The Red Devil: The Only Axis Prisoner to Escape from Canada And Make It Back to Germany
During the Second World War, more than 260,000 Allied personnel were captured by the Western Axis powers and held in prisoner-of-war camps in Germany, Italy, and their occupied territories. Their bold and often ingenious escape attempts have become the stuff of legend, including the famous “Great Escape” from the Stalag Luft III camp in March 1944 and countless outlandish breakouts from the infamous Colditz Castle – and for more on this please check out our video That Time Allied POWs Secretly Built an Airplane From Scratch to Escape a Nazi Compound.
Less well-remembered are the some 400,000 German and Italian prisoners-of-war interned in Britain, Canada, and the United States. Their ingenuity and will to escape was no less than that of their Allied counterparts, but while some 1,500 Allied POWs succeeded in making the ‘home run’ back to friendly or neutral territory, over the entire course of the war only one Axis prisoner managed to escape Canadian Allied captivity and make it all the way back home to Germany. This is the extraordinary story of Lieutenant Franz von Werra.
Franz von Werra was born on July 13, 1914 in the Swiss village of Leuk to Rosalie and Leo Freiherr von Werrra, destitute German aristocrats. Franz Von Werra joined the German Air Force, or Luftwaffe, in 1936 and was commissioned as a Lieutenant in 1938. He was by all accounts the epitome of the Aryan superman celebrated by Nazi propaganda, with blue eyes and wavy blond hair – though Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Göring would later note his unusually short stature. He played up the image of a dashing fighter pilot, driving fast sports cars and keeping a pet lion cub named Simba as a squadron mascot, while his habit of wearing a red jacket into combat lead German tabloids to dub him “The Red Devil – Terror of the British Air Force.” Though many of his colleagues saw him as arrogant and a braggart, fellow POW Heinz Cramer would later describe him as:
“…an honest and pleasant young man; a bit of a showman with a wonderful imagination, but a reliable and honest chap.”
Von Werra first saw combat during the Battle of France as part of Jagdgeschwader 3, shooting down his first aircraft – a British Hawker Hurricane – on May 20, 1940. He followed this two days later by shooting down three French bombers. During the subsequent Battle of Britain, on a single day – August 25, 1940 – von Werra claimed to have shot down one Spitfire and three Hurricanes and destroyed a further five aircraft on the ground – bringing his total kills to 13 and officially making him an ace. While only a few of these victories were ever officially confirmed, the German state media saw the propaganda value of von Werra’s exploits and his claims were never contested.
On September 5, 1940 von Werra was escorting a bomber squadron over Kent when his Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter was shot down by Spitfires flown by Flight Lieutenant Paterson Hughes and Pilot Officer Gerald Stapleton of 234 Squadron RAF. Von Werra managed to crash-land his stricken aircraft in a field on Loves Farm near Winchet Hill and was quickly arrested by a cook from a nearby army unit. He was taken to the nearby village of Maidstone and held overnight in the local constabulary before being transferred to Maidstone Barracks under the guard of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. It is here that he made his first escape attempt, overpowering his guard while digging in the garden with a pickaxe. He was quickly recaptured and sent to the infamous “Cockfosters Cage,” an MI9 interrogation centre at Trent Park in Hertfordshire. Here he was held and interrogated for 18 days, but failed to divulge any useful information. At one point, in typical cocksure fashion, von Werra bet his interrogator, one Squadron Leader Hawkes, that the British wouldn’t be able to hold him for six months. Neither man could have known at the time how right von Werra was.
Following his stay at the Cage von Werra was transferred to POW Camp No.1 in Furness Fells, Lancashire, where he immediately set about planning his next escape attempt. On the afternoon of October 7, 1940, while the prisoners were out on a guarded walk in the countryside, von Werra took advantage of a distraction created by an approaching fruit cart to roll over a low stone wall and slip away. His absence was not noticed until later that evening, whereupon local police forces and the Home Guard were alerted to the presence of an escaped German officer in the area. Von Werra, travelling mainly by night, managed to evade capture for three days, until on the night of October 10 he was discovered by the Home Guard sheltering from the rain in a Hoggarth, a small stone structure used to store animal feed. The Guardsmen bound von Werra’s hands behind his back and began leading him back to the nearest town, but von Werra managed to slip his bonds, break the Guardmen’s lantern, and escape into the darkness. It was another two days before he was finally recaptured while attempting to hide in a bog, submerged up to his neck.
