The Inception and Production of Detour
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 6 Feb 1947, p. 188-199
Wood, Lieutenant J.E.R., Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
The story of Oflag IVC, and the Canadian "Escape King", Lt. Bill Miller, Royal Canadian Engineers. The Dieppe Raid of August 19, 1942. A positive response to the questions, "Was it worth while? Was the raid a success?" A review of the situation up to the summer of 1942. The experience of the Canadians at Dieppe. Some of the reasons we didn't do better at Dieppe, including a pre-war indifference to National Defence matters. The gain from Dieppe. The end of the battle and capture. Details of life in the prison camps. Getting to know the British in the prison camp. Parcels from the Red Cross. Courses and books from The Canadian Legion War Services. Participation of the Canadian Prisoners-of-War Relatives Association. The idea of Escaping. The Escape Committee of the Senior British Officer. Details of escape plans, strategies, and the escapes. The late Lt. Bill Miller's idea of having the boys write short, punchy incidents of their military and prison career; the start of "Detour." Producing and publishing.
Date of Original
6 Feb 1947
Language of Item
Copyright Statement
The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
Chairman: The President, Major F. L. Clouse
Thursday, February 6th, 1947

MAJOR CLOUSE: We welcome to Toronto and to the Empire Club of Canada, Mr. J. E. R. Wood, M.C., Consulting Mining Engineer now resident in Vancouver, where he also spends some time at his farm at Cloverdale.

Mr. Wood, although born in Fernie, B.C., attended Upper Canada College. Proceeded, after Senior Matriculation, to R.M.C. '25-'27 (where he was an outstanding member of the football team) and graduated from the University of Toronto in Mining Engineering in 1930, practising his profession until his enlistment in 1940. Mr. Wood proceeded overseas in 1941 and was captured at Dieppe August 1942. After his escape from one Prisoner-of-War Camp, he was again captured and incarcerated in Oflag IVC (Colditz Castle) known to the Germans as an Escape Proof Camp.

Among his prisoner companions was Lieut. Col. C. C. I. Merritt, V.C. and also as our guest today at this table is Mr. W. L. B. O'Hara--late of the Royal Tank Corps, captured at Dunkirk and also a fellow prisoner of our speaker.

Mr. Wood, I understand, feels an undying debt of gratitude to the Canadian Red Cross for the food boxes generously donated to the Red Cross the total proceeds sent to Germany for our prisoners of war and he has of a book he has published "DETOUR", which graphically relates some of the experiences of his comrades.

Mr. Wood, I know, feels at home in Toronto, being a nephew of Mr. Frank P. Wood and the late Mr. E. R. Wood and I will now call on him to address us on the subject "THE INCEPTION AND PRODUCTION OF 'DETOUR'-TIIE STORY OF OFLAG IVC".

LIEUT J. E. R. WOOD: It was with considerable humiliation that I accepted your invitation to speak to you about the Inception and Production of "Detour", the Story of Oflag IVC.

The man who should be telling you this story is the late Lieutenant W. A. Miller, Royal Canadian Engineers, of Edmonton. It was Bill's original idea to collect a book of incidents that go to make up "Detour".

Without any doubt, this officer was the Canadian 'Escape King'. First of all, he stepped off the train on our way into Germany--that was in August, 1942. He was on our tunnel scheme when sixty-five of us got out of Oflag 7B in Bavaria, in June, 1943. Shortly after that, along with Major Gordon Rolfe, D.S.O., and a Royal Tank Corps Lieutenant, he got out of the castle we were all concentrated in upon our recapture. He almost reached the Swiss frontier. His last escape was a magnificent solo effort out of Oflag IVC in February, 1944. Unfortunately, he did not come back from this last attempt.

We were 'bagged' in the Dieppe Raid August 19, 1942. For a few moments we will digress to answer some of the questions that Canadians invariably ask us. "Was the raid a success?" "Was it worth while?" "Should Canadians have been used?"

The answer to all three is an emphatic "Yes"!

To get the picture one must review the Allied position up to the summer of 1942. Britain, and that meant all of us, lost nearly everything she had at Dunkirk. From then until the end of 1941 her tactic was defence against invasion, to manufacture equipment, and to train armed personnel. Do not forget she had to simultaneously carry on the fight in North Africa.

