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This story is about Ross Dunshea born in Sydney in 1916. Just under 100 years earlier his ancestor William Dunshea was convicted of stealing two pigs in Belfast, Ulster and transported as a prisoner to New South Wales. The bicentenary of the transportation was marked here.

This web site marks the 80th anniversary of Ross Dunshea's capture by the Germans in November 1940 and his escape the following Spring back to Great Britain via Vichy France, Spain and Gibraltar. His full account is lodged with the Imperial War Museum in London, and is the main source for this web publication. 

Like most Australian blokes of his age, his early years were spent exploring the outback , having close encounters with venomous snakes and spiders and swimming in the Pacific off Sydney. He was at the opening of the Harbour Bridge in 1932.

Ross was a pupil at the Sydney Technical High School and served his engineering apprenticeship at the Commonwealth Naval Dockyard, Cockatoo Island. In 1934 he worked on the construction of HMAS Yarra , which was sunk by the Japanese in March 1942. He completed his engineering apprenticeship in 1938. He was keen for a a life of adventures.

Early life



In his late teens Ross used to head off with mates Allan Wotton and Doug Beattie to explore the wild Outback to the west of the Blue Mountains. His WWI Lee Enfield service rifle was always to hand. They three mates travelled in a Ford Model  T car.

RMD junior engineer.JPG


Following passing the rigorous engineering exams then required by ship's engineers Ross embarked on his career at sea. He had a fondness for maths , physics and thermodynamics.



In 1938 the British Merchant Navy was the biggest in the world with a third of the global shipping tonnage . To Engineer Dunshea his professional career would only advance if he moved to Great Britain. He worked his passage from Australia to the UK in October in 1938 and joined the famous Shaw Savill & Albion shipping company which traded mainly to the antipodes and Far East. His first ship was MV Coptic (1928-1965) built at Wallsend on the Tyne. She had two Sulzer diesel engines and mainly carried passengers and cargo between the UK and New Zealand.

Below is a post war picture of MV Coptic, copyright Tynebuilt.

Leaving Australia


Joining SS Maimoa

As an ambitious engineer Ross Dunshea wanted greater operational experience for promotion. He was advised by a sage senior colleague to gain the certificate in steam engine operation. Following up this advice he applied for a transfer to a steam ship. In June 1939 he left the relative comfort of MV Coptic and made for Plantation quay on the south side of river Clyde by Govan in Glasgow. Here he joined the engineers and stokers of SS Maimoa (1920-1940) built by Palmers Ltd at Jarrow. The 10,000 ton SS Maimoa  with a crew of 80 ,was a general and refrigerated cargo steam ship burning 70 tons of coal per day for a service speed of 12 knots. The boilers were stoked by hard toil and sweat using  hand shovels ! Ross experienced from his first day onboard the harsh and brutal life of stokers and the tough characters who were in his charge.    

Below is Plantation Quay on the Clyde in the 1930s. Copyright Historic Environment Scotland..

Plantation quay.jpg


The SS Maimoa was built at Palmers shipyard at Jarrow on the Tyne in 1920. The yard was established by Sir Charles Palmer in 1852. It specialised initially building colliers and diversified to warships and cargo ships. The yard built it's own steam engines which according to Engineer Dunshea were difficult to maintain and prone to leakage. The furnaces that heated the boilers were manually fed coal by the firemen, known as trimmers and stokers. Typically each stoker had three furnaces to feed; each had to shovel two tons of coal  over a four hour shift. The Maimoa had eighteen furnaces. At one time world trade depended on the toil of stokers on merchant ships.  

The engineers were a diverse group some with experience of the Great War sea battles. Ross quickly became a acquainted with Ernest (Dig) Howlett 4th engineer from Granville, Sydney NSW and also a Shetlander Dave Williamson. The ship's skipper captain Cox was a distant character.

Stokers lead a very harsh life working seven days a week until reaching port. They shared the worst accommodation quarters on board.  In port, according to Engineer Dunshea, alcohol and prostitutes provided the main rest & recreation for these tough men. In getting the stokers back to to the furnaces on leaving port, Engineer Dunshea was regularly pelted with beer bottles. He learnt quickly to dodge the bottles and persuade the stokers to man the furnaces.


Feeding the boiler furnace. Circa 1920. Dunshea said Welsh coal was superior to Australian coal as the latter burnt too quickly. 

boiler cleaning.jpg



Fifth Engineer Dunshea's early voyage's on the Maimoa were to New Zealand and Australia via the Panama canal. The "Old Tub" caused lots of problems and Ross was required to enter hot furnaces to repair boiler tubes. War was declared just prior to his return voyage to the UK. Some of the stokers deserted the ship in Newcastle NSW. Whilst in Sydney he had no leave to see his family; he had boilers to fix. Engineer Howlett had been home to collect his father's Great War service revolver , just in case of trouble with the stokers. In port the Royal Australian Navy fitted an old 4" gun to the Maimoa, which was test fired as they cleared Sydney Heads.

After returning through the Panama canal the ship was engulfed in a severe hurricane off Cape Hatteras. At Halifax Nova Scotia they joined an east bound trans Atlantic convoy bound for Liverpool. Ross was very impressed with the five Destroyer Royal Naval escort. Although U Boats were nearby no ships were lost , Engineer Dunshea enjoyed the depth charge explosions.

The next voyage to Australia was via the Cape of Good Hope. One ship was sunk on the convoy to Freetown. On arrival in Australia Ross had a week's leave. The return leg was via the Panama canal to Bristol. In Bristol the docks were bombed by the Luftwaffe, the Maimoa was not hit and later a Dornier 17 was shot down by a Spitfire. Ross found many people defeatist and remarked how unprepared Britain was to fight Germany.  

The next voyage in August 1940 was from the Mersey to Australia. During the convoy assembly in Liverpool bay the Maimoa was attacked by low flying Heinkel 111k bombers. The bombs missed by a wide margin. The voyage to Australia via Durban was uneventful but the Roaring Forties of the Southern Ocean caused tempers to fray. The Maimoa  had also received information that German Surface Raisers were patrolling the Indian Ocean.


After cargo discharge at Melbourne , Sydney ( where Ross saw his parents) and Adelaide the ship headed to Freemantle for its next return voyage to the UK. 

Do 17 Bomber



World War II starts


Ross took this photograph of the gun crew in training. Live firing was supervised by two RAN and RN sailors.

Maimoa gun.JPG


Ross took this photo during an RN & RCN escorted convoy to Liverpool from Halifax Nova Scotia.

Atlantic convoy east bound.JPG


The return voyage of the Maimoa was due to start from Albany WA but due to a local drought the ship had to delay departure and take on water at Fremantle by Perth WA, further up the coast. This delay would have profound implications for the Maimoa and her crew.


At 10.00 on 17 November 1940 the ship left Fremantle docks and sailed west into the Indian Ocean. Moving at 12 knots sight of land dropped below the horizon by early afternoon. " This was the last British soil most of the crew would see for five years", it is of note Engineer Dunshea referred to Australia as British soil. Boiler problems soon started and Engineer Dunshea was looking forward to leaving the ship on arrival in the UK, now that he had the required steam engine experience for his second class engineer exams. 

On the morning of 20 November 1940 an ominous wisp of smoke was seen on the starboard horizon. The engineers were instructed to reduce the smoke blowing out of Maimoa's funnel, an impossible task in a coal powered ship. Engineer Dunshea went on deck to assess the funnel smoke and clearly saw the suspicious smoke on the horizon. The sea was calm and the atmosphere was tense , something hostile was shadowing the Maimoa. At 13.00 Ross went for lunch and a few minutes later a plane began attacking the Maimoa. Ross rushed on deck and saw a German float plane ,the fight with the Kriegsmarine had begun.

