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Samuel Elsby Harper

4th Engineer


Samuel Elsby Harper R-173908 :- Nationality/Birthplace :- Liverpool :- 4th Engineer :- 
Particulars of Discharge :- Vessel sunk by enemy action :- Prisoner of War”. 

An Authentic Great Escape as told to Richard Bowen, on this website and reproduced here:

Sam Harper's story is a real-life great escape. For the Sale man was a crewmember of the SS Automedon, a British cargo ship shelled and sunk in a surprise attack off the coast of Sumatra on November 11, 1940. This is his remarkable story. 

'At the time I was on watch in the engine room and suddenly there was a god almighty bang followed by a scream of steam escaping because the second shot from the raider hit the base of the funnel. 

The Chinese scarpered for the deck. They were my firemen. 

The cabin crew were ordered on deck by a squad of armed German marines who later attached explosives to the ship's sides. 

After five weeks on the raider, the Atlantis, we were transferred to a captured tanker. 

We were told we would spend Christmas in the Antarctic but we ended up in the South Atlantic. 

We finally arrived in Bordeaux where we were marched to a prison camp at Sant Medard en Jean. 

After five weeks in the camp I and my fellow captives were put on a train bound for Germany on March 12, 1941. The day after I and three fellow prisoners made a break for it, jumping from the speeding train. 
We were dead lucky we didn't break any limbs jumping from the train which was travelling at quite a high sped. We set off walking and came to this German station camp.' 

The quartet headed inland in an attempt to avoid the heavily militarised French coast. 

'To avoid drawing attention to ourselves, we walked in twos - with the man of a similar stature sticking to one another like glue. But there was one heart stopping moment. 

After a while we were stopped by a French policeman and this worried us a bit because we had the impression the French police were in cahoots with the Germans but this fella wasn't and he told us where the line of demarcation was, which was this river called the Cher. 
When we got in sight of the river, we hid in the wood until dark when we went down to the river. 
What followed was straight out of a boy's own novel - the quartet paddled across the fast- flowing Cher is a stolen punt. 
We successfully negotiated the river and were befriended by a French peasant who fed, watered and allowed us to spend the night in his African hut style house. 

Eventually we found themselves (sic) in Loches where a friendly French official issued us with forged French army papers. 

Next stop was Marseilles. We spent three weeks in the French barracks there and we were told that, if we went to the seaman's mission, the Rev Donald Caskey, who was in charge, would fix us up with accommodation. 

It was with Caskey's help that we fled Nazi-occupied France into Spain, via the Pyrenees, where we boarded a train bound for Madrid, only to be picked up by Spanish police for entering the country without permission. 

After a couple of prison transfers, we ended up in a Spanish labour camp. 
You got either a boot up the arse or a smile. We slept adjacent to these two Dutch guys we'd met. 
You were supposed to work but with the help of the British who seemed to have some pull, we got out of that. 
We got quite friendly with these Dutch chaps who said they wanted to get back to England to become involved in the war. 
They gave me a letter to take back to the Dutch government in exile once I returned to England. 

We were released from the slammer by the British naval attaché who sent a British embassy official with orders to cross the palms of the Spanish guards with silver. 

It was June 27, 1941, that I again set foot on British soil; seven months after being taken prisoner. 

My Dutch friends were recruited by the British secret service and Reigli met his death in Auschwitz after being betrayed by British spies while he was on a mission in Nazi- occupied Holland. 
Louis joined the Special Operations Executive and became a very successful British spy. He was dropped into Holland by Lewis Hedges. 
Louis was decorated for his war efforts, picked up a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and an array of military honours from the Dutch Queen, Juliana. 
It turned out he wasn't just plain Louis, he was a baron. Lewis Hedges became Sir Lewis Hedges, Air Marshall Lewis Hedges. Louis didn't need a title. He'd already got one.' 

S. E. Harper, 3rd engineer on watch down below at the time of the sinking.


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Andy Wade (Webmaster)

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