It happened one night



It happened one night


Eric Sanger's personal account of his last operation, of being shot down and his time as a prisoner of war. Detailed account of last operation to Nuremburg on 25 February 1943 in 9 Squadron aircraft from RAF Waddington. Mentions delayed take off and nearly leaving his parachute behind. Describes trip out to target, having to go round again as Pathfinders had not arrived. Continues with aircraft being hit and engine fire which spread to wing. Describes abandoning aircraft parachute decent and subsequent evasion before capture. Describes journey to and treatment at Dulag Luft. Goes on to describe journey to Offlag 21 B at Schubin and then life in camp. Then transferred to Stalag Luft 3 and describes events and life in camp. Goes on to describe long walk from Poland to another camp as Russian forces approached followed by repatriation.




Fourteen page handwriten document


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335497 – Mr Sanger 10.45 Tuesday mid am [indecipherable word]

[underlined] It happened on night. [/underlined]

R.A.F. 9 Squadron, Waddington, Lincolnshire, 25th February 1943. About 7 pm on a rather dull evening.

All pre-flight preparations had been made, the target was a tank factory near Nuremberg. We were to fly in the main stream towards the Ruhr and at some point along the route, to change direction towards the south-east, to arrive over the target at the E.T.A. We were under strict orders to bomb only on the target marker laid down by the Pathfinder force.

We scrambled aboard the waggon and bumped off to dispersal where our Lancaster “W for Willy” stood ready for take-off. We climbed aboard, and get ourselves settled into our positions, the skipper and flight-engineer started the four engines and ran them ready for departure. A few minutes before we were due to taxi to the runway, a message was received to the effect that the flight had been delayed. Engines were stopped, and we all trooped out into the evening air and sat about talking and smoking to await further instructions. I found my parachute something of a nuisance, so I took it off and laid it on the tarmac.

Eventually the signal came for the all-clear. Engines were re-started, the crew took their places and slowly, the aircraft moved towards the runway. Suddenly there was a loud banging on the aircraft door, and shouting could be heard above the noise of the engines. The aircraft halted, the door was flung open, and one of the ground crew handed in a parachute! It was mine! We continued to taxi, and arrived at the point for take off. “W for Willy,. W for Willy! you may taxi up and take off (repeated) Off you go!

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Off you go! Over.” The engines revved as the throttles were opened, and we were soon hurtling down the runway. One or two little bumps and we were airborne. I left my position in the nose, and entered the front gun-turret. As bomb aimer I was responsible to man the gun in certain circumstances, and endeavour to map-read the route. As we climbed away from the airdrome, we entered thick cloud, and I was fascinated by the reflector [sic] on the clouds of what appeared to be several Lancasters. As it was, the reflections were of our own aircraft. We continued to climb still in cloud, until suddenly the cloud ended and we came out into bright moonlight. Below me, I could see some scattered islands which I now realise were the Frienans [sic] and shortly after this point we altered course for the target area. I spent most of the time [indecipherable word] anxiously scanning the night sky for any approach of danger, but fortunately there was none.

As [deleted] were [/deleted] we neared the target, I left the turret and returned to the bomb-bay, where I made sure all was set for the job in hand, including bombing height 16,000, air speed etc which I set on the bomb sight. In the bright moonlight the town of Nuremberg could be clearly seen, but no sign of anti-aircraft fire, searchlights or Pathfinder target. Something was wrong. Either we were early over the target, or the Pathfinders were late. I could clearly see the factory in the bend of a river, but bearing in mind the [deleted] ode [/deleted] orders about bombing, refrained from attacking it. We were forced to retrace our path in order to come in again on out prescribed target marker, and by this time air defences below had realised what our target was. Searchlights swept the sky, tracer flew up form the guns, and we were in for quite a reception.

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At last the large red white & blue marker flowered down below, and we started our bombing run. With eyes glued to the target in the bomb sight, I directed the pilot on a bombing run. “Bomb door open” Left, left. Steady! as the target loomed in the sight, I pressed the button. As the thousand-pounder left the bay, the a/c almost bounded up. [deleted] and [/deleted] “Bombs gone”. The a/c pulled away from the target area, and set course for home. Suddenly, there was a violent thud, the aircraft shuddered and then over the intercom. I heard the skipper shout, “Port engine on fire. Pull extinguisher cord, (or press button whatever was needed.) There was a great deal of noise and confusion. The engine was still burning away, and all the [deleted] manouvers [/deleted] manoeuvers [sic] of the pilot could not prevent the flames from spreading along the wing. Finally it became obvious that the aircraft had to be abandoned and the order was given.
It was my duty in the event of abandonment to remove the escape hatch, and jettison it through the open hatch. It refused to be jetisonned [sic] . It jammed in the hole, so I was forced to release it, and stack it inside the bay. This meant that only one person at a times could occupy the escape passage, so that it would have been very difficult for me to have made enough space for any one else. So, I had to be first.

