by Timothy Lane 10/20/15
The One Who Got Away, by Kendall Burt and James Leasor, is the story of flamboyant German World War II ace Franz von Werra as a British prisoner of war. Shot down and captured during the Battle of Britain, von Werra repeatedly tried to escape, and finally succeeded — the only such known German escapee during the entire war. This enabled him, after he returned, to compare German and British interrogation methods (greatly improving the former) before returning to combat.
The heart of the book is his period as a POW, and especially the British interrogation techniques he experienced. It started with a questionnaire he had to fill out, most of the questions on which were information he wasn’t supposed to provide. Von Werra wondered how many prisoners reflexively answered them anyway. (The Germans later applied this technique at their Luftwaffe interrogation center, Dulag Luft, though they tended to order the prisoners to answer anyway.)
Perhaps the best section of the book features his interview with an RAF interrogator who started out by mocking von Werra — comparing him to the Red Baron (since the von Werra family had a claim to the title of baron, which the authors discuss in an appendix). At one point he revealed that he not only knew which unit von Werra had served in (which may have been a result of painstaking intelligence work in keeping up with enemy personnel), but also a number of personal details (the authors never explain exactly where those details came from). These revelations may have resulted from one of the disadvantages of being flamboyant — your life isn’t exactly secret.
The most interesting part of the interrogation involved a broadcast in which von Werra had been interviewed about an alleged (and extremely doubtful) exploit, knocking out 9 British planes in the air and on the ground, all in one sortie. The interrogator was rightly skeptical, pointing out (for example) that von Werra mentioned wanting to save up his cannon ammunition in shooting down the first plane — which was very unlikely given how little time an Me-109 had over southeastern England.
As it happened, the British transcriber of the broadcast gave the flier’s name as “von Werrer” (which would be pronounced the same as “von Werra” by most Brits), so the clever pilot never admitted that he was the flier in question even as he explained how he would answer the claim of fakery. (“I can’t speak for von Werrer, but I would say that the British would never admit the loss of 9 planes.”)
Von Werra was sent to the POW camps, but he was a determined escapee (having offered to bet his interrogator that he would escape within 6 months). He did so twice, but recaptured both times (once while he sat in the cockpit of a Hurricane, preparing to take off). After this, the British decided to send him to a Canadian camp, and he escaped again from the train that was taking him there. This time, he made it to America.
The United States had previously extradited a German escapee back to Canada, but von Werra was able to use his flamboyance to hold that off until the German embassy could slip him across the Mexican border, from which he made it back to Germany. There he analyzed their methods of interrogating prisoners and recommended changes that were in fact put in place (at least by the Luftwaffe, at Dulag Luft). Then he was sent to the Russian front early in the campaign, picking up a number of victories (the Russians were much easier targets than the British, especially early in the war) before being killed in a flying accident.
Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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