You are an Escaped POW in WWII Germany!

…how hard is it to get out of the country? I have been reading a lot of stories about escapes, and it seems that wartime germany was a difficult place to travel in-you needed official papers, travel permits, etc. anyway, suppose you have made your escape, and you are able to speak passable german. What is your best route out of the 3rd reich? In “THE GREAT ESCAPE”, some guys made for occupied france, and then to Spain. A pair managed to stow away aboard a swedish freighter. So, assuming your camp group was able to forge the ppropriate documents/permits, could you just ride a train out of germany?
I also remember reading about a RCAF POW-he walked all the way across germany 9by night)-he would sleep in the woods during the day. It was quite a good story.

Answer: HARD.

You definitely need to check out this book:

Also read some books about the guys who managed to get out of Colditz.

Seems, actually, as though getting out of the prisons might not have been the hardest part (Colditz in particular seems like a ludicrous place to have sited a top security prison, as it sounds like it was more riddled with escape-friendly abandoned tunnels, wine cellars, drainage pipes, crawlspaces, than the most imaginatively-designed videogame). Getting on a train would have been hard. Finding food (especially when the civilian population was starving) – hard. Crossing a border – very hard.

After D-Day, if you knew where Allied forces were, I’d head there. Any other time, if you were near a neutral country like Switzerland or Sweden, I’d head there. But I wouldn’t have any illusions about the likelihood of success. Most escaped prisoners were recaptured, some pretty speedily. And some, despite the Geneva Conventions (which IIRC Germany by and large complied with, at least as to non-Soviet POWs), were shot after recapture.

Nazi Germany was a highly militarized police state. If you were an Allied aviator, the locals would probably hate you because you’d been bombing them. You’d probably be on your own and not speak the language. The likelihood of successfully returning to your own forces would be very slim.

It’s a question of where the closest and/or quickest safe border is, I think. I’ve re-read my original copy of The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill to rags, and your description meets my recollections – they tried to get somewhere where they could get to quickly, so going to neutral Sweden or Switzerland was high on their list. The one guy who got out through Spain seemed to be taking the long route – look at it on a map, sometime. But it was a workable and plausible route. It’s not as if you could make your way to the North Sea or to the Mediterranean and just dive in and swim.
You might try otther books about escapes, like eric Williams’ The Wooden Horse (from the same camp, but different compound) or Pat Reid’s books on Colditz. There’s a large book I picked up about twenty years ago entitled Stalag Luft Drei, about the camp the Great Escape was from. It mentions all details of camp life, including, IIRC, escapes, but I can’t recall what it said. Curiously, that book doesn’t even mention Brickhill’s book on the escape.

Even if you could pass for a German - as a German military-age male you were either a soldier (in uniform and with appropriate marching orders) or an exempted civilian (with documentation to that effect), or a deserter.

Some escaped prisoners passed themselves off as foreign workers (with forged papers) from such places as Belgium and the Netherlands. This helped overcome the language problem.

disguising yourself as a foreign worker was the most popular option to disguise a faulty knowledge of German. Fit young men of obviously military age had little other reason to be travelling in wartime Germany. People who did not possess at least reasonable forgeries of the various passes and ID papers would not last long.

But, but, that’s not how it worked in the movie:

Donald Pleasance is doing forgeries on bits of tin can with a bit of jam. Clang! And on the day of the escape, they’re all there, and Steve McQueen has joined up in the escape, and the British have trilby hats on, overcoats, canoe, a bit of a rabbit… And Steve’s just there in jeans and a T-shirt, disguised as an American man! He romps out, jumps in a motorbike, knocks a guy off, and within 15 minutes, he’s in the borders of Switzerland. This is from Poland! . . .

So yeah, all the British are getting hassled, the Gestapo are after them, people are on rowing boats, some on bicycles, one on a rabbit, in a kangaroo, you know, in pogo stick. Steve’s motor biking away… Steve’s over the first line of bared wire, “Go, Steve, go!” Into the second line of barbed wire… Nearly makes it, doesn’t quite, but lives to tell the tale.

Meanwhile, the British are all rounded up and shot in the head!

If you are a Yank, & have a German last name…look for your cousins.

Family is family.

It ain’t a bad bet.

Gosh, surely Hollywood would never lie to us, would they?

Interesting piece of trivia: Amongst Allied POWs, the slang term for a completely successful escape (in which the escapee managed to get to Switzerland/Sweden/France/Portugal, and thus back home) was a “Home run”.

Myself, I’d be heading for either Sweden or Vichy France; Sweden being Neutral and Vichy France being full of people who could help me continue my escape to Spain (and thus Portugal) or North Africa, which would be a good place to spend the rest of the War, away from the shooting…

Note that the James Coburn character lucked upon a couple of French Resistance fighters, whom I am sure were more than capable of smuggling him out of the country via Spain.

You could always steal an airplane like James Garner

There is a book called “Wolfsangel” about an American bomber crew, most of whom were murdered by locals after being shot down over Germany.

And there is a documentary- trying to remember the name- about an American flyer who was betrayed by an “alleged” member of the French resistance and ended up in the hands of the Gestapo.

That part is actually pretty accurate, as I recall from Brickhill’sd book.

This, too, is pretty accurate – to a point. As recounted by Brickhill, two of the escaping POWs did manage to get a plane started, at which point a pilot thanked his “ground crew” and took off. They tried starting another plane, but had to go back to the hanger for a part, and were caught. So they never did get airborne. (And it wasn’t Tim Walenn the forger who tried to do it. And he wasn’t going blind.)

I have read a story of shot-down airman making his way across Europe by pretending to be shell-shocked.

Carry a cow with you and get to occupied France.


Any stories of German experiences, escapes and harrowing journeys after being shot down/captured/etc?

It’s been years since I read it, but in his autobiography, Chuck Yeager recounts being shot down over occupied France and evading capture by making it to Spain (I think) with the help of the Resistance. IIRC, he covered something like 800 miles on foot.

(OK, not directly on topic since he wasn’t in Germany, but worth a look if you’re researching escape stories.)