I unplugged my inter-com. Knelt over the hatch, and went headlong into space.

Remembering instructions I grasped my parachute release, and buffeted by the slipstream of the aircraft waited a few seconds before pulling the rip cord.

I eventually pulled it, but to my horror there was no [deleted] not [/deleted] welcome tug on my shoulders. I looked own, and in the moonlight I saw that the small pilot chute

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had opened inside the parachute bag, like an upsidedown unfurled umbrella. Quickly, I reached inside the bag and pulled it out. The parachute streamed out behind it, and I was floating gently to earth in the bright moonlight. Since I had left the aircraft, I had held my breath, and now it exploded in a feeling of relief. For what seemed a few minutes I floated between earth and sky, and then the ground below began to speed up towards me, and I had landed.

For a few seconds I lay there getting my senses back, and when I was able to take stock of my surroundings I found myself in a ploughed field seemingly miles from anywhere, and at the foot of a large electricity pylon. A third time lucky!

I did my best to bury the parachute, but the ground was still frozen, so I did the best I could. I felt in my flying-suit pocket for survival kit, map, compass, money etc. It was not there, it must have fallen out on the way down., and Switzerland or France was a long way off. However, I decided to remain free as long as I could, so I made my way to the nearest road and set off. Overhead I heard the sounds of the lads on their way home, with regret. I [deleted] did [/deleted] had no idea of the direction in which I was heading. There was no one about and no habitation that I could see. All of a sudden as I came round a [deleted word] bend in the road, I saw and heard what appeared to be a village hall or canteen type of place. I hurried past, but as I came opposite the door, it opened and a figure came out. “Gute nacht” it said. “Gute nacht” I replied, and continued on my way. To my relief there was no sound of following footsteps.

By now it was well past midnight, and a brilliant moon. I continued along the road

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making no attempt to conceal myself, and in a mile or two I came to a cluster of cottages. I paused to decide whether to turn right over a bridge or follow the original road. A dog barked, I continued along the road. In a while, I came to what appeared to be a group; of farm outbuildings, and as I felt rather tired, I decided to rest a while. I found a convenient hay loft and clambered in. What seemed a very short time later, I heard the sound of horses’ harness clinking and a man’s voice. Realising that someone would probably come to collect some hay – maybe armed with a hay-fork, I slipped outside and made off towards the road. A clump of trees offered some shelter, so I settled in. Once or twice during those hours, a motorcycle went up and down the road probably in search of me. I stayed where I was till dawn, and then decided that since I had no chance at all of existing uncaptured for any length of time, I left my shelter and took to the road which now ran through a pine forest from which came to [sic] sound of axes. Finally breasting an incline, I was aware of two young lads on cycles approaching me. They looked at me with curiosity as they passed, and then turned and sped off up the hill. Shortly after, down the hill towards me appeared a small crowd of people, mostly older men, some women and a few youngsters. The men were armed with heavy sticks and prongs. I continued walking towards them, their ranks opened, and I walked unharmed down the centre of a village. Here, they all crowded round me, curious, asking questions which I could not understand. I pointed at myself, then up to the sky, and mimed a falling aircraft. At that point, the atmosphere changed as down the road came a man in a greenish uniform brandishing a revolver, which [deleted] I [/deleted] he stuck in my back, and marched [inserted] me [/inserted] up the way he had come.

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We went into a house, he motioned me to a chair, and keeping me covered, started a conversation on the ‘phone. He made no attempt to speak to me or to offer me even a drink of water. At the end of the telephone conversation he marched me back into the village and put me in what appeared to be a home-guard billet. There was a bunk, a straw paliasse [sic] and a window protected by barbed wire. I was left in charge of a civilian and during the day, several village women came to look at me. One offered [deleted] my [/deleted] me a piece of black bread, and when I showed my dislike, she burst into tears and hid her head in her apron.

