JACK ROFFEY, (JR): talking to Simon Fraser, (SF) son of Corporal Alistair Hugh Fraser, RASC, about escapes from Stalag VIIIB
JR: Well there were lots of things that went on that the Germans didn’t know about. There were actually 39 people made successful escapes from VIIIB or 344.
SF: How did they do that?
JR: Basically, because they were all people who came into the camp, either highly qualified like technical blokes out of the Royal Engineers or RAF crew – there was an RAF compound – RAF crew. They had to be able to speak German, that was an essential and they had to be a technical bloke. And if he was a technical bloke and could speak German, he could go out of 344 at 12 o’clock in civilian clothes, with an identity card and a railway ticket, go down to Annahof(?) station and catch the 1 o’clock train to Stettin and from Stettin (Szczecin) he’d go across to Sweden, and from Sweden he’d go home. And everything was laid on.
SF: But you had to be able to speak German.
JR: You had to be able to speak German and you had to be a technical bod. An ordinary run-of-the-mill squady (soldier) wouldn’t stand a chance.
SF: So it was almost like you had to apply?
JR: You had to apply to the escape committee. Basically the idea was that there was a tunnel out which was kept open and what happened was you went out of the tunnel at 12 o’clock midday, and you came up in woods outside the wire. That night you were covered at roll-call. In the German system they counted in fives – they lined you up in fives so someone dodged down and came up again. So you were covered that night at roll-call and during the night another part of the escaping committee had to go with wire cutters and cut a hole big enough to drive the Queen Mary through, in the wire, to make it look as though they’d gone out that night, but when the Germans discovered it in daylight the following morning the blokes had been gone for 18 hours, by train.
The other thing which they used to do was, at 12 o’clock, whilst this bloke was going out through the tunnel, they used to put a diversion on underneath the nearest sentry box – you know, sort of all-in wrestling or boxing or something or another or even a punch-up but all the blokes would all gather round and cheering and whatever and the guard leaning out watching them all. And this South African went out – in civilian clothes mind – went out, but instead of going straight on down through the woods towards Annahof which was only a couple of miles away down the road, he came back to the wire, walked up the outside of the wire, chatted to the guard and said “these British are all mad!” And then turned around and walked away.
SF: Did you know any of the people who escaped?
JR: Not really… I didn’t really… I only knew about it – because – after the war – there was a chap, the key bloke in the escape thing was only a corporal, Corporal Jones, but actually he, previous to being in the army, apparently he was on… something to do with Scotland Yard but I don’t know what they’re called – not M15 or something like that but he was in the army as a corporal, but his job was to organise these escapes.
SF: So who dug the tunnels?
JR: Well, you see it was all done on a – a peculiar sort of situation. People whose job it was – engineers whose job it would be to dig the tunnel – your job was to give up 25% of your bed boards and spread the rest so they could use those. And then there were some people whose job it was to – we used to use our Red Cross parcel boxes to carry our stuff around in, but they would be carrying boxes of soil out of the tunnel which they had to dump somewhere which wasn’t too apparent. They didn’t know anything else about the rest – that was their job. But I got involved in it because at the hospital in the lab there they were making up stuff which I think technically was called hypo or something – would that be in photographs? Is it hypo?
Mrs R: Yes, it’s a fixer.
JR: Fixer. And once a week I used to have to take a parcel of medical stuff from the hospital up to the main camp to what we called the ‘revere’ – it was a sort of a place where people in the camp reported sick and there were a number of beds there but it was only if you were sort of short duration – it wasn’t worthwhile sending you over to the main hospital because you weren’t going to be in there long enough. So I used to have to take this thing up but between going in through the gate and taking it in to the place there was always a bottle which I had to take out which was just called ‘the mix should be taken as directed’ on the label, which had to go in my pocket and I had deliver it to a bloke up in the camp.
And that was all I knew. And every time I delivered it he gave me a tin of meatloaf. And there were all sorts of people doing –
SF: You saying that was all you knew or that was all you were told?
JR: That was all I was told. I didn’t find out really what it was all about after this Corporal Jones came and visited me and told me what the set-up was and how successful it had been (inaudible)…
SF: Over what sort of period of time?
JR: Well over a couple of years.
SF: And they never found the tunnel?
JR: No. False tunnels…
SF: So they’d dig sort of – wild ones…
JR: They’d dig wild ones – they’d just start them because occasionally someone would spot some fresh soil being tipped out of something and then there’d be a big purge on and, normally the ones which they found started under a night lavatory bucket somewhere – something like that.