New Zealand Bomber Command Association



A Kiwi’s Home Run

Amongst my recent reading was Colditz, by Ben McLauchlan, a fascinating insight into the life of the prisoners of war (POWs) interred in that famous castle. Escape attempts were many, but few successfully achieved a ‘home run’ making it back to Blighty. This was hardly surprising given the challenges faced in firstly successfully escaping prison, and then evading recapture to reach neutral territory. Life on the run in occupied Europe was a dangerous situation. Not knowing who to trust made every decision a gamble.

Of some 10,000 RAF POWs, just 33 achieved a ‘home run’. Among them, Sergeant-Pilot Gordon Woodroofe was the only New Zealand airman to successfully escape from a German POW camp during World War Two and reach safety.

Gordon Woodroofe of Matamata, was co-pilot on 104 Sq. Vickers Wellington N-Nelly, returning from a bombing raid to Torino, Italy on 12 September. The aircraft flew into an electrical storm, with lightning destroying their wireless and the crew reliant on their compass for navigation. Finally emerging from the storm at daybreak they realised the compass had not been reading due north correctly, possibly the result of a revolver nearby affecting its reading.

Lost and out of fuel, they ditched in the North Sea, with all crew surviving that ordeal. They were picked up by Danish fishing vessel about an hour after they had been forced down. The next day the crew were landed at Esbjerg, Denmark, where they were taken to a German airfield and held before being sent, via Hamburg, to a prison camp.

While imprisoned in Stalag Luft III in July 1942, Gordon swapped identities with another prisoner.  His new identity as an army private meant that he was eligible for a kommando (working party), which presented better escape opportunities than remaining in camp.  He was transferred to Stalag VIIIB and in May 1943, escaped from a kommando near the Germany-Czechoslovakia border.  He then succeeded in walking and cycling all the way to the Austrian alps before being recaptured.

Undeterred by this set back, on 17 August 1944 Gordon escaped from another kommando, with German money, forged documents, and civilian clothing, which he had acquired in exchange for cigarettes.  Disguised as a free French foreign worker, Gordon travelled by train all the way through northeast Germany to the Baltic port of Wismar, his ability to speak German helping him along.

In Wismar he was assisted by a group of Frenchmen to board a Swedish coal vessel.  The sailors agreed to hide him under the cabin floor, and when the Gestapo came to do their routine inspection, they diverted their attention by bartering with them.

When the ship docked in neutral Sweden, Gordon made his way to the nearest police station, and after receiving a brand new passport, was conducted to the British Consulate in Stockholm.  He realised, with an “intense emotional surge”, that he was free at last, and was flown back to Scotland on 8 September 1944.

Gordon Woodroofe’s escape was an incredible accomplishment, given that only 33 others, from a total of 10,000 RAF POWs, managed to achieve a ‘home run’.  He later received the Military Medal for his efforts. The remaining members of his crew all returned from prison camps to England after the war.

Woodroffe’s autobiography, GeTaWay, now out of print is available in limited numbers from the Air Force Museum Shop

Sergeant-Pilot Gordon Woodroofe NZ402233

The escape clothing worn by Gordon Woodroofe, is now in the RNZAF Museum
(Credit: RNZAF Museum)

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