The plane was an Arado 196.  

Arado float plane.jpg
German Navy attack


As Engineer Dunshea was directing more stokers to the furnaces he noticed his friend and colleague Engineer Howlett standing exposed on deck with a Lee Enfield  rifle sniping at the German plane. Dunshea was unimpressed by the antics of his friend. Down below it was an impressive sight with all eighteen furnaces  manned and burning coal as fast as possible , the Maimoa's engineers and stokers were trying to outrun the German ship. On deck the warning transmissions were continuing and the float plane had disappeared in the direction of the pursuing German raider.

At 16.30 the engineers could hear gun fire , the Maimoa was being shelled. On deck the crew could see the German ship about two miles away. It had fired shells across the bows of the Maimoa. The ship's captain decided it was futile to continue and he ordered the engines to be stopped and for the ship to be abandoned. This was the end of the chase and the crew did not know their fate. The life boats had been holed by machine gun fire , it all looked bleak. The German raider had stopped to pick up its Arado seaplane but was soon approaching the Maimoa.

SS Maimoa 1920-1940



The German ship that attacked the Maimoa was the commerce raider HK33 Pinguin ; the most successful ship of her type in the German navy. The ship was responsible for sinking or capturing over 150,000 tons of Allied merchant ships.  The Pinguin was the converted merchant ship Kandelfels launched in 1936 on the river Weser. Weighing 17,500 with a crew of 260, she had disguised on her super structure a deadly array of 6 inch guns, anti aircraft guns , torpedo tubes and mines. Her armaments were similar to those of HMS Belfast the museum WWII RN cruiser moored in London. HK33  was equipped to carry two sea planes. Her modern diesel engines gave her a top speed of 17 knots , a lot faster than her prey Maimoa. 

HK33 left German waters on 15 June 1940 disguised as a Norwegian freighter. Her voyage eventually took her into the south Atlantic and Indian Ocean. Her mission was to capture or sink merchant ships and lay mines in the approaches to major harbours. Many of her captured ships were sailed to Bordeaux laden with valuable cargo.

The German Kriegsmarine war ship HK33 with gun exposed on stern.



Kapitän zur See Krüder was a 43 year old German naval officer from Hamburg. His first warship following training was  the new battleship SMS Konig. His ship was heavily engaged at the Battle Of Jutland 1 June 1916 and suffered major damage from the guns of HMS Iron Duke. Promoted after Jutland Leutnant Krüder transferred to the battle cruiser  SMS Goeben which was deployed on operations in the Black Sea against the Russian navy and shore installations. The ship was under Turkish control and had been renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim. 

After November 1918 Leutnant Krüder remained with the German Navy. He led a Naval unit in the suppression of communist revolutionaries in Berlin and Munich. During the Weimar republic and Hitler dictatorship he developed his experience and expertise as a naval officer. By reputation his command of HK33 was professional and firm. Although his ship was responsible for the killing and injuring of civilian merchant navy crew members, he tried as best he could to use minimum force in achieving his military objectives.

Kapitän zur See  Ernst Felix Krüder Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes

Maimoa sunk


The crew of the Maimoa were photographed as they were assembled on the deck of HK33. Leutnant Bach of the Kriegsmarine was in charge of the prisoners, he was "a pompous little twerp" according to Dunshea. The wounded prisoners were taken to the sick bay for treatment by the ship's medical team. The wounded were well looked after by the medical team .The crew were then allocated accommodation with the officers housed separately. When the officers were alone, there was heated argument between Dig Howlett and the captain over whether the ship could have been more aggressive in its defence by firing its 4" gun. Howlett openly humiliated the captain in front of the assembled officers.  Dunshea felt the decision not to fight on by the captain was sensible due to the more powerful armaments on HK33. That said the captain who had been a remote martinet was a broken man.

The prisoners were each searched and interrogated . Anything of value was confiscated and in true German style  a receipt issued. The items and cash were never seen again, some of the crew lost large sums of money. Life became empty and basic, there was uncertainty ahead , Germany  was in the ascendancy and Ross Dunshea was held on a powerful  German warship which was still attacking weakly defended merchant ships. To add to the   unpleasant prospects , HK33 was being pursued by the might of the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. They would not hesitate to sink the HK33 killing both her crew and her prisoners. 

Dunshea's PoW Tag issued on MV Storstad.

POW disc 1.jpg
Prisoner of War


The crew of the Maimoa under the orders of Captain Cox started to abandon the ship. They did not know whether they would be taken prisoner, left to drift in the ocean or worse. Engineer Dunshea expecting a long passage in an open boat changed into warm clothing and packed a pillow case full of tinned food. He remembered to take his Conklin pen, a 21st birthday present. On  deck he discovered his assigned life boat had been lowered but managed to find a place on another. The life boats gathered a few hundred yards from Maimoa and waited. Moving towards them was the German warship HK33. 

A German officer with megaphone ordered them in English to move alongside the warship. Rope ladders were lowered and Maimoa's crew were taken prisoner.

A German boarding party inspected the Maimoa and decided she was not worth sailing back to Europe. Explosive charges were set and she was sunk. The location of her wreck is on the the yellow track 20.11 , the voyage of HK33 1940 Copyright WWII War at Sea Faulkner. 



Prisoner life aboard  was basic and austere. The atmosphere was bleak and thoughts of  family , freedom and future life prospects were forlorn. Food was monotonous and barely nourishing. The mood was sombre and became grave when the enemy ship was  attacking another British ship. Ross witnessed two further attacks when HK33 sank the Port Brisbane and then days later the Port Wellington. Both crews were picked up but Captain Thomas of the Port Brisbane had been mortally wounded by shell fire, he died on the HK33 and was given a burial at sea with full military honours by Kapitän zur See Krüder.

The main fear remained of attack by a British warship.

Port Wellington 1924-1940 HK33's 12th victim.



Both the Port Brisbane and Port Wellington ships were carrying a small number of female passengers in transit to South Africa and the UK. They were generally treated well with better accommodation and food than the men. One of the prisoners Joan Fieldgate was a "smasher" according to Dunshea and   attracted admirers from the German crew. Joan was a 26 year old school teacher who had volunteered to take evacuee children to Australia and was returning to the UK. Joan was interned in Germany in 1941 and sadly died of an illness in October that year. Some of her females companions were repatriated shortly afterwards.

Joan Fieldgate 1914-1941

Joan Fieldgate.jpg


After the sinking of the Port Wellington , HK33 shadowed its next intended victim The Prince Rupert City. However the pursuit was halted. Dunshea learned from the HK33's bosun that the British ship had too large a crew , and HK33 had no more room for prisoners. The Kriegsmarine clearly had a different code of conduct than the German army in avoiding needless loss of life. On 5 December 1940 HK33 met  the previously captured Norwegian tanker Storstad which which was carrying 12,000 tons of diesel. All the prisoners were transferred by life boat to the Storstad.  Dunshea was relieved to have left the German war ship HK33 and personally , to be no longer an unintended target of the Royal Navy. He  felt the HK33's crew had treated him well and for many they were technically professional and not war mongers.

SS Storstad was sunk by British bombing in harbour at St Nazaire in September 1942. ( The Prince Rupert City was sunk by German bombing in 1941).



