Leutnant Franz von Werra was one of the Luftwaffe personalities who emerged during the summer months of 1940. Within four months, the French campaign and the Battle of Britain brought him an ace status, rapid promotion and an aura of a media celebrity. To many of his peers, von Werra appeared as an eccentric playboy with marked predilection for self-promotion, the qualities which were no doubt influenced by his aristocratic upbringing. Ever self-assured and extrovert, he seemingly enjoyed being in the limelight. Asked by the press for a photo shoot, he appeared with his pet lion Simba, which he happened to keep at the aerodrome as the unit mascot. The resulting series of photos brought his face on the cover of many contemporary German magazines.
Von Werra was also a skilled fighter pilot. He scored his first four victories during the Battle of France. He was subsequently promoted to adjutant of II./JG3 ‘Udet’. During the Battle of Britain, his score rocketed further. On 25 August alone, von Werra claimed nine RAF aircraft destroyed, including five on the ground. The extravagant size of the claim and the reduced, but still outstanding score officially credited to him – four victories that day – were both typical for Franz von Werra.
Then came the day in September 1940, when von Werra was shot down. On that occasion, he was flying with a group of Bf 109s which escorted a bomber raid on Croydon. On the return leg, the bombers were attacked by a flock of RAF fighters. Hauptmann Erich von Selle, leading the thirty escorting Messerschmitts, gave his formation the order to dive for attack. At the exact moment when Selle rolled his aircraft to starboard to begin the dive, another gaggle of Spitfires suddenly emerged behind them, their guns blazing. Von Selle’s aircraft avoided the bullets. His wingman, Franz von Werra, did not have such luck; a well-placed burst damaged the engine of his Bf 109 and knocked off his radio. Without engine power, the German pilot was unable to shake off the attacker, which followed him in a dive, hitting the Messerschmitt repeatedly with a series of short bursts. Utlimately von Werra had no choice but to make a crash-landing. This he did, putting down his aircraft wheels-up but otherwise intact on a field at Loves Farm, Marden, Kent.
The identity of the victorious British pilot remains the subject of debate until this day. Some researchers claimed that the pilot who was responsible for the shooting was F/Lt John Terence Webster of No. 31 Squadron. Others believe it to be a shared victory by P/O George Bennions of No. 41 Squadron and P/O Basil Gerald Stapleton of No. 603 Squadron. Yet others have attributed the same achievement to F/Lt Paterson Clarence Hughes, an ace of No. 234 Squadron with a victory tally of 14. Officially, the credit originally went to ‘Stapme’ Stapleton, but Hughes final DFC citation in the London Gazette of 22 October 1940 awarded him a half credit for the same.
As the damaged Messerschmitt came to a stop surrounded by a cloud of dust, its pilot, unhurt, lifted off the hood and stepped out of the cockpit. He saw farm workers about a quarter of a mile away, heading in his direction. He briefly considered his options, and decided that there was no point in trying to run and hide. They found him calmly burning his flight documents, holding up the sheets between the tips of his fingers so that the paper would burn faster.
When arrested and searched, von Werra reportedly remained silent. As the guards led him out of the field and through an orchard, he stretched out a hand and picked an apple. He chewed it ostensibly with crunching sound and spat out the core. He did not seem to pay much regard to his escort, responding to their interrogations with shrugging. Finally, stuck in a back with a rifle, he was persuaded into a car, which took him to the County Police Constabulary at Maidstone. There, he spent several hours in a police arrest before being handed over to the Army, who escorted him to Maidstone Barracks, managed by Royal West Kent Regiment.
There, von Werra demonstrated that he was not easily intimidated by his new predicament. Having been put to work digging, he tried to overwhelm his guard using a pick axe and run away. The attempt proved unsuccessful; von Werra was interrogated for eighteen days, to be eventually sent to the London District Prisoner of War “cage” and then on to POW Camp No.1 at Grizedale Hall in Lancashire.
On 7 October, he tried to escape for the second time, during a daytime walk outside the camp. At a regular stop, while a fruit cart provided a diversion and other German prisoners covered for him, von Werra slipped over a dry-stone wall into a field. The guards alerted the local farmers and the Home Guard. Three days later, two Home Guard soldiers found him sheltering from the rain in a hoggarth – a small stone hut used for storing sheep fodder – but he quickly escaped and disappeared into the night.
On 12 October, the fugitive was spotted again climbing a fell. This time the area was surrounded. Von Werra was found, hidden in a muddy depression in the ground. He was sentenced to 21 days of solitary confinement and subsequently transferred on 3 November to Camp No. 10 in Swanwick, Derbyshire.
In Camp No. 13, also known as the Hayes camp, von Werra joined a group of German prisoners who were digging an escape tunnel. On 17 December 1940, after a month’s digging, the escape route was clear. The camp forgers equipped the group with money and fake identity papers. On 20 December, von Werra and four others slipped out of the tunnel under the cover of anti-aircraft fire and the singing of the camp choir.
The others were recaptured only a few days later, leaving von Werra to go it alone. He had taken along his flying suit and decided to masquerade as Captain Van Lott, a Dutch pilot. He claimed to a friendly locomotive driver that he was a downed bomber pilot trying to get to his unit, and asked to be taken to the nearest RAF station. At the railway station of Codnor Park, a local clerk became suspicious, but eventually agreed to arrange his transportation to the RAF aerodrome at Hucknall, near Nottingham. A policeman also questioned him, but von Werra managed to convince him that he was harmless.
In this way, the German ace arrived at RAF Hucknall. There, he was brought to Sqn/Ldr Boniface who asked for his credentials. Von Werra claimed to be based at Dyce near Aberdeen. While Boniface went to check this, von Werra excused himself and ran to the nearest hangar, trying to tell a mechanic that he was cleared for a test flight. This time, the bluff did not work; Boniface arrived in time to arrest him at gunpoint. Von Werra was sent back to Hayes under armed guard.
In January 1941, he was sent with many other German prisoners to Canada. They left Britain on the ship, Duchess of York, on the evening of 19 January, landing in Halifax, Canada four days later. Von Werra’s group was to be taken to a camp on the north shore of Lake Superior, Ontario.
It was from the train that took the prisoners from Halifax to Lake Superior that Baron Von Werra made his final, successful escape. He jumped out of a window, again with the help of other prisoners, and ended up near Smiths Falls, 30 miles from the St. Lawrence River. Seven other prisoners tried to escape from the same train, but were soon recaptured. Fortunately for him, Von Werra’s absence was not noticed until the following afternoon.
After an agonizing crossing of the frozen St. Lawrence River, von Werra made his way over the border to Ogdensburg, New York, USA. There he turned himself over to the police.
The immigration authorities charged him with entering the country illegally, but von Werra was able to contact the local German consul for help.
While the US and Canadian authorities were negotiating his extradition, the story of his escape came to the attention of the press, which he exploited with evident satisfaction. The ‘von’ in his name ensured that the American papers would devote column inches to his story, and typically, he did not hesitate to tell the journalists a highly embellished account of his adventures!
Finally, the German consulate helped him over the border to Mexico. From there, von Werra proceeded in stages to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Barcelona, Spain, and Rome, Italy. He finally arrived back in Germany on 18 April 1941. He was received like a national hero.
Franz Von Werra is remembered as the only German Battle of Britain combatant who became a prisoner of war and made a successful return to his country – the One Who Got Away.
(On 25 October 1941, just seven months after his return to Germany, von Werra's aircraft disappeared over the North Sea near Vlissingen, most probably due to engine failure. His body was never found.)