and German- raised Franz von Werra 1914-1941), shown in the accompanying
photograph, lived a very exciting life in his twenty-seven years.
A Luftwaffe pilot of a Messerschmitt 109
during the Battle of Britain in the early years
of World War II, a prisoner-of-war who achieved legendary status, and the
subject of a book and a movie several years after his death, the pivotal
event in his life began in Smiths
Falls Ontario Canada at 5:30am on Friday, January 24 1941.
Oberleutenant Franz von Werra was shot down
over England's County of Kent on September 5 1940. Following interrogation
in Kensington Palace Gardens in London he
was shipped north to a prison camp near Grizedale Hall in the Lake District,
which at the time was the only camp in Britain for captured officers.
Grizedale Hall (below) was also known
as "U-Boat Hotel", due to the large number of prisoners from that branch
(For an account of the officers of one U-Boat at Grizedale Hall, go
here). A former stately
home, it lay in isolated countryside between Windemere and Coniston Water.
It was the site of von Werra's his first escape attempt. On an escorted
exercise march on October 7 with several other prisoners, he dove over
a low stone wall. He remained at large until he was spotted by a
shepherd on October 12 and was recaptured. Following a punishment
of solitary confinement, von Werra was shipped to another camp, Swanwick,
On December 20 1940, he made
his second escape. He and four others crawled through a shallow tunnel. None
of the Germans got completely away, but von Werra came very close.
Using his natural charm and command of English, and posing
as a Dutch pilot whose plane had crash landed, he walked into the RAF
base at Hucknall. At his first opportunity he climbed into the cockpit
of a parked Hurricane fighter plane which
he planned to steal and fly to France. He was apprehended as he sat
in the plane, trying to start the engine. (For a more detailed account
of his escape attempts in England go here).
In January 1941 von
Werra was shipped to Canada for internment in a prisoner-of -war camp on
the north shore of Lake Superior. He was one of 33,800 German prisoners
sent to Canada during World War II. The ship docked at Halifax,
"an unnamed East Coat port", in the news reports of the day.
On Wednesday January 22 a train
full of German prisoners left the Nova Scotia port for a lengthy trip to
Neys, Ontario. The journey took the train across through New Brunswick,
Quebec City, Montreal, on to Smiths Falls. For von Werra and another
prisoner, Otto Hollman, this was their last stop. They both jumped from
a window of the train into a snow bank as it moved slowly through the railway
yards in the bitter cold of the pre-dawn. Hollman was quickly
apprehended in the same yards by Lance Corporal Lyle Thompson and CPR Constable
Ernest Potter. Hollman was taken to the local jail where he entertained
Police Chief John Lees and Constable Reg Wride,
before being turned over to the military.
Franz von Werra escaped detection
and made his way to Johnstown on the St. Lawrence River, even though a
search was soon mounted. "Rural telephone operators cooperated by
spreading alarm among farmers advising all to be on the lookout for suspicious
characters." Following a harrowing experience and with the help of a stolen
rowboat, he made his way across the partially frozen river to Ogdensburg
New York, on neutral American soil. He was charged with illegal
entry into the United States, but soon got to New York City.
Over the next several weeks von Werra
was at the centre of a diplomatic tug-of-war, with the Canadian authorities
trying to get him returned to Canada. By all accounts von Werra enjoyed
his time in the limelight tremendously. After some time in the United
States, funded by German money he made his way into Mexico, on to Panama,
Peru, Bolivia, and, by mid-April, to Rio de Janeiro. He flew back
to Germany from Brazil. On October 25 1941 von Werra's plane crashed
off the coast of Holland while on a routine Luftwaffe mission. Neither
von Werra's aircraft nor his body were ever found.
So that's a thumbnail sketch of
the wartime story of Franz von Werra. Pretty exciting stuff, but
surely it didn't make him unique? Well, actually, yes it did.
Franz von Werra was the only prisoner-of-war captured in Great Britain
during World War II who escaped back to Germany. In 1956 two British
writers, Kendal Burt and James Leasor wrote a book about his exploits.
The title of the book was, not unsurprisingly, "The One That Got Away".
The following year the J. Arthur Rank organization turned the book into
a well-reviewed movie
with the same title. The film version starred a young Hardy
Kruger as the charming and flamboyant von Werra( below, with Michael
The black and white movie directed
by Roy Baker is 111 minutes long. Halliwell's Film and Video Guide
describes the movie as a "True-life biopic, developed in a number of suspense
and action sequences, all very well done." A recent Australian review of
the video version of the film, with a good picture of Hardy Kruger on the
box cover, can be found here.
Smiths Falls is mentioned in a scene
between one of the guards and the prisoners on the train. The escape
in the local railway yards is faithfully re-created. The North
American premiere of The One That Got Away occurred
on Thursday, March 6 1958 at the Soper Theatre in Smiths Falls.
The story of Franz von Werra
continues to attract interest. Swiss filmmaker Werner
Schweizer (below, with the railways yards of Smiths Falls, Ontario
in the background) is taking a critical look at the life of his countryman
in a 90 minute feature documentary, Von Werra, produced by
Dschoint Ventur Filmprodukion
of Zurich and scheduled for a 2001 release. There has been some recent
press coverage in French in Swiss media sources about the project.
Schweizer's work is distinguished
by his ability to search for the truths behind myths and legends while
maintaining a sense of humour and a subjective and committed point of view.
Schweizer has always been interested in stories that reveal the workings
of political ideology through the lives of individuals.
For instance, his film How
The Simplon Was Saved (1989) tells the story of how Italian communist
partisans, with the help of the church and the Swiss secret service, successfully
prevented the German Wehrmacht from blowing up the Simplon Tunnel during
the Second World War. His last film, Noel
Field - The Fictitious Spy (1996), looks at the fascinating
and still unsolved Cold War case of an American accused by the Soviets
of spying for the USA, and by the Americans of being a Communist agent.
In 1997 it was screened & reviewed
in English at the San Francisco Film
Werner Schweizer would seem
to be the ideal person to tell the story of the charismatic, engaging and
frustrating Franz von Werra. Schweizer's films have been screened
at festivals all over the world, have won many awards, and have also been
broadcast on television in Eastern and Western Europe, North American,
A new biography of von Werra by Swiss
historian Wilfried Meichtry was published by Eichborn
Verlag in Germany in March 2001.
Cover of Wilfried Meichtry's
book on Franz von Werra and his family (Click for larger image)