Ross and his fellow prisoners were held on the Storstad as it sailed west across the Indian ocean. The German crew of forty  had to guard over two hundred merchant navy prisoners from HK33 and HK 2 (Atlantis). The ship was more spacious and better organised for the prisoners. Food was meagre and hunger was constant. The prisoners always liked meeting up with colleagues from other ships and new friendships formed. The prisoners had their own doctor who had escaped from Czechoslovakia in 1939; he  had later become the ship's doctor on MV Automadon of the Alfred Holt Line. His ship had been sunk by HK2 Atlantis prior to his transfer to the Storstad.  Dr Karel   Sperber was Jewish , he subsequently was sent to Auschwitz  Birkenau by the Germans. He survived  the concentration camp and  the infamous death march in 1945. He later  settled in the UK. He was awarded an OBE in 1946 for his help in looking after PoWs.  



Maimoa crew 1.jpg


Maimoa crew 1.jpg

The photo above was taken in happier times when  Saddington , Cohen, Dunshea, & Howlett , went for a meal together during a port visit. All four friends were now prisoners of the Germans.

Christmas day on the Sorstad was marked by German carols being broadcast over the tannoy, one bottle of beer given to each prisoner and an extra two fags. Germans and British exchanged festive greetings.

The daily diet remained the same , Dunshea swapped his cigarettes for some more bread. In the evening the prisoners organised their own carol singing and variety show. Prisoner Beehan of the Port Wellington had made an improvised sextant and compass. Using an old atlas he plotted the route of the Storstad. His estimate was that Christmas day was spent 500 miles south  of Cape Agulhas. At that latitude the weather was cold and windy. The prisoner accommodation lights were switched off an hour later on Christmas day at 21.00 

Christmas 1940
Admiral Scheer

Rendezvous with German Cruiser Admiral Scheer

3 January 1941

The prisoners on the Storstad had an uneventful time at the new start of 1941 sailing north into the South Atlantic. They were now more organised for social events, exercise routines and eating. Hunger was the main emotion and food a major topic of conversation. Some of the prisoners plotted to overpower the German guards and crew and commandeer the ship. Dunshea felt this was folly; the Germans had machine guns , rifles and grenades. They had also prepared explosive charges to scuttle the ship in an emergency. The Storstad's cargo of diesel fuel was proving very valuable to the German surface raiders.


On several occasions the prisoners were locked up whilst the tanker bunkered  other  Commerce raiders. However on 3 January 1941 the prisoners were paraded on deck to witness the cruiser Admiral Scheer as it took on fuel. This was an impressive show of force , Engineer Dunshea admired the cruiser's fine naval architecture and its powerful array of guns. Interestingly the Scheer's planes regularly flew patrols to ensure the Storstad was not attacked by the Royal Navy; her cargo of fuel oil had to be protected. An added bonus of the encounter with the Scheer was that she had surplus fresh food from one of her victims. The prisoners welcomed a plentiful supply of Fray Bentos Argentinian beef and some not so fresh eggs.


The Scheer's dentist also paid a visit to extract teeth from those prisoners suffering from bad teeth. Although an ardent Nazi, the dentist was skilled and not much pain was experienced even though no anaesthetic was given.  Although enemies, Dunshea commented that both German and British crews had a mutual respect. After a few days the Storstad sailed north alone towards the equator. The ship was now approaching the sea lanes dominated by the Royal Navy between Africa and South America.   


Arrival in Bordeaux 5 February 1941

Bordeaux 1941.jpg

During January 1941 the Storstad sailed north slowly into the warmer waters of the Atlantic heading towards, and then beyond the Equator. Ross noted the  foul encrusted hull which made the ship very slow. Through the Tropics conditions were very hot in the focsle where Dunshea was quartered. The ship steered clear of the main shipping lanes and successfully, for the Germans, avoided the Royal Navy.  Thanks to the skill of Chief Engineer Philip Beeham of the Port Wellington, Dunshea was kept informed of the Storstad's location . At the end of January in much colder seas the ship turned east . Beeham informed his colleagues that they were heading into the Bay of Biscay. By this time the prisoners were enduring very cold winter weather , the accommodation was not heated and clothing was basic. They formed huddles in a vain attempt to keep warm.


On 5 February the ship entered the river Gironde estuary heading upstream for the port of Bordeaux. After 80 days at sea  Dunshea saw land through heavy bleak snow showers , sadly it was the "wrong land" . He noted the Gironde was patrolled by Destroyers of the Kriegsmarine. To mark his arrival in German occupied France Dunshea cut of his beard with scissors and a borrowed German open razor. He disembarked onto French soil with a well lacerated face and encountered the might of the German occupying army. 

German troops marching in the town centre Bordeaux 1941

Arrival in Bordeaux

                                                                          A bleak future as a PoW

Merchant navy crews in World War II were all volunteers and civilians. They were not subject to military laws and were not strictly prisoners of war under the Geneva convention. However they were treated as PoWs by the Germans with no prospect of repatriation. Dunshea and his colleagues had no foreseeable prospect of freedom , Germany at the start of 1941 was  über alles with no real likelihood of being defeated. Dunshea had very depressing thoughts about his very uncertain future and began to ponder escape. Following disembarkation from the Storstad the prisoners were herded onto train cattle wagons and taken the short rail journey to Frontstalag 221 at St Medard en Jules , a suburb of Bordeaux.

The pretty town hall St Medard en Jules   



Life in Frontstalag 221 was boring and monotonous. The diet was soup, bread and bad coffee. Football and milling around were  the only exercise. Books were rare and chess sets had to be carved. Tempers frayed and Dunshea began to feel an air of resignation and despair creep across the camp. Thought of spending years with his fellow inmates bickering and arguing was bad to contemplate. There was some contact with locals when French work teams came on to camp to make repairs. Efforts were made by some of the prisoners to gain information about how far it was to unoccupied Vichy France. The camp was well guarded by wire and machine gun posts. Some escape  tunnel attempts were started but failed.


After over a month in the camp the prisoners were told they would be taken by train to Germany at 0500 on 12 March. Dunshea's thoughts immediately turned to trying to escape. Escape once in Germany would be very difficult due to the distance to British or neutral territories and the hostility of the German people. At 0800 the prisoners boarded the train which was made up of third class passenger carriages. Dunshea and his fellow officers were made to sit in the penultimate rear carriage next to the German soldiers' carriage. Doors were locked , but not all as the train had to depart quickly.   The guards were well equipped with rifles and machine pistols.  By lunch time they had reached Bordeaux where they were able to buy a newspaper and some food from the platform trolleys. By this stage the prisoners had some money provided by the Red Cross. The weather was wintery, wet and bleak as the train crossed the river Gironde.

As the journey continued into the cold afternoon of the 12th Dunshea felt an unseen exit from the train gave the best prospects of escape. It would be much more difficult for the Germans as they would not know the location of the escape once the prisoners were known to be missing. He was not in good   physical shape due to the lack of decent food since November and he had ill fitting shoes with holes in their soles. He thought the only time to escape was in darkness and when the guards were resting and less vigilant.

At around 5pm Dunshea joined in a discussion about an escape with Bob Bellew of the MV Nowshera and Sam Harper of the Alfred Holt Line. Bob had lived in northern Spain and left as a refugee from the Civil War, he  was fluent in Spanish and French. Like Dunshea they too felt an unseen exit was the best option.  Later in the evening "Dig" Howlett , Dunshea's fellow engineer from the Maimoa decided to join the discussion. The four prisoners decided to try an escape by opening an unlocked door and jumping out. Many of their fellow prisoners mocked their plan whilst others offered very generously to give them their reserves of biscuits and spare clothing. The four prisoners asked if others wished to join , knowing a larger group would be more at risk of detection, but no one else volunteered. They wrapped their blankets around them , in theory to cushion the fall from the train. By very good fortune their carriage compartment door had not been locked on leaving St Medard. A cadet called Mortimer volunteered to shut the door after their exit.   

