||On the night of 24th/25th March, 1944, over 200 captured Allied aircrew attempted to break out of Stalag Luft III, a Prisoner of War camp in eastern Germany. The attempt was the culmination of many months of careful preparation, including the digging of a narrow tunnel over 330 feet in length. Wg. Cdr. Rees was one of the tunnellers who had spent so long working on the attempt when, following the escape of 76 men and as he prepared to leave himself, the tunnel was discovered. Of those who made it out, 3 managed to get home to the U.K. and 23 were returned to PoW camps. The other 50 were murdered in cold blood by the Gestapo. This is Wg. Cdr. Rees' account of what later became known as The Great Escape.|
I joined 40 Squadron in early 1941. Following operations over Europe I volunteered to fly out to the Middle East to do another tour from Malta.1942 was a most eventful year for me. In January I finished my second tour of operations and was commissioned. In February I had my 21st birthday and in April returned home to instruct. In September I managed to wangle my way back onto operations and joined 150 Squadron in Yorkshire, still flying Wellington bombers. On October 3rd I was married but recalled from my honeymoon as I had been promoted to Ft. Lt. and made deputy Flight Commander. I was shot down over Norway shortly afterwards on October 23rd. This was the day that Alamein started and I always say that from the day I was shot down the Allies went on to victory.
I managed to crash land in a lake, quite close to the shore. The front gunner was dead and there was no sign of the rear gunner (his body was recovered from the turret some two decades later when the aircraft was discovered in a remote corner of Norway). The three of us who had survived made it to land and after treating our various wounds as best we could, set off to find some local help, in the hope of somehow making our way either home or to neutral Sweden. We ended up in a remote house awaiting the arrival of a doctor who some locals we had met had promised to send. Suddenly what seemed to me to be half the German army entered the room, along with some officials in civilian clothes who I took to be Gestapo. I think I grew several inches as my arms reached upwards in surrender and I heard the words "for you the war is over". I was interrogated at length but treated fairly, with the exception of once being silenced by a blow to my head with a rifle butt having been unable to hide my amusement when some Gestapo interrogators appeared, dressed exactly as in the films, with long leather coats and wide brimmed hats.
||Stalag Luft III as photographed by an allied reconnaissance plane in March 1944, shortly after the Great Escape. From left to right the Compounds are West, North and South (with open ground between them), German Garrison, Centre and East.|
At the start the camp had a population of about 1000 - roughly 500 RAF and Dominion Air Force Officers, 300 Americans and the rest a mixture of Poles, Czechs, French, etc. It was built in an area cleared of trees in the middle of a pine forest and was in the form of a square about three quarters of a mile around the outside. We were enclosed by two sets of barbed wire about 5 feet apart and 8 feet high. In between was coiled barbed wire. On the inside of the fence, about 15 feet in, was a wooden rail about 2 feet high. Inside this rail was a sterile area and anyone foolish enough to step over this fence would be shot at by one of the guards manning sentry towers set at regular intervals some 4 feet above the wire all around the compound. These towers were manned day and night and were mounted with a machine gun, rifle and searchlight.
The compound contained 15 wooden huts raised
about 2 feet above the ground so that the "ferrets" - our name for the
security guards - could crawl underneath and search for tunnels. Each hut
had a small kitchen containing a small stove, night toilet and wash room.
The kitchen washroom and the solid fuel stoves in each room were built
on a concrete base, which went down to the ground. The Commandant, Col.
Lindeiner, considered the camp very good and expressed a hope that we would
be good boys and stay within the safety of the camp until the war was over.
What a hope he had!