After serving 21 days solitary confinement at Furness Falls, on November 3 von Werra was transferred to Camp No.13 at Swanwick, Derbyshire. Here he befriended a group of prisoners including Lieutenant Walter Manhard and Major Heinz Cramer, who formed an escape committee they jokingly named Swanwick Tiefbau A.G, or “Swanwick Digging Company Inc.” While progress on their escape tunnel was swift due to the sturdy clay soil, the group soon began running out of room to hide all the excavated spoil. This stalled construction for weeks until Manhard discovered a large rainwater cistern beneath the garden house, which could hold double the expected volume of spoil. On December 17, 1940, the tunnel was at last complete. On the night of the 20th, under the cover of a nearby air raid and the camp choir, von Werra, Manhard, and Cramer crawled through the tunnel and out into the surrounding countryside. Amusingly, the song chosen to cover their escape was titled “I must away into the great wide world.”
While the men’s absence was not noticed until the following afternoon, Cramer and Manhard were quickly spotted and recaptured, leaving von Werra on his own. Thankfully, he had prepared a convincing disguise. Thousands of aircrew from occupied allied nations such as Poland, Norway, and the Netherlands served in the RAF, so a man in British uniform with a foreign accent did not attract undue suspicion. Dressed in a homemade RAF uniform with forged identity papers, von Werra planned to pass himself off as Captain von Lott, a Dutch bomber pilot whose aircraft had crashed returning from a mission. Knowing that bombers flew at night, he waited until 3AM before approaching a friendly locomotive driver and asking to be taken to the nearest RAF airfield. At Codnor Park railway station Von Werra came under the suspicion of the local railway clerk and police constable, but he managed to convince them of his identity and they secured his passage to RAF Hucknall in Nottingham.
At Hucknall, when the Squadron Leader asked for his credentials, Von Werra claimed to be based at Dyce near Aberdeen in Scotland. While the Squadron Leader rang Dyce to confirm this story, he asked von Werra for his identity disc. To his horror, von Werra realized that his fake disk had melted due to his body heat and hastily excused himself to use the lavatory. Running across the airfield, he spotted a Hawker Hurricane fighter being readied and informed the mechanic that he was taking it on a test flight. Von Werra was already strapped into the cockpit, trying to figure out the controls, when the Squadron Leader ran up with his service revolver to arrest him. Amazingly, this would not be the closest a German prisoner would come to escaping Britain by aircraft. On November 24, 1941 Lieutenants Hans Schnabel and Harry Wappler escaped from a POW camp in Penrith, Cumbria and made their way to the nearby RAF Kingstown airfield, where they managed to commandeer a Miles Magister training aircraft and get airborne. However, lack of fuel and freezing temperatures forced them to turn back and land near the coast, where they were soon recaptured.
In von Werra’s case it had become clear that the British Isles could no longer contain the slippery pilot, so on January 10, 1941 von Werra and a thousand other German prisoners were placed aboard the ocean liner SS Duchess of York to be sent to internment camps in Canada. Von Werra, who was by now a known escape risk, was placed in his own cabin under special guard. Yet he still continued to plot his escape. During the crossing von Werra managed to befriend the ship’s galley crew, offering to peel potatoes and carry out other menial tasks. Slowly but surely he gained the trust of more and more of the crew and began to penetrate normally forbidden areas of the ship, getting as far as the engine room without being stopped. Knowing that the convoy they were sailing with was bound for North Africa and would soon depart, von Werra and his fellow prisoners plotted to take over the ship and sail her back to an occupied French port. Unfortunately for them, on the day the convoy departed, the Germans discovered to their dismay that one escort – the British battleship HMS Ramillies – had remained to shepherd them all the way to Canada.
Duchess of York arrived safely in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the prisoners were transferred to a train bound for a POW camp on the north shore of Lake Superior. After the abortive mutiny, von Werra had decided to escape to the United States, which at the time was still neutral. While the nearest border crossing was between New Brunswick and Maine, von Werra decided to save his attempt until late in the train journey, when it would least be expected. This would take place between Montreal and Ottawa, where the rail line came closest to the St. Lawrence River on the US-Canada Border. On January 21, 1941, near Smiths Falls, Ontario, von Werra put his plan into action. The train windows had all frozen shut in the winter cold, forcing the prisoners to turn up the car heaters to free them. At a prearranged signal a fellow prisoner raised a blanket as if folding it, shielding von Werra and 7 other prisoners from view as they crawled through the open windows and plunged headfirst into the snow below. Amazingly, none of the guards noticed the escape and the windows quickly frosted over again, blocking the escapees from view. The train was nearly a hundred miles away by the time their absence was noticed.
Once again, all of von Werra’s fellow escapees were quickly recaptured, leaving him on his own. Freezing due to a lack of proper winter clothes, von Werra stumbled along a nearby road hoping to bum a ride to the border. A car soon appeared, but as it drew closer von Werra realized it was a police car and quickly dropped his hand. But it was too late: the car came to a stop. Believing he had been caught, von Werra grudgingly approached the car, only to be informed that hitchhiking had recently been outlawed in Canada and that he had barely avoided being arrested. Nonetheless, the policeman offered him a ride and dropped him off in Johnstown, just across the St. Lawrence from Ogdensburg, New York. Seeing that the river was frozen, von Werra attempted to cross on foot, but found a wide ice-free channel blocking his path. Doubling back, he wandered through the night until he stumbled upon an abandoned summer camp near the town of Prescott, where he found an overturned wooden boat. Despite his hands being nearly frozen, using a fence paling as a shovel he managed to dig the boat out of the snow, drag it across the ice, and cross the river.
