“THE GREAT ESCAPE” – AN INSIDER’S ACCOUNT

As part of our 2009 programme at the Ashbourne CROCA Section, we were honoured with a talk from Frank Stone who had recently returned from Stalag Luft III where he had met up with former fellow P.O.Ws to mark the 65th Anniversary of the Great Escape. Some readers of this website might have seen his photograph on TV news or in the press.

Frank was an eighteen year old rear-gunner when, on 8th of April 1940, his Hampden was shot down during a raid on Ludwigshafen. He parachuted safely and spent the rest of the war in captivity. His first camp, Stalag Luft I, was near to the Baltic Coast where he arrived in September. The camp proved to be too small and, after about twenty months, the prisoners were transferred to a new camp, still under construction near Sagan (Stalag Luft III) which was regarded by the Germans as further from possible escape routes out of the country. During the stay in Stalag Luft I, many tunnels had been constructed although few, if any, escapes had been made. However, the extensive excavations in the underlying sand resulted in few of the huts being level !

The site of the new camp was surrounded by pine forests and, overall, covered about sixty acres. The trees had already been cleared but the Allied prisoners volunteered to clear the tree roots. Their stated reason was that they wanted to construct a playing field and a theatre but their hidden agenda was that it enabled them to suss out the site for useful information such as soil types, drainage pipes and channels etc.

All the camp huts were built on piles with a clear one metre space underneath which, it was thought by the Luftwaffe guards, would prevent tunnel construction. However, where such things as washrooms, stoves etc were situated, these needed brick/concrete structures for drains, chimneys etc. These structures proved to very effective in concealing entry to the tunnels which were constructed. There were also lines of sound sensors buried deep below ground level so it was realised that the tunnel would have to be deeper to avoid detection.

Previous tunnel construction had been on an ad hoc basis with small groups taking initiatives but at Stalag Luft III, a different strategy was planned – three tunnels with the hope of a mass break-out. The three were given code names – “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”, the latter being the longest one.

The prisoners were moved into the north compound in April 1943 and construction started with the concealed trap doors being built in four weeks. It is reported that a senior British Officer came to inspect the plans and said that the location of one trap door was no use since it would be easily spotted by the “Ferrets” ( camp security personnel). He was taken aback when it was pointed out that the trapdoor was already in place – it was virtually invisible.

It took another four weeks to dig down thirty feet to the tunnel depths – one problem was the disposal of the sand. The top few inches were dirty grey but then it was bright yellow. Every hut was ordered to start a garden to grow vegetables from seeds sent from the UK; this was supported by the Germans. The turning over of the soil allowed the spoil to be spread on them by “penguins”. These were prisoners with a container made from long johns down each trouser leg – the name came from their waddling gait as they moved around with their load.

Materials had to be purloined – cement for the trapdoors, wood from bunks and the huts themselves for tunnel shoring, materials to make simple railways in the tunnels to move spoil to the exit. Simple ventilation pumps (made from kitbags and wood) were needed to supply fresh air to the diggers, basic oil lamps to illuminate the workings etc.

The first tunnel to be discovered by the Ferrets was “Tom”; a probing rod was dropped accidentally and chipped the edge of a concrete trapdoor, revealing the joint. The Germans decided to call in a sapper to blow up the tunnel; he rather overdid things and managed to wreck the hut as well. Since “Dick” had a route fairly nearby, this one was abandoned although it came in handy for the spoil disposal from “Harry” on which all efforts were now to be concentrated.

One “helping hand” came from the Germans themselves when they decided to update the Tannoy system. The prisoners managed to purloin a thousand feet of cable and install electric light in the tunnel. By February 1944, it was calculated that “Harry” had now reached the woods and so break-out was scheduled for the next moonless period. A Friday night (24th March 1944) was chosen since it was known that there were more trains running on Saturdays. The first fifty places were allocated to those thought most likely to succeed in home runs – continentals, German speakers etc.; other places were allocated by drawing lots. Frank’s number was in the 200s.

The first person to open up the exit trapdoor had problems – the boards had warped and it took over an hour to open up. Then “Sod’s Law” reared its ugly head – just where the tunnel surfaced, some trees has been cleared, making a sort of bay in the forest edge, The exit was just in open ground. Fortunately, the guards in the Watch Towers had their searchlights and guns trained into the compound. The two guards on foot patrol between the exit and the outer fence were very disciplined, meeting in the centre, marching away from each other to the corners, then smartly “about turning” and coming back to the centre. So, a rope signalling system into the tunnel warned the escapers when the guards backs were turned and it was safe to exit.

This slowed things down and it was decided that escapes must end at 5 am, when eighty would be out, and the tunnel closed for future use. Unfortunately, as number 76 had just got out, one guard made a detour (a call of nature was suspected), walked over the exit and more or less trod on the head of number 77. A shot was fired into the air and the Great Escape was over.

Three prisoners (one Dutch, two Norwegian) made home runs but the tragedy was that fifty of the escapers were murdered on Hitler’s orders. However, as Frank pointed out, the project was not a waste of time – in particular the activities in Stalag Luft III and the escape itself tied up large numbers of the German military who were diverted from more direct contributions to the defence of Germany.

As the end of the War drew near and the Russians advanced from the east, the prisoners were moved west under not the best of conditions and put into another camp. Near VE day, they were liberated by Allied troops and ordered to “take over”. Frank intimated that they needed no second bidding to disarm their former captors

On the 24th March 2009, a number of ex- Stalag Luft III former prisoners returned to Sagan to be greeted by the RAF Central Band, to see the memorial built by Poles to mark the tunnel exit, a path to show the route of “Harry”, replica hut built by the RAF and to pay their respects at the memorial which carries the names of the fifty victims of Hitler’s war crime.

Thank you Frank for giving our members and their guests such a memorable evening.

Jon Layne
Secretary Ashbourne Section CROCA


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