Tuesday, 25 March 2014

THE GREAT ESCAPE: 70 years on

On the night of 24th/25th March 1944 76 airmen made their way to a tunnel nicknamed 'Harry' in what was to become one of the most famous escape stories of the Second World War. Of the 76 escapers from Stalag Luft 3 fifty three would not return. Of those two Norwegians and one Dutchman made home runs while the other fifty were executed on the orders of Heinrich Himmler.

Stalag Luft 3 was reputed to be escape proof but even as Roger Bushell (Big X) was planning for the mass breakout another escape was under way. Overshadowed by later events the amazing escape by Eric Williams, Michael Codner and Oliver Philpot using a roughly made vaulting horse made what is regarded as the first successful escape from the east compound the previous October.

The original plan for the great escape itself was designed to cause the greatest amount of disruption to the Germans as possible. Yes, 250 men just walking down the road was Bushell's vision. Roger Bushell had been a British ski champion and barrister - a ski-ing accident had left him with a scarred drooping eye. He had been shot down near Dunkirk in May, 1940 and was a thorn in the enemy's side ever since.

The escape took over 600 men to organise - from forging, scavenging, digging, dispersal and security. The author, and Australian pilot, Paul Brickhill who wrote the book 'The Great Escape' in 1950, was in charge of the 'stooges' that protected the forgers. Although offered a place in the escape he was declared unfit due to his claustrophobia.

However, the tunnel was just a few yards short of the trees when the first escapee broke out this resulted in a hastily contrived contingency plan. In the end only 76 men made it out and fifty of those were destined to die.

Yet, 70 years on and The Fifty are still remembered.
In the woods near Zagen (Sagen back then) there are still remains of the hut foundations, the cooler (made famous by Steve McQueen in the movie) and the line of the tunnel can be seen and a newly erected guard tower shows how close it was to the tunnel.

The Great Escape was a mammoth achievement in both engineering and organisation - and Bushell's plan to cause disruption worked but it cost him his life and that of 49 others. But those who ordered and carried out those executions ended up at Nuremburg, several others have been caught up with over the years.

No comments: