Thursday, November 12, 2015

"The Great Escape"

There's a saying in sports that "sports doesn't build character as much as it reveals it". Sometimes after great athletic performances under gruelling conditions or in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, we label the participants as "heroes". Hmm, really? Heroes? It's a game! In the course of human events the outcome is of little or no consequence. Let me tell you about some real heroes, one of whom I've actually met and perhaps some of you have too but that's, the rest of the story.

As you can see by the title, this is about one of the most truly incredible feats of initiative, intelligence, perseverance, courage and down right hard physical labour in modern history. For those of you out there who have never heard of "The Great Escape", don't run to the local DVD store to watch the movie of the same name. Hollywood took much licence with the real situation at the officers only camp during the second world war known as Luft III (aka Stalag Camp Oflag III). This was not a concentration camp. It was a prisoner of war camp mostly for Allied airmen shot down by the Nazis in the second world war.

There were three "compounds" in the camp. The first constructed was the East Compound and was for British RAF and Fleet Air officers. The Centre Compound was initially built to house British sergeants but was eventually filled by American prisoners exclusively. The North Compound (where the great escape occurred) was for British airmen and the West Compound for U.S. officers. Each of the compounds was comprised of 15 single storey huts. Each huts housed 15 prisoners in five triple deck bunks in a bunk room and there were many such rooms in each hut..

The camp was designed to be "tunnel proof", or so the Nazis thought. First, each barracks was built 60 cm. off the ground to make any tunnels easily visible. Second, the camp was purposely built on very sandy, yellow soil. The sand would make tunnelling treacherous as the sand would collapse on itself as a tunnel would be dug and even if one was attempted, the sand removed to be scattered would be quite visible due to its colour. Lastly, seismographic microphones were embedded around the perimeter of the camp to detect any sounds of digging.

The first successful escape was from the East Compound. That occurred in October of 1943 when prisoners constructed a wooden vaulting "horse" which was placed in the same place in the compound each day for exercise and recreation. The real purpose was to conceal two prisoners who opened a wooden trap door to continue to dig an escape tunnel. At the end of the day's vaulting over the horse, the two diggers and the sand they removed were carried back into the barracks. The physical activity around the horse shielded the digging from the seismographic microphones. Eventually a tunnel was dug of over 30 m and three prisoners escaped to freedom on the night of Oct. 19, 1943. You can read about this amazing feat in the book, "The Wooden Horse" by Eric Williams.

In the spring of 1943, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell RAF conceived a plan for a major escape which  was planned for the nights of March, 23-25, 1944. This escape, to be known as "The Great Escape" was from the North Compound. To improve the likelihood that a tunnel would be successfully completed, it was decided to build three, "Tom, Dick & Harry". And, although most escape tunnels were built hoping to free 10 - 20 prisoners, the plan for Tom, Dick and/or Harry was to allow for the escape of over 200 prisoners. Dick's entrance was carefully hidden in a drain sump in one of the washrooms. The entrance to Harry was hidden under a stove and Tom's entrance was in the dark corner of a hall in one of the buildings.

The depth of the tunnels was 9 m below the surface and only 0.6 m square, just enough room for a prisoner to be "dollied" along its length. Chambers along the way were dug to house air pumps, a workshop and staging posts. Since the sandy soil was so unstable, the walls of the tunnels needed to be "shored up". This was accomplished using boards from the bunks. Normally, each bunk had about 20 boards but by the time the tunnels were completed, each bunk was down to 7 or 8.

Another valuable resource were the "klim" cans ("milk" spelled backwards) which arrived for the prisoners from the Red Cross. These metal containers provided many different tools for digging as well as for other purposes. Fresh air was supplied by "air pumps" made from knapsacks and hockey stick shafts.

Once Tom, Dick & Harry were started, the next challenge was to dispose of the sand. The normal method was to have various prisoners place the yellow sand into pouches made from old socks. As they walked around the compound with the sand-laden socks under their trousers, made easier by the inevitable weight loss, the sand would scatter. Sometimes larger quantities of sand were placed into gardens the prisoners were allowed to tend. In all about 200 prisoners were involved in the sand distribution project making an estimated 25,000 trips into the compound for that purpose.

The Germans sensed that something was "up" but numerous attempts to find the entrance to tunnels failed! In a "shotgun" approach to break up the possible leaders of any escape via tunnels, without notice, 19 of the top "tunnel suspects" were transferred to Stalag VIIC but of the 19, only 6 were heavily involved in tunnel construction.

