Escape From Stalag VIIIB

My Kingdom for a Hearse

20 September 1943

The party members are in no hurry to wake too early, expecting another day of sitting around waiting for nothing to happen. They are awoken by the greengrocer at a little after 8.00am, however, as the greengrocer talks excitedly to Piotr.

“OK, it’s time to go, quickly,” the Pole says, pulling on his clothes. “Our ticket out of this place is waiting downstairs in the yard.”

The others quickly dress too, check their sidearms and head into the yard. What they see waiting for them outside is not what they expected at all. They see an elegant black cart with seven simple wooden coffins in the back. Sat on the footplate is an undertaker dressed in black and a young boy, who is also dressed somberly.

The undertaker talks to Piotr, who translates to the others.

“We’re to get into the coffins,” he says. “The seventh one at the bottom contains our weapons.”

One by one, the party members help one another to get into the coffins which are piled back onto the back of the hearse. While physically it is more comfortable than lying underneath a cart full of turnips. psychologically, the feeling of being buried alive is far from pleasant.

Together the undertaker, the boy and the greengrocer help load the last coffin containing Piotr onto the hearse and then they feel the hearse start to move.

In the pitch blackness, with all movement restricted, time seems to stand still. It seems as if hours and hours have passed with them inside and the air is starting to turn stale. They lose all sense of movement as well.

Eventually though, they feel the sense of movement stopping. Shortly afterwards, it feels as if their eyes are burning as the coffins are opened to allow the party members to escape.

As their sight returns, they see that they are in a field, hidden from a road by hedgerows. They can see villas in the distance, presumably the outskirts of Prague.

The undertaker speaks to Piotr, who translates for the others.

“We have quite a walk ahead of us, I’m afraid,” he says. “It will look too suspicious if we ride on the back of the hearse. The best thing we can do is look like mourners following the hearse.”

Walking is no imposition – at least to start with – it comes as a welcome relief from the hours spent in the coffin and the time spent in the greengrocer’s apartment. The weather is warm and sunny and the countryside is beautiful, although the flat contours of the land become a little repetitive compared with the hilly terrain around the Karlstejn area.

They walk through the remainder of the morning and right through the afternoon. As hour after hour passes traipsing through narrow country roads, the novelty of a trek through the countryside is starting to wear off and everyone’s feet are starting to ache. The sun is low in the sky now and they must be the best part of twenty miles from Prague now as the hearse comes to a stop.

The hearse seems to stop in the middle of nowhere. Apart from the hedgerows either side of the road, there seems to be nothing as far as the eye can see except flat open fields.

Piotr speaks with the undertaker and then reports back.

“He says he was just instructed to drop us hear,” the Pole reports. “We just need to wait. He has not been told what is going to happen next or who will meet us.”

The party members simply shrug, reclaim their weapons from the last coffin and then go and hide in the bushes. The undertaker simply doffs his top hat to them, turns the hearse around and then heads off into the distance.

The party members set up in a defensive position and then simply wait to see what happens as dusk falls and all turns completely dark.

It is a couple of hours later before the party members hear sounds of movement – horses’ hooves and cart wheels. Everyone hides in the bushes with weapons at the ready while they wait to see whether the sound belongs to friend or foe.

As the cart gets closer, they see that there are four simply dressed peasants on the cart, which also contains a couple of large oil drums.

“Cover me,” Piotr whispers to the others. “I will try and make contact.”

All have weapons pointed on the cart as Piotr slowly emerges from the bushes with his hands in the air.

“Dobrý večer přátelé,” Piotr says warmly. “Chtěli byste se dívat na někoho konkrétně to v pohodě večer?”

The Czech reply equally warmly and Piotr gives the thumbs up to the others, beckoning for the others to come join them. The party members come out and introduce themselves.

“Please let me introduce you to Stanislav, Ladislav, Oskar and Stepan – four loyal members of the resistance.”

They pull the cart off the road so that it is hidden behind bushes and then Piotr chats with them. He then explains the situation to the others:

“We’re getting picked up around midnight,” he reports excitedly. “The oil drums contain kerosene. Around 11.00, we need to help them to pour out the kerosene in two long lines to act as landing lights.”

This is still nearly two hours away and so the party members chat with the resistance members, with Piotr acting as interpreter. The resistance have brought some food with them and cigarettes, and so they chat until Stanislav tells them that it is time to prepare the landing strip.

All of the party members help to steady the oil drum as Stepan leads the horses in a straight line across a flat meadow. The resistance members have obviously done this before as they know just the right amount of kerosene to pour out as the hoses move slowly forward. Once the first oil drum is empty, Stepan turns the horses sharply and then starts moving them backwards, some 20m parallel to the original line of kerosene.

Once both drums are empty, they head back to the bushes.

“Now we just wait and hope that the mission wasn’t cancelled,” says Piotr. “Or that we accidentally end up signalling to a Kraut plane.”

They wait for what seems like an agonizingly long period of time, but is probably only 45 minutes, and then hear the distant drone of aero engines. None of the party members are experts on planes, but the bass roar sounds like it’s coming from something pretty big.

The Czechs wait a couple of minutes more to ensure that the plane is getting closer. Once they are sure it is, they light soaked rags and throw them at the start of the trails of kerosene. With an almighty ‘WOOF!’ the parallel trails of kerosene light up the sky.

“Hodně štěstí!” the Czechs all cry as they leap on the cart and set the horses off at a gallop, well aware that the place is going to be swarming with Nazis in well under an hour.

The party members watch on and finally see a plane approaching, lining up in order to approach the fiery landing strip. It’s big, and it’s extending its undercarriage.

“It’s a B-17!” Terry cries out excitedly.

They watch on as the Flying Fortress skims over the hedgerows. bounces a couple of times between the fiery lines before settling down and coming to a halt around 200m from where they are hidden in the hedgerows.

They all run for the plane as fast as they can. The pilot is already turning around ready for take off again and so it is obvious that the crew is in just as much of a hurry to get out of here as the party members are.

As the party members get close, the side door opens and an extendable ladder emerges. A couple of USAAF airmen are at the door to help pull each of the party members onboard. As soon as the last one is onboard, they retract the ladder and close the door. The pilot already has the engines at maximum thrust ready for take off and, a matter of seconds later, is taxiing the plane back down the makeshift runway before pulling back on the controls and sending the huge plane back into the air, before banking it sharply.

Terry is delighted to be among his fellow countrymen again and chats with the airmen:

“So how are you guys finding life with the Limeys? How can you put up with the warm beer and the bad teeth?”

The airman smiles as he replies:

“We ain’t flying out of England, buddy. We’re flying out of Catania, Sicily, these days. And that’s where you’re headed now.”

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NickPendrell

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