AN area of agricultural land known as Island Farm on the outskirts of Bridgend holds a fascinating place in Welsh history and has links to senior Nazis and even Welsh rugby. 

“This is the BBC Home Service here is the midnight news for today, Sunday the 11th of March. Seventy Germans escaped from a prisoner of war camp at Bridgend, Glamorgan last night.” 

That was how the public, during the final months of World War II in 1945, was informed of what would turn out to be the largest escape attempt by German prisoners of war in Britain. 

By midnight 23 had been recaptured but the BBC radio newsreader reported: “Hundreds of troops, police and civilians have been taking part in the search and it is thought the men may have found cover in the Welsh hills and sparsely populated valleys or in the caves and sand dunes on the coast, a few miles from the camp. Many former Home Guards, living in the area, have volunteered to help in the search.” 

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The prisoners had tunneled to freedom in a plot worthy of a Great Escape style film script using a system of warning lights, tapped of the main electricity supply, to illuminate the 20 metre escape tunnel and warn of any approaching guard patrols while curry powder was used to deter guard dogs from sniffing them out. 

As the manhunt, the largest ever launched in Britain, began The Daily Worker reported “reconnaissance planes and soldiers armed with tommy-guns and rifles” were hunting for the escaped men with the search extending as far as the Forest of Dean. 

Though the escape had been planned with utmost German efficiency, its secrecy was blown by a Lieutenant Tonnsmann, who had gatecrashed the escape party. He had carried a white kit bag, which alerted the guards, and he was shot, though survived and was treated at Bridgend Hospital. 

As British soldiers hurried to the camp’s perimeter, one fell down the tunnel exit causing a further 11 PoWs, who’d been hiding in a bush, to burst out laughing, and their taste of freedom was over before it had truly began. 

The National Wales: The tunnel's exitThe tunnel's exit

From March 11 to 14 groups of PoWs were recaptured across the Bridgend area by police, military personnel and members of the public. 70 had escaped and the remaining 56 who had successfully fled the immediate area around the camp were all recaptured. 

Four prisoners managed to get as far as Castle Bromwich, in the English Midlands, some 110 miles from the camp before they too were discovered on March 15. 

They had stolen a doctor’s car in Bridgend, and when they had trouble starting it, asked unsuspecting guards from the camp for help, who obliged and gave them a push start and waved them on their way.  

They posed as Danish workers, and even picked up a hitchhiker in Cardiff, and after running out of petrol in the Forest of Dean continued their journey by train. When they were captured one of the men offered to pay for petrol they had used in the stolen car. 

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The authorities had always feared the impact of an escape on a nervous public since some 1,600 German prisoners were brought to Island Farm, as it became Camp 198, in November 1944. 

But most of those who’d broken out of the camp offered little resistance when confronted as a news report of the capture of three PoWs on March 13, at Cwmgwrach, near Neath, noted. 

“Some of the ‘rough, fanatical Nazi stormtroopers and paratroopers’ who broke out from the prison camp at Bridgend are giving themselves up with unusual docility,” reported the newspaper of their capture by workers who had been travelling on a bus driven by a special constable. 

Three gave themselves up and were detained and described as “hungry looking and very unkempt” having been wandering for days in “inhospitable countryside”. A fourth managed to board a train, but was seen, and captured at the next junction when it was searched. 

The National Wales:  A modern photo of the excavated tunnel Picture Island Farm.Wales A modern photo of the excavated tunnel Picture Island Farm.Wales

By the end of March all 1,600 prisoners had been transferred to other camps but the next prisoners to be housed at Island Farm would be some of the most senior figures in the Nazi war regime as Camp 198 became Special Camp XI. 

Chief among those held at Bridgend was General Field Marshall Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt, commander in chief in the west, and one of nearly 200 highest ranking officers brought to Bridgend in January, 1946. He would travel from, and return to the camp, to give evidence at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. 

