Franz von Werra
Recipient of the Knights Cross
Franz von Werra
Franz Xaver Graf von Werra was a German World War II fighter pilot and flying ace who was shot down over England and captured. He is generally regarded as the only Axis prisoner of war to succeed in escaping from a Canadian prisoner of war camp and returning to Germany, though a second man, a U-Boat rating named Walter Kurt Reich is said to have jumped from a Polish troopship (presumably the ex-liner Sobieski) in the St. Lawrence river in July 1940.
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  • 1941
    Age 26
    On 25 October 1941 Werra took off in Bf 109F-4 Number 7285 on a practice flight.
    More Details Hide Details His aircraft suffered a complete engine failure and crashed into the sea north of Vlissingen. Werra was presumed killed, though his body was never found. Werra's story was the subject of the 1957 film The One That Got Away starring Hardy Krüger as Franz von Werra. The film was based on a book by Kendall Burt and James Leasor published in 1956. A documentary called "von Werra" (with clips from "The One That Got Away") was released in the 2000s. Bibliography
    He scored 13 more aerial victories during July 1941, raising his overall confirmed total to 21.
    More Details Hide Details In early August 1941, I./JG 53 withdrew to Germany to re-equip with the new Bf 109F-4, after which it moved to Katwijk in the Netherlands.
    He finally arrived back in Germany on 18 April 1941.
    More Details Hide Details Franz von Werra became a hero. Adolf Hitler awarded him the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross. Werra was assigned the task of improving German techniques for interrogating captured pilots, based on his experiences with the British system. Werra reported to the German High Command on how he had been treated as a POW, and this caused an improvement in the treatment of Allied POWs in Germany. He wrote a book about his experiences titled "Meine Flucht aus England" (My Escape from England), although it remained unpublished. Werra returned to active service with the Luftwaffe and was initially deployed to the Russian front as Gruppenkommandeur of I./JG 53.
    Werra managed to return to Germany via the US, Mexico, South America, and Spain, finally reaching Germany on 18 April 1941.
    More Details Hide Details Oberleutnant von Werra was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on 14 December 1940. His story was told in the book The One That Got Away by Kendall Burt and James Leasor, which was made into a film of the same name, starring Hardy Kruger.
    In January 1941, Werra was sent with many other German prisoners to Canada on the Duchess of York, in a convoy departing Greenock on 10 January 1941, guarded by among others.
    More Details Hide Details His group was to be taken to a camp on the north shore of Lake Superior, Ontario, so Werra began to plan his escape to the United States, which was still neutral at the time. On 21 January, while on a prison train that had departed Montreal, he jumped out of a window, again with the help of other prisoners, and ended up near Smith's Falls, Ontario, 30 miles from the St. Lawrence River. Seven other prisoners tried to escape from the same train, but were soon recaptured. Werra's absence was not noticed until the next afternoon. After crossing the frozen St. Lawrence River, Werra made his way to Ogdensburg, New York, arriving several months before the US entered the war, and turned himself over to the police. The immigration authorities charged him with entering the country illegally, so Werra contacted the local German consul, who paid his bail. Thus, he came to the attention of the press and told them a very embellished version of his story. While the U.S. and Canadian authorities were negotiating his extradition, the German vice-consul helped him over the border to Mexico. Werra proceeded in stages to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Barcelona, Spain and Rome, Italy.
  • 1940
    Age 25
    On 5 September 1940, Werra's Bf 109E-4 (W.Nr. 1480) "< + –" was shot down over Kent.
    More Details Hide Details It is unclear who was responsible for this victory, which was originally credited to Pilot Officer Gerald "Stapme" Stapleton of No. 603 Squadron RAF. However, the Australian ace Flight Lieutenant Paterson Hughes (234 Sqn RAF) was posthumously given half of the credit, in the Citation (London Gazette, 22 October 1940) awarding him a bar to his DFC. Some sources suggest that P/O George Bennions of 41 Sqn may have initially damaged Werra's fighter before Hughes and Stapleton also scored hits on it. Other sources suggest F/L John Terence Webster of No. 41 Squadron as the victor. Werra crash-landed his Bf 109E-4 in a field and was captured by the unarmed cook of a nearby army unit. He was initially held in Maidstone barracks by the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment, from which he attempted his first escape. He had been put to work digging and was guarded by RMP Private Denis Rickwood, who had to face Werra down with a small truncheon, while Werra was armed with a pick axe. (There is no mention of this escape attempt in the book The One that Got Away.) He was interrogated for eighteen days at Trent Park, a country house in Hertfordshire which before the war had been the seat of Sir Philip Sassoon. (After the war it became Trent Park teachers' training college). Eventually, Werra was sent to the London District Prisoner of War "cage" and then on to POW Camp No.1, at Grizedale Hall in the Furness Fells area of pre-1974 Lancashire, between Windermere and Coniston Water.
    Werra scored his first four victories in May 1940, during the Battle of France.
    More Details Hide Details Downing a Hawker Hurricane on 20 May, two days later he claimed two Breguet 690 bombers and a Potez 630 near Cambrai. In a sortie on 25 August during the Battle of Britain, he claimed a Spitfire west of Rochester, and three Hurricanes, as well as five destroyed on the ground for a total of nine RAF planes eliminated. The details of the actions are unknown, as the incident has not been found in British records.
  • 1936
    Age 21
    In 1936, Werra joined the Luftwaffe.
    More Details Hide Details Commissioned a Leutnant in 1938, the beginning of the Second World War found him serving with Jagdgeschwader 3 in the French campaign. An able officer, he became adjutant of II Gruppe, JG 3. He was described as engaging in boisterous 'playboy' behavior. He was once pictured in the press with his pet lion Simba, which he kept at the aerodrome as the unit mascot.
  • 1914
    Franz Baron von Werra was born on 13 July 1914, to impoverished Swiss parents in Leuk, a town in the Swiss canton of Valais.
    More Details Hide Details The title of Freiherr (equal to Baron) came from his biological father, Leo Freiherr von Werra, who after bankruptcy, faced deep economic hardship. Because his relatives were legally obliged to look after the Baron's wife and six children, his cousin Rosalie von Werra persuaded her childless friend Louise Carl von Haber to permit the Baron's youngest, Franz and his sister, to enjoy the benefits of wealth and education. The von Habers did not tell the children their true origin.
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