Wally: A Prisoner of War

In this third and final instalment of MyPast we hear the remainder of Wally Layne's story. David Layne details his father's time as a prisoner of war...

“Lancaster JA 708 was shot down over and crashed into the Palatinate Forest, Germany’s largest forest. Wally’s parachute landed him in an area of the German forest that consisted of an uninhabited, heavily wooded and mountainous terrain. It took Wally four days before he emerged from the forest. British aircrews were issued with ‘survival kits’ to help them evade capture or escape imprisonment should they be shot down over hostile territory. These kits were packed into a small oilskin pouch and typically included a small saw blade, needle, and thread, currency, phrase cards, a tiny compass the size of a thumbnail and, most crucially, a silk map.

“Leaving the forest behind, Wally travelled at night, navigating with a compass and his escape map. Having parachuted into Germany, Wally realized that there was no possible help from the locals or the Resistance. He was forced to live off the land, eating blackberries and turnips and other root crops he found in the fields. During the day he rested and slept in barns or stands of trees. He committed “friendly burglaries” for food and clothing, walking boldly into a house and taking a coat and a hat from a hat rack. On his westward trek, he liberated an overcoat from a scarecrow in order to cover up his battle dress.
“After evading for 10 days, a hungry, exhausted and unkempt Wally was eventually stopped near a village by an armed German soldier just East of Nancy France. He had covered about 110 miles. Asked in German for his identity, Wally impersonated the mannerisms of a deaf-mute - but to no avail.  With his rifle pointed at Wally’s midriff, the soldier opened his coat and found his escape map and the battle dress he was wearing beneath the stolen scarecrow’s overcoat.

“Imprisoned overnight in a Wehrmacht jail, a German guard repeatedly asked Wally “Essen?”, to which Wally replied “No!”.  The guard was, of course, asking him if he wanted to eat, and Wally in his ignorance of the German language thought he was referring to the bombing of the town of Essen!

“The following morning Wally was transferred to Dulag Luft Prisoner Of War Camp at Oberursel near Frankfurt where he officially became a “Kriegsgefangener” or Kriegie. The Luftwaffe-run Dulag Luft was the initial P.O.W. collection and interrogation center for newly captured aircrew and consisted of three compounds, a hospital at Hohemark, an interrogation center at Oberursel and a transit camp at Wetzlar. The function of Dulag Luft was that of an Interrogation Centre the purpose of which was to gain information of an operational nature from captured aircrew, despite the fact that under the Geneva Convention prisoners of war were only obliged to give name rank and serial number.

“Dulag Luft camp consisted of approximately 200 cells housed in a building constructed from timber. Most of the cells were on the ground floor with a few basement cells for prisoners on detention. Measuring 9’9’’ long, 6 feet wide and 9’2” high each cell had a 9.5 square foot sealed double window.  Furniture provided in each cell consisted of a small table, a chair, and a bed that was usually vermin filled. The flooring consisted of 1” thick board timber. The cell’s walls were made from ½” thick fiber boarding that covered up to 4” of insulating material. The entrance door was 4” thick and extremely tight-fitting. Each cell had a 1.5-kilowatt heating unit fixed by brackets on the wall beneath the window. The electrical heating element was enclosed in a metal tube that was surrounded by vanes that help distribute the heated air. The three-position heater controlling switch was located in the corridor outside the cell and was only accessible to the guards. These heaters (that post-war investigation by British authorities ascertained could produce temperatures up to 129F. (53C.)) were used by the investigators to heat the cells for periods of up to 5 hours in an effort to weaken the prisoners resolve.

“On arrival at Dulag Luft, Wally was stripped of his clothing.  A thorough search was then made of his body and his clothing for compasses, maps, files, money, keys and anything else that could be used to facilitate an escape, he was then locked up in solitary confinement.  The Germans had concluded that they would get better results if they isolated newly captured airmen before and during interrogation.

“After a period of time, Wally Layne was visited in his cell by the Reception Officer. This officer’s duty was to access the prisoner character from general conversations with them, determine whether they were frightened or belligerent, etc. and how he might react to future interrogation.  His findings were then forwarded to the main interrogator Major Junge who would then decide which interrogator was best suited to question a particular prisoner. The Reception Officer’s questioning of Wally consisted of him producing a form that he claimed was a Red Cross document. After asking for and receiving Wally’s name rank and serial number he attempted to gain from him information of a military nature.  Allied aircrews had been briefed about this tactic during their time of training and consequently were prepared for it and in Wally’s case, no further information was provided.  Wally was then left to contemplate his position.

