Franz von Werra: The Dashing Fighter Pilot, Daring Prison Escapee, and Dangerous Foe
The story of Franz Baron von Werra, a fighter pilot of World War II, is one that has been credited with contributing to much of the fighter pilot mystique. Von Werra was born in Switzerland, to an impoverished noble family, one month before the commencement of World War I. In 1936, young von Werra joined the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) and was commissioned as a pilot in 1938. Initially in World War II, he served on the Western Front, where he achieved “ace” status by shooting down French and British warplanes in the first year of the war. In addition to playing up the glamor of being a fighter pilot, using his prominent position to date famous women and entertain a playboy lifestyle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he also kept a pet lion cub, Simba, as a mascot at his fighter unit.
On September 5, 1940, von Werra’s Bf 109 was shot down during the Battle of Britain. Although he managed to survive the crash-landing of his aircraft in a farmer’s field, he was soon captured by ground personnel and taken to the guardhouse at Maidstone Barracks. With a few days, he attempted to escape captivity by deserting a work detail, a move that landed him in a much closer confinement at Trent Park. After three weeks of interrogation, von Werra was forwarded to POW Camp No. 1 at Grizedale Hall, where he might have waited out the remainder of the war in relatively comfort and safety.
Instead, von Werra returned to his escape attempts. After two weeks of captivity, von Werra used a diversion to disappear from a guarded walk outside of the camp. His disappearance triggered a massive manhunt in the vicinity, and after three days, he was located—but rather than surrendering, he knocked over the lamp being used by his pursuers and fled into the night, remaining at large for another two days. When he was finally recaptured, there was little the British government could legally do to punish him—the Geneva Convention Relative to Prisoners of War of 1929 guaranteed POWs the right to attempt escapes. So long as they did not commit acts of violence, they were essentially immune from prosecution, although authorities could place them in closer confinement to prevent further attempts. The British put von Werra into solitary confinement for three weeks, and then, convinced that he had learned not to attempt escapes, they transferred him to POW Camp No. 13 at Swanwick.
There, von Werra discovered that the prison had a well-organized escape committee, calling itself Swanwick Excavations, Inc. The group was already in the process of digging an escape tunnel, and other members provided excellent forgeries of identification papers, civilian clothing, and money to aid in the escapes. Von Werra fled through the tunnel with four other prisoners, while the remaining POWs provided a diversion by putting on a choral show. The other escapees were quickly located, but von Werra once again proved quite elusive. Eventually, he managed to talk his way into a ride to a Royal Air Force base, where he reached the cockpit of one of the aircraft. While he was familiarizing himself with the controls, the British authorities realized who he was and arrested him.
The British POW camps were expensive to operate, and drew off a substantial amount of manpower. Thus the British government determined that it might make sense to send POWs to Canada, which would make their escape and return to Germany much more difficult. In January 1941, von Werra was one of the prisoners selected for transfer. He reached Canada in mid-January, and before he made it to his intended prison, he had jumped out of a train window into the frozen Canadian wilderness. Von Werra had a very clear plan in mind for this escape attempt—he managed to survive a wilderness trek of more than 30 miles to reach the St. Lawrence River, which was frozen solid. He quickly crossed the river, and entered U.S. soil near Ogdensburg, New York. There, he immediately surrendered himself to the local police department, which detained him for illegal immigration—the only charge that the neutral United States could apply.
Von Werra contacted the German consul in New York City, who paid his bail and orchestrated his release. He soon garnered a substantial amount of press attention, particularly when he offered massively embellished versions of his escape. He made a point of very publicly sending a post card to the Canadian POW camp commander, thanking him for his hospitality but respectfully declining to remain a guest. Given the British attempt to blockade the North Atlantic against German shipping, getting home required von Werra to travel in a very roundabout fashion. He first departed for Mexico, ensuring that American authorities would not hand him over to the Canadian military regardless of any obligations of neutrality. Next, he went to Brazil, followed by a trip to Spain and Italy before finally reaching Germany in mid-April.
Not surprisingly, the German government gave von Werra a hero’s welcome, to include Chancellor Adolf Hitler awarding him the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, the highest military decoration used by the Germans during World War II. He immediately became of the most recognizable faces in Nazi Germany. After a period of consulting with the Luftwaffe regarding POW interrogation techniques, based upon his own experiences in Allied hands, von Werra returned to active duty with the Luftwaffe, just in time for the German attack upon the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. As the commander of a fighter group, von Werra led from the front, and over the course of one month, recorded 13 more aerial victories, making him one of the few pilots to reach ace status in both the Western and Eastern Fronts of World War II. Von Werra’s unit was rotated to the Netherlands, where on October 25, 1941, he experienced engine failure on a test flight and crashed into the North Sea. His body was never recovered, leading some to wonder if he had succeeded in one last escape attempt.