5 September 1940
Leutnant Franz von Werra was one of several Luftwaffe personalities who rose from obscurity to fame in a space of merely a few months. Although many fighter pilots of both sides enjoyed widespread media attention, Franz von Werra was alone to achieve an unique record: gaining press publicity independently in three different countries. This is his story.
To many of his peers, von Werra appeared as an eccentric playboy with marked predilection for self-promotion. These features of his character might have a lot to do with his upbringing, which combined aristocratic aspiration with modest financial and social conditions. Von Werra joined the Luftwaffe in 1936. His career progressed swiftly, and in 1940 he had a position of an adjutant of II./JG 3 “Udet”.
Ambitious and self-assured, he seemingly sought his way into the limelight. When war correspondents visited his unit for a photo shoot and interviews, von Werra appeared with his pet lion Simba, which he kept at the aerodrome as the unit mascot. The resulting series of photographs showed him posing in the cockpit of his Bf 109, wearing his officer’s cap and holding up Simba to the camera. These images became a media hit, and appeared on many contemporary magazine covers throughout Germany.
Von Werra was also a skilled fighter pilot, although his results weren’t anywhere near those of the Luftwaffe’s top guns. He most frequently flew as a wingman of Hauptmann Erich von Selle, the commanding officer of his unit. In this role, he scored four victories during the Battle of France – a Hurrricane, two Breguet 693s and a Morane MS.406.
Despite this initial success, von Werra’s tally did not advance any further during June, July and larger part of August, despite the fact that operations against the RAF were being flown almost daily.
Then suddenly, on 28 August, von Werra returned from a mission claiming 9 aircraft destroyed. According to his report, he first shot down a Spitfire during a general melée, then became detached from his unit, spotted three Hurricanes on a landing circuit and destroyed them one after another. Lastly, he zoomed low over the airfield, setting additional five Hurricanes on fire.
The extravagant size of this claim should have ringed a warning bell in a head of any intelligence officer receiving such report. There were no witnesses to confirm the shootings, and Von Werra’s story followed a scenario used by many pilots making up their victories. For comparison, Polish W/Cdr Rolski later wrote that he experienced several such cases during the 1941-42 campaigns. All followed the same pattern: a pilot got detached from his unit, then, once all friendly aircraft were out of sight, had a more or less dramatic fight with the enemy, either over the Channel or the enemy territory, after which he returned back to his airfield. There was always a twist to the story to explain why his own aircraft remained unscathed and, of course, no witnesses could confirm or deny the story.
Whatever the suspicions might have been against von Werra’s account, he was also the adjutant of the Staffel. In the end, a compromise was met: JG 3 headquarters credited him with four aerial victories, cancelling the five aircraft strafed on the ground (according to Luftwaffe standards, aircraft destroyed on the ground also counted as ‘kills’).
Typically for Franz von Werra, this official ruling did not prevent him to order his mechanics to paint all nine victory bars on the tail of his aircraft, to the sum of 13. The events of 28 August finally made him an ace, and much propaganda was made of his feat.
Then came the day of 5 September, when von Werra was shot down. On that occasion, II./JG 3 was flying as an escort to a bombing raid on Croydon. On the return leg of the raid the bombers were attacked by a swarm of RAF fighters. Hauptmann Von Selle, leading the thirty escorting Messerschmitts, gave the order to attack. At the exact moment when Selle rolled his aircraft to starboard to initiate a dive, another gaggle of Spitfires jumped them from behind, their guns blazing. Von Selle’s aircraft avoided the bullets. His wingman, Franz von Werra, did not have such luck; a well-placed burst damaged the engine of his Bf 109 and knocked off his radio.
Without engine power, the German pilot was unable to shake off the attacker, which followed him in a dive, squirting the Messerschmitt with a series of short bursts. Ultimately, von Werra had no choice but to make a crash-landing. This he did, putting down his aircraft wheels-up but otherwise intact on a field at Loves Farm, Marden, Kent.
The identity of the victorious British pilot remains the subject of debate until this day. Some researchers claim that the pilot who was responsible for the shooting was F/Lt John Terence Webster of No. 31 Squadron. Others believe it to be a shared victory by P/O George Bennions of No. 41 Squadron and P/O Basil Gerald Stapleton of No. 603 Squadron. Yet others have attributed the same achievement to F/Lt Paterson Clarence Hughes, an ace of No. 234 Squadron with a victory tally of 14. Officially, the credit originally went to ‘Stapme’ Stapleton, but Hughes final DFC citation in the London Gazette of 22 October 1940 awarded him a half credit for the same.
As the damaged Messerschmitt came to a stop surrounded by a cloud of dust, its pilot, unhurt, lifted off the hood and stepped out of the cockpit. He saw farm workers about a quarter of a mile away, heading in his direction. He briefly considered his options, and decided that there was no point in trying to run. They found him calmly burning his flight documents, holding up the sheets between the tips of his fingers so that the paper would burn faster.
