The Great Escape of 1944…

Over the weekend I sat down to watch a superb documentary produced by Windfall Films and aired on Channel 5, devoted to the recent uncovering of the actual tunnel dug and used in the fabled 1944 ‘Great Escape’ from the German  Prisoner of War camp Stalag Luft III located in what is now western Poland…

Untouched for almost 70 years, this underground passage, nicknamed ‘Harry’ by Allied prisoners, was sealed by the enraged and embarrassed German authorities immediately after the audacious break-out from the camp and despite on-going interest in this subject, (not least as a result of the 1963 John Sturges-directed Hollywood movie of the same name starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence et al) it has  remained undisturbed down the years because of its location behind the later Iron Curtain and of it being of no interest to the Soviets!

Now, post-Fall of the Berlin Wall, a team of archaeologists, lead by Briton Peter Doyle (his father was a POW in Stalag VIIIb) & American Larry Babits, (whose late father was a US bomber pilot with a reputation for always getting his air-crew safely home), have located and excavated this important war-time legacy from its sandy tomb in what is now a rather beautiful Polish silver-birch forest.

Over a three week period in August they located the actual entrance to the ‘Harry’ and in the course of this dig the team also stumbled across another tunnel, called ‘George’, whose exact position had not been charted, though this one was never used as the 2,000 remaining prisoners were forced to march to other camps as the Red Army approached Stalag III in January of 1945.

But it was during this recent excavation of ‘Harry’ that Peter & Larry, watched on by veterans of the original war-time tunnel construction, discovered many remarkable secrets that still abide within this 111-yard long wood-lined passageway out from the camp and under the former perimeter fences and tantalisingly close to what was, back then the surrounding woods. (The camp having been designed with all its POW huts on legs and away from the perimeter fences and a large swathe of woodland outside of those same perimeter fences felled and cleared so the Luftwaffe guards could, supposedly, always see what their prisoners were always up to!)

As all of us avid Great Escape movie-watchers know full well, the first tragedy of this daring  ‘Boy’s Own’ escape (conducted under British military leadership along the lines of the rules of cricket), was that the eventual opening of the completed tunnel came up dangerously short of the wood and so the escapees would have to come up with the risk of being spotted by the Luftwaffe guard’s watch-towers. This is why, despite help from a well-timed Allied air-raid just as the escape was on and the fact that one of the first out of the tunnel remained just inside the wood and dropped a rope back into the tunnel, giving two tugs to those within to indicate when the Luftwaffe guard had reached the far end of his patrol and it was safe to emerge, only 76 of the planned 200 prisoners got out and into the welcoming protective cover of the forest.

Having first found the concealed tunnel entrance in the ruins of what was originally POW Hut 104, the modern archaeologists excitingly then uncovered the ‘fake’ concrete panel that had disguised the tunnel opening inside the hut, then one of the metal hooks fashioned by the POWS to help with its removal. After this the team then dug down some 30 feet  into the sandy forest loam to uncover the tunnel itself and found that many of the originally harvested hut bed-boards, which had been used in mining fashion all those years previously to shore up the tunnel to stop it collapsing were all, incredibly still in position and expertly doing their protective job even today!

The original ventilation shaft, ingeniously crafted from used powdered milk containers known as ‘Klim Tins’, (milk backwards) was still in working order and as they moved further down through the excavation site, the team also found many parts of old metal buckets, hammers & crowbars, all cleverly fashioned into tools of many & varied designs in 1944 by the POWS from scavenged bits of metal and then used to hollow out the escape shaft & tunnel.

In all a total of some 600 Allied prisoners-of-war worked on three tunnels nicknamed Tom, Dick & Harry at the same time, (with the hope that if the German guards discovered one of them…as actually happened… then they could continue working on the other two), and these tiny shafts were just 2 feet square for most of their full length… not a happy undertaking for those suffering claustrophobia..!

Originally lit by candles made from fat skimmed off the top of their meagre bowls of Ox soup, later scavenging harvested enough wire for the former electricians within the prisoner escape teams to be able to secretly plumb into the German supply and have electric light along the lengths of all 3 tunnels… and so it was that on the night of March 24 & 25 1944, 76 Allied airmen successfully escaped through Harry, complete with their fake identity papers, suitcases and expertly mocked-up German military uniforms & civilian garb.

Barely a third of the originally-planned 200 prisoners managed to get through the tunnel and into the woods before the Allied air-raid was over, and the camp floodlights came back on and the 77th escapee was spotted by an alert German guard. At this point ‘the balloon truly went up’ and all of the remaining escapees in the tunnel were discovered and, along with those waiting in the huts for their chance, were rounded up inside the camp… but not before a great deal of the precious fake German documents forged in the previous year were quickly put to the flame inside the huts..!

3 Allied airmen successfully made it back home to fight again but in the second tragedy of this whole episode, some 50 POWS were rounded up and handed over to the Gestapo and such was Hitler’s apoplexy at this enormous breach of security that orders were given for all 50 prisoners to be executed by firing squad! But something I had not known until watching this excellent documentary was that the Luftwaffe Camp Commandant was so horrified by this cold-blooded killing of so many of the rounded-up POWS that in an amazing act of contrition, he allowed surviving prisoners from Stalag Luft III to go outside of the camp to build a memorial to their murdered airmen Comrades. Still there today it is interesting to note that the memorial missed off the final numeral: it reading just 1939 to 194 because, of course, those surviving prisoners didn’t know when the war would end.

