In every prison camp, as part of the security apparatus, there are likely to be ‘stool-pigeons’; 373 Internment Camp was no exception. Situated in the valley of the river Lavant in eastern Carinthia, some 25 miles north of the Jugoslav border (now Slovenia), it had been converted at the end of WW2, in May 1945, from Stalag XVIIIA POW Camp.
Immediately following the armistice anyone above a certain rank in any of a number of proscribed organisations was deemed to represent a possible security threat to the occupying British forces. Although officially designated ‘internees’, there were by 1947 in effect 4,000 Nazi political ‘prisoners’ detained; some had been, or were to be, indicted as war criminals at Nuremburg, some elsewhere, particularly Jugoslavia. Any Austrian member of the Nazi Party with a membership number of 6,000,000 or below had joined before the 1938 Anschluss and was therefore deemed to be a dedicated Nazi. He, or she, would be interned. All the professions had their associations affiliated to the NSDAP (National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei - the Nazi Party); doctors, architects, police, teachers and many others. All officers and senior non commissioned officers of the SS (Schutzstaffel - literally ‘protection detachment’, ie bodyguard) were immediately subject to arrest and internment. Senior local government officers were similarly treated. Most of the intelligentsia and the experienced administrators were therefore suspect. People such as these made up the population of 373 Internment Camp (Appendix I) where for some of them it became known as the "Wolfsberg University" and for us the "Camp Workshop", where practically every trade and profession was represented. Field Marshal Kesselring, the Commander in Chief of the German forces in Italy, had been an inmate for a time on his way to Nuremburg. Many of them were accused of having committed war crimes.
News of an Escape
In the spring of 1947 the camp security personnel, led by a Captain Kennedy, a pre-war Jewish refugee from Vienna, learned about an escape attempt from a ‘stool-pigeon’. Such people, who have in general a poor reputation, after all they betray their comrades, are an inevitable ingredient of security operations. They may do it to curry favour with their captors, out of malice towards fellow prisoners, for fear for their families, or for money, privileges or some other reward. They immediately become subject to official blackmail. As 16 Field Security Section (Appendix II), Intelligence Corps, was responsible for any external military security outside the jurisdiction of the camp, and had its HQ in the town of Wolfsberg, we were notified that an escape attempt was to be made on a certain date at or about midnight. The town was garrisoned by an infantry battalion in the former Wehrmacht barracks; I am no longer certain of the regiment, either the Lancashire Fusiliers or the East Yorks.
The camp personnel were a very mixed bag; they came from just about every regiment currently serving in the British Zone, some of them misfits posted from their original units to get rid of them. These caused a lot of trouble in the town.
Officers from the three units, the camp, Field Security and the infantry garrison, got together to plan countermeasures. Because the location of the escape was not known, a decision was made to surround the camp with a company of troops, about 90 to 100 men. A platoon (30 men) was allocated to each one of the three sides of the perimeter of the camp; the fourth side, namely the ‘Bundesstrasse’, (now ‘Klagenfurter Strasse’) was guarded within the perimeter with camp personnel, careful, however, not to reveal any unusual signs of activity. It was considered unlikely that any tunnel would use the route underneath the main entrance compound, when there were much shorter opportunities available. However road blocks were established north and south of the camp entrance and a cordon on the far side of the main road.
The troops were to take up positions between 2200 and 2230 hours under cover of darkness and in total silence. There was absolutely no doubt, that if an attempt were to be made that night, there would be ‘lookouts’ in the camp positioned to cover, and if necessary cancel, the escape attempt. Any visible untoward movement of troops would be a dead giveaway and almost certainly abort the operation. Three of us from 16 Field Security Section each joined one of the platoons to act as interpreter, if it became necessary, and to give security advice. The troops were commanded by their own officers.
While my OC (Officer Commanding) remained in the camp in the overall operational HQ, I stayed on the northern section of the perimeter along a railway embankment, which rose about six feet above the meadow between it and the camp. Our senior sergeant, ‘Ronnie’ Rathbone, went to the western side some way back from the St Thomas road. The open fields to the south were covered by Sergeant George Baker.
