Page last updated at 08:43 GMT, Monday, 5 October 2009 09:43 UK

Captivating tales from local POWs

Guards on duty at Colditz Castle
Guards on duty at Colditz Castle, where many former escapees were held prisoner

Featuring stories of great escapes and survival against the odds, a new exhibition dedicated to servicemen who were taken prisoner during the two world wars opens on Monday at the Somme Heritage Centre in Newtownards.

The museum has collected a selection of personal stories from veterans from Northern Ireland, describing their experiences in prison camps in Germany and the Far East.

Also on display is a large-scale model of the notorious Colditz Castle, the place where troublesome Allied officers who had escaped from other prisons were held.

The curators have also recreated a version of the famous "wooden horse" escape tunnel, which helped three British POWs break free from the Stalag Luft III camp in 1943.

The ingenious plan involved concealing a prisoner inside a wooden vaulting horse, who would then dig a tunnel underneath the structure towards a perimeter fence.

The vault was placed on the same spot each day, and other prisoners performed gymnastics exercises directly above the excavation site, in full view of the unsuspecting guards.

Stalag Luft III was the same camp where the "Great Escape" took place, where more than 70 prisoners made a bid for freedom by digging a series of elaborate tunnels underneath the camp, nicknamed Tom, Dick and Harry.

One of those waiting his turn to enter the tunnel to make his escape was Dungannon man John Simpson.

But the plan was discovered, and a furious Hitler exacted a terrible revenge by executing 50 of the escapees.

Model of Colditz Castle
A large scale model shows the various escape routes used at Colditz Castle


Finaghy RAF veteran Alfie Martin, whose plane was shot down over the French-Belgian border, will speak about his own great escape at the official opening of the exhibition.

He evaded capture in German-occupied France by hiking across the Pyrenees wearing espadrilles.

Despite his unsuitable footwear for his perilous journey, RAF uniforms did include some features which could come in useful in the event of a bail out over enemy territory.

Scarfs were printed with maps and tiny compasses were sewn into tunics as buttons to help them find their way out of trouble.

As many POWs were forced to survive on meagre rations in prison camps, the food parcels sent from Britain provided much needed nourishment and indeed a lifeline to some starving prisoners.

Supplied by the joint efforts of the British Red Cross and the Order of St John, up to 163,000 food parcels were sent to prison camps each week during the Second World War.

The parcels contained 14 items of food and were paid for by the "Penny a Week Fund", set up to muster public support for POWs.

An original WWII food parcel is on display at the exhibition, sourced by Isabel Apsley from Larne.

Isabel, a former volunteer with both the Red Cross and St John Ambulance, is currently carrying out research on Irish POWs.

She has discovered that between 1943 and the end of the Second World War, over 2,000 local families were listed as relatives of POWs.


Although conditions in German prison camps were difficult, many servicemen who were captured in Japan endured an even tougher regime.

Peter Rhodes, who went on to become Northern Ireland's chief structural engineer, was taken prisoner in 1942 after the fall of Singapore.

He was forced to dig his own grave and underwent three mock executions after being falsely accused of stealing tools at Changi jail.

Later he was put to work in a mine where he saved the life of one of his Japanese prison guards during a mining accident.

Davy Russell visited the graves of close friends
Davy Russell visited the graves of close friends who died in captivity

The guard was nicknamed "the pig" because of his brutality towards the POWs.

Mr Rhodes, who died earlier this year at the age of 89, wrote a book about his return to Japan to make peace with his former captors.

The exhibition also features the story of another Japanese POW, Davy Russell from Holywood, who also made an emotional journey back to country which held him prisoner for three and a half years.

Mr Russell the was the subject of a special BBC Newsline series in 2005 in which he described the horrifying conditions he endured in the camp, losing close friends to illness and malnutrition.

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Former PoW visits prison camp
04 May 05 |  Northern Ireland

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