear before a Federal Grand Jury at Albany, N.Y., several days later. He was released from custody under a bond of $5,000 paid by the German consul.
Davies was anxious to get Werra away from the border as soon as possible. One of the reasons for the haste soon became manifest: a few hours after Werra left Ogdensburg the Ontario Provincial Police delivered a summons to the Ogdensburg police to be served on Werra, charging him with plunder and theft of a rowboat worth thirty-five dollars. The charge was a criminal one and the case could not be tried in a U. S. court. It might have led to Werra’s extradition to Canada. But by then he was in New York and his case had been lifted from the thirty-five-dollar local level to the arena of international politics.
In New York Werra learned that Hitler had awarded him the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross in recognition of an exploit “unique in the annals of fighter aviation in this war”—his imaginary attack on a British airfield, in which he had claimed five planes.
In Germany the publicity given to Werra’s escape elevated him to a national figure. Werra was presented as an earnest hero of the National-Socialist Reich, w'ho dared all for the Führer and the Fatherland.
A great fuss was also made in Germany over the warrant by Ontario police charging Werra with the theft of a rowboat. “Canada weeps for $35” and "Canada covers itself with ridicule” were typical newspaper headings. But the German embassy in Washington took a more serious view. "In view of the great importance Canada appears to attach to the boat,” the embassy said in a statement, “Franz von Werra will gladly place at the disposal of the American authorities the sum of $35 ... so that the warrant against him may be withdrawn.”
Behind the scenes in Washington a great tussle was going on for possession of Werra, with the Germans pulling one way, the Canadians and the British the other, and the Americans acting as referee. Werra’s escape was a serious threat to British security. The British were not only concerned at the possible return to Germany of an experienced pilot; they were concerned at the possible return of one who had been subjected to their interrogation methods, for Werra had been intensively grilled at Cockfosters, the famous RAF interrogation centre, and was the only German outside an internment camp who could know the workings of the British questioning system.
“Wish you were here”
The harm had already been done, however. As soon as Werra reached New York the German military attache instructed him to write a report on his experiences, with special reference to procedure at British air interrogation centres. This report was immediately communicated in code to Luftwaffe headquarters in Berlin. The intelligence and operations branches were so impressed by it that instructions aimed at tightening up aircrew security were tcletypcd to all operational units of the Luftwaffe. The effect of this was soon felt by British air intelligence. German aircrews captured after Werra’s report were extremely “security minded.”
A booklet, “How to behave if taken prisoner,” based on Werra’s observations, was later made available to all flying personnel.
In the course of his unexpected holiday Werra wrote numerous “Wish-youwere-here” picture postcards to old friends and comrades. He did not forget his newer acquaintances — the various RAF and army officers he had met in England. One such postcard is reproduced on page 28. It was addressed to "Mr. Boniface” who happily preserved it as a war souvenir. Squadron Leader Boniface was adjutant at Hucknall airdrome from which Werra almost escaped with a Hurricane fighter.
Werra had a wonderful time in New York, visiting theatres and night clubs and attending social functions. "Escaped Hun Baron Woman's Pet in U. S.” was the heading to a news item in the London Daily Mirror.
“At night,” the report continued, “the baron eats and drinks at his admirers’ expense, repaying them with fantastic stories of his ‘bravery’ . . .” When he dined out with his bodyguard it was said “you can't see the baron for skirts."
"Across the bridge was Mexico. A cart approached. Werra stepped behind it as border police watched"
Behind the scenes the tussle for his "body” was intensified. He went out less often and his bodyguard was reinforced. The Germans did not rule out the possibility of an attempt to kidnap him.
Then, on April 23, the news was out: VON WERRA FLEES, screamed the headlines. In Washington the attorneygeneral was quoted as saying that Werra was in Peru, and was probably trying to reach Germany via the Pacific and the Trans-Siberian railway.