It was a dark night, no moon, dry; warm enough to do without greatcoats, battledress was sufficient. As we lay waiting some hundred yards distant, the camp lights illuminated the barbed wire perimeter; behind those lights the single storey wooden huts in the prisoners’ compound were in darkness. Anyone standing up in the meadows would be silhouetted against those lights. We on the other hand had a backdrop of black mountains. Our greatest danger was noise or some idiot smoking! The troops were armed with rifles; I wore a .38 Albion No 2 Mark 1 military issue revolver and had drawn in addition a 9mm Luger automatic from our stock of captured or confiscated handguns.
I did not like the .38 Albion revolver; it could not be ‘cocked’ by drawing back the hammer spur with a thumb. This meant that the trigger ‘pull’ was nearly half an inch long rotating the drum and drawing back the hammer to fire. The extent of this ‘pull’ made it extremely difficult to aim and fire accurately or fast. The Luger 9mm Parabellum is, or was, probably one of the best balanced hand guns in existence and I had been familiar with it since the Normandy landings in 1944 when I had acquired one while serving with the Royal Marines in France.
It was not long before the tension, or boredom, or both, began to show: a muttered curse here, a boot scrape there, the clatter of a weapon carelessly handled; an irate NCO whispering "Quiet". These troops were no SAS equivalents, mostly young, innocent and unblooded post-war conscripts.
Not long after midnight movement was spotted on the meadow between the embankment and the camp perimeter fence (Appendix III). Figures emerged and scattered. One was quickly challenged, went to ground, and was fired at in the absence of any reply. He was hit in the buttocks, painful but not life threatening. In due course he was rescued and stretchered back to camp.
At intervals the remaining figures, now widely separated, emerged and moved towards us on the embankment, where we were now standing. After the shot they knew they were walking into trouble. The second, to reach the foot of the embankment further down the line from where I was, was escorted back to the camp by a corporal and two soldiers. The third came straight towards me. The fourth, arriving near the St Thomaser Strasse some time after the others, perhaps hoping to remain unnoticed, was spotted by one of the soldiers and challenged. He later climbed slowly up the embankment, then leaped the 6 ft back down the side and ran for it, disappearing amongst nearby houses!
We were told afterwards that the young conscript concerned had not loaded his rifle! By the time he had done so the escaper had successfully vanished among the buildings. We never found out whether or not he was recaptured. This incident took place while I was in the camp delivering my prisoner. It also raises a number of questions. When the escaper bolted there must have been other soldiers able to support the one who had called the challenge; they were in yards of each other. Why did they not shoot? Was it possible that none of them had loaded guns? Had they been told not to load on the grounds of safety while taking up their positions in the dark? Or to prevent a possible accidental shot, thus giving the game away? Or did they think the whole thing was just an exercise? What precise orders had they been given? We will probably never know. Yet someone had fired a shot earlier!
The body language of the escaper, who approached my position, was one of utter dejection, head down, shambling forward with obvious reluctance. He said not a word. For me there was little excitement in the encounter. Truth to tell I felt rather sorry for him. After the secrecy, deception, waiting, sheer hard work on the tunnel and final anticipation, all his efforts had been in vain; what an anticlimax! I had no intention, however, of taking any chances with him. I commandeered one of the soldiers, told him to sling his rifle on his shoulder, gave him my revolver with firm instructions not to get nearer than six feet from the prisoner, drew the Luger and we marched back to the camp in a triangular formation with the prisoner at point.
I had warned him, in German, that should he make the slightest mistake or hesitation in obeying any command that I might give him, we would shoot. It was clear by the look on his face, fear, disappointment and despair, that he had no doubts. As I was carrying a pistol (Luger) and not a rifle, was wearing a peaked cap not a beret, he almost certainly recognised that I was either an officer or senior NCO. If he had known, which he almost certainly did, British badges of rank, he would also have recognised that I was a Sergeant Major and therefore probably battle experienced. I was.