The train continued its journey north beyond Poitier and ever closer to the German border. As the night fell the train window blinds had to be drawn to avoid attracting night bombers of the RAF. Whenever the train slowed the blinds were lifted by the guards and the lights switched off, they then looked out for any door opening. This happened quite frequently on the journey. Dunshea and his colleagues wanted to jump when the train slowed and unobserved. The only time to do this was when blinds were either being raised or lowered. The four prisoners were on tenterhooks and were being mocked by their fellows. Dunshea acknowledged they would be readily killed by the guards if their jump was observed. The guards remained very vigilant. Dig Howlett took the lead position by the door. At around 1.30 am on the 13th of March the train slowed down to about 30mph, the blinds had yet to be lifted. Dig opened the door quickly  and jumped , rapidly followed by Sam, Ross and  Bob.  


Dunshea estimated he fell about four feet to the stony rail track ballast. He recalled vividly Bellew trying  to run in mid air before he too hit the ground hard. The four escapees lay still as the train continued and no rifle fire was heard. They were all shaken and bruised with a few cuts, but no bones were broken. All felt relieved to be free at last  and felt in good shape to make good their escape.   After a few minutes the escapees began walking along the line hoping to find a road but suddenly a German troop train came along the far track, they immediately took cover and were lucky not to have been spotted. They quickly changed plan and struck out across fields which were wet and heavy with mud. Coming to a road , they accidently walked towards a German manned control point, just in time they hid off the road. They decided to stop and sort out a plan as they were making hazardous mistakes. They did not know where they were , they did not know which way to go , they were very tired, cold and hungry. They then heard German sentries approach from the control point; Dunshea and his three escapers had been seen.    



Escape !

Bob Bellew was the key member of the team who spoke fluent French and Spanish. His ship the Nowshera of the British India Steam Navigation Company had been sunk by the HK33 Pinguin on 15 November 1940. Bob was the son of an Irish engineer and Spanish mother. The family had escaped from  the Spanish civil war via Royal Navy destroyer  in the Port of El Ferrol.  











As an aside, on  the same full moon night of the 13-14 March 1941 the German Luftwaffe bombed Clydebank near Glasgow causing terrible loss of civilian life and destruction of homes; we will come back to this later in the story.


German occupied France and the great courage of French men and women

The German sentries after a heated argument went back to their check point and failed to follow up their suspicions. Another lucky escape ! It was around 0300 in the morning as they carried on walking down the road. They had no sense of the  direction of their travel but at around 0600 they spotted the Pole star  through the cloud. They were luckily heading south. They came across more German soldiers but  were not challenged , pretending to gesticulate in a Gallic manner. They passed through the town of Blois, noticing the bridge over the Loire that had been blown by the French army during its retreat in May 1940. They crossed over the wooden repaired section of the bridge and yet again encountered more German army guards. With pulses racing they sauntered by and yet again were not challenged.  Further along the road from the bridge, a German  army officer shouted a hearty "Bon jour" , Bob very quickly replied, Ross, Dig and Sam kept silent. Away from Blois to the south, they stopped for a breakfast of biscuits. Dig happily gave them each about 4 lbs of chocolate he had spirited away since they had landed in France. Ross greatly admired Dig's willpower , generosity and courage; three traits he felt often go together. In return for Dig's great kindness the other three voted that his long and thick beard had to be cut ! Bob had some rusty scissors and an old blade. They moved on during the 14th towards Cellettes. There was a lot of German army troop movements but they apparently were not suspicious of the unkempt scruffy foursome.

The Loire bridge at Blois , following repairs after WWII.

Later on in the afternoon of the 14th  they were stopped by a farmworker. He spoke to Bob, the man said he could tell they were PoWs. He advised them that they were on the quickest route to the line of Demarcation with Vichy France but warned that the line was heavily guarded. They walked on into the late afternoon. Sam was suffering from bad blisters on his heels but in true Scouse tradition kept going. They soon reached Contres, which had a large German garrison. Bob asked a woman if they were likely to be stopped, she said yes. It was too late to turn round so they ambled and window shopped along the main street. At one point a German Feldwebel elbowed Dunshea out of the way to get a better view of a shop window; Ross was relieved it was not worse. After sauntering past even more Germans their luck finally ran out. A few miles south of Contres they were stopped by two Gendarmes, who demanded to inspect their passes. Bob said  they were all American tourists on a walking holiday. The Gendarmes were unimpressed and were about to arrest them when Sam hinted that the truth be told. Bob agreed and the mood of the Gendarmes softened into one of praise and admiration.  They offered a lot of helpful advice on the route to the river Cher and how to avoid capture.


The Cher marked the line of demarcation. As they walked south they stopped for supper of biscuits and horse meat. Bob had filled up their water bottles in friendly farms, where he had gleaned new intelligence on crossing points and troop locations. The French farmers were very helpful and extremely courageous; collaboration with the British enemy meant the German firing squad. Bob was very aware of this as he  turned down kind offers of meals and food; in order  to try to protect the well meaning farmers who were helping the escapers.

As night time  approached the escapers had more encounters with German army companies out on exercise. Their luck held as they found a small dense copse to bed down for their first night of freedom near St Romain. They knew the coming day would be the most hazardous , as German troops would be heavily concentrated along the river Cher.

German checkpoint on the line of demarcation with Vichy France

German occupied France
German machine gun fire.

The escapers fashioned a sleeping platform out of moss and bracken, lay down in a huddle under their single blankets and covered themselves in folliage. The night was very cold. At around midnight machine gun fire broke out nearby and continued until dawn. The Germans were on a night live firing exercise. The following morning (15th of March) tired and cold they had a breakfast of biscuits and water. They started walking towards the river Cher, using a route advised by local farmers.


The area was full of German troops and the group made a mistake in taking a wrong turn, ending up in the centre of St Romain. The town had a large enemy garrison, busily getting ready for the day ahead. One German shouted over to the group "Guten Morgen" , Dig shouted back "Good morning" , luckily there was no adverse reaction . The day was not going well and at 10.00 they took  cover in a copse for a conference. They knew they were only a few miles from St Aignan and the river Cher but the chances of recapture or worse was becoming very unpleasant. They felt it was only a matter of time before the Germans moved against them.

Bob volunteered to proceed towards the river alone on a recce. Junkers 52 planes patrolled overhead and enemy troops could be seen frequently checking the river bank. Their goal was in sight but prospects were not good. Bob returned just after midday. He had  learnt from locals that  the river was in flood and all the bridges were heavily guarded. Bob and Sam were not strong swimmers.

The river Cher at St Aignan


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The river Cher in flood
River Cher

Up to this point all contacts with the locals had been friendly and helpful. It never occurred to the four escapers that they might be betrayed. They had had numerous encounters with German soldiers and had still not been challenged. Had they used up all their good luck ?