Werra actually left New York alone by train. A few mornings later he reached El Paso at the extreme western tip of Texas. At El Paso there are two toll bridges across the Rio Grande. On the opposite side is the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez. Werra left two suitcases in the luggage office and made his way to one of the bridges. Mexican laborers and peasants were crossing into the U. S. from Ciudad Juarez. U. S. border police were out in force watching them. Now and again carts filled with manure trundled past. The police waved them on hurriedly, screwing up their noses.
Werra turned back into El Paso. He was wearing a new suit, a soft grey hat. After lunch, he found the bazaar district, where he bought a Mexican straw hat, a pair of jeans, a brightly colored shirt and a pair of sandals. He went into a nearby park and changed into the clothes.
Workers started drifting back across the bridge to Ciudad Juarez shortly after 5 p.m. Werra stood about fifty yards from the check-point, watching from under his broad-brimmed hat. An empty manure cart approached. He stepped off the pavement and trailed behind the cart. The smell was appalling. There was a shallow backboard, and on the floor was a manure fork. Werra picked up the fork and slung it over his shoulder. At the checkpoint there was a group of border police watching. Werra passed within a couple of feet of them.
As a result of his escape the U. S. regulations governing escaped prisonersof-war were at once tightened. During the nine months that remained before the U. S. entered the war several prisoners crossed the border from Canada and went deep into the U. S. before surrendering or being arrested. Not one was allowed to remain.
Who engineered his escape? The German embassy in Washington and German consul in New York denied any knowledge of it. But the U. S. attorney-general, in a strong attack on German consular officials, said he had positive evidence that they connived at the escape. "The airman’s conduct,” he said, "was unlawful and ungracious ... In marked contrast to the way he was treated here, American nationals have been seized in Germany without being informed of the charge against them, and detained in prison without right of counsel, communication or bail."
Werra meanwhile was in Mexico City, where the German consulate again took over. He was rushed by air to Berlin via Peru, Bolivia, Spain and Italy.
Werra reached Berlin incognito on April IX. Five days later Canada announced that warships had been ordered to intercept the ship on which it was suspected he had escaped. On April 29, when Werra had been home almost two weeks, a Canadian cruiser halted the U. S. liner President Garfield bound for Japan from San Francisco. A boarding party found no trace of Werra but took off four German civil airline pilots on their way home to Germany. They were taken to Canada and interned.
A few weeks after he got home Werra went to the Reich Chancellery to receive from Hitler the Knight's Cross for his supposed attack on a British airfield. Hitler congratulated him on his escape and on the brilliant exploit. It had shown his ability, said Hitler, "to turn a tactically unfavorable situation to his own advantage.”
Werra’s escape had consequences out of all proportion to its significance as a feat of daring. Within a few days of his return to Berlin he was attached to the Intelligence Branch of GAF Operations Staff. The next few weeks he spent writing reports and answering questions.
In May the Intelligence Branch published a twelve-page booklet dealing with his experiences. It was a permanent record for everyday use of the reports he had prepared in America, and became the Luftwaffe’s standard guide to aircrew and POW security. It was still in use, with only minor modifications, in July 1944.
Until Werra’s escape, German propaganda alleging that Nazi prisoners were ill-treated had played right into the hands of British interrogators. The opening sentence of Werra’s report gave the lie to stories of British brutality:
“Generally speaking, British treatment of German war prisoners is unexceptionable. Such isolated instances of maltreatment as have occurred have resulted from wrong behavior on the part of the prisoners concerned in the first, decisive moments of captivity.’’
The information he took back to Berlin was not confined to matters of interest to the Luftwaffe. Lor instance, as a result of his talks with captive U-boat officers he was able to give the German Navy valuable details about how certain Uboats were sunk—destroyer manoeuvres prior to attacks, depth-charge patterns and intervals, and certain facts about asdic, the Royal Navy’s underwater listening apparatus.
He reported that British interrogators showed an extraordinary interest in prisoners' field post numbers, often taking great pains to gel this apparently harmless and useless scrap of information. When the Germans looked into the matter they realized that the British could deduce a prisoner’s unit and its location from his field post number. The system of numbering was changed.