“For the next two days and nights, Wally was confined to his cell in solitary confinement.  During this time he was subjected to the excessive heat treatment after being taken, twice daily, to the office of one of Dulag Luft’s interrogation officers. This routine was interrupted each morning and evening, by a guard bringing him a cup of acorn coffee and a piece of black bread.

“The Luftwaffe officers - who spoke impeccable English - questioned Wally about his squadron, aircraft, targets, etc. to which Wally duly replied with name rank and service number as per the Geneva Convention.

“Due to his uncooperative nature and his refusal to divulge anything but name, rank and serial number, coupled with the fact that when captured he was wearing civilian clothing that he had acquired when he was evading, Wally was threatened with being handed over to the Gestapo as a suspected saboteur. Wally was told, 'You are to be shot!'. This was a psychological ploy used by his captors to unsettle him and make him talk, although it did not work!

“During his time languishing in solitary confinement, Wally was visited by a friendly young man dressed in civilian clothing who claimed he had been injured when flying for the Luftwaffe.  He stated to Wally that he was now representing the Red Cross. He then proceeded to ask questions of a military nature telling Wally that answering his questions would help facilitate the Red Cross in contacting his family.  However, this was a ruse used to extract information from unsuspecting flyers who had been shot down. Again, Wally did not cooperate with the questionnaire.

“His interrogator was, in fact, Raymond Hughes, who was an R.A.F. Aircrew member who himself had been shot down on the Peenemunde raid and was collaborating with the enemy by masquerading as a Red Cross official. After two days of interrogation, one of the Luftwaffe officers came into Wally’s cell and threw a brown folder on his bed. Wally was amazed to see 97 on the front of it, the squadron he flew with when he was shot down. Opening the folder, the German officer then showed Wally the squadron’s crew lists, all 20 of them. He then proceeded to show Wally the squadron’s latest promotions list and named 97 Squadron’s commanding officer and Flight leaders. Also produced were photographs of 97 Squadrons home airfield of Bourn. These photographs had been taken by the Luftwaffe from a great height and pictured the runway extensions that had been undertaken just a month previously. The Luftwaffe officer then explained that all he needed was Wally’s name to know all about him and to find his squadron and airfield. He then ordered Wally out of solitary confinement and sent to the transit camp at Wetzlar to await transportation with other prisoners to a permanent camp.

“On 6th October 1943, Wally and the newly captured airman were marched to the station at Oberursel and loaded into boxcars to be transported from Dulag Luft 1,000 miles by rail across Germany, Poland, and East Prussia to their permanent camp, Stalag Luft VI, Heydekrug (present-day Lithuania.)  This was the most northerly of the German POW camps and were built to accommodate N.C.O.’s. They were carried in boxcars that were 20.5 feet long and 8.5 feet wide and were labelled '40 Hommes et 8 Chevaux', which meant they could carry 40 men or 8 horses although the Germans routinely ignored this suggestion and packed the prisoners in standing room only.

“The prisoners were crammed into two cages, one at each end of the boxcar.  In the middle of the boxcar, the width of the sliding doors was where the 6 guards sat.  The prisoners endured inhumane and unsanitary conditions they shared a communal pail for water and a small pail, or a hole cut in the floor for their ablutions. Early in their rail journey, they passed through Frankfurt.  An R.A.F. raid on Frankfurt the previous evening had caused extensive damage to the city.  The main railway station was packed with people trying to flee the area. On seeing the prisoners, the citizens of Frankfurt gesticulated spat and shouted 'Terror Flieger' and 'Luftgangster' at them. Wally and his fellow captives were convinced that had the guards not been there they would have been killed. The journey to Heydekrug took four days with frequent stops for the prisoners to relieve themselves and less frequent stops to refuel the railway engine.

