The one that got away

June 2023

 

If you’ve spent time at The Hayes conference centre, you will have enjoyed the stunning gardens, tranquil setting and spacious interior. Surrounded by 100 acres of farmland, it is the perfect place to escape the busyness of life. However, this rural retreat took on a crucial role in some of the most important events of the last century.

The Hayes Centre during the summer showing beautiful colour and vibrance

The Hayes was transformed during the Second World War by the arrival of German POWs. The camp was described as the “best place in the world during the war” by former prisoner, Heinz Mollenbrok who later revisited The Hayes in 1998. During their stay, the prisoners would plant flowers, learn English, build walls and play sports.

Heinz Mollenbrok standing in front of a fence

Heinz Mollenbrok in 1998.

A hand-drawn map of the prisoner-of-war camp complete with watchtowers, floodlights and double fences of triple-donnert barbed wire with paths for sentries in between.

A hand-drawn map of the prisoner-of-war camp.

Known as Camp 13, it was the site of one of the most daring escapes of the war which would later be recorded in the book and film, ‘The One That Got Away’. Five prisoners, who called themselves ‘Swanwick Excavations, Inc’, dug a 30-metre tunnel reaching across the perimeter fence (see the diagram above) using spoons as shovels. The tunnel took a month to dig and they used old chairs to support the walls and ceiling.

A black and white image of the tunnel held up by the wooden supports of old chairs.

The 30-metre-long tunnel supported by old wooden chairs.

On a cold winter night in late December 1940, the POW choir sang at the top of their lungs to distract guards as the five German men made their escape. Franz von Werra was the only man to get away. However, his freedom was short-lived. Franz made it to a nearby RAF base and just before he was able to fly away, he was arrested and taken back to Camp 13. This wasn’t Franz’s last escape. He went on to successfully escape through a window of a prisoner train in Canada.

A black and white photo of Franz von Werra smiling

Franz von Werra in New York after his final escape on 27th January 1941.

The entrance to the escape tunnel was discovered in 1980 behind a fireplace in room number 102, which was in the former Garden House building. Today, you can visit the entrance to the tunnel which is located outside the Derbyshire Suite.

The Chapel at The Hayes Centre as a POW recreation room in 1942

The Chapel as a POW recreation room in 1942.

With over 100 years of experience serving the Church and Christian organisations, The Hayes is the perfect place to have your retreat. Book now for 2024!

 
 
 
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