Zero Night: The Untold Story of World War Two’s Most Daring Great Escape

By Mark Felton, Thomas Dunne Books, 320 pages, $26


Why do we study history?

An answer lies in “A Study of History” by Arnold Toynbee. The historian, regarded as one of the greatest minds of the past century, writes: “Within the last 500 years, the whole face of the globe ... has been knit together physically ... but Mankind has not yet been united politically. For this, we must become familiar with each other; and this means becoming familiar with each other’s history.”

The Second World War was probably the most cataclysmic event in recorded human history. Most suggest that some 75 million people died in the war, including about 20 million military personnel and 40 million civilians. Many of the civilians died because of deliberate genocide, massacres, mass-bombing, disease and starvation.

And why did they die? The answer is simple: it was a clash of ideologies, between totalitarian ethos on one hand and liberal democratic values on the other. The fundamental urge of humanity is to be free. It may be something as basic as from poverty to the altruistic levels of creativity. But freedom remains the underlying thought.

This thought of freedom is the central theme of the book “Zero Night” by historian Mark Felton, where he tells us the story of the “Warburg wire job”, the Second World War’s first great escape — a mass runaway by 32 Allied prisoners of war from the Oflag VI-B camp at Warburg in Nazi Germany.

The unique aspect of this escape was that instead of the traditional mode of tunnelling, the escapees went over the huge perimeter fences using wooden scaling contraptions they built at the camp.

The chief architect of the escape, codenamed “Operation Olympia”, was Major Tom Stallard of the Durham Light Infantry. At 37, he was already a highly experienced combat officer, having served in Egypt, India and China before the war. Felton remarks that Stallard “was too active” to accept prison life quietly and decided to focus all his energies on escaping.

It was routine among the PoWs to try and form escape plans. Most of these took the form of building tunnels under the perimeter fence. However, matters became complicated when the Germans decided to put in place a “Deep Field”, a ring of armed guards 50 metres away from the fence, where the tunnels emerged. This led those intent on escaping of thinking of other means.

The inspiration came from Major “Jumbo” Macleod, of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. Macleod had earlier proposed the idea of “vaulting” over the wired fence, but it had been struck down on grounds of practicality. However, Stallard maintained that the idea was sound, the only hurdle being devising a mechanism that can be used, and to use it in numbers so that several can escape at the same time.

This job came upon Jock Hamilton-Baillie, nicknamed HB, of the Royal Engineers. As a student at Clifton College, HB had been interested in medieval siege structures, in particular the assault ladders to scale castle walls.

Drawing upon this, he created a scale model of a bridging mechanism, by which the escapees could climb a ladder up to the top of the fence, walk a few steps on top of it on a plank, and swing down the other side. According to his calculations, about 10 men could use it to escape in under a minute.

The next issue to be solved was how to divert the Germans’ attention while the prisoners were escaping. This was solved with the sudden discovery that one section of the of the perimeter light wires passed through the cobbler’s hut of the PoW camp, which was on the British side of the fence. The credit went to Captain Ken Searle of the Royal Army Ordinance Corps, who immediately brought it to Stallard’s attention. Thus the plan now was to short-circuit the wires of that particular section of the perimeter lights to enable the escape.

The issue of storage was solved by using them as makeshift shelves in the camp’s music room. Selected members of the escape team practised setting them up and dismantling them within the room. In the meantime, details of the escape plan were sent through coded message to London, thus enabling supplies and escape material reaching them in disguised packages. Most important among these were maps of the area.

All this while, a team of PoWs continued to make tunnels to ensure that the Germans did not suspect that something bigger was afoot. These continued to be discovered, so the game was on.

It was soon realised that making more than one apparatus before the actual day was not possible as they would be difficult to hide. Thus it was decided that three more would have to be built on the day of the planned attempt, and also would mean not more than 40 could make the attempt.

The original date of the escape plan was set for the first week of September. However, this had to be hastily brought forward as the Germans announced in August that the camp would be wound up by the end of the month, and prisoners would be split up into other different camps. Thus August 30, 1942, was decided as “Zero Night”, the day of reckoning.

The initial bit went like clockwork — the perimeter lights were shorted, scaling mechanisms put in places, and the captives went over. But of the 32 who made it across, six were caught within minutes by the “Deep Field” of German soldiers. The other 26 headed out into the country, but only three — Albert Arkwright, Henry Coombe-Tennant and Rupert Fuller — finally made it home. They were aided by the “Comet Line”, a group of mostly female French volunteers working to help escapees reach their home countries.

Felton’s book is nothing short of a thriller, where the plot is laid out, preparation progresses stage-by-stage and finally brought to fruition. While at some points the descriptions tend to get a bit lengthy, it hardly puts the reader off. The book gives us a glimpse of life in the PoW camps, the discipline and the camaraderie among the prisoners, and life in the Occupied territories under the Reich. But above all, “Zero Night” is a book about the triumph of the human spirit — a spirit that yearns to be free.