But back to the actual tunnel excavation itself and from the film we learned that in all some 90 boards from bunk-beds, 62 tables, 34 chairs and 76 benches, as well as thousands of items including knives, spoons, forks, towels & blankets were all squirreled away by the Allied prisoners to help aid their ultimate escape plan, which successfully took place right under the noses of their Luftwaffe captors despite the German attempts to ‘keep a lid on things’.

Although the Hollywood movie suggested otherwise (and the Steve McQueen motorcycle sequence is a true motion-picture classic moment), no Americans actually escaped through the tunnel as all of the USAAF airmen involved for many months in the preparation of the tunnels allied to all of the required forgery and costume creations for such an operation were transferred, at the last minute, to another camp that had been built to specifically imprison just downed American bomber-crew and fighter pilots.

However, as is often the case with Hollywood producers rewriting World War Two history as they are oft wont do: (i.e. anything to do with D-Day always seems to forget British & Canadian troops storming the nearby beaches of Gold, Juno & Sword, that the spectacular capture of a Top Secret Enigma machine from a German U-Boot was undertaken by Royal Naval personnel not, as in last night’s film U571, by US seamen or, indeed in that awful CGI-dominated film Pearl Harbor, where the impression was given that just one US airman flying with the RAF had been personally responsible for winning the Battle of Britain single- handedly ..thus stretching the meaning of ‘The Few’ to a quite extraordinary length!)

However whilst American air-crew personnel were very much involved in the vital planning stages of the Great Escape, on the day of the break-out the POW’s were presominantly British, Canadians, Poles, ANZACS & South Africans and this modern day dig, (brilliantly interspersed for TV with some superb actor-recreations, something readers of my Blogs-various know I don’t usually rate), really was a wonderfully engrossing and modern day telling of this amazing war-time story.

Now all these years on from 1944 along with the several American veterans watching the excavation with rapt interest was Gordie King, a former RAF radio operator who, luckily for him in the end, was 140th in line for ‘Harry’ and so didn’t get away. As a result he lived to tell his story and to see the tunnel briefly opened up to the world & recorded on film, before being filled back in and hidden away from the world’s gaze once more.: ‘This brings back such bitter-sweet memories,’ he said, wiping away a tear, ‘I’m amazed by what they’ve found..!’

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

The End for the Reich’s Musicians…

First-career military bandsmen were not usually employed on the front-line, (except in the case of those transferred back to their secondary duties as infantrymen, combat medics or despatch riders), and so were not normally in danger of being captured during the early years of the war.

However, with the North African campaign in the Western Desert in 1942 and 1943 and the routing of the Afrikakorps at the hands of Montgomery and the Desert Rats of the 8th Army, complete German divisions began to fall into the hands of the British & Commonwealth forces, bandsmen included…

Former allied veterans of the desert campaign have since stated that the continued mood of defiance and arrogance of many of these young soldiers and musicians going into the bag, still convinced of ultimate German victory, was very noticeable, with many of these DAK prisoners lustily singing out of sheer defiance at every opportunity!

In addition Afrikakorps bandsmen captured, along with their instruments, were allowed by Allied camp commanders to continue to practice and perform and so give occasional concerts, before being transferred to the permanent Prisoner of War camps in the UK, Australia and Canada.

However after the end of the campaign in the Western Desert, full-time German military bandsmen prisoners were something of a rarity until after D-Day on June 6th 1944, when the Second World War began to turn slowly but surely against the Third Reich.

With the Allied forces massing on the Western borders of Germany and the Russians closing in on Berlin from the East, manpower throughout the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS was very much at a premium and those military bands that had survived the 1939 ‘cull’ now found themselves being dramatically cut back as unit commanders demanded all musicians to be pressed into service as supply troops, signal operators, medical orderlies, stretcher-bearers and cooks!

In the Kriegsmarine, the naval ratings, including ships’ company musicians attached to the big battleships & battle-cruisers that had been bottled up in the northern German ports of Kiel and Wilhelmshaven by Allied naval & air activity for most of the war, now found themselves transferred to shore-based roles and often into the Waffen-SS as combat infantrymen.

Many career military bandsmen dusted down only on annual two-week refresher courses, swapped their musical instruments for rifles and Panzerfäuste, and were thrown directly into the front-line as combat infantrymen, a role which many were not really prepared for and tragically many were subsequently killed as a result in the ensuing final battles raging across the Reich.

As far as Music Schools were concerned, in 1944, after a devastating air-raid on Brunswick which damaged both buildings and musical instruments, the SS-Musikschule Braunschweig was moved to Bad Saarow in Brandenburg. When the school was finally closed in January 1945, all of the young students were sent home to their parents. Meanwhile across the Reich, other Wehrmacht music-schools quietly shut their doors with all staff and military personnel being effectively demobilised or returned to their units for combat service.