All arms of the Wehrmacht, the intelligence agencies and other departments connected with the German war effort were anxious to obtain information from Werra. Reich Marshal Goering sent for him and ordered him to visit all RAF prisoner-of-war camps in Germany. He was to compare conditions with those in British camps, and instruct German camp commandants on the anti-escape measures used by the British.
Goering promoted Werra to Hauptmann (flight lieutenant) in recognition of his escape. The Reich Marshal was apparently surprised and tickled to find that Werra was so small, but jokingly remarked that it did not matter—he was now famous and could marry any rich and beautiful German woman he liked.
Several books about British escapes from German prison camps mention Wcrra's tour. He is reported to have commiserated with RAF prisoners at Barth camp, he was seen at Sagan, and P. R. Reid mentions his visit to Colditz Castle in T he C olditz Story. Many British POWs bear witness to the introduction of additional security measures following a visit from Werra. Judging by the continuing rate of escapes, they do not appear to have been much of a deterrent.
German interrogation was lax
His visit to the German Air Interrogation Centre had far-reaching consequences which lasted throughout the war. This was the notorious Dulag Luft, transit camp for aircrews at Oberursel, near Frankfurt-am-Main. Dulag Luft was to Allied airmen what the British Air Interrogation Centre at Cockfosters had been to Werra and other German aircrews captured during the Battle of Britain.
Although Dulag Luft had already been placed under command of the Luftwaffe's Operational Intelligence Branch by the time of Werra’s visit, the Germans had not yet appreciated the importance of interrogation as a source of military information. Owing to the small scale of air operations over Germany and the occupied countries up to that time, relatively few RAF men had been taken prisoner, and their interrogation at Dulag Luft was superficial, almost farcical.
Werra sat in at these interrogations. “I would rather be interrogated by half a dozen German inquisitors than by one RAF expert,” he reported to Goering.
As a result of his visit, Dulag Luft was remodeled and both British organization and methods of interrogation were adopted.
W'ith the help of a German journalist Werra wrote a book on his adventures, but publication was withheld on security grounds. The German high command was unwilling to let it be known how much information he had brought back with him.
In the middle of June Werra flew a Messerschmitt again for the first time. Intelligence Branch of GAF Operations Staff had given him permission to make practice flights "whenever his duties elsewhere allow.”
A week later, on June 22. 1941. Germany invaded Russia. Werra remained in Berlin, answering questions, writing reports, giving lectures. The conquest of Russia was regarded as a foregone conclusion. a matter only of weeks. Luftwaffe pilots, especially fighter pilots, approached the campaign as though it were money. Werra read of the tremendous scores fighter pilots on the Eastern Front were knocking up, and fumed with frustration.
At the time he was shot down over England, he had been in the top ten with thirteen accredited victories. Now the top aces had about sixty, while pilots he had never heard of were up in the forties. He had been left behind. By vigorous use of influence he was posted to the Russian front as commanding officer of First Gruppe of No. 53 Fighter Geschwader, famous <ts the "Ace of Spades" Geschwader. During his few weeks at the front Werra was credited with eight more air victories, bringing his supposed total to twenty-one.
Then his group was withdrawn from Russia to be re-equipped with a new Mark of Me 109. He went on leave, also on his honeymoon, for he married a girl he had met just before the war.
In September Werra’s Gruppe was moved to the coast of Holland on coastal defense. On the morning of October 25, leading a patrol of three fighters, he dipped over the coast and turned out to sea. Twenty miles out. his engine developed a fault; his aircraft dropped like a stone into the sea.
The full adventures of h ranz von IVerra will he published later in hook form by William Collins Sons and Michaud Joseph under the title, The One I hat Got A way.
Werra’s death was not reported in the press. When the announcement was made, nearly a month later, it was stated that Werra had been killed in action— in Russia—leading his Gruppe in attack after attack until he met a hero's death. It was the last lie of his life. ★