Then came the Commando raids that electrified the world, to be followed by those daylight fighter sweeps of the R.A.F.

By the spring of '42 Commando 'Battle Drill' was part and parcel of the whole army, a passable force had been trained in combined operations, the whole emphasis was on Attack! Attack! Attack!

An attack large enough to test their equipment and methods had to be laid on, bigger than anything before. Dieppe was it

The broad idea of the plan was for infantry supported by tanks to seize Dieppe and establish a defensive perimeter outside the town. Five engineer parties would then blow the harbor and other installations. Simultaneously two flanking beaches would be attacked by one-battalion parties. After the demolition the whole force would withdraw through Dieppe and evacuate.

The landing was to be preceded by heavy aerial bombardment supplemented by the fire power of several destroyers.

It looked like a nice pleasant outing!

On the Eastern front, at this time, our friends the Russians were being pushed back at an alarming rate. They had not yet made their stand at Stalingrad. Undoubtedly, Marshal Stalin was putting pressure on Mr. Churchill to do something. Dieppe could be a gesture.

Now why the Canadians? We had sat in England for over two years clamoring for something to do. Although only a few old sweats among us had ever heard a shot fired in anger, we spent most of our spare time thumping our chests and telling the English how good we were. At the time we thought we were the "Dagger pointed at the heart of Berlin", that one of our senior officers said we were! From my low-level point of view, it was certainly high time the Canadians had the pleasant English country air blown off themselves, and a chance to see how we could get along against the German professionals on the other side of the Channel.

How did we get along?

We got the hiding of our lives . . . that's what! Without mincing matters, it was a shocking defeat on the ground. The Germans showed us up to be the amateurs we were. Aside from Col. Merritt's South Saskatchewans on the right beach, where they established a bridgehead and withdrew when they were good and, ready; to my knowledge only elements of one platoon of one company of one battalion got anywhere near their objective. The rest of us were pinned on the beach and along the sea-wall. The Royals of Toronto didn't have a chance, being landed on the left beach late as they were in daylight instead of in the dark.

The Infantry failed to secure the Front of Dieppe. The Engineers were unable to blow the road blocks. The tanks could not get off the esplanade to shoot up the town.

But those Canadian Private Soldiers, who never did know when to quit, stayed there and took as heavy a concentration of fire as anybody was ever asked to take for over seven hours, and thus added another inspiring page to our Nation's hsitory.

Why didn't we do better?

Here are some of the subsidiary reasons
(a) No. 3 Commando on the left had the bad luck to barge into a coastal convoy. That gave the alarm and also delayed the Royals.
(b) The heavy aerial bombardment we expected was called off for political reasons. The R.A.F. could only machine-gun and cannonfire the Front.
(c) The Navy landed our first wave about ten minutes late. This deprived our Infantry of that necessary tankfire support. Those ten minutes let the Germans stick up their heads and get busy.
(d) On top of all this, there was no Supreme Commander. Each Service Chief ran his own show, coordinating as well as possible.

Some say there was a leak in Security. I understand Post-War Intelligence does not support this.

Many of we junior officers feel we should have pulled more chestnuts out of the fire. We didn't! Most people blame it on one or all the above reasons. Perhaps the real reason was inexperience. To my knowledge, only two Canadian officers had heard a shot in anger before, both in the last War.

All of us who were taken prisoner were sure we could do better the next time.

I think the real reason goes back to our pre-war indifference to National Defence matters. Our tax-payer was very stingy. Those of us who should have, did not join our Reserve Army. In the service, I was favourably impressed with the new permanent force officers I met. The trouble was there just weren't enough of them to go around. It is disturbing to see the indifference that is already prevalent, and the desire to cut National Defence to the bone again. It is to be hoped we tax-payers will differentiate between duplication on the one hand and inadequate appropriations for efficient services on the other.

What was the gain?

Everybody learned a packet. Succeeding combined operations had both a Supreme Commander and an overwhelming aerial preparation, no matter the political consequences. The Canadians smartened up and sent a division out to Sicily to learn to fight by fighting under British Command. Later many of the British units were under Canadian Command. That's the way it should -be . . . all of us playing on the same ball team, with interchangeable players.

For that matter, on D-Day the 3rd Division casualties were only a fraction of ours.

But there were immediate tangibles.

