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"BRICKED-IN TO BREAK OUT"

Geoff Chinchen tells how he won his MBE for "showing exceptional courage in escaping from a German POW Camp".


Kittyhawk Mk.I AK581.  3SQN RAAF, Libya 1942.

 

On 14 June 1942, just after Rommel's breakout from 'The Cauldron' south of Tobruk, with the Desert Air Force almost totally engaged in providing close Army support, Geoff Chinchen led a flight of 3 Squadron RAAF Kittyhawks to investigate an area that was causing concern.  He left five aircraft orbiting above as cover, while he descended to try to identify a congregation of vehicles and men.  Still puzzled, he went down even lower; until, as he described it:

"All hell broke loose..."

He was fired on from all directions.  His aircraft was hit and on fire, and he had wounds to his legs and one arm, so he pulled his stricken craft up as high as it would go and baled out.

No sooner had he landed than he was surrounded by Afrika Korps soldiers, and became an immediate Prisoner of War.  He was placed in the custody of a German Meteorological Officer, because everyone else was too busy fighting the battle.  Before long, the unit was visited by Field Marshal Rommel who, on learning that they had captured an Australian pilot, asked to meet him.  In Geoff's words:

"He was a very pleasant gentleman, and he asked me a lot of questions but, of course, I couldn't tell him anything.  He then said: "For you the war is over", to which I replied: "I don't know about that", and he laughed.  I saw him several times afterwards and on each occasion he spoke to me for a few minutes."

Eventually, Geoff was sent back to an Italian POW camp in Tripoli which he recalls:

"...was a far cry from my time with the German officers, even though they were the enemy and living under battle conditions."

From there he was transported to Bari; then on to Sulmona in the Abruzzi province of central Italy where he was to remain for about fourteen months. At Sulmona he found his good friends from 3 Squadron, Fred Eggleston and Bob Jones, who had been shot down and captured in the Desert some months earlier.  It was also at Sulmona that he became involved in a tunnelling project which was unfinished when they were moved from the camp.

P00631.006
Sulmona, Italy.  Autographed group portrait of some Air Force prisoners of war at the POW Campo PG 78.  [With 3 Squadron members highlighted.]
Identified back row, left to right: 250704 Flight Lieutenant Geoffrey Talbot (Geoff) Chinchen; 406082 Flying Officer Harold George Herbert "Robbie" Roberts;
406402 Pilot Officer (PO) Keith Murdoch; 402850 Flying Officer (FO) Robert Lachlan Condon; FO Furphy; Flt Lt Dick Hooper; 252761 FO Frederic Felix Henriques (Fred) Eggleston, 406630 FO Reginald Sydney (Reg) Spear; FO Mory Edwards.
Front row, left to right: 400606 PO Frederick Easton "Dade" Thwaites; 402240 Flt Lt Malcom John "Mac" Jones; 402730 PO Albert Henry (Bert) Comber;
402231 PO Jack Donald; Flt Lt Robert Sydney "Bobby" Jones; FO Alan Thomson.  [AWM P00631.006]

The move was to a POW camp at Bologna, and it was there that it became known that Italy was about to sign an Armistice with the Allies, and the guards had indicated that the prisoners would be freed.  The Armistice was signed by King Umberto on 10 September 1943, but the Germans forestalled any break-out by taking charge of the camp very early on the morning of the 9th.  A few officers did manage to slip out of a side gate (conveniently left open by the Italians) but German soldiers quickly blocked this escape route and one Allied prisoner was fatally shot in the process. Then on the morning of Saturday 11 September the prisoners were told to be ready to move at one hour's notice, and in the afternoon were taken by motor lorry to the railway station and loaded onto cattle trucks; about 30 to each one.

Soon, they were on their way to Germany, via the Brenner Pass. The prisoners in the wagon with Geoff decided that this journey might present an opportunity for escape and someone produced an old table-knife with a broken blade.  With this implement they managed to cut a hole in the wooden door of the truck, which allowed a hand to pass through to open the latch from the outside.  The plan was for the prisoners to jump out of the moving train whilst it was travelling slowly up hill.

Geoff said:  "We drew lots to decide the order in which we would jump.  My number was 14, and thirteen others had already jumped, at intervals, before the train stopped at a station near the Brenner Pass.  Then the Germans noticed the hole in the door of our wagon...  Those of us who were left were unceremoniously bundled into other railway wagons and were on our way to Germany again.