As the sand dispersal became more challenging, a perceived setback actually proved beneficial when Dick's entrance was covered by a camp expansion. They used that tunnel to hide sand taken from the construction of Tom and Harry. Dick was also used as a storage place for maps, postage stamps, forged travel documents, compasses and both German military & civilian clothing. Above the entrance to Dick, a theatre was constructed and by various means, seat 13 was "hinged" directly over Dick's entrance. Problem solved!

As work on Tom and Harry proceeded, eventually the Germans discovered Tom, the 98th tunnel to be discovered in the camp. Work on Harry stopped for a cooling off period but was resumed in January, 1944. Harry was finally ready in March of that year but many of the American prisoners, many of whom had worked on Harry were relocated to a camp about 7 miles away. As a result, despite the Hollywood film of the same name, no Americans escaped via Harry. The Germans redoubled their efforts to make sure no tunnels would be constructed for possible escape. Bushell therefore ordered the escape attempt to happen as soon as Harry was ready!

Of the 600 prisoners who worked on the tunnel, only 200 were slated to escape. That group of 200 was subdivided into two groups of 100. The first group was known as "the serial offenders" and included those who spoke German, had a history of attempted escapes plus 70 who had done the most work on tunnel construction. The second 100, called the "hard arsers" drew lots to gain their inclusion and knew they would have to travel by night with minimal fake papers and equipment. They knew their chances of a successful return home were slim but slim was better than nothing!

The first moonless night came on March 24. Those allocated to escape first gathered in Hut 104 but the weather was very cold and the entrance to Harry was frozen, adding an additional one and one-half hours to the start of the escape. But the real setback came when the first escapee emerged about 15' short of the forest near a guard tower and with snow on the ground it would be easy to spot someone moving toward the trees.

Tunnel Harry.jpg

Instead of the one-man-per-minute plan, fewer than 10 could escape each hour via the dolly system that pulled a man in the prone position along the tunnel shaft. During the night there was a brief power outage and a partial tunnel collapse but despite these challenges, 76 prisoners escaped before the 77th was spotted by a guard.

The Germans began a frantic search for Harry's entrance and thankfully, Hut 104 was one of the last to be searched, giving sufficient time for forged documents to be burned. One German guard volunteered to crawl through Harry to its entrance but became trapped near the entrance, only to be freed by some prisoners who revealed Harry's entrance.

For the 76 successful escapees, those hoping to catch nighttime trains were unable to find the railway station entrance in the dark and had to wait until morning to learn that it was in a recess in a pedestrian tunnel. The weather that March was the coldest and snowiest in 30 years making travel through the cover of the forest all but impossible so road travel had to be risked. Of the 76 who escaped, all but three were captured and returned to the camp.

When the Germans took an inventory of the camp they discovered that among the missing "items" were; 4,000 bed boards, 90 double bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 192 bed covers, 161 pillow cases, 52 20-man tables, 10 singles tables, 34 chairs, 76 benches, 1,121 bed bolsters, 1.370 beading battens, 1,219 knives, 478 spoons, 582 forks, 69 lamps, 246 water cans, 30 shovels, 300 m of electric wire, 180 m of rope, 3,424 towels, 1,700 blankets and more than 1,400 klim cans.

As you might imagine, Hitler was enraged at this bold escape attempt and initially wanted all 73 escapees to be shot. In the end 50 were, including Roger Bushell. The three successful escapees were Per Bergsland & Jens Muller from Norway and Bram van der Stock from Holland.

And now for the rest of the story!

Perhaps the last remaining Great Escape survivor resides in Edmonton, AB, Canada. He is Gordon (Gordie) King. The 95 (almost 96) year old King reports that he was number 141 on the list of escapees and operated the pump that sent fresh air into the tunnel. What a fitting task for a Canadian given that the air pumps were made of knapsacks and hockey stick shafts! He considers himself honoured to be counted among a group of men who, under the greatest of obstacles, through will, determination, courage and initiative, showed the world what they were made of.

Most of you reading this will know that the surname "King" is well known in the curling world and belongs to Cathy King, the current skip of the national women's senior team who will wear the Maple Leaf next April in Fredericton.* You see, Gordie King is Cathy's father!

I had the opportunity to meet Mr. King at last season's national senior championships in Abbotsford, BC. The meeting was very brief and at the time I did not know his connection with "The Great Escape". I plan to be in Edmonton at some point this curling season to train with Cathy's team as we prepare to defend the gold medal at the World Senior Curling Championship and I hope to have a longer chat with this "hero" to learn more about the great escape.

For now Mr. King, on behalf of myself and I'm sure millions of Canadians in this eleventh month when we set aside a time to remember what courage and sacrifice is really all about, thank you! It's a debt we'll never be able to fully repay.

* Cathy and her team from Edmonton were successful in Fredericton!

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