There aren’t many people over forty who haven’t seen that great World War Two classic movie, The Great Escape, based on the escape from the German POW camp Stalag Luft 111. The iconic picture of Steve McQueen jumping his motorbike over the border between Germany and Switzerland is easily recognisable. There is much more to the story than that, Google The Great Escape and you will be amply rewarded with a story of perseverance, indomitable spirit, bravery and overcoming the odds.
I well remember my father’s stories as a young lad when he told of his escape from a German POW camp 17A. In his first attempt he was recaptured after a day, on his second he hid in a barn on a farm, miles away from the camp. You can imagine a small boy sitting listening to this story, cross-legged on the carpet by the fire. Eyes wide as the story unfolds: how he ate raw potatoes and smashed ice on the water barrels to have a drink, hiding under the hay while the farmer and his family fed the stock. The cold that extreme, that after three days he finally gave himself up to the postman, who armed himself with a pitchfork. The man was so terrified that Dad strolled alongside of him to within sight of the camp. Then the postman began beating him with the pitchfork handle, strutting and posturing he herded him to the front gate. I was horrified though when he told me about how he was beaten and tortured by the Gestapo, as they attempted to find out if anyone else had been involved.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prison_literature It brings us to prison escapes, literature is full of books where imprisonment and escape are part of the story. Prisoners have unlimited time to think about escaping and with the right contacts inside and out sometimes have the opportunity to do so. Australia’s ‘Postcard Bandit’ Brenden Abbott was involved in a spectacular escape from the Sir David Longland jail in November 1997. Not so spectacular for the officers who came under semi-automatic weapon fire from Abbott’s accomplices though.
During my time at the old Wacol jail there were several escapes worth noting, however I won’t bore you with them all. They can be categorised though into the, ‘bugger it I’m going’ where it’s down tools and they walk away from the farm and swim across the Brisbane River. The ‘bloody hell my Missus is playing up” and they head for the wall, via the balcony, roof and a spirited leap onto the barbed wire perimeter fence in the evening. Then we have the ones who plan it down to the last detail, I’ll save him until last because his escape was worthy of being labelled a Great Escape.
Let’s call our next con on the run, Trevor. A big, strapping red-headed lad who worked in the kitchen on the evening shift. I never had much to do with him, until the night he escaped. It appeared that he sneaked up behind the Prison Officer on kitchen security and out the door while he was observing the kitchen hands putting the garbage out. The rear of the kitchen faced the front gate and Trevor had to evade the Officer posted in the guard box near the far perimeter fence and the Officer on the gate. Sneaky little blighter was our Trevor. The kitchen officer noticed him missing and the call went out, the gate officer noticed movement along the fence and it was on.
Myself and another officer Kevin were sent up to assist in the hunt. The shift Senior, Stan didn’t like me, why? I don’t know, one of those things I guess. A heavy dew had fallen early that evening. When I arrived at the hole in the cyclone wire fence, the set of footprints leading away from it and down towards the road were glaringly obvious.
Stan, pointing towards the other end of the front fence ordered, “Get down that way and check out the dairy.”
Me, pointing at tracks on the grass, ‘What about these, he’s headed across the road he’s probably down on Station Road by now?’
Stan, “Do as you’re bloody told, you’re not paid to think.’
I shrugged and Kevin and I went down into the gloom of the dairy outbuildings, unarmed. We spent ten minutes banging and clanging around in the dark, to no avail. We returned and I put forward my proposal to Stan again. Seeing nothing else had been found and the Superintendent had given him a reaming, he sent us off in Kevin’s car to go and check along Wacol Station Road. I’ve mentioned before about the absolute tight fistedness of the department at the time. Now there are dedicated vehicles for this very thing, with dog handlers. Then it was two keen young blokes with more drive than brains.