As dusk fell they could hear the bugle calls of the German garrison in St Aignan. They would now need to move towards the river. At 18.30 the sun set and the moon rose. By 20.00 they approached the river Cher. The river was fast moving and only Dunshea and Howlett were capable of trying to swim across. The party decided the only way was to secure a boat  for a very hazardous river crossing. Dunshea had already observed German troops patrolling the river bank, with the moonlight glancing off their coal scuttle helmets. They stalked down stream and came to a weir which had two boats moored by a keepers cottage. Bob knocked on the door to ask if they could use a boat, a frightened man told them to go away. The weather was getting very cold. They tried again this time walking upstream toward St Aignan , very aware of the enemy's patrols. After a mile they came to a muddy creek which joined the Cher from the north. They walked up the creek a few hundred yards and found an old punt. The bad news was the punt was secured to a stout post by a large padlock and chain. They tried to break the post but this was futile hard work.


After a wasted hour Dig, as a last resort, took out his old nail file and valiantly tried to pick the lock. After a few minutes he succeeded ! The punt was now free and morale rose. Dig now told his colleagues that before they crossed the river, he was determined to kill a German. Luckily the other three persuaded him to desist. They had to  bail out the punt and rip up a couple of the decking boards to make paddles. Due to the high water flood and back flow into the creek, the escaping  punt crew spent an abortive two hours making little headway and getting soaked in the marshy shallow creek. Things were again looking very unpleasant. After a another conference they took a huge risk and paddled the other way in the creek looping to St Aignan and its German barracks. After five hours exhausting paddling and trudging in mud they came within the outskirts of the town, wary dogs began barking at their presence and it was only a matter of time  before the German troops would come in pursuit or worse open fire with machine guns.

Suddenly they could see the main river Cher and the opposite bank. The moon shone brightly , they were sitting ducks ! After a final check they paddled as fast as they could go into the main stream of the river, they narrowly steered round a small island and tried to reach the far side. The muzzles of  the Spandau MG 42s and Mauser rifles remained silent as they landed in Vichy France. It was just after 3am on the 16th of March.

This map shows the demarcation of Vichy France, Bordeaux and Poitiers. The train escape was about 20 miles north west of Tours.  



Le 32e régiment d'infanterie

Bob, Ross, Sam and Dig celebrated their safe crossing of the Cher with a drink of water and some biscuits . The Cher now protected them from the German army. The bright moonlight helped the move away from the river. They were tired and hungry, without any rest since the prison train left Bordeaux. At 0700 Bob went to a farmhouse to ask if they could sleep in a barn. Their welcome was warm and  effusive. Georges Fourissier, his wife and daughter were delighted to help. Bread, milk, boiled eggs and meat pate were soon on the table and Bob was busy translating the chatter. After breakfast Georges walked with the four escapers to the nearby town of Orbigny. Along the way local people came to shake the hands of the escapers and wished them good luck.


In Orbigny they were handed over to the care of the Mayoress Madam Gervaise.  Georges meanwhile sought the help of a local lawyer. Later in the morning lawyer Andre Aubier met the group, he spoke good English. Andre was a veteran of the battle of Verdun and later a French government diplomat, who had worked with the League of Nations. Over lunch Andre asked each escaper for a written statement , this was to check their story was true. This information was given to the police and French army. Later that evening over dinner two gendarmes from Montresor arrived who verified their story and also said the "appropriated" punt had been recovered. Aubier and the two gendarmes briefed the group about the next phase of their journey. They were to proceed to Loches, about 25 miles away,   and report to the HQ of the 32nd Infantry Regiment.   That night they slept on the very soft beds of the mayoress' home. 

Sunday 17th of March was spent pleasantly socialising with the kind folk of Orbigny. In the afternoon with Andre they walked to Montresor, on arrival they were made very welcome by a crowd of what seemed the whole village. That evening they ate a wholesome dinner in the village cafe along with many well wishers. The locals very generously collected 250 FFrancs to help the escapers. The dinner ended at midnight with  a rousing and tearful chorus of La Marseillaise. The escapers were billeted with a couple of families overnight. Dunshea became a lifelong Francophile.

Very early the next day the escapers with Andre went by train to Loches. They reported to the HQ of the 32nd Infantry Regiment where the Adjutant enrolled them as paid Lieutenants in the French Army on 40 FFrancs per day. They said farewell to Andre and thanked him profusely for his valuable help. They walked around  Loches until 13.00 when their train departed to Chateauroux where they changed trains for Toulouse and followed by another change for Marseilles. The French Army had generously provided 2nd class train tickets. 


Le 32e régiment d'infanterie had served under Bonaparte during his campaigns across Europe and Egypt. It served with distinction in Crimea and in WWI on the Marne front.   


32 Infanterie regiment.jpg
32nd Infantry Regiment

The address they were  instructed to visit was the seamen's mission by the old port. On arrival they were given an evening meal. After dinner they met the Reverend Donald Caskie, who had been before the war started, the minister at the Scot's kirk on the rue Bayard near the Champs-Elysées in Paris. Born on 22 May 1902 he was brought up in Bowmore, Islay and graduated from the University of Edinburgh. He was appointed to the Scots Kirk of Paris in 1938. Caskie had escaped from Paris after the German victory in May 1940 and had established a secret role in helping escaped PoWs to travel to Spain and then the UK. He informed the group of four that they were to stay at the mission and in the meantime they would be paid £5 per month (£250 in current prices) via the USA Consulate. Life settled awhile for Ross, Sam, Bob and Dig as they awaited the next step in their journey.  Dunshea noted that the "guest" list at the mission stayed at a steady thirty with new arrivals and clandestine departures. It was all very secret but it was obvious the onward route to Spain was working.

Ross and Dig met a fellow Aussie called Norman Hinton who had spent some years in France working as an artist; he was a good companion and adviser to his mates far from home. Time was spent chatting and strolling around the city but they were getting restless and bored. One crucial task to complete was to buy a new pair of boots for Dunshea, Norman found a German cobbler to make the boots.  

The Reverend Donald Caskie.







They arrived very late in Marseilles on the 21st. They were directed to the army camp of St Marthe which was run by the Foreign Legion. In the morning they were interviewed by the camp Colonel , who was very pro British. The Consulate of the United States of America, which oversaw British interests,  would be notified of the escapees arrival in the city    As officers they were allocated a Senegalese batman. Also in the camp were some British and Polish troops also trying to travel to the UK. The Colonel asked them to stay in camp and await orders.  After four days they were discharged and asked to report to the USA Consulate. On arrival late in the evening they were informed accommodation would be available at 46 rue de Forbin, near the docks.

Bearing in mind that France had been defeated by the Germans ten months earlier it was clear that there was a developing support network to aid the escape of allied prisoners. The Vichy government to its credit was tolerant of this development and initially provided finance and Army tacit support. From Dunshea's account Marseille was the conduit for allied troops to make their journey from France to the UK. In March 1941 there were still a lot of UK and allied escapers and evaders waiting to continue their home run. There were also growing number of Jews hoping to escape the clutches of the German state. To Ross he never referred to Nazi Germany , it was always Germany.

Camp St Marthe on the outskirts of Marseilles closed in 1990.    

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The Reverend Donald Caskie- The Tartan Pimpernel
Dig and Ross arrested !

Late one morning in early April, Dunshea and Howlett were walking through the city centre on their way to meet Norman Hinton and a French journalist Mme Segar who wrote articles for Australian newspapers. As they passed through the main square in Marseilles a major protest against the German invasion of Yugoslavia  was in full swing, evolving rapidly into a riot.  King Alexander Karađorđević of  Yugoslavia had been assassinated in the city in October 1934 and the site of his death had become a place of pilgrimage for loyal Yugoslavs. The city police was out in force trying maintain order. Dunshea and Howlett chose to stand nearby and "watch the fun". However they were soon caught up in the fracas with the police and were forced into a  police wagon. Under arrest they were taken to the main police station. Once more they were prisoners !

