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Lepkowski’s Prisonbreak

German Forces

Lepkowski’s Prisonbreak


The Brasprats Raid, 16 August 1944. When Leutnant (lieutenant) Erich Lepkowski called his 5. Kompanie (5th Company) together he knew the daring mission he was about to give his men had to succeed. Failure meant certain death for 130 of his fellow Fallschimjäger (paratrooper) comrades in arms. Lepkowski was determined to rescue them, for they would certainly do the same for him. He took the lead for the rescue mission and without a moment to lose, called for volunteers. He watched with pride as all of his men stepped forward to join him. Lepkowski outlined the cold, hard details of the situation. Partisans of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) caught over 130 of their fellow Fallschirmjäger troops. A few troopers were able to escape and made the harrowing journey through the FFI and American perimeter and back to German lines. The soldiers reported that the French were mistreating the prisoners. Unfortunately, reports of this kind were tragically common as the newly empowered French fighters exacted terrible revenge upon German prisoners for the occupation. A captured German’s life expectancy in the hands of the French was only a matter of how long they fancied keeping him alive. Sometimes this was only minutes or days, if the German prisoner was lucky. Lepkowski dismissed his men to prepare for the mission. Meanwhile he planned out how he was going to get his force all the way to where the prisoners were being held, some 30 miles (50km) away in a small village called Brasprats. Somehow, Lepkowski needed to breakthrough the thin American perimeter and through FFI territory, rescue the prisoners before the FFI could execute them, and then get back to Brest as quickly as possible. The force only had enough men, weapons, and ammunition for a single one-way trip…that is if they were forced to fight their way both ways. The key to success would be to sneak their way into Brasprats, spring the prisoners, and then fight their way back to German lines. Lepkowski ran around to all of the regimental headquarters in the division and gathered as many of the captured Allied trucks as he could. He had all of the German insignia stripped away, Allied stars painted on, and French liberation slogans scribbled on the sides. The paratroopers then put on French partisan clothing over their uniforms and mounted up in the ‘Allied’ vehicles. The genius of Lepkowski was thanks in part to his divisional commander General Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke, who had won a reputation for launching daring and successful raids against the Allies in North Africa. Ramcke was also concerned for his captured men and he authorised Lepowski to use three captured American tanks to bolster the rescue mission’s firepower. Just before the vehicles departed, the paratroopers added more pieces to their disguise. American and French flags were flown from the vehicles to help trick the FFI and American soldiers, but also served to protect them from any enemy aircraft that might fly overhead. Furthermore, false orders to release the prisoners into the custody of the Lepkowski’s ‘Americans’ were drawn up to help persuade the FFI to hand over the prisoners. Finally, as an added security measure, French-speaking soldiers were selected to drive the vehicles in case they were stopped and questioned. Furthermore, false orders to release the prisoners into the custody of the Lepkowski’s ‘Americans’ were drawn up to help persuade the FFI to hand over the prisoners. Finally, as an added security measure, French-speaking soldiers were selected to drive the vehicles in case they were stopped and questioned. In the early hours of 16 August Lepkowski gave the order to advance. The column of 18 trucks and three tanks lurched forward to its first challenge, the American perimeter. The Fallschirmjäger launched several diversionary attacks and the Americans dutifully reacted. While the Americans were distracted elsewhere, Lepkowski slipped through the lines and into FFI territory. The column passed through several checkpoints. The FFI did not suspect anything, especially that an entire company of Fallschimjäger were hidden in plain sight! As the column neared Brasprats, the Fallschimjäger in the back of the trucks removed their disguises, pulled down the canvas coverings over the truck beds, and readied their weapons. The men sat quietly as they listened to the FFI guards chat with the drivers. Soon the truck was moving again and the column entered the town. The prisoners were being held in a small school building. Lepkowski unfolded a map with notes and directions scribbled in red pencil. He ordered the column to the school building. As they pulled up to the objective, something went wrong. A rifle shot cracked through the air and with that Lepkowski’s ruse was up! Instantly, the Fallschirmjäger troops leapt from the trucks and sprang into action securing the building and the area around it. The prisoners inside had heard their comrades outside and quickly overpowered the guards, which they tied up and took with them. The two German forces were glad to see each other, but didn’t waste a moment beating a hasty retreat out of the village. The highly professional paratroopers easily overcame the untrained FFI. The tanks pelted the FFI guard posts, highexplosive shells knocking out the few heavy weapons the French had. After about 20 minutes of fighting the Fallschirmjäger reached the village roadblock. The French put up a fight and after a sharp battle the Germans swept aside the French partisans and broke through onto the open road. The column raced toward Brest smashing through the first few FFI roadblocks. However, resistance grew as they got closer to the front line. The disorganised FFI finally managed to reinforce the last FFI roadblock ahead of the Fallschirmjäger and another short battle broke out. Once again the tanks led the way and blasted their way through the roadblock. The Germans troops mounted up again and pushed through. As the column reached the American perimeter they were pleased to discover that the Americans were still occupied by Ramcke’s diversionary attacks. The column slipped back into Fortress Brest without any more trouble. Lepkowski’s raid was a terrific success. The column had travelled 75 miles (120 km) round trip. They had rescued all 130 prisoners and even captured 15 FFI soldiers. Lepkowski was impressed by the French fighters and successfully argued to have them interred as regular Prisoners of War, sparing them from the firing squad as guerrilla fighters. Even more amazing was that the German casualties were only three lightly wounded soldiers despite all of the heavy fighting. Erich Lepkowski was an instant hero. Ramcke promoted him to Oberleutnant (1st Lieutenant) and he was awarded the Knight’s Cross. He continued to provide excellent service to his beloved Fallschirmjäger until he was horribly wounded in the closing days of the battle for Brest. Lepkowski, a breath or two away from death, was rescued from a pile of corpses by a German doctor and treated. In time Lepkowski made a full recovery and went on to serve in Germany’s post-war paratrooper force.