Franz von Werra - The One That Got Away
   Swiss-born 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 yearsFranz von Werra 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 of the 
service. 
Grizedale Hall (right; outbuildings centre), prisoner-or-war Camp #1
(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, near Nottingham. 
    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 German artist's impression of von Werra's leap from the window of the trainfrom 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.Von Werra in New York. His ears are heavily bandaged due to forstbite.
   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.
Von Werra on the Russian Front - the last photograph of him to appear in the German press
   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.Dust jacket of The one that got away  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 Goodliffe) . 


   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
Newspaper advertisement for the North American premier of The one that got away
   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.Werner Schweitzer in the railway yards at Smiths Falls, Ontario
    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 Festival
    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, and Australia. 
   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)



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This page last updated on January 19, 2007