The Germans had always insisted that a sizeable force could not get through the sea defences, or if it did they couldn't land. Well, the Navy swept us through the mine fields and landed us on the beach, tanks and all. This was the first time tanks had been used in a combined operation with an opposed landing.

In the air, the R.A.F. and R.C.A.F. showed who was boss. At no time, to my knowledge, were we on the beach machine-gunned by air.

The Germans were so badly shaken that they intensified their Atlantic Wall preparations. They did not know where or when we would hit next. Undoubtedly, our operation immobilized tens of thousands of troops and equipment, thereby lessening a little bit the pressure on, the Russians.

But now back to the end of the battle. To our surprise we were not kicked around. We were disarmed. Officers and men were separated. The officers carried wounded. The men marched off. It is only fair to state the admirable and impartial way the Germans snapped into tending our wounded. The severe cases got first treatment, irrespective of their uniform.

That evening the wounded entrained for Rouen. Two days later we met up with the other boys at a transit camp in Normandy. A few days later we entrained for Germany. The men went to the main British P.O.W. camp at Lamsdorf, the officers to what was to be the junior British Officers' Camp at Oflag VIIB in Bavaria, about 60 KM. from Munich. It was a Pre-War barracks.

Things were not too bad except the food. It was dreadful and very scarce.

About a week or so later the British boys blew in. They were the most generous and good-natured lot I have ever seen. Their morale was terrific. Most of them were 'bagged" two years earlier at Dunkirk. There were also the Australians and New Zealanders from Greece and Crete. We all rapidly revised our preconceived notions of "The English". Those fellows fed us, clothed us, gave us razors, books and, in fact, everything they had.

They had the Germans taped-what you could get away with and what you could not. They had everything organized-Theatres, Sports, Cooking, Study Groups.

Officers turned themselves into B.A's., Chartered Accountants, Engineers, Lawyers, Linguists, Agricultural Students, etc.

We learned what it was to be 'British'. It meant Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canadians, and all the rest of us. We found that we all have an indefinable something that gives us a common ground, and broadly speaking, a common point of view. Perhaps it is the British sense of fair play, honesty and freedom! It becomes obvious directly you find yourself locked up with other nationalities.

We learned about the Geneva Convention and Red Cross parcels. Ridiculous as it sounds, none of us had ever read the Geneva Convention, and few, if any, of us knew the score on parcels.

The boys quickly smartened us up by giving us some. Those parcels were a Godsend! Without them a lot of us would have bit the dust. Those who didn't would have been very skinny, indeed. Even with Red Cross food, my weight skidded from 190 to 175. That was a good thing! I could see the shape of my hips again! Toward the end of the war, when we had only half a parcel per week, I went down to 150. That was too much of a good thing!! The sad part of it all is that my waist line has vanished once again!!

The Red Cross aimed at getting one parcel to each P.O.W. each week. All the parcels went to a Central International Red Cross Pool at Geneva. They were then dispatched to German distribution centres. One might get a British, Canadian, American or New Zealand parcel. It made for variety.

You can imagine the kick we Canadians got when the English boys told us our parcels were the best and when we saw Eatonia butter and other Canadian tinned foods.

In addition, the Red Cross aimed at 50 cigarettes per man per week. This was augmented by private parcels from home. In the case of the Canadians, we had thousands. Very handy they were, too, for trading with the German guards for food and other things we needed.

Uniforms, greatcoats, boots, blankets, etc. came to us through Red Cross channels as did Y.M.C.A. sports equipment, and plenty of it!

The Canadian Legion War Services must not be forgotten for their grand educational courses and books. Nor will we ever forget the Canadian Prisoners-of-War Relatives Association, sparked by Mrs. Asselin, M.B.E., of Montreal, who built up a coast-to-coast organization to look of ter our interests.

We ex-Prisoners of War will never forget the debt of gratitude we owe these societies for keeping us in one piece-mentally as well as physically.

The spring of '43, forty odd Americans came in via North Africa. They also had been on the short end of a boxing lesson.

It is now time to discuss what is ever present in a P.O.W's. mind 'Escaping'. Functioning under the Senior British Officer was the 'Escape Committee" who govern and control all such matters. The uninitiated invariably think that an escape is a solo job. That is not so. Even though a man may go out alone, you may depend upon it that there are hundreds, in some cases thousands, of man hours of help behind him-maps, compasses, clothes, food and so on.