The square where Howlett and Dunshea were arrested.

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Time to get out

After a long wait in the cells Norman Hinton arrived at the police station. After heated negotiations Hinton secured their release. It was becoming clear that the protracted  wait in Marseilles was a growing risk. It was also known the the seamen's mission was under surveillance by the Vichy secret service and that any overt support to British escapees would be stopped by force. It was becoming clear the German secret police Geheime Staatspolizei  (Gestapo)  was starting to infiltrate the escape lines. On 9 April Caskie told the group that two of them would leave for the Spanish frontier the following day. On Dig's suggestion they drew lots and Dunshea and Harper were the winners. The group was now to split up. Early on the 10th Dunshea and Harper bade their farewells , Howlett went with them to the train station. Bearing in mind the growing threat of German action Ross asked Caskie when would he leave France; Caskie replied he was more use to the war effort in Marseilles than in the UK.


Unbeknown to Harper and Dunshea they were being shadowed already by their  guide who would travel on their train to Perpignan but not with them. His job was to hand over their tickets and check their train changes  but not to become acquainted.  After changing trains in Narbonne they arrived in Perpignan early in the evening. The guide took them to an apartment in the town centre in the Hotel de la Loge opposite the town hall and departed.  Here they were met by two British officers Lieutenants Parkinson and Winnick- Hewitt. They were briefed on the next steps of their journey and taken out to dinner. After they had finished the meal they were offered another dinner at a different restaurant in preparation for the arduous journey over the Pyrenees the next day. On the second dinner they were joined by another British Army Captain and a Belgian, neither of whom gave names. They then turned in for the night at their hotel. The following morning another guide arrived and took them  to Perpignan station, where they took the train further west to Argeles sur Mer. Here they met Flt Sgt Blaydon RAF, Cpl Fox R.E and Cpl Sturridge and Pte Small of the East Kent Regiment (the Buffs) ; these soldiers and the airman were to join Ross and Sam in their crossing to Spain. 

Hotel de la Loge, still a nice place to stay in Perpignan.


Escape over the Pyrenees

Late in the afternoon of 12 April the group of six were met by another guide. They followed him for a couple of hours on a path inland towards the forested foothills of the Pyrenees. They had been given bread and wine as sustenance for the arduous trek ahead. At around 19.30 the guide told them to wait in a wooded area and he left them; returning at 21.00 with a party of six Poles. Dunshea and Harper recalled meeting them at Camp St Marthe in Marseilles. The guide was carrying a large ruck sack of tobacco, he was a smuggler with a lucrative side line in PoW guiding. Around midnight after a fairly steep climb up a track they arrived at a bothy, they could see the lights of Perpignan about 2,000 feet below.


After a short break the climb continued; Ross was thoroughly enjoying the adventure in the moon lit mountains. As dawn broke they had reached about 3,000 feet and they stopped for a rest. The guide met a colleague who was carrying a sack of sardines, these were sold to the escapees at an exorbitant price for their breakfast. Dunshea and his colleagues rested in the Spring sunshine for the day ; he was delighted by the scenery, wild flowers and crystal clear water falls. At 17.00 they started to climb again , the going became steeper, Dunshea was very pleased with his new boots. After ten hours of exhausting descents and ascents they were in Spain. At around 0300 on 14 April they could see the lights below of Figueres, Catalonia , Spain. 

Mountain pass in the southern Pyrenees




Crossing the Pyrenees
It all goes wrong 

After a slow tiring descent the group arrived in the outskirts of Figueres at around 0400 on the 15th of April. By 0500 they were waiting on the platform for the daily train to Barcelona. Unfortunately an argument started between the Poles and the guide over the tickets to Barcelona and as a result they all missed the train. This was a bitter blow which had profound consequences. They had to wait all day and night for the next train. They made their way to a field on the edge of the town, the guide said he would return later in the day. In the afternoon a German guide spoke to them , he fought with the Republicans in the recent civil war and seemed a decent bloke. He took their details for forward communication to the British Consul in Barcelona and provided some food. He said a guide would come for them at 0400 the next day. The escapers spent a cold and hungry night before they were guided back to the railway station. They were given some pesetas and told to clamber onto the train as it arrived in the station.


The train arrived around 0600 on the 16th and they climbed aboard. Within a few minutes they were arrested by the Border Police on the train. They were forced off the train at gun point and marched  to the Figueres  police station HQ in the main plaza.

German troops and Spanish Border guards 1941

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Magistrate hands out sentence 

They were taken into a large cell which was full of escapees from Britain, Holland, Belgium and Poland. All their money and possessions were confiscated. The room had a French style flushing WC and nothing else. Ross struck up a conversation with Baron Pierre Louis d'Aulnis de Bourouill, and Cees Drooglever  both Dutch resistance fighters. Dunshea remarked on their cool bravery and resilient determination to get back to fighting Germans. The prisoners managed to recover some of their pesetas and meals were delivered from the the nearby cafe. At around 5pm Dunshea and Harper and the other ten arrested on the train were taken to the town magistrate. They were charged with entering Spain illegally and  sentenced to 15 days in prison, during the legal proceeding neither side understood the other.

The next morning on the 17th,  they were marched up the steep hill to the heavily fortified Castel de San Ferdinando. This had been badly damaged by shelling and bombing in the recent civil war. It had been the last stronghold of the Republican Government. Once inside the fort they were each taken away for interrogation by an intelligence officer. He wanted to know about the escape routes and the courier organisation in France. Ross and Sam said that they had done everything on their own and had not used any network or organisation. They were dismissed, much to their amusement. They spent the rest of the day wandering around the huge fort and trying to get some grub. It was badly organised and shambolic. Ross found Spain and its people depressing. 

Built 1753 in the reign of the Bourbon Ferdinand VI the fort was to defend Spain from French invasion. On the two occasions that Napoleon invaded, the fort garrison surrendered. It is the largest fort in western Europe.  




The following morning they marched back to the rail station to catch the 0600 to Barcelona. The rail journey was only memorable for the views of destroyed towns and villages which Spain had inflicted on itself in its brutal and cruel civil war. On arrival in Barcelona they had a long wait in the station for the connecting train late in the afternoon. They had eight guards. Dunshea managed to bribe a young lad to take a message to the British Consul. After half an hour the Consul turned up, a British army major. He told the contingent of British prisoners that they would be repatriated to the UK on the understanding they should behave and not try to escape. He recommended bribery as a means of making life more comfortable. Spain was on its knees and most people were extremely poor including the military and police. He then handed out 25 pesetas to each of the contingent and bade farewell. Part of this was used to bribe the guard sergeant to allow his British prisoners to go shopping for food and drink. 

Whilst the British were out shopping a couple of Poles and a Belgian bribed a guard private soldier to go with them to a cafe. Sometime later the private returned to the rail station very drunk,  minus his rifle , cap , the two Poles and the Belgian; they had plied him with brandy and escaped. The sergeant immediately stopped the shopping trips. Ross found out later they had made a home run via Lisbon.  At 16.00 the remaining prisoners  were put on the train to Cervera in high Catalonia. They arrived after 21.00 and were taken to the town gaol. Their cell had straw mattresses which were infested with lice. They now had to serve their lousy 15 day sentence ! 

The hill top town of Cervera in high Catalonia.

Lice !
Affluent prisoners !