||A typical room with triple bunk beds and plenty of other wooden furniture, much of which would not be used for it's intended purpose!|
||The camp commander was Oberst (Colonel) Friedrich-Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau (left), a highly decorated WWI veteran and former member of Goering's personal staff. Lindeiner-Wildau was well educated, spoke excellent English and held the respect of the senior Allied officers in the camp. He had joined the Luftwaffe as it was the armed service most independent of the Nazis.|
Once all the traps were completed a start
was made on sinking the shafts. It was decided to sink them about 25 feet
down in order to get the tunnels well below the sound detectors placed
under the boundary wire. The shafts had to be completely shored with wood,
as would the tunnels, as we were digging in pure sand. At the bottom of
each shaft three chambers were constructed, one to store the sand awaiting
disposal, one to house the air pump and one as a workshop. The tunnel itself
was just under two feet square. The boards used to shore them dictated
the size of the tunnels and shafts. These were taken from the bunk beds
we slept on and were just over two feet long. As the tunnels got longer
the demand for bed boards meant that the space between each board in our
beds got wider and more uncomfortable. In total some four thousand boards
were eventually used and some prisoners ended up converting their beds
|One of the tunnel shafts, well shored with bed boards. Just over 2 feet in length, these dictated the dimensions of Tom, Dick and Harry.|
||"Klim" milk powder was sent in our Red Cross parcels. The empty tins were joined together to form pipes, used for the tunnel ventilation and as a temporary flue for the stove when it was removed from the tunnel entrance.|
The next problem was how to get rid of the sand we dug out. The discovery of freshly dug sand by the Germans was the biggest single cause of failed tunnelling attempts throughout the Camps and so it was crucial that disposal was effective. At Stalag Luft III the sand was almost white whereas the surface of the camp was a blackish grey loam, so one handful put on the surface stood out and could be seen from yards away. An officer was appointed to take charge of disposal and he collected a team of about fifty men called "Penguins", who were to devise ways of getting rid of the sand. Because of compression at depth, occasional falls, the construction of chambers and the "halfway houses" (more of which later) the Penguins were faced with the awesome task of hiding, from under the noses of the Germans, 1 ton of sand for every 3-4ft. (about 1m) of tunnel. The total sand dispersed of by the completion of the work was some 230 tons. Of this, one method which was slow but successful accounted for over half the total. A penguin would have two sausage shaped bags, made from German issue towels about 20 inches long, suspended down his trousers and joined by an adjustable sling made from Red Cross braces around his neck. These were filled with sand (approx. 8lbs. or 4kg per sack) and he would walk over to, for example, someone digging a garden, stand in the trench, release a clip and the gardener would cover up the sand. So well hidden were the sacks that the penguins made some 18,000 trips between them to the dispersal areas in this way. At one point they were disposing of sand at the rate of 60lbs (30kgs) per minute - this nearly always in full view of the guards, without once being discovered!
Another method of dispersal was to fill an empty Red Cross cardboard box with sand, join a group sitting around chatting and gradually bury the sand. Perhaps the least stressful way however was during the summer, when sand would be wrapped in a blanket, the blanket laid out on a sandy patch of ground and the carrier would then sunbathe, camouflaging the sand under the blanket at his leisure. All this was painfully slow but essential - we could dig out sand faster than the penguins could find a home for it, so digging was often suspended whilst the surplus was safely dealt with.
After a time the
Oberfeltwebel Glimnitz found a little sand and became very suspicious.
This meant constant snap searches and we even saw a ferret hiding in the
trees with field glasses.
||Sergeant Major Hermann Glemnitz was the senior non-commissioned officer on the security staff, responsible for preventing escape. He was a veteran pilot of World War I and an NCO of the "old school". Universally respected by prisoners and guards alike, he was nobody's fool and found nearly all the tunnels attempted. Harry was one of only a few to escape detection by his ferrets.|
To keep an eye on security a Security Officer was appointed and as you can guess was called "Big S". He and his team had to keep a check on who was coming in to the compound and let us know if it was clear to open the traps. Some of the team sat in a room nearest the entrance gate and booked everyone in. The ferrets and guards were graded according to their keenness. Some were easily diverted into a room for a coffee, but others would be a real threat. Our security team had a suitable system of signals, which relayed this information to the hut where digging was taking place. Sometimes this would mean a panic shutdown, much to the consternation of the people down the tunnel. In one case during a panic shut down someone was hauling a large jug of sand up the shaft when the danger signal was given. He dropped the jug, which unfortunately landed on the head of the dispatcher knocking him out. This wasn't funny at the time as we didn't know how long the panic would last.
Another important team was the Engineering Section. They were in charge of getting the wood and dove tailing it to shore the tunnel, collecting empty Klim milk powder tins to make the airline and constructing the air pump. The pipe ran under the floor of the tunnel and it was quite a hard job to pump air to the face as the tunnel got longer. If they stopped pumping for any length of time the fat lamps in the tunnel started to fade through lack of oxygen. To start with we pulled the sand back from the face with a basin and rope but as the tunnel lengthened the engineers constructed railway lines made from beading strips taken off the walls of the rooms and a trolley with two wooden box's on it. The wheels of the trolley were made of wood, flanged and fitted with tin hoops, the axles were rods taken from some of the cooking stoves. A rope was fastened to either end and it worked like a charm.
Other people involved were the forgers, known as Dean & Dawson, a well-known pre war travel agency. They were responsible for making maps, travel papers, passes for foreign workers, etc.. They even made crude compasses, about the size of a 50p piece, by melting down an old 78 record to make the bowl and using a magnetised needle to point north. Rail timetables, passes and other useful items were obtained from some of the guards who had been corrupted with gifts of soap, coffee, cigarettes or chocolate from our Red Cross parcels. Once they had accepted gifts we then blackmailed them into providing more things for the use of the forgers.