Later in the day, I was collected by two policemen and taken off in a car. On the way, one of them offered me a cigarette, and told me he had been a P.O.W. in Shornecliffe during the 1914-18 war. We arrived at a police station where I received a piece of bread [deleted] ersatz [deleted] [inserted] and [/inserted] ersatz butter. Later on three members of my crew were brought in, and I learn that it was doubtful whether the skipper and rear gunner had survived. Towards evening I was again escorted by the two policemen on a train journey, and at one station where we changed trains, a very hostile crowd, among them Hitler Youth, advanced menacingly towards us. My Escort produced revolvers, and the danger subsided. At the end of the journey, I was deposited at a Luftwaffe station, and put into a cell. Here I was visited by an Officer who told me that the skipper had been killed, and he gave me the skipper’s tunic. Early next morning, a military truck arrived with an armed escort, and I with other P.O.W’s [inserted] we [/inserted] were whisked off to our first taste of imprisonment.

The camp was near Frankfurt [deleted] on Eder [/deleted] [inserted] am Main [/inserted] [deleted] as [/deleted] [inserted] and [/inserted] was known as Dulag Luft, it being a transition camp. We were
housed in wooden huts, in single cells with shuttered windows. Within a

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short time, an officer appeared and in a friendly manner, [deleted] Rol [/deleted] “For you the war is over”. He produced a form purporting to be from the Red Cross, and asked me to fill in all the details which included Squadron, station, aircraft and other military details. I filled in Rank, Name and number whereupon his attitude changed. He told me that unless the form was completed, they could not send it to the Red Cross in Geneva, and my parents would not know what had happened to me. He then accused me of being Jewish since my name had a Jewish sound. I assured him I was not, and he left. Feeling bored by the isolation I managed after a struggle to open the shutter, not with the [inserted] in [/inserted] [deleted] at [/deleted] tention of escaping because that was pointless. I was taken out of the cell for some reason or other and when [inserted] I [/inserted] returned I found the shutter had been closed and firmly fixed. Later, with others I was taken to a clothing store where my flying suit was removed and I was given a large Polish Army overcoat with a khaki shirt. A few days later, I was taken in company to the local station, and herded into wagons marked “Forty men or ten horses”. My journey into captivity had begun.

For several days we travelled East in somewhat uncomfortable conditions. The doors were kept locked and armed guards kept watch. We had little food or water during this time, but at intervals the train would stop and we would be allowed out for a breather under very close supervision. Finally, one afternoon we arrived at [underlined] MAR ’43 [/underlined] a small town named Schubin, which was in East Prussia, possibly then in the Polish Corridor. We were marched along cobbled streets and up the hill into Offlag 21b. It was a small camp built round an old country house with a courtyard. Some PO.Ws were housed in it, the rest in wooden shacks. During my time there, there was one suicide, [inserted] and [/inserted] several unsuccessful escapes. The Camp Commandant was the old type of

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German officer portrayed in British films. Monocled, in a swaying cloak. He appeared [deleted] on [/deleted] at every parade to greet us with “Gute Morgen, Meine Herren”, to which many a ribald answer was chorused. The only exercise was to walk [inserted] around [/inserted] the circuit within the barbed wire. The countryside was drab and uninteresting. In the fields we could see Polish women working under the eyes of armed guards. Food was not plentiful, not varied and not appetising. We ate to live. Lumps of kohlrabi in hot water, sauerkraut and a slice of black bread was the usual fare, [deleted] su [/deleted] sometimes a piece of meat could be seen swimming in the hot water. Drink was a kind of mint tea which was at least hot. An occasional Red Cross parcel was a god-send. Life went on much the same, rumours of moves, [inserted] and [/inserted] parcels circulated daily. News that the German Commandant had mined the perimeter wire to discourage escape attempts aroused bitter indignation.

In April 1943 we entrained once again, this time Westwards. After several days of uncomfortable travel, we arrived on 7th April at Stalag Luft III at Sagan, Silesia. This is the camp from which the “Wooden Horse” [deleted] Alo [/deleted] escape took place, and also the escape in 1944 of 50 R.A.F. officers, who were captured and shot by the Gestapo.