Should anybody have an idea how to get out, their plan would be submitted to this Escape Committee. If it did not conflict with someone else's prior claim, and did not endanger the lives of others in the camp, the plan would be approved. Then the whole resources of the Escape Organization would be thrown in behind the venture.

Prior to IVC the boys had dug tunnels, cut their way through wire, marched phoney parties through the gate, jumped off trains, and so on. The effort involved for the number got out was considered too much. The Committee decided to bunch their hits by concentrating all energies on one tunnel, with the hope of getting a large number out. They did.

Several Canadians were supposed to be included in the tunnel crew. We were chained up at the time so that could not be. Then two places were allotted to Canadians. Col. Merritt, V.C. and Col. Bob Labatt, D.S.O. of Hamilton were to go. Col. Labatt's shoulders proved too wide for one particularly narrow place. I was nominated to take his place.

I'll never forget the night he called me outside to see if I wanted the spot. After putting me in the picture he said: "Were I commanding this operation, and there was a possibility of a man prejudicing the chances of those behind him by getting stuck, I would not hesitate to order him to drop out. Therefore, I'm out. You're in, if you want it."

It was the biggest thing I've ever seen a man do. Only an ex-P.O.W. can understand what it meant, particularly as this looked like a good chance to get out.

Well, all sixty-five of us got out and all were rounded up. The Germans turned out sixty thousand troops and home guards between our area and the Swiss Frontier. They seemed to be at every bridge, road intersection and woodland trail.

Coincidentally, the Americans entrained for their special camp in Poland the night we took ourselves off. Four of them jumped off the train. At the end of the journey their disconsolate conducting officer phoned up the Kommandanture reporting he'd lost four Americans. The fellow at the other end of the phone is reported to have replied in colloquial German: "Why should you worry? We lost sixty-five British last night!"

Our operation shook the Germans so badly that we were all concentrated in an old castle where we served our normal fourteen days arrest for an attempted escape. We were then shipped off to Oflag IVC in Saxony near Leipzig, the so-called International 'Bad Boys' Camp. It was their idea of Alcatraz for escape officers. There were more guards than prisoners, four daily roll calls instead of the usual two, and so on. Representatives of nearly all the United Nations were there except the Chinese and the Russians. We were greeted by three Canadians. Two were R.A.F. types, Flight Lieut. Wilson Donaldson of Lethbridge and F/O Keith Milne of Fort Qu'appelle, Sask. The other was 'Scarlet O'Hara', that red-nosed character sitting down at the end of this table, who grew up in Montreal and found himself in the Royal Tank Corps. During the German Blitz in France he found himself in a Mk. 1 Matilda Tank. It weighed 8 tons, powered with a Ford V8 engine. Flat out it went five miles an hour. On the retreat back from the Dyle? Scarlet insists he had a great race with an old Belgian woman in carpet slippers. She was pushing a cart full of pots and pans and so on. When she got going good Scarlet says she passed him, and when he got going good he passed her. She won!

Shortly after our arrival at Oflag IVC the International Y.M.C.A. sent each of us Canadians a grand diary with a large maple leaf on the front. It had nice white pages to write on and buff colored ones for sketching.

The late Lt. Bill Miller, Royal Canadian Engineers, of Edmonton, who you will recall I described as the Canadian 'Escape King', hit upon the idea of having the boys write short, punchy incidents of their military and prison career. I asked Bill if he minded if I did the same. He said: "By all means go ahead. The more the merrier!" That was the start of 'Detour".

A brilliant young English artist, a Mortar Officer by trade, by the name of Lt. John Watton, did the seventy odd pastel portraits and cartoons in the book. The Red Cross sent him the drawing materials. Incidentally, his mother was a Miss Fessenden of Toronto. He was very proud of his Canadian mother.

By the end of the war we had quite a collection of incidents covering battle, prison and escape. A Dutchman in the R.A.F. said: "Why not publish it for the benefit of the Red Cross?" The boys unanimously thought that was a swell idea:

The Americans liberated us on April 15, 1945. Four-days later we flew to England.