First, we were taken to a large camp at Moosberg and then on to Fort Bismarck, near Strasbourg.  Our quarters consisted of two rows of cells in a wall along a dry moat.  This accommodation was very crude, and we learned that it had been condemned by the International Red Cross, so we felt sure that it would be abandoned before long.  With this in mind, an Army officer and I decided to plan an escape.  German workmen were bricking up openings in the passageways, so we stole sand and cement from them and hid it for future use.  Then, in a dark corner, we scratched out newly-placed mortar so that we could remove sufficient bricks to gain entry, and by re-laying with paper between bricks and mortar we could remove sufficient bricks for future access. This provided a small cavity we could crawl into. The Escape Committee approved our plan and gave their support.


The former Fort Bismarck at Wolfisheim, France.

When two English Guards Brigade officers were attempting an escape, we went into our "hide away" and friends bricked us in.  The Guards officers were caught going over the outer wall and there followed lengthy roll calls and inspections of every corner of the premises by soldiers with Alsatian dogs.  Finding nothing, the Germans decided that four prisoners must have attempted to escape (the two they had caught and two more, unaccounted for, who had presumably got away).  After the hue and cry had died down we came out of hiding, repaired the brickwork for future use, and kept out of sight during roll calls.  We were off-strength but our friends brought us food.

Eventually, when we were advised that the camp was to be evacuated on 9 October, we delayed until the last before getting our friends to brick us in.  Pepper was sprinkled all around to deter dogs.  The medical officer had calculated that we would have enough air for twelve hours, so after several hours, when everything had gone quiet, we broke out.  We got out of the building through the window where the bars had been cut for the Guards officers, using bed timbers to climb on.  Then, it took some hours to get out of the moat and perimeter patrols were quite a problem.

We set out in a westerly direction, first getting past a border with sentry boxes and patrolled by soldiers with dogs, and then, walking by night and hiding during the day, we crossed the Vosges mountain range.  The going was tough, with stiff climbs and streams to cross.  I had escaped wearing an overcoat made in the camp (from blankets) but it was unlined and, with frequent wetting, it became longer and longer and had to be discarded. After leaving the mountains we came upon a man in a field, forking hay, and we succeeded in getting him to understand that we were British escapees, after which he directed us to a farm house.  There we were fed, but held under tight security for 48 hours, until a radio check with London confirmed that we were genuine.  Now that we were accepted, we were given bicycles and directed to the home of forestry worker (Paul Mediaur's home in Celle sur Plaine) where we remained hidden for three weeks.  Here we were given false identity papers; mine in the name of Paul Durong, farm worker, deaf and dumb (due to shell shock) and across this was written, "non contagieuse" [not contagious]!

G13 - Lajus - roche d'Alvine - rocher Derzognier [1280x768
The valley of Celle sur Plaine, in the Vosges mountains.

Now, equipped with clothing and ID, and with the invaluable help of the Resistance, we went by train first to Nancy and then to Belfort. From there we were helped to the Swiss border which we reached on 17 November, near St Croix, where (with difficulty) we negotiated barbed wire and very difficult walking, across 150 metres of rough-ploughed land, frozen solid.  Our first contacts in Switzerland were with farmers, who telephoned the police, and after two days in a Swiss gaol we were released to the British Legation in Berne.  We were told that we were not to attempt individual escapes from Switzerland but that the Legation had its own escape organisation which allowed an orderly exodus which would not overload the Resistance escape route to Spain.  Most of my time in Switzerland was spent with other officers billeted in the Hotel Beau Rivage, in the alpine resort town of Arosa.'

After eleven months we knew of only three of our number who had left Switzerland under the Legation scheme, so shortly after the 16 August 1944 American landing in the south of France another RAAF officer, Bobby Jones, and I crossed into France from Geneva.  We met up with American troops near Grenoble and got on a flight to Corsica, and from there to the RAAF headquarters in Naples."

023161
c.7-1-42.  Flying Officers (FO) James Andrew McIntosh [left] and 250696 E. A. "Eric" Bradbury of No. 3 Squadron, RAAF (later Squadron Leader, 34 Squadron)
inspecting the damaged windscreen of a Kittyhawk piloted by 250704 FO Geoffrey Talbot Chinchen, who suffered wounds in the leg,
arm and body but managed to bring this aircraft home safely.  FO McIntosh was later killed on operations in the Middle East on 22 January 1942. 
FO Bradbury was also hit on that mission and forced down near Saunna, where he was caught up in a tank battle.  Eric returned to the squadron on 25/1/42 suffering severe shell-shock.  [AWM 023161]

In memory of Geoff Chinchen, who died in 2005.  See our "Lifetimes" page for further biographical details.

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