Memories of an Accidental Nazi Hunter
Commemorating 75 years of "The Welsh Great Escape"
On the night of March 10th, 1945, seventy German prisoners of war escaped from the Island Farm POW camp in Bridgend, South Wales. It was the largest breakout on British soil during World War Two, and has been dubbed "The Welsh Great Escape". A tunnel had been dug by the inmates from Hut 9 in the camp to a field outside of the boundary. At 04:00 the next morning the escape attempt came to an end when a German officer was caught exiting the tunnel by a guard. What followed was a nationwide man-hunt that saw all the escapees recaptured within a week.
Somewhere amid the excitement and urgency of the man-hunt, a twenty-something local woman, May Lewis, who grew up in nearby Pen-y-Fai, was cycling home from work when she saw two of the escaped prisoners "climbing in a tree like monkeys". She immediately cycled back to her employer, who called the police, and with her guiding them to the sport where the Germans were last seen, they were soon arrested and returned to the camp.
I know this because May Lewis was my maternal grandmother, and this was her only experience of the War that she shared. I first heard it when I was around nine or ten, and knowing nothing of the Island Farm breakout, it seemed a bit of a tall tale. After learning about the Nazi escapees in my teens, the story became more plausible in my mind, but by that point she had passed away, and there was no-one else to ask.
My Nanna was brought up the youngest of ten children. She was widowed twice and single-handedly brought up five children whilst working herself to the bone to support her young family. She was by no means rich, and I suspect that she spent large portions of her life on or below the poverty line. Apart from her story of the Germans in the tree, she never spoke of her experiences of the War.
To my recollection she didn't wear a poppy on Armistice Day, and didn't attend Remembrance services. Although I never asked her about it, I think that reading between the lines it was because of the hardships that she faced, and the losses endured by the country as a whole, that she simply didn't want to remember that period of her life and the events that transpired.
For me, aged nine or ten, she was some kind of war hero. The Germans in the tree reminded me of a particularly dark scene in the Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks where two of the invading Germans are up a telegraph pole cutting the wires. I don't know why but that has always been one of two images that stick in my mind when I think of Nanna's story.
The other is of the day that she got on my mountain bike ad rode it around the yard. I had never seen her on a bike, and as I watched her the years seemed to fall away and she came back to life, no longer the elderly woman I knew. If she could ride a bike like that, I reasoned, then maybe her story of her helping to catch the escaped Nazis was true.
There are plenty of documentaries, books and websites relating to the Island Farm breakout, but you won't find May Lewis mentioned in any of them. I suspect that if there was any recognition or reward, it would have gone to her employer, who alerted the police. Nanna wasn't one for the spotlight, and I don't think for one minute she would have minded someone else taking the credit.
I originally wrote this as the release of the Amazon Prime Al Pacino series Hunters got me thinking about the collective efforts since the end of World War Two to bring surviving Nazis to justice. Although she was no Simon Wiesenthal, May Lewis did her bit, and serves as something of an inspiration to me. This March marked the 75th anniversary of the Island Farm breakout, and I figured it was a good a time as any to tell Nanna's story.
She probably wouldn't have wanted me to write this - it would have been too much fussing, but as a writer and film producer I would dearly love to create some kind of piece built around Nanna's story. I haven't written it yet, so it's a long way off, but this article will do for now!