Read an Extract from Peter Tunstall's The Last Escaper
Peter Tunstall was a World War Two bomber pilot famed for his daring escape attempts while held as a POW by the Germans in World War Two. The Last Escaper tells the fascinating tale of 'The Cooler King', one of the last survivors of the Colditz generation.
The extract below tells of how Tunstall started his escape attempt from Stalag Luft II in Barth in 1940.
"I rounded the end of the German huts and walked slap into a small bunch of off-duty guards, sitting on chairs outside their hut wrapped in their great coats and enjoying a lively conversation. As this completely strange Unteroffizier approached, they turned their faces towards me and the conversation stopped dead. No wonder. It was not such an enormous guard company and no doubt nearly everybody knew everybody, and in any case, why was this strange Unteroffizier walking between the huts towards nowhere but the wire? They stared silently and I was sure the game was up.
I could not turn and run; there was nowhere to run to. I smiled at them and then began whistling a German tune nonchalantly and swinging my little sack as though I hadn’t a care in the world but they still stared, damn them. At that moment, fortune smiled upon me. By the wire, I saw some rabbit hutches, obviously the property of some enterprising guards who fancied an extra meat ration. I walked to the hutches and with my back to the curious guards, delved into the sack and pretended to be pushing some vegetable scraps through the wire and stroking the rabbits’ noses. Gradually I heard the conversation start up again behind me and I worked slowly along the line of hutches until I reached a position where I was round the end of the hut and out of their line of sight.
Unfortunately, I was still in the sight of the Goon box and after the time-consuming pantomime at the hutches, the free fight diversion had finished and the machine gunner again had his attention on his job. There was nothing for it but to toss my sack over the wire and climb after it trusting to luck that nobody looked my way. The skin of my back crawled against the anticipated burst of fire. I jumped down from the top strand of wire, landed on hands and knees with a sharp twinge of pain from that bloody ankle I had injured over Rheims. I grabbed my sack and ran, limping a bit, fifty yards for the cover of the finger of pine wood which pointed towards the wire. Arriving there, I threw myself beneath the trees and for a while, lay panting with effort and fright. Then I cautiously made my way up the length of the narrow strip of wood, so narrow that I could see both edges, but was concealed from the prison camp so long as I kept in the centre.
It seemed wise to make some distance from the prison camp before stopping to change disguise and soon caution had to be abandoned for faster progress. Speed was the essence of success. Ideally I should be hidden in a coal truck before my absence was discovered for the Germans were certain to increase their vigilance at the docks with an RAF officer on the run. It was obviously desirable to be across the guarded bridge and on the Island of Rügen before the warnings were broadcast about an escaped prisoner.
I straightened up and was about to crash through the woods when a German spoke out and shocked me to a full stop. I could not see him and assumed he was hiding just ahead of me. Then his voice continued softly and without challenge and I realized he was not speaking to me. I sank slowly down again onto my hands and knees. The voice was directly in my line of advance and to detour much to left or right would again expose me to view from the camp. I listened carefully as the voice continued softly in playful affection and I concluded I had stumbled upon an off-duty soldier necking a Fraulein in the woods. The irony of it struck me with bitterness. Whatever the sum total of my motives for escape – duty, boredom, hunger; a powerful desire was to hold Ann in my arms again. Now it seemed my consuming love and longing was to be frustrated by the casual amour of a German soldier. “Deine schonen traurigen Augen staunen in mein Angesicht. Machst du mich, liebst du mich?” He was slobbering on about her beautiful eyes gazing into his and asking her if she really loved him!
It was love talk all right! To skirt round them, I must first locate them exactly and began to crawl forward like a cat stalking a sparrow. Then, a few yards away, I spotted the German sitting in a small sunlit clearing with his back to me. On his shoulders he wore the silver braid of an Unteroffizier and on his heavy leather belt snuggled the holster of a Luger pistol. He was a prison camp “dog handler” and between his palms, he lovingly held the muzzle of his Alsatian guard dog, almost facing my way but gazing into her master’s eyes.
I froze with sudden shock, Then I slowly sank down until my nose was in the pine needles. My memory flashed back again to that day at the Lake when I was with my Father and Compton, the Head Gamekeeper, almost came upon us with his dog. I thought of my Father’s steadiness and his teaching and of my Boy Scout games at Orsett. Inch by gradual inch, I worked my way backwards from danger with my nose still on the ground and my mind as blank as I could keep it. Well clear of the German, I chose the downwind edge of the woods to keep my scent away from the dog and painfully slowly, wriggled past them on my belly. At last I was clear enough to get up and run.
The finger of trees led into a larger wood where I changed my garb to Swedish seaman, with the peaked cap, the black jacket with the military rank badges removed, and my own shoes. The jackboots and Luftwaffe cap I buried in pine needles. Already the sun was low above the horizon and the intense cold of the November evening was taking a grip. I was glad I had to move fast and set off for Barth to find the road for Stralsund."