The gaol in Cervera was full of escapers from many countries with a sizeable contingent of British army troops. The gaol governor was a civilian and a Falangist. The British each received a sizable daily allowance of pesetas via the Consul in Barcelona. They were paid more that the guards and prison staff. The governor owned and operated the gaol canteen & shop as a side line. His British customers lived well and also helped the other escapers who were not so well off. There was one Polish prisoner who had been rejected by his fellow Poles and he was taken under the wing of the British.  It was not uncommon for the Governor to go with some of his prisoners for an evening round of drinks. Dunshea greatly admired the resilience and humour of the British army . 


About half way through their sentence they were joined by some RAF chaps including a FO Macdonald Hodges, who Dunshea befriended. Hodges had so far, been involved in bombing raids over Germany and getting into some close scrapes. Due to a navigation error he had crash landed in northern France and had evaded capture but on arrival in Marseilles had been imprisoned by the Vichy authorities for two months before he managed to escape. 

At the start of May, Ross and Sam had served their sentence  for illegal entry. Along with a large company of prisoners they were taken to the railway station and handed over to the hated Guardia Civil. They were herded onto cattle wagons with no sanitation or water. The train travelled north via Zaragoza. Ross noted the immense damage to the city due to bombing and shelling in the civil war. 



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May 8th 1941 Miranda de Ebro - Concentration Camp

After an arduous train wagon journey lacking in water, sanitation and food the train arrived in the town of Miranda de Ebro in north east Spain, only about 200 miles from Bordeaux where Dunshea had  landed in France back in February. He felt a great bitterness towards the cruel conduct of his Spanish guards. Many of the prisoners on the trip were sick and frail and the Spaniards did nothing to alleviate the suffering.  The history of the notorious camp is well documented. Along with 40 other camps across Spain it was set up to imprison Republican supporters by the Francoist victors. Torture and executions were routine. When PoWs and other refugees began to arrive after the defeat of France the camp switched to becoming a holding camp for allied soldiers, Jews and other exiles. The regime could be brutal but for the British, bribery of guards was invaluable, as Dunshea and Harper soon found out.  

The British contingent were placed in Hut 20, heads were shaved, medicals conducted and vaccinations given. Dunshea and Harper were passed fit for hard labour. For the next day they were put in a working party dredging gravel out of the river Ebro. They took a dim view of this and decided to bribe the head guard with 200 cigarettes. Life became easier thereafter. Discipline for the 2,000 inmates was harsh and brutal. Fights used to break out on a regular basis notably between and amongst the French and Polish prisoners. Dunshea noted the Polish were particularly cowardly in out numbering victims and kicking them; on several occasions Brits had to step in to protect the victim. The Poles also used to reject their country men who were Jewish. There was a thriving black market oiled in part by the allowances received by each of the British prisoners.  

Long queues used to form for meals. On one occasion a tall aristocratic Czech officer pushed in front of a wee Glaswegian  jock from the Highland Light Infantry; after the resulting explosion the Czech officer was prostrate in a deep gutter. The Gestapo visited frequently to interrogate Polish prisoners with the aim of exacting revenge on their relatives at home. On May the 24th the Spanish guards celebrated with great rejoicing the sinking of HMS Hood in the North Atlantic. On one afternoon a couple of French prisoners got over the perimeter barbed wire and ran off; the guards fired enthusiastically but luckily were bad shots. However the two prisoners were eventually caught and brutally beaten about the face by the guards at the evening muster parade. The Spanish were hated.

After three weeks in the camp and very unexpectedly, Dunshea and Harper were told they were to be moved to the British Embassy in Madrid and then onwards to Gibraltar. They were pleased with the news but had regrets that they were going before the  others who had been there for months. Ross thought this may be because they were civilians or that the merchant navy was very short of engineers. Before they left Ross said goodbye to his friends notably the Dutchmen Baron Pierre Louis d'Aulnis de Bourouill, and Cees Drooglever. Sam and Ross also smuggled out letters from various prisoners.


Miranda de Ebro - prisoner ablutions 





May 8th 1941

On May 7th HK 33 Pinguin had successfully sunk the oil tanker British Emperor to the south of the Persian Gulf; this was her 33rd victim of what was the biggest tally of any German war ship in WWII. The British Emperor's SOS call had been detected as far away as Kiel in Germany  , it had also been picked up by the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Cornwall 500 miles to the south. HMS Cornwall immediately altered course and at speed went in pursuit of the enemy ship.


At dawn on 8 May both ships spotted each other; HMS  Cornwall launched her Supermarine Walrus float plane which flew to observe the unknown merchant ship. The plane signalled the ship to identify herself, which was ignored. The plane crew did not recognise the ship's silhouette and became suspicious.  HMS Cornwall increased speed towards the unidentified ship but did not attack fearful of hitting a friendly merchant ship. Eventually the unidentified vessel sent a signal saying  it was the Norwegian ship Tamerlane. However the RN cruiser's commander knew that this ship was not in the Indian Ocean. At a range of 10 miles HMS Cornwall fired a two 8 inch gun, warning salvo. The Pinguin increased speed and changed course to escape. At 17.15 hours and at a range of 8 miles HK33 Pinguin raised her battle flag and revealed her guns. Her first salvoes hit the Cornwall and the Royal Navy cruiser veered away to increase the range. HMS Cornwall then opened fire and began to hit HK33. 

Kapitän zur See Krüder at 17.35 ordered the prisoners to be released, the ship to be scuttled and abandon ship. It was too late, with over 30 shells hitting his ship. One shell hit the sea mine store followed by a massive explosion; the engagement had lasted 29 minutes. Only 60 crew and 24 prisoners survived and subsequently were taken to Australia. Around 200 crew and 200 prisoners were killed.  Ernst-Felix Kruder was killed. The crew on HMS Cornwall admired the bravery of the captain and  crew of the German raider HK33.

HMS Cornwall , subsequently sunk by the Japanese in 1942 with the loss of 421 sailors.

May 8th 1941 northern Indian Ocean
Gib !

The journey to Madrid was by train. Ross and Sam shared a compartment with three Spanish sergeants and a female companion of one of the soldiers, she spoke German. Ross started a conversation with her about the cruelty of the camp guards and overt support of neutral Spain to Germany. The argument became heated but eventually subsided to stony silence. Dunshea and Harper started to laugh when the other occupants in the compartment started to scratch, some of their lice had moved to new pastures ! After a long overnight journey they arrived in the derelict ruin of Madrid. At the station they were picked up by embassy staff. The first task was a medical, a delousing bath and fresh clothes. The next day they went sightseeing , the capital was a mess.  They said a fond farewell to the embassy staff and were given reserved 1st class seats on the train to Algeciras. The compartment was full of Spanish officers who initially thought Ross and Sam were Germans. When they found out they were British they asked them to leave the compartment. Ross and Sam did not budge.


At a station a few miles before  Algeciras they left the train and were met by a British Army captain in mufti. He drove them to La Linea and over the border to Gibraltar. After  1,400 miles on the run they were home ; fortune had favoured the brave. They were given accommodation at the town barracks. That afternoon along with thousands from the garrison, Ross and Sam walked down to the harbour to cheer in HMS Ark Royal, HMS Sheffield and the destroyers of Force H, returning from the victorious operation in the Atlantic that sank the Bismark. 

HMS Ark Royal with a flight of Sword Fish torpedo bombers (String bags) . Ark Royal was sunk in November 1941 with only one fatality.       



