The escape of several German prisoners during World War II that their guards wanted to take advantage of to capture a submarine

Although war cinema has been happy with films about the escape of Allied soldiers from German concentration camps during World War II, it has not done so much in reverse, that is, narrating those of German prisoners. There are some because there was no shortage of real attempts and at least seven were counted on a large scale, such as that of Papago Camp (Arizona) or that of Bridgen (Wales). Since those fields were usually off continental Europe, the involvement of submarines was often necessary and a good example was the bold Operation Kiebitzto which an attempt was made to oppose another equally daring.

The scenario took place on the other side of the Atlantic, in the Canadian town of Bowmanville (Ontario), where the Bowmanville POW Camp, also known as Camp 30, had been built for German prisoners of war. Originally it was a farm ceded by its owner to the government in 1922 for the re-education of juvenile delinquents and, under the name of Bowmanville Boys Training School, it functioned with that purpose until 1941, when the course of the war had already produced a good number of of captured enemies that needed to be located somewhere, the boys were sent home, and their place was taken by the Teutons.

There were barely seven months to recondition the field because the facilities were not ready for this new function. There were few barracks available and many more had to be built, not counting the security elements: from nine watchtowers to accommodation for the guards, passing through a perimeter of four and a half meter high barbed wire. The works finished at the end of that year, just when the first inmates began to arrive -mostly sailors, but also members of the Luftwaffe and the Afrika Corps- and the flow continued to grow until in 1942 there were already so many that any spark could cause a riot, as actually happened.

The fight recreated in a scene from the film The McKenzie estate/Image: MGM Channel

It happened in October, when several of the thousands of prisoners revolted at the threat to chain some of them in retaliation for an escalation in that regard in Germany. James Taylor, the camp commander, asked Georg Friemel, the highest ranking German officer, to supply him with a hundred of his men or to ask for volunteers to wear shackles for a while, but he got a resounding no for an answer. Taylor then ordered to do it by force and several prisoners barricaded themselves in the dining room led by Horst Elfe, Otto Kretschmer and Hans Hefele. Armed with stakes, iron bars and whatever they could find, they faced about a hundred Canadian soldiers who had come expressly to subdue them and equipped with baseball bats.

Camp 30 became the scene of a monumental stick fight that ended with a good number of injuries. That bizarre duel lasted five days but in the end the Canadians prevailed thanks to the use of pressurized water hoses. And although firearms had been avoided so as not to cause a massacre, a German named Volkmar König was wounded by a bullet and another by a bayonet, although ironically the one who suffered the worst was a Canadian with a skull fracture after receiving the impact from a jar of jam. One hundred and twenty-six prisoners, who had been especially distinguished for their aggressiveness, were distributed among other camps and calm returned to that corner of Ontario.

Image of the dining room of the future Camp 30, where the fight would take place, a decade earlier/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Or so it seemed. Of course, escape attempts were frequent despite the fact that in Camp 30 the inmates were treated similarly to local citizens and had a similar if not higher standard of living, as was the case in many other places like the American Fritz Ritz. Camp 30 had a swimming pool and sports fields, the inmates received their pay and could purchase multiple products, they formed an orchestra and a theater group, the food was excellent…

But frequently the desire for freedom used to prevail among the most restless. Already on November 25, 1941, shortly after the prisoners arrived, one tried to sneak under the wire fence, being quickly reduced. On December 30, another tried his luck hiding in a laundry truck, but was also discovered. And during a routine inspection in July 1943 a map and several tools were seized from a third party.

They were individual attempts doomed to failure because, anyway, they had very little chance of returning to their country while in Canada. More important were the planned evasions on a larger scale, based on drilling tunnels. There were several, the most promising being the one they called House IV: It was half a meter wide by a similar height, being braced with wooden supports every one or two meters and having both a lighting system – hacked from the power line – and a ventilation system, made by hand with cans. Unfortunately for its future users, in September 1943 the weight brought him down and the guards blinded him afterwards.