Being a Canadian I contacted our Canadian Red Cross through Lord Bennett, who was Chairman of the London Committee. He sent me to Col. R. W. Frost, the Overseas Commissioner. The Colonel thought the idea a good one and passed me to the Hon. Vincent Massey and to Canadian Military Headquarters. All threw in their weight, including the British Ministry of Information. The Right Hon. Sir Stafford Cripps guided us through a maze of detail.

The British and Australian Red Cross Societies agreed to join the Canadians in financing the production of 100,000 copies. V. J. Day came so we reduced it to 50,000. Ultimate paper restrictions reduced us to 16,000 copies.

These negotiations took two months. We fiddled away two more trying to get paper. It was now September. Then a Toronto Engineer, Colonel Mickey MacDonald, dropped into the little hole-in-the-wall in Cancross House that I called my office, and suggested I go over to Army Headquarters in Holland. He was sure the 'boys' could do something. They did.

Lt. Col. John Craig, M.B.E., also of Toronto, lined up the deal. The type for the script would be set up in the 1 Cdn. Mobile Printing Section, R.C.A.S.C. at Army H.Q. Then the British boys would take over. A German firm in Hamburg would print the 32 plates in four colors and the monocolor ones; the boys at Field Marshal Montgomery's H.Q., British Army of the Rhine would do the binding, while Canadian Movement Control would get it back to England.

Those English boys were simply terrific. "Of course, old boy, we'll do the job for you". Then a few minutes later: "Just what do you want us to do for you, old boy?" That is co-operation at its best. Answer: "Yes!" And then find a way to do it.

We found out later that Major Budd, M.B.E., and Capt. Ken Tollitt had been with Montgomery since before Alemein. They had followed him literally from Alemein to the Baltic.

It was now November. I returned to England. The publisher had quit because he could not control the production in Germany. Then just to cheer matters up we found that the wangle we were going to get our paper on went sour.

However, we finally got off the mark in Hamburg in January, 1946. Within four months we had the production job complete. The printing was finished in May. The type was set up by the Canadians in Holland. The Hamburg Germans did the printing; the Rhine Army boys the binding; while the R.C.A.F. flew the completed job back to England in the spare space in the 'mail can'! The paper came from England, the photo plates from Antwerp, gold for the lettering from The Northern Miner here in Toronto. A young English parachutist 'Saboteur' and ex-P.O.W., Capt. Peter Baker, M.C., acted as publisher with his Falcon Press. He was silly enough to be captured behind the lines skulking around in civilian clothes.

I made six trips to the Continent, most of them by air, and clocked up 10,000 miles in a jeep rattling about Northern Europe, coordinating all this nonsense. We called it the "Pony Express".

3,000 copies went to Australia, 3,500 to Canada, and the rest to Britain.

The Macmillan Publishing Company are kindly distributing "Detour" here in Canada.

The Rhine Army boys bound some deluxe copies in Morocco leather; one in blue for the King, the rest were in brown for Mr. Churchill, Mr. Atlee, the Dominion Prime Ministers and High Commissioners, Field Marshal the Lord Chetwood, who headed the Red Cross, Field Marshal Alexander, Field Marshal Montgomery, and General Crerar.

The press and radio have been simply magnificent, not only here, but in England and Australia. In England they did very well by us, indeed, while in Canada they did not spare the horses at all.

In closing may I thank you all and the people of Canada for your generous support of the Red Cross. The P.O.W. side was only one of many Red Cross Departments, but their parcels made possible by your contributions kept us in one piece. From the bottom of our hearts we say "Thank you!"

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The Inception and Production of Detour

The story of Oflag IVC, and the Canadian "Escape King", Lt. Bill Miller, Royal Canadian Engineers. The Dieppe Raid of August 19, 1942. A positive response to the questions, "Was it worth while? Was the raid a success?" A review of the situation up to the summer of 1942. The experience of the Canadians at Dieppe. Some of the reasons we didn't do better at Dieppe, including a pre-war indifference to National Defence matters. The gain from Dieppe. The end of the battle and capture. Details of life in the prison camps. Getting to know the British in the prison camp. Parcels from the Red Cross. Courses and books from The Canadian Legion War Services. Participation of the Canadian Prisoners-of-War Relatives Association. The idea of Escaping. The Escape Committee of the Senior British Officer. Details of escape plans, strategies, and the escapes. The late Lt. Bill Miller's idea of having the boys write short, punchy incidents of their military and prison career; the start of "Detour." Producing and publishing.