A couple of days later Sam and Ross were assigned berths on the Anchor Line MV Nea Hellas as "Distressed British Seamen" the term usually used for ship wreck survivors. They set sail with around 1,600 other passengers , mainly civilian evacuees from Gibraltar ; it was felt that either the Germans possibly joined by the Spanish were about to invade the "Rock". The ship put to sea but turned back after a few hours as a U- Boat had attacked an earlier convoy with great loss. After a further delay the MV Nea Hellas joined a convoy protected by HMS Argus and HMS Victorious. The convoy arrived safely in the Firth of Clyde , at Greenock on 14 June 1941. Sam soon departed to his home town of Liverpool. Ross after interview with the Field Security Police , making sure he was not a spy, went to the Malmaison restaurant in Glasgow for dinner before joining the overnight train to London. The following day he reported back for duty at the Shaw Savill offices in London. 

Bob Bellew  and Dig Howlett followed the route to Gib a few weeks later. Dunshea passed his exams for his steam engineer certificate and returned to sea. Dig and Bob also went to back to their hazardous duties as engineers in the merchant navy. In July 1942 Ross was assigned as an engineer to the Shaw Savill cargo  ship SS Waimarama on a voyage from Greenock to Valetta, Malta  as part of the Operation Pedestal convoy. At the last minute his posting was changed to another ship. On 13 August, on her approach to Malta, SS Waimarama was bombed by Axis planes which triggered explosions in the aviation fuel tanks in her hold, sadly only 27 of her crew of 107 survived with many badly burnt. Ross continued in Atlantic  convoys and single ship circum navigations to the Far East. His final posting was to the large liner / troopship the  QSMV Dominion Monarch which was very comfortable and had brand new diesel engines !  


Ross in his narrative mentions a number of characters he met on his adventure, he finished his script in 1981. Thanks to the ease of  internet research we can now learn what happened to many of these brave people.

Andre Aubier, the lawyer from Orbigny , went missing later in the war and it is possible  he was killed in an allied bombing raid.

Donald Caskie along with many of the escape network helpers was betrayed by Sergeant Paul Coles Royal Engineers and a Londoner.  Caskie was tortured and imprisoned by the Gestapo. Due for execution his life was saved by a German pastor. Caskie subsequently returned to his ministry in Scotland. Cole was Britain's worst traitor in WWII and responsible for the capture of at least 150 escape network operatives. He was killed resisting arrest by the French police in Paris 1944.

Norman Hinton, the Aussie artist, eventually returned to the UK and joined the Special Operations Executive , returning to France via parachute. 

Flt Sgt Blaydon RAF, who crossed the Pyrenees with Ross, returned to bomber raids. He was killed in his Lancaster bomber on 8 August 1944.

FO Lewis Macdonald Hodges, a fellow prisoner in Spain, returned to special ops with the RAF. He left the RAF in 1976: Air Chief Marshal  Sir Lewis Macdonald Hodges, KCB,CBE,DSO*, DFC*,DL.

Baron Pierre Louis d'Aulnis de Bourouill, returned to Holland as  a resistance leader. Dunshea and the Baron kept in touch and met up a few times. 

Cees Drooglever, returned to Holland as a resistance fighter. He was betrayed and then excecuted by the SS at the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria in 1944.

Sam and Ross kept in touch over the years into their retirement.

Dig married an Australian girl in 1953 and had three young children. In 1957 he was killed on his motorbike trying to avoid a loose dog.

Bob we think went to work in S America. 


Research on the early escape network is quite patchy. Military Intelligence department 9 (MI9) started working later in 1941 to formalise the escape of allied escapers and evaders , mainly air crew. It would appear one of the prime  instigators of the escape route via Perpignan was Captain Ian Garrow DSO of the HLI (City of Glasgow Regiment) who had escaped from the Germans in June 1940. He helped recruit secret  agents and guides to help convey the escapers out of France but worked seperately to fellow Scot, Caskie. Funding was channeled through the British Consulate in Barcelona and the US Consul in Marseilles. The guide who took Ross and Sam to Perpignan is not known for certain but could have been an Australian, Cpl Bruce Dowding who had joined the BEF in 1939 and who had been recruited by Garrow in Marseilles . Bruce was a fluent French speaker and before the war had been a tutor at a senior school in Loches. Garrow and Dowding were subsequently betrayed by Londoner Paul Cole. Garrow managed to escape and made a home run. Dowding was captured by the Germans and beheaded in Dortmund in 1943.

In 1959 Donald Caskie was the guest for the 100th "This is your life" BBC TV programme. Ross was invited to pay a tribute to Donald, this is the first time they had met since April 1941. Eamon Andrews, Ross Dunshea and Donald Caskie.




The crew of the Maimoa

An estimated 39,000 merchant ship crew members lost their lives to enemy action in WWII.  A higher loss proportionately than the Royal Navy, Army and RAF. The losses of  ship's engineers were proportionately even higher, as they were often trapped in engine rooms below the water line and when lights no longer functioned, they could not readily escape. It is estimated 4,900 merchant seamen were taken prisoner. Many, including the Maimoa's crew were imprisoned at the Marine Internierten Lager (Milag) near Hamburg.


There are seven recorded successful escapes including the four mentioned above. Two others were from the Canadian freighter A.D. Huff that was torpedoed by the German battle cruiser Gneisenau in the north atlantic in early 1941. Peter Coe and Ernest Shackleton from the ship's crew, on route to the  Milag from Bordeaux, jumped train near Aachen. According to Peter's son Sebastian the pair split up in France, with Shackleton taking the more normal route via Marseilles. Remarkably 19 year old Peter Coe made a solo unsupported crossing of France into Spain, where he was imprisoned in Miranda de Ebro concentration camp. Sebastian remarked on the very difficult time his father had at the camp before moving onto Gib.


There was one successful escape from the  Milag by  Arthur H (Dick) Bird MBE who made a home run via Sweden. The state honour given to Bird was offered to Dunshea at the Officer level ; he declined because Sam, Bob and Dig were not considered. First Radio Officer Walter Skett, was shot and killed trying to esacpe from the Milag camp.


The crew of the Pinguin HK33 that survived the battle with HMS Cornwall and were rescued, were imprisoned in Australia. Their interrogation record gives a full account of the  secret cruiser's voyage.One section of the interrogation report is remarkable in which the fighting spirit of the Maimoa's crew is praised. The highlight is that the HK33's Arado seaplane was holed by bullets and had to land quickly as its fuel tanks were emptying rapidly. This was probably due to the valiant Lewis gunners or perhaps after all Dig Howlett should be credited with shooting down a German plane with his old Lee Enfield rifle !    

The Shaw Savill & Albion Co. Ltd memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum.

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Ross Dunshea's medals and his cherished RSL badge

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Twenty years later,  February 1961

Ross became Chief Superintendent Engineer of the Glasgow shipping company Paddy Henderson Co. Ltd. Here he is with his wife Margaret when she launched MV Dalla built at the Lithgows yard at Greenock . The night he jumped from the train coincided with horrific bombing of Clydebank, Glasgow by the Germans, an awful sight witnessed by Margaret.



MGD and RMD.jpg

Acknowledgements. Most of the text is based on Dunshea's written draft with the IWM. Ghost cruiser HK 33 by HJ Brennecke was a helpful reference. By coincidence Les Cowle who was an engineer with Paddy Henderson in the 1950s and who knew Ross started selling his art commissions in recent years. Les very kindly researched the capture of SS Maimoa and the introductory painting on this site is the result. Well done Les !  Other pictures used are believed to be free for public use. If this is not the case please let me know.

DUNSHEA Ross Morton Balarat.jpg
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