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The one that got away: The Hayes’ hidden wartime history

September 2022


The Hayes in Swanwick, Derbyshire wasn’t always the tranquil retreat centre it is today. Eighty-two years ago, it was an important site in the Second World War. The Hayes became ‘Camp 13’, one prisoner of war camp amongst many others across the UK. Camp 13 was host to German prisoners, five of whom made a dramatic escape that would go down in history. 

Go to The Hayes today and you’ll find a commemorative plaque covering a still-intact tunnel, that reads: 

“The remains of a tunnel excavated by German prisoners in December 1940 to enable five to escape. Their exploits were recorded in the book and film “The One That Got Away”.”

These prisoners of war called themselves 'Swanwick Excavations, Inc'. With only spoons as their tools they dug out a 30m subterranean tunnel, creating a passage that reached across the perimeter fence and into the countryside. The tunnel took a month to excavate. Camp forgers set the men up with money and fake ID to help them once they got out.

Making their escape just a few days before Christmas 1940, they had the help of a PoW choir and anti-aircraft fire distracting the guards. Squeezing through the tiny passageway one by one, they made it out of Camp 13. Their freedom was brief however – unfortunately for the prisoners, all but one of them were recaptured. 

The outlier was Oberleutnant Franz von Werra – ‘the one that got away’. The German lieutenant managed to get as far as a nearby RAF base. He pretended to be a Dutch pilot shot down in his plane – but he was caught and re-arrested just before he could fly away, and was taken back to Camp 13. This wasn’t even his only attempt to escape captivity though. His later and final escape was from a window of a prisoner train in Canada. This time it was a success, even though he came close to death. He later died in a Bf 109F-4 fighter aircraft practice flight over the North Sea, after returning to his homeland and being redeployed to Russia in 1941. He was just 27 years old.

Von Werra’s story is an outstanding WWII adventure made into a book, first published in 1953 and filmed in 1956 entitled “The One That Got Away”, which premiered in 1957.

Its life as Camp 13 is just one chapter in the storied history of The Hayes, which first became a Christian conference centre more than a century ago in 1910. You can read more about The Hayes and explore visiting yourself, here.

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Swanwick, Alfreton
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