Arriving at operational HQ in the Administrative Block within the camp, there were present the Lieut. Col., Camp Commandant, his 2 i/c, a major, Captain Kennedy, the camp security officer, and my own OC, Lieutenant Ken Gillett. I dismissed the soldier after retrieving my revolver and handed the prisoner over to Captain Kennedy once inside the building.
Kennedy immediately knocked him down, shouting and screaming at him in German, and then started kicking him while on the ground. I turned to the officers standing in a row watching, addressed them and told them that I was not prepared to stay and witness a British officer behaving like a Nazi thug. I saluted and marched out. Later I reported the incident to our Headquarters.
Then came Appell - roll call. The successful escaper had to be identified. All the prisoners were called out, lined up, counted and their quarters searched. I went into ‘F’ Block and felt something I had never experienced either before or since: an almost solid wall of hatred from the rows of prisoners! Not surprising really as by this time the betrayal was certainly known.
Except for issuing a general alert to Field Security and the Austrian Gendarmerie our job was done. Within days we were told that the escape had been engineered through a tunnel, starting behind the altar of the chapel. Apparently all the evidence indicated that it was an old working, allegedly started by the British prisoners of war and never completed; the war had come to its own conclusion. The internees, however, had found it, had completed it and escaped, only, through betrayal (or good security), to walk straight into a trap.
54 Years Later
54 years later, in 2001, the existence of a tunnel has been confirmed and it was in fact the means by which the escapers got out of the camp (this verified by a known former internee, resident in Austria). Enquiries amongst former POWs refute the existence of a British tunnel; what we were told was either a complete invention or wishful thinking. Enquiries are also in progress through Websites in Britain
and from members of ‘The Brotherhood of Veterans of the Greek Campaign 1940-41’ many of who ended up in Stalag XVIIIA.
For the escapees the trap was all the more dreadful; they knew it meant almost certain death. At this period Tito’s Communist Jugoslavia was heavily backed by the Soviet Union and the greatest possible political pressure was put on the western Allies to deliver up anyone alleged to have been a war criminal. Many of those accused were little more than political refugees fleeing for their lives from an oppressive intolerant regime with pitiful bundles of possessions; known today as asylum seekers. Regardless of innocence or guilt Jugoslav justice was instant, brutal and lacking any of our finer points of fairness or a presumption of innocence. If in fact those three unsuccessful escapers were extradited to Jugoslavia it is unlikely that they survived; at best they faced execution by firing squad, a fate, by 1947, well known in 373 Internment Camp.
Two particular questions have now been answered so many years later: did the British POWs start a tunnel and if so where was the alleged chapel? And did the internees actually use it? By letter, telephone and email most of my English correspondents have denied the probability of any British tunnel. Their argument and recollection, including one member of the escape committee in Wolfsberg until 1943, was that a tunnel was hazardous and unnecessary. Many prisoners went out on working parties to the local factories or farms, far easier to escape from there. But nevertheless one correspondent did allege that Padre John Legerwood (dec’d), from Christchurch, New Zealand, head of the Escape Committee did get a tunnel started. There was a lot of ‘goings on’ in the Theatre Block, where Sunday services were also held.
Was this the location of the internees’ tunnel? I then discovered from an entirely different correspondent that the French had a chapel, the altar, of which he had a photograph, being made of Red Cross cardboard cartons. Could this be the mysterious chapel? But neither he nor I know exactly where this one was! It could have been in any one of the French huts.
Finally I received the confirmation I was looking for. A tunnel had been built by the internees in its entirety, from start to finish. There was no question of an ex-POW one being found. Furthermore it was in a totally different location to that of previous speculation. There was another chapel: the internees had one tucked away in a small separate compound at the north west corner of the camp. (Appendix IV) This was the real site and the departure point of the escape. The exit was near the ‘Arlingbach’, or in local parlance the ‘Essigbacherl’ - Essig meaning vinegar in German. This stream was no physical obstacle, whereas the River Lavant would have been.
1 Did the successful escaper ever get recaptured?
© Robert Maxwell - 2001
02/02. Robert Maxwell's account of this incident is now published here and his pages may well include updates and amendments.
This page maintained by John Weston at Data Wales.