“Having arrived at Stalag Luft VI, Heydekrug, Walter Layne was assigned to Barrack K3, one of the eight huts in the British Compound. Each prisoner was allowed to send two letters and four-post cards a month. At the time of his being shot down his wife, Joan was 4 months pregnant. In his letters to Joan, Wally assured her that he was fit and well and getting plenty of food. He told her all his fellow prisoners were optimistic for an early end to the war. All correspondence passed through the camp’s censors where it was read for embedded messages. Anything written in the letters that the German authorities deemed unsuitable was blanked out before being forwarded to recipients.

Of his Christmas, Wally wrote the following to his wife Joan:

P.O.W. Air Mail letter Jan 29/44 (Written at Stalag Luft VI Heydekrug)

My darling Joan.  I hope you are keeping well (Jan 29) I am very fit and have nothing much to complain of, I trust you are the same.  We had quite a good Christmas, better than I expected to have as a prisoner of war, we had a special Red Cross parcel instead of the ordinary one, it contained a cake, pudding, chocolate biscuits and other delicacies.  We are still waiting patiently for some skating, the links are all ready for flooding but up to now, the weather has been very mild.  I always imagined this part of the world was terribly cold but up to now it is very much like an English winter, we have had a bit of snow but it clears up almost as soon as it falls which is a pity as we have lots of fun snowballing.

Have you decided on a name for the baby, if it is a girl I think Ruth would be a good idea if it is a boy anything will do but Walter.  This is about my seventeenth letter or card to you, trust you are getting them all right, I haven’t had any yet.

Send plenty of cigarettes, the fellows tell me that only a very small proportion of them get through.  Hope to hear from you soon. 

All my love Walter

"During the spring and early summer of 1944, Wally attempted to grow a garden.  Unknown to him at the time he would not be able to harvest the fruits of his labour as the camp was evacuated before he could harvest. During their incarceration, by trading with the Germans the prisoners had managed to build radios to which they listened to the B.B.C. News.  The news of the D-Day landings was a great moral booster for the prisoners.  Wally makes mention of this in a postcard to Joan dated June 11th, 1944. With the advance of the Russians from the east the Germans began evacuating Heydekrug in mid-July to prevent the P.O.W.’s from falling into Allied hands.

"Following a period of travelling between locations, Wally now found himself at Stalag 357. Built in 1937 as a barracks for construction workers, Stalag XIB was fenced off at the commencement of hostilities and utilized as a P.O.W. camp housing prisoners taken in the early part of the war. With the arrival of the prisoners from Thorn there were now approximately 20,000 prisoners in Fallingbostel.  They consisted of mostly British P.O.W.’s.

“The prisoners were crammed into the camp and housed in leaking barrack huts that contained up to 400 men, those that could find a bed slept in triple bunk beds.   Bed boards had been used to shore up tunnels and blankets were in short supply having been used to make uniforms and other escape clothing.

“Life was hard for everyone. Lice were a continuous problem for the prisoners along with disease and starvation. The latrines consisted of a communal 60 seat 'open holer' in a barn like building.  Although often running over with effluent the latrines were a popular place for the kriegies to converse with a modicum of privacy in the overcrowded camp.

“In letters home Wally told his wife he had shaved his head ‘to keep the sand out’ but the reality was that the whole camp had their heads shaved to help control the lice. An extremely cold and wet winter followed.  The whole compound became a sea of mud.  There was an extremes shortage of Red Cross parcels, in a letter to his wife dated November 24th, 1944  Wally stated that he had only received ¾ of a Red Cross parcel in 7 weeks. Wally must have been a relieved man when he was notified he was being transferred from Fallingbostel to an officer’s camp, Stalag Luft III at Sagan 100 miles southeast of Berlin…”

Wally’s suffering – along with the rest of the prisoners – would go on to last until the end of the war. Through the transfers to many different P.O.W camps, Wally always kept in touch with his wife Joan and his son David – who has been born during his capture. It was in May 1945 that Wally finally went home to be reunited with his wife and met his son. Wally’s story is one of many thousands of captured men across the globe during the war against Nazi Germany. This incredible, touching, inspiring and brave story of a young wireless operator has touched our hearts here at Key.Aero. What an awe inspiring and valiant life David has detailed of his father, Wally Layne.


Many thanks go to David Layne for his contribution of his father's story. Don't forget, you can submit any of your own MyPast stories (long or short) by emailing us at mystory@key.aero