A Daring Escape Through Enemy Lines

During the Battle of Arras, Peter Vaux and his crew made a daring escape through enemy territory, using their tank compass. The tank compass and Vaux’s story features in the Museum’s new WW2: War Stories exhibition.

The Vaux Compass is one of the stories Curator David Willey will explore during the WW2 Livestream event – 13th May – to officially open the new exhibition. Tune in here at 11am to see a tour of the new exhibition and hear from veterans who served during WW2.

Second Lieutenant Peter Vaux, Major Stewart Fernie and Lance Corporal Robert Burroughs were in a Light Mark VIB tank at the Battle of Arras in May 1940 and became separated from their battalion.

They found themselves behind enemy lines and mingled with German troops – they even had a traffic shunt which prompted a German officer ‘with true Teutonic efficiency’ to clear the road and wave them on.

He later recalled the moment he realised they were in trouble and put into practice the advice that the best chance of escape comes to those who make an early decision.

He wrote: “I was completely paralysed with fear. Our petrol was almost finished so we made for a wood and deep in the undergrowth hid the tank.

“We destroyed the wireless set, smashed the guns and generally put the tank out of action.

“We then removed the P8 compass, the emergency rations and our greatcoats.”

A portrait of a young man in military uniform. They have well brushed hair and a small mustache, against a grey wallpaper.

They continued to try and get back to allied lines and in a remarkable 11-day adventure used the luminous P8 compass to get to the River Somme, on the other side of which were French troops.

To reach the river they lived on their wits, dodging German patrols, hiding in farms and woodland and scavenging for food, all the time, relying on their tank’s compass.

At one point they were caught by a German officer and Vaux shot him dead at close range so they could escape.

After the trusty compass had led them to the river, there was another obstacle – seemingly impenetrable marshland.

In a bizarre twist they met Monsieur Gilis, a courageous Belgian interpreter who dressed Vaux in civilian clothes, claimed he was a Flemish refugee and said they had been ordered to repair fences.

A close up of a black compass, placed on a plastic sheet.

The ruse worked and the pair were able to cut a path to the river while taking notes on the whereabouts of the German patrols.

At night, the three crew set out to cross the river. As Major Fernie was the strongest swimmer Vaux gave him his supplies, including the compass, and uniform to take with him.

During the crossing Burroughs was swept downstream and sadly drowned and Vaux and Fernie were separated. At the other side, Vaux walked up the river bank clad in just underpants and beret trying to find Fernie.

Exhausted he was picked up by French troops who fed and clothed him and drove him to Aireans HQ where he was reunited with Fernie and the compass.

Vaux would later recall: “At 1.30 am on 1st June we plunged into the river. It was deep, fast running and we had a bad crossing. Corporal Burroughs was drowned.

“The Major got across but collapsed on the far bank. I was swept some 150 yards downstream in a half dazed condition.

A vintage photo showing a young male solider on military style motorbike, dressed in uniform with googles around their neck. The number 43 covers the front light.

“I have a clear recollection of Corporal Burroughs drowning, but by this time was too far gone myself to be of any value to him.”

After reaching safety Vaux and Fernie were sent home. Vaux wrote: “On 5th June we left France and at 6am on 6th June caught our first glimpse of Weymouth Bay. Never, I think have I ever seen anything so beautiful.”

You can read more about Peter Vaux, and see his compass, at the WW2: War Stories exhibition, the final part of which opens in May 2021. 

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