Von Rundstedt wasn’t the only high profile commander to have been to Island Farm. Before it became a prisoner of war camp the American 28th Infantry Division had prepared for the D-Day landings at the camp and General Dwight D Eisenhower had visited to address the troops there. 

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The Americans had arrived in October 1943 as the camp, which had been built to house workers at a nearby munitions factory, was available as most workers hadn’t needed the accommodation anticipated. 

Though the Island Farm camp holds a unique place in British wartime history and the story has been retold in a 1977 BBC documentary, as well as by factual filmmakers from Wales and Germany, the only part of the camp that remains today is Hut 9 – the accommodation block from which the prisoners tunneled out from underneath a bed. 

The hut now has Grade II listed status but the site itself has for more than 60 years been subject to development speculation – including at present with it listed for inclusion in Bridgend council’s local development plan as being in principle suitable for up to 800 new houses. 

The National Wales: A modern, aerial view, of Hut 9 Picture Island Farm.WalesA modern, aerial view, of Hut 9 Picture Island Farm.Wales

Before that there were plans for the site, which is adjacent to the main A48, to house a business park while the majority of the former camp buildings were demolished in 1993. 

A few years later Jeff Jones, then leader of the new Bridgend council, had hoped to entice the Welsh Rugby Union to build, what became the Millennium Stadium, at Island Farm as the game’s governing body looked to replace the National Stadium at the Arms Park site in Cardiff. 

If that seemed unthinkable in the mid 1990s it was in fact a revival of a plan first proposed following complaints about the drainage system, and its impact on the quality of the pitch, after the National Stadium had hosted the 1958 Empire and Commonwealth Games. 

The WRU had purchased the Island Farm site but concerns over transport and wrangling over the Arms Park site, meant any relocation plans, which never gained planning permission, were eventually abandoned in 1964. 

Despite its fascinating history Island Farm seems often overlooked – and has even faced hostility from some, including the former Councillor Jones, but a dedicated volunteer group is committed to telling the story of the site. 

IT worker Brett Exton maintains the comprehensive website which includes records of prisoners held at the camp and archived news clippings telling its history. 

Brett, has even met some of the former PoWs who escaped from Island Farm, and he is a member of Hut 9 Preservation Group that aims to tell the story of the site and before the pandemic would hold open weekends with reenactors, giving people the chance to visit listed Hut 9. 

“The hut the Germans had made their escape from has been colonised by bats, the bats have one half of it and we have the other half,” said Brett. 

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The group is currently based at a post war, former BT telephone exchange, adjacent to the camp, which it is currently trying to raise £40,000 to buy. 

The group uses the building for storage and as a museum for its collections as well as delivering talks while its open events can, says Brett, attract up to 1,200 visitors over a weekend. 

While the hut has listed status, Brett fears the significance of the site could be lost and the group hopes to carry out some improvements at the hut and use its current base to secure its future. 

The National Wales: Some of the drawings the prisoners had made on the walls of the camp and which were framed before demolition and are currently in storage Pictures: Island Farm.WalesSome of the drawings the prisoners had made on the walls of the camp and which were framed before demolition and are currently in storage Pictures: Island Farm.Wales

Efforts to preserve the camp have, at times, come in for criticism. When the former Mid Glamorgan County Council in the early 90s was set to spend up to £100,000 on restoring Hut 9 and preserving 27 paintings, drawn by PoWs during their time in captivity, Cllr Jeff Jones branded the decision “bonkers”. 

In comments reported in the UK press, when a rugby academy was proposed for Island Farm, Cllr Jones had dismissed the paintings as something from the “SS painting by Numbers Brigade”. 

But for Brett the camp is important part of the area’s history: “When people say we are making a shrine to Nazism it is not anything of the sort and people see through that, if anything it shows defeat. 

“But there were five marriages, of German men, from the camp into the community in Bridgend, it speaks volumes that Germans could live in the town and of forgiveness following the war.” 

To visit the Hut 9 Preservation Group’s Go Fund Me page click here

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