There was a Tailors Dept. who altered uniforms, made caps from the lining of greatcoats and civilian suits from materials we had obtained. They even made a couple of German Army uniforms. They also helped us to make our own uniforms look less military. I was paired for the escape with Joe Noble and we decided to alter the colour of our uniforms by boiling them in the black bindings of some books. Not very successful and I don't advise you to try it!
We now had about 30 underground and 300
other workers. After several months Tom was almost at the wire and the
other tunnels had progressed to a similar length. About this time we heard
that because the camp was getting overcrowded the Americans were to be
moved to their own adjoining but completely separate compound. As quite
a few had been involved with the project it was decided to "blitz" Tom
to give them a chance to get out. This meant taking chances and with the
ferrets already suspicious that there was a tunnel somewhere searches were
intensified, especially of Tom's block as it was nearest to the wire. One
of these searches had just finished when a ferret idly poked his metal
probe into the concrete of the trap. To his surprise it went into a concealed
crack and that was the end of Tom and many months of hard work. The goons
were elated, they had found the tunnel at last. The hut was emptied, explosives
placed in the tunnel and Tom was blown up.
|Ferrets were specially trained to detect escape attempts.They launched hut searches without warning and were always looking for signs of tunnelling. They would sometmes lie beneath the huts at night listening for careless talk - hence the use of codenames for everything connected to the escape.|
||Goon tower in the American compound. These two prisoners are exercising along the edge of the "sterile area". One of these towers was badly damaged when Tom was discovered and blown up.|
To allay suspicion Big X decided to stop all work on the other two tunnels and so lull the goons into a false sense of security. Winter was the off season for escaping for most people for obvious reasons - travelling rough in freezing conditions being the main one. Christmas passed and in January, 1944 we resumed tunnelling. As we had already dug about 140 feet of Harry whereas Dick was somewhat smaller at 100 feet, it was decided to use Dick as a sand dispersal for Harry. From a German point of view, Harry was the least likely tunnel as it would have to pass under the wire and then beneath the Vorlager, which contained the sick quarters, Red Cross parcel store and the solitary imprisonment cells known as the "Cooler". It then had to go under another set of wire and across open ground into the wood. In all we calculated that this was about 350 feet.
We normally dug for about six hours at
a time, during the interval between morning and evening roll call. At first
we wore long johns and a vest but as these were kept in the tunnel they
soon became wet and smelly so after a while we usually worked in the nude.
After digging about 100 feet it became hard pulling the trolley so we built
what we called a halfway house. This was a stretch of tunnel some six feet
long which was a bit wider and higher than the main part and had two people
manning it. Sand was pulled by one trolley from the face and then transferred
to another trolley at the halfway house, which was pulled to the base of
the shaft. When the tunnel was completed we had two "halfway houses", known
as Piccadilly and Leicester Square. By mid March we considered that we
were under the wood and had completed the tunnel, leaving only the exit
shaft to do. We were not sure how deep we were so the exit shaft was very
difficult. We dug up about six inches, put boards across and then shored
it. As we got nearer the surface we used a thin metal probe and when we
were within two feet of the surface we stopped and made it secure in case
someone walked over it. We were now ready to break out. It was the 15th
of March, 1944.
|Sketch of Harry, showing the importance of Leicester Square and Piccadilly as halfway houses, dug to avoid pulling trolleys loaded with sand the entire length of the tunnel.|
On the night we assembled in hut 104 which had been evacuated of all the inhabitants not involved. What a motley crowd we were - some in smart city suits, dressed as businessmen and travelling by train, others as foreign workers and even two as German soldiers! The rest of us were going rough, looking as non-military as we could and with as much clothing on as possible. Joe and I were going east and then south, hoping to get to Yugoslavia. With a few bars of home made emergency rations in our pockets and sub zero temperatures outside, I now realise this was a hopeless task but at the time was very confident.
Tension was high and got higher as word filtered back that because of some unforeseen snags the breakout was delayed. This was made worse when it was discovered that the tunnel was ten feet short of the woods. A conference was held by the exit and it was decided to tie a rope from the top of the shaft to a tree. One man would lie at the tunnel exit and when the guard was furthest away would let escapees out who would crawl along the rope to the tree. After five had passed along, the next one out would take his place and carry on the good work. In all this had delayed the start from 9 p.m. until 10 p.m. and to make matters worse many of the escapees were in the tunnel for all this time and some had panicked, causing falls, which had to be repaired. I should mention that for the night of the escape we had rigged up electric light throughout the tunnel with some cable stolen from a German workman.
Things were just beginning to go smoothly when the RAF decided to bomb Berlin and were routed near to the camp. This meant that the lights were turned off and although this helped those at the exit, within the tunnel confusion reigned and we had to use the fat lamps which gave only minimum light. More panic and more falls followed. Joe and I were by now in the tunnel and it took us nearly ten minutes to get each bloke through.
