Island Farm was a Prisoner of War Camp (Camp 198) on the outskirts of the town of Bridgend, South Wales. It hosted a number of Axis prisoners, mainly German, and was the scene of the largest escape attempt by German POWs in Britain during World War II. Near the end of the war, it became known as Special Camp XI. The list of former inmates includes many senior SS military leaders, who were awaiting extradition to the Nuremberg trials.
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Island Farm Camp was originally built as a hostel for workers employed at the munitions factory in Bridgend. The authorities had believed that the female workers would rather stay nearby than travel as much as 30 miles (48 km) home each day. However, the women preferred to travel than stay in the dreary barrack conditions of the hostel, so the camp remained empty until 1943, when it was used to accommodate American troops who would be involved in the invasion of France.
The authorities had to find suitable accommodation for a large number of POWs captured in Europe. At Island Farm, the prefabricated concrete huts surrounded by open fields were ideal, although the barracks had to be converted and barbed wire fences erected. This work had not been completed by the time the first batch of prisoners arrived, so the prisoners were put to work completing the conversion.
Island Farm was designated as Camp 198 and was to hold almost 2,000 prisoners. The first POWs were a mixed bag of Italian and German troops, but the War Office soon decided that the camp was too comfortable for enlisted men and that German officers should be held there. The first officer prisoners arrived in November 1944.
The POWs soon turned their efforts to escape. Two tunnels were dug in the camp, but the first was discovered in January 1945. The second tunnel escaped detection and on the night of 11 March 1945, 70 prisoners escaped. All were recaptured; some were found within a few miles of the camp. Others travelled much further, to places like Birmingham and Southampton, over 150 miles (240 km) away.
Only three weeks after the escape, on 31 March 1945, the authorities suddenly transferred all 1,600 officers out of Island Farm Camp. It was then designated Special Camp Eleven and was prepared to receive senior German officers, many of whom had been captured in France and were awaiting trial at Nuremberg. In all there were 160 officers holding the rank of general, admiral, or field marshal, including a number of Hitler’s closest advisers:
- Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, commander in chief of the German armies in the campaign against France in 1940 (because of his status, von Rundstedt received certain privileges at the camp, including his own private suite, consisting of a sitting room and bedroom).
- Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, who established the operation plans for Hitler’s successful campaign in the west and commanded the Eleventh Army, which conquered the Crimea and Sevastopol on the eastern front.
- Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, who was named commander in chief of the German army by Hitler in 1938 and who was instrumental in the planning and execution of attacks on Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia, Greece, and the Soviet Union.
- Field Marshal Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist, who was involved in the Battle of Paris and was in charge of Army Group A from 1942 until 1944.
- Generaloberst Heinrich von Vietinghoff, Supreme Commander of the 10th German Army in Italy, 1943 to 1945, which the Germans referred to as the Southwestern Front.
- Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici, commander of Army Group Vistula, who defended Berlin against three Red armies in the last battle of World War II.
Island Farm Camp finally closed in 1948, when the last prisoners were returned to Germany.
The “Forgotten” Great Escape
On 10 March 1945, 70 prisoners escaped from Island Farm through a tunnel dug from Hut Nine (the only hut now left standing). The tunnel was about 30 feet (9.1 m) long and breached the perimeter fence.
Some of the techniques used by the inmates were ingenious and not too dissimilar to those in the war film The Great Escape about Allied POWs. Excavating the tunnels was not easy because of the heavy clay soil upon which the camp was built. Cans, meat tins, and even knives from the canteen were used as digging implements. The soil was hauled out of the tunnel on a makeshift skip and put into kit bags. At first, prisoners carried the soil in their pockets to the long-jump pit or garden plots. Others kneaded clay into balls and dropped them through a hole in a false wall they had constructed in an unused room in one of the huts. To support the tunnel roof, oak benches were stolen from the canteen and bed legs were cut down when supplies of wood were depleted. A ventilation pipeline was made from condensed milk tins; air was forced through by a hand-operated fan. The tunnel even had its own electric lights, tapped off the mains supply. Noise was concealed by chorus singing.
The escapers were divided into groups, each of which was equipped with a map, homemade compass, and food. Each person in the group also had identity papers, produced in the camp. All these preparations required tremendous organization, yet it is not known who actually organized the escape. For security purposes, each escaper’s identity was known only to the others in his small group. This anonymity protected them against betrayal and prevented discovery of the full extent of the escape.
At around 10pm on March 10, the prisoners made their move; a few stole the local doctor’s car and got as far as Birmingham, at least 120 miles (190 km) away, and another group got to the port of Southampton. The prisoners knew their way around through crude, but accurate rough drawings of Wales and the surrounding area, mainly of railway lines and principal roads.
All the escapees were eventually captured and were not officially punished.
The media blamed the guards for the escape, citing that they had full knowledge of the escape through a note apparently thrown through the fence the very night of the escape suggesting that there was an escape plot. The military and the guards blamed undermanning of the camp and new stricter procedures were introduced.
Peter Phillips, author of The German Great Escape, claims that 84 prisoners actually got out, thus eclipsing the 76 Allied POWs who broke out of Stalag Luft III, the inspiration for the film The Great Escape. Fourteen were captured very soon afterwards, allowing officials to announce, for propaganda reasons, that only 70 had escaped. Three were spotted in Kent, but were (according to Phillips) never caught. Afterwards, the government revised its figure to 67.
In 2016 an archaeology investigation was undertaken of the site to look for the escape tunnel, including surface surveying using lidar and geophysics. An intrusive investigation found the tunnel to be in relatively good condition, still containing the wooden support shoring, with results subsequently published and video footage provided in online supplementary files.