From The Great Boer Escape
by Willie Steyn
After three failed attempts, we decided that fate was against our escape by means of a tunnel, and we started considering other methods of escape. But first, for those of you who have never been prisoners of war, let me describe the Green Point Camp.
A barbed wire fence, five foot high, surrounded the entire camp. Beyond that was a second fence, seven foot high, made of galvanised iron, leaving an open space of approximately sixteen yards between the two fences. This was called the ‘Death Zone’, and any prisoner seen there ran the risk of being shot without warning. A third fence, beyond the first two, kept the public at a distance. The guards stood on high platforms, about as high as the outside fence, and at night the entire camp was lit with electric lights, making it seem like daylight.
Scaling the fence was a physical impossibility, so we had to think of another way out. Three of us – Tielman Roos, Piet Botha and I – were particularly good friends. After carefully surveying the camp for days on end, I noticed a spot in the outside fence where the ground was considerably lower than the bottom of the fence. The gap between them had been filled in with stones. It was exactly halfway between two guards in the Death Zone, so being spotted there would mean certain death.
We decided to draw lots for the dangerous task of removing the stones, to enable us to crawl through.
The lot fell on Roos.
He crawled through the barbed wire fence, and managed to cross the open area unnoticed. After what seemed like an eternity, he came crawling back and reported that he could remove the stones, but that there were two other wires that would have to be cut before we could get through.
Roos had done his job, so Botha and I drew lots for the next task.
This time it fell on me.
The first thing I needed was a pair of pliers with which to cut the wires. I knew someone who had smuggled a pair into the camp, so I asked him whether he would lend them to me. He had already got wind of what we were planning, however, and he refused to part with his pliers.
Eventually I was able to borrow a file from a jeweller.
I crawled through the barbed wire and moved towards the iron fence, constantly keeping an eye on the guards. Eventually I was able to start filing.
It was a laborious process, and to this day I do not know how I was not heard by the guards. The second wire was pulled so tight that when it snapped, it seemed that the noise must have been audible for a distance of about fifty yards.
We had wanted to have the job done by eight o’clock, in order to be able to escape and immediately mingle with the people walking in the street, so that even if the guards saw us, it would be impossible for them to fire into the crowd.
But it took so long to file through the wires with the blunt file that it was past eleven before I was able to crawl back and tell my friends that the opening was ready.
By now all was quiet, with no sound other than that of the guards walking up and down on their high platforms. There was nobody about on the street, and if we had left then, we would definitely have been spotted. We decided to wait until the following evening. The next day was a Sunday and, for the entire, endless day, we watched the opening we had made, wondering when it would be discovered.
At last night fell, and again we drew lots for who would be the first to escape. Again it was Roos. After shaking our hands, he crept through the wire and started crawling across the Death Zone.
Botha and I kept watch. The guards were at their posts on the platforms, rifles ever at the ready, as we followed their every move. Roos, of course, was also keeping an eye on them.
Suddenly one of the guards turned his head, as if he had heard something, and he seemed to look straight at Roos. Botha and I were ready to give the warning the moment he lifted his rifle, but he must have been deep in thought, for he gave no indication of having seen anything. Roos came crawling back to us. ‘Did you see that guard?’ he asked.
Nothing could convince Roos that the guard had not seen him, and that he had not been merely waiting to get a good shot at him once he was outside the fence, as had happened with a few other prisoners. So, after much deliberation, we decided to escape together.
This time I was the first to crawl through the wire, and I was about halfway through when Botha pulled me back, warning: ‘Careful, there they are!’
An officer and five or six of his men had seen us, and we were caught in the act.
He took our names and went into the Death Zone to inspect the opening we had made. Apparently he was most surprised, because we heard him exclaim: ‘Good God, how did they manage this? This hole is big enough for a wagon to pass through!’
An extra guard was placed at the opening, and we were sent back to our tent. There we were reproached from all sides for getting our fellow prisoners into trouble, and for causing them even more misery than they were already suffering.
Again one of our own men had betrayed us, and this was our last chance of escaping from Green Point – deportation to Ceylon or Bermuda was now a certainty, and everybody feared such a journey.
The following morning, on the 15th of November 1900, we were told to prepare ourselves for boarding the Catalonia by two o’clock the same day.