However, the most ambitious escape plan was the one carried out under the name of Operation Kiebitz, which was not conceived by the prisoners but by the Kriegsmarine, with the aim of rescuing submarine officers; they were needed because, at that point in the war, the fleet of u boat it had become the main German asset for warfare at sea, its surface ships unable to compete with the overwhelming combination of the Royal Navy and the US Navy. And among the chosen ones there was a quartet that included the leaders of the mutiny mentioned above plus other aces of submarine warfare: Otto Kretschmer, captain of U-99; Horst Elfe, captain of U-93; Hans Ey, captain of U-433; and Hans Joachim Knebel-Döberitz, a former adjutant to Admiral Dönitz.

The plan, which if successful would also provide good propaganda, was devised in 1942 but with a view to implementation in September 1943. It basically consisted of escaping from Bowmanville and traveling a thousand miles north to New Brunswick. There, in the bay of Chaleur, a submarine would be waiting for them, which would surface every night for a couple of hours; they had a period of two weeks to reach him. The German intelligence services wrote coded messages with the instructions that they sent to the chosen ones through the Red Cross. However, the Canadian counterintelligence noticed the ruse and developed their own plan to capture the aforementioned submarine. He baptized it as Operation Pointe Maisonnettereferring to a cape near the pickup point, and was led by Commander Desmond Piers of the Royal Canadian Navy.

In this way, the guards at Camp 30 pretended not to know that the prisoners were digging another tunnel (actually three, but this was the main one), this time more sophisticated than the other because it was equipped with rails to remove the earth in wheelbarrows. , which made the work go faster. The pantomime was maintained even when once the play partly collapsed, so that the Germans, after the first scare, were able to resume the play.

Finally, the scheduled date being imminent, police and guards intervened to put those involved to safety and blind the tunnel. In the midst of the confusion, seeing that his dream was vanishing, another of the sailors who hoped to flee, Wolfgang Heyda, captain of the U-434, managed to desperately save the wire fences using the power cables, elude his pursuers and climb to a train bound for New Brunswick.

There his adventure ended definitively because the town was teeming with agents of the Mounted Police and soldiers. Heyda, who at the time of his arrest claimed to be a tourist to no avail, was unaware that a trap had been set for U-536, the submarine that was to pick him up and his companions; he had gone straight into the lion’s den and the ship looked as if it would follow the same path. Indeed, in the local lighthouse at Pointe Maisonnette a portable surface radar had been installed to locate her when she emerged; the area was patrolled by a squad that made up the destroyer HMCS ChelseaHMCS corvettes agassizHMCS Shawinigan and HMCS lethbridgefive minesweepers and the corvette HMCS Rimouskiwhich had been equipped with the new diffuse lighting camouflage system for anti-submarine combat.

Poster of the movie “Those who know how to die”

At the appointed hour, night, on September 26, U-536 surfaced and sent the agreed signals to make contact with the escaped prisoners. The Canadians answered him, but they must not have done it correctly because Captain Rolf Schauenburg was suspicious and when his hydrophones revealed the presence of boats he ordered immediate immersion.

Just in time because the Canadian flotilla went hunting for it, in a long night in which both played cat and mouse between depth charges until the submarine managed to reach the open sea and mislead the enemy. However, his fate was sealed: a British ship and two Canadians sank it the following month off the Azores.

Two opposite operations, then -and both failed-, which were recreated in the film The Mckenzie estate (here absurdly renamed those who know how to die), although changing some names and moving the action to Scotland. As a real memory of those events, POW Camp 30 has remained, which after the war was used as a training school until 1979, later becoming the headquarters of the school for Malaysian students abroad, the Catholic School of San Esteban and even from a private Islamic university. Threatened with ruin, since 2013 it has been protected as a National Historic Site of Canada.


Operation Kiebitz and Operation Pointe Maisonnette (Naval Museum of Québec. Naval Museum Stanislas-Déry)/U-Boats against Canada. German submarines in Canadian waters (Michael L. Hadley)/War in the St. Lawrence. The forgotten U-Boat battles on Canada’s shores (Roger Sarty)/First U-Boat Flotilla (Lawrence Paterson)/WWII POW Camp 30 Bowmanville/Wikipedia

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