Once in Ogdensburg, von Werra turned himself in to the police, who passed him off to the Board of Immigration. Charged with illegally entering the country, von Werra contacted the German Consul in New York City, who paid his bail and arranged for local attorney James Davies to represent him. Von Werra was released and instructed to appear before a grand jury in Albany a week later.
Von Werra’s arrival in the United States caused a sensation, and he was treated like a celebrity by the media, and otherwise saw the sights and lived the high life in New York City.
He also took to writing “Wish You Were Here” postcards to old friends and comrades, including Squadron Leader Boniface from Hucknall airfield and Squadron Leader Hawke from the Cockfosters Cage interrogation centre. During this time he also learned that Adolf Hitler had awarded him the prestigious Knight’s Cross for his August 25 attack on an RAF airfield – an attack most historians now agree never took place.
But von Werra did not have long to relax, for the Commonwealth authorities were hot on his tail. Soon after his border crossing the Ontario Provincial Police delivered a summons to the Ogdensburg police charging von Werra with the theft of a rowboat worth $35. This tiny sum was widely mocked in the German press, the German embassy even issuing a statement reading:
“In view of the great importance Canada appears to attach to the boat, Franz von Werra will gladly place at the disposal of the American authorities the sum of $35 … so that the warrant against him may be withdrawn.”
However, given the criminal nature of the charge, it could not be tried in an American court and could have led to von Werra’s extradition back to Canada. The German consul therefore decided to get von Werra out of the United States as quickly as possible. In April 1941, while negotiations between the American and Canadian governments raged on, von Werra boarded a train out of New York and slipped across the border into Mexico. From here, the various German consuls in South America shuttled von Werra along a circuitous route through Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru and finally across the Atlantic to Barcelona and Rome. Franz von Werra finally reached Germany on April 18, 1941 – 225 days after he had been captured.
In Germany von Werra was hailed as a hero, with Hitler personally congratulating him for his courage, ingenuity, and
“ …ability to turn a tactically unfavourable situation to his own advantage.”
But even more valuable than von Werra’s heroic status were his unique insights into British interrogation techniques. Drawing from his experiences at the Cockfosters Cage, von Werra wrote a pamphlet titled “How to Behave if Taken Prisoner,” which remained in use until 1944 and effectively cut off one of MI9’s most valuable sources of intelligence. He also consulted on improvements to German interrogation techniques and contradicted the portrayal of British POW camps in Nazi propaganda, stating:
“Generally speaking, British treatment of German war prisoners is unexceptionable. Such isolated instances of maltreatment as have occurred have resulted from wrong behaviour on the part of the prisoners concerned in the first, decisive moments of captivity.’’
In any event, in recognition for his daring escape, von Werra was promoted to Hauptmann and made commander of the squadron JG 52 on the Eastern Front. In July 1941 he scored 13 more victories against Russian aircraft, bringing his total kills to 21. In August his squadron was recalled to Germany to be equipped with new aircraft and reposted to Katwijk in the Netherlands. Then, a mere 8 months after arriving back in Germany, Franz von Werra’s luck finally ran out. On October 25, 1941, von Werra was on a routine training flight off the Dutch coast when he experienced engine failure and crashed into the sea north of Vlissingen. His body was never recovered.
Franz von Werra’s extraordinary globe-spanning odyssey from captivity to freedom is emblematic of the determination and fighting spirit displayed by all servicemen during the Second World War – and of the effectiveness of interning Axis prisoners in Canada. Indeed, with the possible exception of U-boat sailor Walter Reich, who claimed to have escaped from a troopship in the St. Lawrence in July 1940, von Werra remains the only German POW to make it all the way from Canada to Germany during the entirety of the war. His story was popularized in a 1956 book by Kendall Burt and James Leasor and a 1957 film starring Hardy Kruger, both titled after von Werra’s now-immortal nickname: “The One That Got Away.”
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Baron Von Werra Begins Tour of “Sights” After Arrival in New York City, January 27, 1941, http://www.animatedsoftware.com/misc/theworld/vonwerra/fw4101nw.gif
Burt, Kendal & Leasor, James, The Only Man The Allies Didn’t Beat, Maclean’s, October 27, 1956, https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1956/10/27/the-only-man-the-allies-didnt-beat
Franz von Werra, http://www.luftwaffe.cz/werra.html
Oberleutnant Franz von Werra, https://www.pegasusarchive.org/pow/franz_von_werra.htm
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