Life was a little better here. A bigger compound gave us more freedom of movement if only in the same direction, and Red Cross Parcels arrived more frequently. Huts were divided into rooms, and each of which contained up to 14 prisoners. Each room allocated duties on a rota. Cleaning, cooking!!! fetching water, and fuel (briquettes of powdered coal) for the stove. Cookery consisted of mashing a few rotten potatoes with perhaps some corned beef or spam from parcels. Each officer was expected to involve himself in some way in [deleted] A [/deleted] escaping activities. Some were used as diversions to take attention away from genuine attempts. These activities were fairly risky as the compound was flooded by searchlights which swept it from end to end, and was patrolled

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at night by armed guards and vicious guard dogs. Not many were successful. Members of security dressed in overalls and armed with very [deleted] log [/deleted] long screwdrivers used to prod the ground at intervals to detect tunnels, so that all activities had to be stopped when the “ferrets” entered the compound. Their arrival was heralded from the entrance gate to the working areas by a variety of signals e.g. removing washing from a clothes line shutting or opening a window etc. One camp had been constructed in a large clearing of a pine forest, so the soil was sandy and loose, easy for digging into but also prone to collapsing tunn [inserted] e [/inserted] ls. The summers were very hot, and the winters very cold. Despite the heat of the stove, insides of windows were coated with ice. It was possible to build a skating rink by filling a chosen area with water, and letting it freeze overnight. The skates were supplied by the Red Cross. Also, golf enthusiasts were able to construct a “make-do” course, clubs supplied by the Red Cross, balls home-made from pieces of leather from boots cut down to shoes wrapped round a smooth pebble, and sewn together with unravelled string – permission having been obtained from the Commandant. Several interesting things happened during the years. The tunnelling meant the removal of large amounts of sand, which had to be disposed of without arousing the suspicions of the “ferrets”. On one occasion it was stored in the roof of one of the huts, which collapsed under the weight, and [deleted] was [/deleted] brought down the wrath of the establishment upon us. We were locked out of our huts for a whole day whilst they inspected every one.

There was a small orchestra in an [indecipherable word] unoccupied room, which was being used to house the “wooden horse”. Whenever it was carried [indeciphable word] out or brought in containing its human cargo + sand, the orchestra kept watch for German interference, and at such times, the music would stop abruptly, and all operations cease.

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We were able to follow the progress of the war through daily news readings. A reader would appear in each hut, look-outs would be posted to warn against approaching “ferrets”. The news was gathered by means of a clandestine radio-receiver, which picked up the B.B.C. Broadcasts. The set had been built from off materials, - pieces of wire filched from unsuspecting quarters, silver paper and tin sheeting from cans of powdered milk supplied through the Red Cross. Valves which could not be made, were brought into the camp by bribed workers in the camp hospital usually. The set was kept in a KLIM tin, which was hidden in such a way that only the operators knew where it was. Suffice to say that not a day passed without a news bulletin – even when we were on the March in 1945. 1943 – 44 passed slowly enough, and although we were aware of the D Day landings and the progress of the Russian armies towards Germany, there was always the question How Long?

The beginning of the end came towards the end of 1944 and January 1945. Russian guns could be heard in the east, getting nearer and nearer each day. Finally on 28th January 1945 orders were given to evacuate the camp, and the trek to the West began. In the short time we had for preparation, we managed to collect such things as would help us on our way. Tins of food saved from parcels, cigarettes (sometimes used to barter for food) and the warmest clothing we had. It was the middle of winter and the snow was deep. We walked along in double file, guarded by what seemed to be “Dad’s Army”, some of whom found the going extremely hard, and there were occasions when prisoners kindly carried the guards’ knapsacks. We weren’t the only people on the roads. Reminiscent of 1940 in France, the way was crowded with assorted

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civilians fleeing westward away from the Russians advance. Some walked, some pushed wheelbarrows and prams laden with family possessions. The better off [indecipherable word] [inserted] rode [/deleted] in old-type carriages, pulled by lean horses or in farm wagons.

[underlined] Day 1. [/underlined] 28th January. Left Sagan at 9.00am pulling home-made sledges loaded with all transportable belongings & food. Arrived Halbau 1800hrs. Billeted in RC Church after roll call in falling snow. No heat. No water. Spent cold night on hard pews. [underlined] 17 Kms. [/underlined]

[underlined] Day 2 [/underlined] 29th January. Moved to a school in Halbau. No comment.

[underlined] Day 3. [/underlined] 30th January. Left Halbau 0600hrs for Priebus. Arrived [deleted] Liffa [/deleted] Lippa 1600hrs. [underlined] 20 Kms [/underlined
Spent another cold night in a church.

[underlined] Days 4/5 [/underlined] 31st January. Left Lippa 0600hrs, arrived D [deleted] ei [/deleted] [inserted] ie [/inserted] bus. Continued to Muskau [underlined] 30 Kms [/underlined]
Billeted in Glass factory. Very warm Had first wash in hot water and a shave. Dried our wet clothes. Spent whole day & night resting up. Collected 1 1/2 Red Cross Parcels. between 6 people. Hank Harris “obtained” some beer.

