Saturday, 17 January 2009

Operation Kiebitz

Occasionally you come across a real-life story that you have never heard of before, and which would form the basis of a superb novel or book.

Last night ┼×encan and I watched the superb Wolfgang Petersen film, 'Das Boot', a frankly brilliant film about the experience of the submariners on board the U-96 U-Boat in the Second World War.

This film is one of the few that really seems to capture the terror of war; much more so than, say 'Saving Private Ryan', and it was rightly nominated for six Oscars. If this had been a film about American or British submariners I believe that it would be much better known; as it is, the subject matter (Germans during the war) and the need for subtitles for non-German speaking audiences probably puts many people off.

After it had finished, I went upstairs to do a little background research into the historical accuracy of the film. As is often the case, I got sidetracked into looking at other matters, and soon settled on the German U-Boats aces of the Second World War and, particularly, of Operation Kiebitz.

Having been brought up on a diet of classic war films from the British perspective - 'Ice Cold in Alex' being a particular favourite - it is sometimes hard to remember that the Germans also have a wealth of tales about their wartime exploits. Whilst the evils of the concentration camps and other horrors should not be forgotten, neither should be the fact that many Germans fought honourably, even if the cause in which they were fighting was morally repugnant.

During the Second World War, many Kriegsmarine sailors were kept in prisoner-of-war camps, some of which were in Canada. One camp, Camp 30, situated near Toronto, held several U-Boat Aces, including Otto Kretschmer, the most successful Ace of the Deep.

The Kriegsmarine decided to attempt to gain a propaganda coup by bringing the men home to Germany. The plan was set to go in September 1943; the men would escape from the camp and make their way to Chaleur Bay in New Brunswick, where they would be picked up by a U-Boat. Wikipedia claims the distance is 870 miles, whilst other sources say it was an easy three or four days walking.

The plan was sent to them in Red Cross packages, and the men started digging tunnels out of the camp. Three tunnels were started, then two were abandoned. If this sounds familiar, then it probably is. There were three tunnels in the Great Escape; Tom, Dick and Harry.

Their plan is foiled when two unfortunate incidents occur in one night; they had been piling the earth from the tunnels in the ceilings of the huts, and one of the ceilings collapses, prompting the guards to search for the tunnels. Secondly, a prisoner digging earth for flower boxes accidentally uncovers the third tunnel.

Unbeknownst to them, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were well aware of the plot. They had been alerted by a message in a Red Cross package, and knew full details of the escape. Instead of stopping it immediately, they decided to let it continue, hoping to capture, or at least sink, the U-Boat sent out to recapture the men. Unfortunately, they cannot ignore such blatant tunnelling, and the four officers were placed under firm arrest.

However, one officer Kapit├Ąnleutnant Wolfgang Heyda, decides to make his own escape. From: http://www.mnq-nmq.org/english/vivez/impacts/operation.htm
Though it uses a less scientific approach, Heyda's plan makes up for it by its audacity and recklessness. He is provided with false national registration papers as well as a false document signed by the Naval Chief-of-Staff, Admiral Percy Nelles. In addition, he is given civilian clothing, a boatswain's chair, which is a rope chair that can be attached to cables, and nails are hammered into his boots to make crampons.

After donning his civilian clothing and hiding the mate's chair beneath his clothes, Heyda hides in a hut used for sports while a dummy takes his place for the evening prisoner count. At nightfall, taking advantage of a diversion orchestrated by the other prisoners, Heyda leaves his hiding place and scales a fence pole with the help of his crampons. At the top of the fence he gets into his mate's chair, attaches himself to the ropes and vaults himself over. He manages to land on the other side without mishap and without being intercepted by the camp guards. After his escape from Bowmanville, Heyda makes his way to Bathurst, New Brunswick, on September 26, 1943. He then continues on foot until he reaches the rendezvous point of Pointe Maisonnette. En route, he is intercepted by a military patrol, but his false papers and his civilian clothing save him. At the end of the evening, he finally arrives at the rendezvous site.
Heyda was picked up by the RCMP at Pointe Masonette and returned to the camp. It had been an amazing escape attempt. The RCMP used a signal light to signal to the waiting U-Boat, U-536, hoping to lure it in towards the waiting Destroyers. The plot failed. The U-Boat captain, suspicious of noises on his hydrophones, remains submerged, and despite being depth-charged made his escape.

For more details on the plot, read the superb http://www.mnq-nmq.org/english/vivez/impacts/operation.htm

By rights, Operation Kiebitz should have been made into a film before now - it has a combination of attributes from many classic war films - the heroism of 'The Great Escape' and intelligence services plotting of 'The Man Who Never Was'. It also displays the incredible bravery of several men, most notably Wolfgang Heyda. It is an astounding story, and one that fully deserves to be more widely known.

2 comments:

elmtree55 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
elmtree55 said...

Nice article about Operation Kiebitz. A Canadian map will quickly show that the distance from Toronto Ontario to Chaleur Bay New Brunswick is about 875 miles. Bowmanville is located about 35 miles or so east of Toronto. The biography of Wolfgang Heyda is available from www.u-434.com. A map of Heyda’s probable escape route is given in the book. The story has more twists and turns than a discarded jumble of string. There are many mythical stories about the escape. Accounts of the escape and capture are provided by German POWs and Lcdr. Desmond Piers (RCN Admiral Retired) who was responsible for Heyda’s capture in New Brunswick.