I’ll never forget driving slowly along that road, thick bushland on one side and dark paddocks on the other. As we approached the intersection with Grindle Road a Holden Sandman panel van, parked on the roadside started up. The back door had been lifted up and the tailgate was in position. Nothing visible as we passed it, although I noticed the driver looked a little nervous. We went past and the van pulled out behind us. Kevin pulled up and we let it go past and there was Trevor large as life, his big red-head sticking up over a bundle in the back. Naturally we had no radio, so we followed the van down onto Ipswich Road which in the 70’s had no traffic lights at the intersection. A busy section of road, we managed to cut through some traffic and follow the Trevor. I took down the registration number, a full description of the van and we followed. It began to speed up and Kevin drove right up behind it, high beams glaring into the van and staying about a metre away from the rear. Trevor clambered to his knees, a young woman by his side and pointed something at us. Double barrel twelve gauge shotguns are impressive on a gun rack. When they are being pointed at you from a few metres away well, they take on a whole new dimension. They are reminiscent of railway tunnels, extremely large railway tunnels.
Kevin slammed on the brakes and the van sailed off into the night, with Trevor still pointing the shotgun. We stopped at a service station and I dialled 000, the officer who answered didn’t believe us at all. Gobsmacked is a mild observation for how I felt, we sped back to the jail and a police car was there. I tried to tell the police, they didn’t want to know, ‘Oh they’ll be too far away by now’ and Stan told us to bugger off back inside. There aren’t enough words to describe how we felt, especially after looking into those barrels. Trevor stayed on the run for six months and only when he was recaptured in New South Wales did Stan believe what we had told him. He fessed up to all of his indiscretions, thinking it quite funny about bailing us up with the shotgun. Bastard.
Now to the main event, we’ll call him Steve. A man in his mid-twenties he worked as a green-keeper in the inside compound. It took a little specialist care to look after the bowling greens between the cell blocks. He’d been sentenced to five years for drug offences and kept to himself. A fitness freak, he would spend the allotted time on the sports oval running. He also played soccer and had an expensive pair of soccer boots sent in. For those who don’t play soccer, the boots have studs on the bottom and the boots come with a couple of thin, metal spanners. These are used for removing the studs on the soles of the boots. Over a period of a few months, Steve began to lose weight. Not that you cared about the physiques of the inmates, though he stood out a little. He hadn’t complained about being ill, so if someone wanted to shed the kilos who were we to stop them? In retrospect I remember the day that I think he brought in the one thing he needed to get out of his cell with, a bar spreader. Being the green-keeper he had to look after the motor mower and was responsible for getting it serviced at the metal shop. I had been assigned to do something this day and I went past the vestibule as the officer let Steve and his mower into the compound. I wondered if the mower had been searched and made the assumption that if it were inside it must have been.
A few nights later Steve escaped from his second storey cell between checks. It faced the sports oval which had an easy fence to scale. The rear wall of the cell had four heavy glass, steel framed windows which only opened out about six inches. A wall made up of bricks with one missing every four bricks acted as another barrier on the outside. How did he do it? The bar spreader, made in the metal shop by another inmate consisted of two long bolts set into each end of a long nut. The whole thing had been made specifically to open the window further. The nut matched the size of the stud spanners which had been welded together; it went from a ring type spanner to an open-ender. He placed the spreader between the window frame and window, turning the nut extended the bolts, which in turn forced the window open further. He then ripped his bedding into strips, tied it off at the window and let it drop down the wall. Now this is the good part, Steve would’ve had to strip naked for the next stage. I imagine he dropped his clothing down onto the field, then taking handfuls of margarine he’d pilfered from the dining room he smeared his now waif thin body.
I can only imagine that he had other prisoners on the same landing warn him of any approaching officers, a low whistle or a rattle of something, a dropped boot. Steve, the slippery little bugger would have grunted and groaned before popping out of that window like a seven kilo breach baby. If he had any sense he would have put his pants on before scaling the boundary fence, barbed wire has a tendency to latch onto anything that dangles. Steve never came back to us; the police located him a year later in South Australia. Was it something we said Steve? Didn’t you like the cosiness or the quality of entertainment?
One thing changed and that was every prisoner who had soccer boots lost their stud spanners, the whining went on for days. Unless a prisoner is in a cell under constant surveillance there is always the chance that one will escape. Steve’s escape opened many eyes in the system and upped the level of awareness for quite a while. The only good thing, nobody got themselves hurt or had a few moments staring at a shotgun.