[underlined] Day 6. [/underlined] 2nd February. Left Muskau 1200hrs. Arrived Graudin 1800hrs. Slept in barn amongst plenty of straw. Sled finally collapsed. [underlined 18Kms [/underlined]

[underlined] Day 7. 3rd February. Left Graudin 0900hrs. Arrived Spremburgh 1400 hrs [underlined] 10 kms [/underlined]
Soup at Army barracks. Marched to station and entrained in goods wagons, 40 men per wagon after [inserted] 17.30 hrs Train left Spremburg at 21.30 hrs

[underlined day 8 [/underlined] . Arrived Falkenberg at dawn. Train [deleted] stops [/deleted] [inserted] stopped [/inserted] and shunted for hours. Eventually arrived at

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Stalag 3A. Luckenwalde at 1615 hrs [underlined] 100 Kms. [/underlined]
Shower, search and bed 0200hrs.

Luckenwalde was a mixed camp containing all sorts of nationalities besides Allied prisoners. Conditions were worse than those at Sangan.

(Photos in back of wartime log will show something of those)

Incidentally on the march we passed several groups of tanks heading for the Russian front, often accompanied by companies of Mongols in field-grey on nimble little ponies. We didn’t give much for their chances if captured by the Russians. Days went by without much incident, until on 21st [underlined] April [/underlined] the Germans began to leave the camp and head westwards. In order to prevent mayhem in the vacuum left by their departure General Ruge (Norway) assumed command a Camp Defence Scheme was set up. The citizens of Luckenwalde camp were evacuated by order of police. German general threatened to fire on the camp unless 8 rifles taken from his men were returned. Rifles returned. Russian artillery shelled the town which was now defended by only 1000 Volksturm (Home Guard) and Hitler Youth.

22nd April. Town of Luckenwalde surrendered; and 0600 hours Russian tanks burst through the wire, companies of infantry were seen in the surrounding woods, followed by more tanks and armoured cars. After much sporadic fighting around the camp, the German defences collapsed. General Ruge visited Marshal Konief’s H.Q., and was told we would be evacuated westwards.

April 26th/27th . Russian operational troops moved out, and occupational troops took over

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The period of Russian occupation was not a pleasant one. Although we had been “liberated”, yet we were not free. We were still confined to camp, and food supplies were both erratic and sparse.

29th April. We were allowed to walk outside the wire for the first time. It was still a hazardous pastime as fighting was still continuing near the camp, and our Russian “allies” who controlled the camp were in the habit of holding prisoners at gun-point and relieving then of rings, watches and other possessions which took their fancy. All this time, negotiations were going on between the British and Allied Senior Officers and the Russians to speed up the repatriation of all prisoners. Time dragged, and spirits rose and fell according to the content of spreading rumours. Meanwhile supplies of food began to improve. The Russians were definitely stalling on the business of repatriation. Attempts by American & Allied Supreme HQ met with a show of force when attempts were made to proceed with an evacuation of the camp. This situation prevailed until [underlined] 6th May [/underlined] when [deleted] another [/deleted] an American convoy was sent away empty. In the meantime, all British prisoners were taken before a tribunal, consisting of a [indecipherable word] political officer and two Russian officers to be vetted – for what reason remains a mystery. During this hiatus, many prisoners had walked off in the direction of the Allied lines, begging lifts from passing Army transports. A decidedly risky affair as there were still armed Germans in the area, and the Russians weren’t [deleted] fussy [/deleted] choosey about whom they shot

9th May Norwegian prisoners repatriated.

10th May – 19th May. uneventful boredom [deleted] e [/deleted]

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except for the marriages of 3 Officers to women refugees.

19th May an announcement of impending departure the next day was received with a mixture of hope and scepticism.

20th May. Leave Luckenwalde in Russian convoy, crossed the Elbe by a pontoon bridge at Coswick and entered American lorries. Arrive Halle late evening. Were received with great welcome. The first taste of American white bread was heavenly, and so was the beer. We spent five pleasant days here with medical checks etc and good food.

25th May. Flew from Halle in DC3s to Brussels reception centre to receive a marvellous welcome from the Canadian staff.

26th May Flew in Lancasters to Oakley. Spent the night at Bicester.

27th By Train to Cosford, de-loused and re-kitted and sent home.

P.S. There would appear to be some connection between the enforced delay in our repatriation and the enforced repatriation of Russian refugees to the Red Army, and Yugoslav refugees to Tito.


E W Sanger, “It happened one night,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 23, 2024,

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