By now it was clear that we wouldn't get 200 out and so it was decided to close the tunnel at 5 a.m. At about 4.45 we pulled our reliefs through and started the last leg from Leicester Square to the exit. As we got close we heard a shout and then a shot. We knew immediately that the tunnel had been discovered and made our way back to Leicester Square. The two men at the bottom of the exit shaft were Clive Saxelby and Joe Moul and they came crawling past me in Piccadilly. Quickly following them, fearing that a goon may shoot down the tunnel, we scrambled back to the entrance shaft and into the hut where the entrance was closed down. It's ironic that as I was the last retreating I actually tried to collapse the tunnel by kicking out the shoring boards behind me but failed.
In the hut it was bedlam. People were burning papers and maps and trying to eat as much of their rations as they could, as we knew these would all be confiscated as soon as the Germans arrived. In no time they were in the hut and we were surrounded by dozens of goons armed with Tommy Guns and machine guns. We were marched out into the snow and Joe and I were soon singled out. They made us strip and I took exception to a goon who tried to pull at my clothes, foolishly pushing him away. To my horror the chief ferret took aim with his revolver but just at that moment the Commandant stepped out of the hut and yelled at him. Very relieved, we were marched off to the cooler with a Tommy Gun in our backs to begin what turned out to be a long spell in solitary.
Of the 76 who had made it out of the tunnel, 3 returned safely to the U.K. and 23 were returned to captivity. The Gestapo and SS murdered the other 50 on the direct orders of Hitler. Although it could hardly be called a success, with only 3 getting home and 50 of our friends being killed, we had at least caused havoc all over Germany with thousands of police, army and Hitler youth being diverted from their usual activities to search the Reich for escapees.
The response of the German guards to the murders was to distance themselves from the atrocity, making it plain that the Gestapo were responsible. The senior officers were, in fact, in some considerable trouble because of the escape attempt. The Commandant, Lindeiner, was held to account and faced a court martial over the breakout - we even began to feel some sympathy towards him, as he was an honourable man and always dealt with prisoners as fairly as possible. For me, the thought of making another attempt at freedom was not attractive. A lot of good friends had been murdered, including one of those closest to me, Johnny Bull, whom I had come to know very well. The period after the shootings was very low for me and the other prisoners.
Of course, the immediate concern was for food and other supplies during the march and so the prisoners started to make sledges out of timber from the huts, in order to carry as much as possible with us over the snow covered ground. Joe Noble, who was very good at doing such things, created a sledge out of hockey sticks (the runners) with a large box on top, the result of which was that we managed to take much more with us than most of the others - 3 or 4 red cross parcels as well as cigarettes and other useful items.
As the march started we found ourselves towards the rear of the column and we walked on and on in terrible weather. Time passed and the weather gradually warmed a little, melting the snow and so our sledges were abandoned and we had to carry as much as we could manage, rationing our supplies as we could not be sure of finding any food on the march. Whilst the local people were on the whole very friendly they too were short of supplies and so it wasn't even possible to trade coffee, etc... for food although we could sometimes get a little hot water this way. As more of the prisoners dropped out with frostbite, dysentry and other illnesses we were locked into overcrowded cattle trucks and taken by train. The journey lasted for three days and we were hungry and thirsty but were only allowed out on a couple of occasions to try and find some water.
Finally arriving at our destination we were marched to a camp where there were only bare wooden bunk beds, so we collapsed on straw, with the odd rat crawling over us. More than half the prisoners were by now suffering from dysentry, flu and frostbite. It was a terrible time and we knew that we were now being considered as hostages. We were now ordered to march back in the opposite direction again, but having heard that the Allies were making good progress we deliberately went as slowly as possible, hoping that the war would soon end. Concerns over our safety were so great that our senior officer warned the German commander that he would be held personally responsible for our wellbeing and that only humane guards should accompany us on the march. It really was a low time for us - at one point we were even fired at by one of our own aircraft, killing four naval officers at the rear of the column.
By late April it was clear that the war was won and the guards even openly let us listen to the news on a wireless owned by some locals, who had kindly let myself and another prisoner eat with them - it was odd, us having a sit down meal with Schnapps whilst our guards sat on the floor eating their less than appetising looking rations. They knew the end was nigh.
"Lie in the Dark and Listen"
Ken Rees with Karen Arrandale
(Grub Street, London, 2004)
War Behind The Wire"
(Pen & Sword, 2000)
|Based on the BBC documentaries of the same name and featuring the recollections of former POWs, including Wg. Cdr. Rees|
|Rivetting account of the Great Escape by a participant.|
|Another superb first hand account of a prisoners time in captivity.|
|Well researched and detailed account of the Escape by Rob Davis.|
|USAF Academy site relating to SL3 before, during and after the Escape.|
|Information and links relating to captured aircrew from all conflicts.|
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