The Great Escape…An Admission…
As you may know, or then again may not, on this day in history in 1944, the Great Escape happened.
And as regular blog or Twitter readers may know I have had the fortune to have been to the site of Stalag Luft III and seen the place where it happened.
As a quick precis, on this night in 1944, 76 allied prisoners of war crept through over 300 feet of tunnel just 2 feet wide. They dug through some floor tiles and down through brick until they hit soil and then went 30 foot down. Over 200 were scheduled to break out through the tunnel they constructed, but the escape was discovered after just (JUST!) 76 got out. Of these only three actually made a “home run” and escaped back to the UK. Of the rest who were captured, 50 were executed on Hitlers orders – the remainder being sent back to the camp but avoided execution after Goring – who was fearful of reprisals against captured German aircrew persuaded Hitler to stop the killing.
As I said I have been to the site and blogged about what I did there – recreating the Long March of prisoner in 1945 – but I have said little about the site itself.
Stalag Luft III is at Sagen, in modern day south-western Poland, and is, to be honest in the middle of no-where, in thick pine forest. And it was these two reasons that the site was chosen for the camp. It is miles away from the local town (and the local transport network of the railways) and the soil that the pine trees love is sandy and is difficult for the prisoners to tunnel through – due to danger of collapse.
Time has been hard on the site. Away from the actual area where the escape happened – a good mile at least is a visitor centre and a recreation of one of the huts from the 1940’s, but the actual area where the prisoners live is in danger of being lost to the forest.
You see as soon as the war was over and the camp closed the forest that had been cut back immediately tried to take the land back. There are a few bits that the forest will struggle to cover are things like the large theatre dug into the ground and the concrete of the ablutions – the wash block. Here and there are a few of the brick supports that lifted the prisoners huts off the floor – again to discourage tunnelling – but the wooden huts are long gone to be replaced by the wood of the trees that have quickly encroached on the site.
I arrived there after dark to spend the night at the same place as the prisoners did in 1944 and was instantly met with an over grown area miles from roads and any other civilisation and in something that we don’t get much here in the UK – almost total dark and total silence.
The trees add to a gloomy look and the uneven ground makes getting round tricky – and that wasn’t improved much in the daylight – as overnight there’d been a light snowfall. This added to the sense of history and the sense of…of wildness of the site. Which looks nothing like it did in the war anymore. There is a huge feeling of history there, and the history of the site of memorialised in the location of the tunnel entrance being marked by a concrete slab and the route of the tunnel marked similarly. You can see the width and the length of the tunnel and just imagine what it must have been like to have been down there, 30 feet down, with little air, no space to turn and precious little to move. You can almost feel the anticipation amongst the escapees who sat in Hut 104 waiting to make their break.
And here is where I have to make an admission of theft.
We were there standing in place where one of the most important events for the RAF happened. We were looking at where the entrance – inside the tunnel had been – and I went for a quiet wander. I could pace out the location and the size of the hut and here and there were pieces of brick and some bits of concrete. And then a glint of light caught my eye. In amongst the dull brown of the brick was a brighter piece of floor tile. It was through something exactly like THIS that the first pick-axe went through to start the construction of the tunnel. I bent down and picked it up.
And I looked around. And no-one was looking at me.
And I put it in my pocket.
I stole a bit of the hut where the actual Great Escape happened. I still have it. Here it is in this picture. I stood it up against my trainer so you could see I didn’t take a tiny bit. I took a big lump.
It was heavy – in more than one way – heavy with weight and heavy with the history of the site, of the people involved and of the event itself.
Now of course I cant say that it was one of the tiles that was on the floor through which the escapees went. I can’t even guarantee that this was on the floor in the hut during the actual escape. But I like to think so. I like to think that Jimmy James, Wally Floody, “Crump” Ker-Massey and Roger Bushell – the famous Big-X – stood on those tiles and discussed their imminent freedom. I like to think that even if the forest comes back and covers the site and wipes away everything that is there – a bit of it…a tiny bit of it will be kept.
I keep it very safe. It’s one of my prize possessions. But not so safe that I don’t have it out on the shelf in my bedroom here. And every time I look at it, or move it to dust, I remember that place. And I remember the things that happen there. and I remember the people involved in it.
And today, could I ask you to take just a moment to imagine waiting in that line to go into the tunnel. To anticipate freedom. To think that you could make it home to your family and friends and loved ones. And think of the 50 who were executed and who didn’t make it home.