When arrested and searched, von Werra reportedly remained silent. As the guards led him out of the field and through an orchard, he stretched out a hand and picked an apple. He munched it ostensibly and spat out the core. He did not seem to pay much regard to his escort, usually responding to their interrogations with shrugging of his shoulders. Finally, stuck in a back with a rifle, he was persuaded into a car, which took him to the County Police Constabulary at Maidstone. He spent several hours in a police arrest before being handed over to the Army, who escorted him to Maidstone Barracks, managed by Royal West Kent Regiment.
There, von Werra demonstrated that he would not be easily intimidated by his new predicament. Having been put to work digging, he tried to overwhelm his guard using a pick axe and run away. The attempt proved unsuccessful; von Werra was interrogated for eighteen days, to be eventually sent to the London District Prisoner of War “cage” and then on to POW Camp No.1 at Grizedale Hall in Lancashire.
It was during these interrogations that von Werra shared his version of the events on 28 August. The facts were promptly checked, whereupon the British revealed his fraud. Von Werra’s claims, only recently publicised by the German propaganda, were now ridiculed in a BBC broadcast.
Beside providing a proof that Leutnant von Werra was alive and unhurt, the BBC broadcast had a curious effect on the other side of the Channel. Apparently II./JG3 considered it as an indirect admission that Werra’s victories indeed had taken place – the pilot was nominated for the Knight’s Cross. This was awarded in absentia on 14 December 1940.
Franz von Werra tried to escape for the second time on 7 October, during a daytime walk outside the camp. At a regular stop, while a fruit cart provided a diversion and other German prisoners covered for him, von Werra slipped over a dry-stone wall into a field. The guards alerted the local farmers and the Home Guard. Three days later, two Home Guard soldiers found him sheltering from the rain in a hoggarth – a small stone hut used for storing sheep fodder – but he quickly escaped and disappeared into the night.
On 12 October, the fugitive was spotted again climbing a fell. This time the area was surrounded. Von Werra was found, hidden in a muddy depression in the ground. He was sentenced to 21 days of solitary confinement and subsequently transferred on 3 November to Camp No. 10 in Swanwick, Derbyshire.
In Camp No. 13, also known as the Hayes camp, von Werra joined a group of German prisoners who were digging an escape tunnel. On 17 December 1940, after a month’s digging, the escape route was clear. The camp forgers equipped the group with money and fake identity papers. On 20 December, von Werra and four others slipped out of the tunnel under the cover of anti-aircraft fire and the singing of the camp choir.
The others were recaptured only a few days later, leaving von Werra to go it alone. He had taken along his flying suit and decided to masquerade as Captain Van Lott, a Dutch pilot. He claimed to a friendly locomotive driver that he was a downed bomber pilot trying to get to his unit, and asked to be taken to the nearest RAF station. At the railway station of Codnor Park, a local clerk became suspicious, but eventually agreed to arrange his transportation to the RAF aerodrome at Hucknall, near Nottingham. A policeman also questioned him, but von Werra managed to convince him that he was harmless.
In this way, the German ace arrived at RAF Hucknall. There, he was brought to Sqn/Ldr Boniface who asked for his credentials. Von Werra claimed to be based at Dyce near Aberdeen. While Boniface went to check this, von Werra excused himself and ran to the nearest hangar, trying to tell a mechanic that he was cleared for a test flight. This time, the bluff did not work; Boniface arrived in time to arrest him at gunpoint. Von Werra was sent back to Hayes under armed guard.
In January 1941, he was sent with many other German prisoners to Canada. They left Britain on the ship, Duchess of York, on the evening of 19 January, landing in Halifax, Canada four days later. Von Werra’s group was to be taken to a camp on the north shore of Lake Superior, Ontario.
It was from the train that took the prisoners from Halifax to Lake Superior that Baron Von Werra made his final, successful escape. He jumped out of a window, again with the help of other prisoners, and ended up near Smiths Falls, 30 miles from the St. Lawrence River. Seven other prisoners tried to escape from the same train, but were soon recaptured. Fortunately for him, Von Werra’s absence was not noticed until the following afternoon.
After an agonizing crossing of the frozen St. Lawrence River, von Werra made his way over the border to Ogdensburg, New York, USA. There he turned himself over to the police.
The immigration authorities charged him with entering the country illegally, but von Werra was able to contact the local German consul for help.
While the US and Canadian authorities were negotiating his extradition, the story of his escape came to the attention of the press, which he exploited with evident satisfaction. The ‘von’ in his name ensured that the American papers would devote column inches to his story, and typically, he did not hesitate to tell the journalists a highly embellished account of his adventures!
Finally, the German consulate helped him over the border to Mexico. From there, von Werra proceeded in stages to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Barcelona, Spain, and Rome, Italy. He finally arrived back in Germany on 18 April 1941. He was received like a national hero.
Franz Von Werra is remembered as the only German Battle of Britain combatant who became a prisoner of war and made a successful return to his country – the One Who Got Away.
– Marcel Jullian: The Battle of Britain July-September 1940, Cedric Chivers, 1974
– Wikipedia entry on Franz von Werra
– Robert Michuilec: Luftwaffe Aces of the Western Front, Greenhill Books, 2002
– Robert Michulec: Elita Luftwaffe, Armagedon, 1999, p. 89
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