The British and Polish air forces will honour the 75th anniversary of the famous ‘Great Escape’ of Allied airmen from the Stalag Luft III Nazi POW camp during World War II.
The celebration will take place in the town of Zagan in the eastern Polish region of Lubusz Voivodeship on 24th March to commemorate the events which inspired the 1963 epic war film starring Steve McQueen, ‘The Great Escape’.
The anniversary will be honoured with a fly-by by four Polish Air Force F-16 fighters and an RAF C-130 Hercules transporter. The British Embassy in the Polish capital Warsaw is co-organising the anniversary celebration.
The famous events took place on the night of 24th March 1944 when 76 prisoners escaped into the nearby forest and Nazi guards spotted the 77th man, New Zealand Squadron Leader Leonard Henry Trent VC, who had just reached the tree line and surrendered.
Over 600 prisoners were involved in preparations for the tunnels, codenamed Tom, Dick and Harry. The operation was kept secret so everyone involved had to call a tunnel by its codename.
The Allies organised for food, tools and equipment to be smuggled into the camp.
Marek Lazarz from Zagan’s Prisoner of War Camps Museum told Central European News (CEN): “None of the three tunnels have survived to this day. One was blown up, Harry was flooded and collapsed, and the third was never discovered.”
Lazarz continued: “Two pilots who managed to escape were from Norway and one came from the Netherlands. The Norwegians, Peter Bergsland and Jens Muller, worked as pilots after the war.
“The Dutchman, Bram van der Stok, emigrated to the USA and settled down in Hawaii. We don’t know if they ever visited the Museum.”
The official ceremony, organised by the Museum POW camps, will take place at the memorial of the Harry tunnels.
The Stalag Luft III escape was conceived by Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Roger Bushell with authorisation from the senior British officer at the camp, Group Captain Herbert Massey.
Bushell reportedly said: “Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time. By rights we should all be dead!
“The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun.
“In North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick and Harry. One will succeed!”
All the tunnels were about nine metres (30 feet) deep and were very cramped. Wood scavenged from the camp, mostly from prisoner’s beds, helped to shore up the walls.
Of the 76 escapees, only three managed to evade recapture. Fifty of the 73 men were executed upon the personal order of Adolf Hitler.
All escapees were Allied airmen, 40 came from the UK.
The 19 British airmen who were caught during the escape and survived were Albert Armstrong, Anthony Bethell, L. Brodrick, Richard S.A. Churchill, Harry A. Day, Johnnie Dodge, Sydney H. Dowse, Bernard Green, Bertram A. James, R. Langlois, Henry C. Marshall, Alistair T McDonald, Alexander D. Neely, Thomas R. Nelson, Keith Ogilvie, Desmond L. Plunkett, Douglas A. Poynter, Paul Royle and L. Reavell-Carter.
The other 21 who were executed by the Germans were Gordon Brettell, Lester G. Bull, Roger J. Bushell, Michael J. Casey, Dennis H. Cochran, Ian K.P. Cross, Brian H. Evans, William J. Grisman, Alastair D.M. Gunn, Charles P. Hall, Anthony R.H. Hayter, Edgar S. Humphreys, Thomas G. Kirby-Green, James L.R. Long, Harold J. Milford, Robert C. Stewart, John G. Stower, Denys O. Street, Cyril D. Swain, Gilbert W. Walenn and John F. Williams.
The rest of the airmen came from Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Lithuania, Belgium, Holland, France, Czechoslovakia and Greece.
The escape was depicted in the epic film ‘The Great Escape’ which was based on a book written by former prisoner Paul Brickhill.