But with so many German military bandsmen having been transferred to other duties, other musicians found themselves at the surrender on May 8th able to slip away quietly and return home to their families. Many other less fortunate found themselves rounded up and taken prisoner, minus their instruments, which in some cases they had manage to hide in various places (often in the barns of local farmers), in the hope of coming back at some point in the future to reclaim them!

Sadly however, many highly talented German career & part-time military musicians were killed at their home garrisons as Allied air-raids took hold from 1943 onwards, whilst a very high number of superb Waffen-SS musicians who transferred back to their units as infantrymen & combat medics (along with many Wehrmacht musicians dramatically transferred to front or second line units) were to be tragically killed in action. As a result many musical careers were to be cut short in a swift & brutal fashion!

Across north-west Europe, in the last months of the war before the final surrender of German arms in May 1945, vast POW camps began filling up with Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS prisoners. Though totally exhausted and dejected at the final annihilation, many were quietly grateful to have survived such a destructive war, and for them, ‘Ich hatt einen Kameraden’ was a constant reminder of comrades who weren’t so lucky!

At the capitulation of all German Forces on May 8th 1945, just over seven million soldiers of the Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS laid down their arms and found themselves prisoners of the Allies. However, unlike their comrades taken in combat during the earlier years of the war, this enormous mass of military man-power was classified as disarmed personnel’ so as to distinguish them from their comrades, many by now already languishing in POW camps in Canada and Australia.

Those soldiers who surrendered in the West were processed through the numerous POW clearing stations set up by UK & US forces, before being transported to the French coastal ports for the short trip by tank-landing craft to the main South coast ports of Southampton and Portsmouth. From here the enormous convoy of field-grey was moved by train under Military Police guard to the large handling camps across the UK, such as the huge ‘cage’ set up on Kempton Park racecourse. At these massive pens, all prisoners were de-loused and cleaned before their despatch to the various camps right across Britain.

Not surprisingly, the defiant singing of the Marschlieder, as witnessed by Afrikakorps prisoners ‘going into the bag’ in 1942 and 1943, was not in evidence now, as the men were sent to converted hotels, former stately homes, colleges and old army barracks, in addition to the newly constructed camps specifically built to house this huge influx of men, locations such Kingsfold Camp in Sussex, Henllan Bridge Camp in Cardiganshire and Eden Camp in Yorkshire.

Camp leaders known as Lagerführer were appointed at each camp, and German military discipline was very much enforced. With much of Britain’s manpower still in uniform, some 158,000 of the good-conduct German POW’s were put to work on the land, taking care of hedging & ditching and harvesting under the watchful eye of the Military Police and local army units, or handed over to the responsibility of the individual farmers concerned. Nearly 100,000 other POW’s were seconded by the War Office for coastal defence clearance, dismantling of prisoner-of-war camps no longer needed, and generally being put to use helping to re-build the infrastructure of our Britain’s shattered nation and its economy.

However, whilst a number of prisoners continued to be transferred to Canada and America, some 394,000 in the UK soon found themselves eligible for the first wave of repatriations back to Germany, which began in September 1946 and as true non-combatants, many career military musicians were actually amongst the first wave to be released.

Those not eligible for this early repatriation settled down to a regular routine and a weekly food ration probably better than those which they had been receiving whilst still in the German Armed Forces towards the end of the war: 14oz of meat, 3oz of bacon, 4oz of margarine together with 8lbs of bread and 9lbs of potatoes. ‘

The prisoners also received token wages in return for their labours off-camp (around 3 shillings for a 48-hour week), which could only be spent in the camp canteens on personal effects and toiletries such as cigarettes and razor-blades.

Entertainment was limited though individual Allied Camp Commanders often decided that performances by German bandsmen would aide the morale of their fellow POWs and so allowed the musicians to perform with scrounged or borrowed musical instruments.

Christmas 1946 saw a sea-change of opinion towards these young German prisoners, now a regular sight in the local communities, and a series of reconciliation church services took place across the county at which many thousands of POWs were invited to take part and by the New Year of 1947 saw the majority of restrictions on German prisoners lifted; British guards no longer oversaw working parties, barbed wire around the camps came down, and many young Germans were actively welcomed into British homes.

With a number of these ex-soldiers falling for local girls and feeling that Soviet-occupied Germany was nothing to go home to, many opted to stay in the UK, keep their farming & labouring jobs, marry and eventually take out British citizenship, several military bandsmen included. For many, however, being allocated to a Release Group and so obtain a Form D-2, the prisoner-discharge certificate, was all they could think of, and by Christmas 1948, all of the so-called parole-prisoners had been given a new German passport, some measure of back-pay and a ticket home to their families and loved ones after so many long years apart.

In Russia, sadly the picture was much grimmer. Having lost over 16 million of its citizens during the course of the Second World War, Russian treatment of its German POWs was so appalling that of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers taken prisoner on the Eastern Front, many were to die in captivity. Just over 45,000 survived for eventual release and a return home to Germany in the early 1950s.

Such was the vengeance wreaked by the Russian authorities for the many millions of its citizens that Motherland lost during the Second World War, that some former Waffen-SS soldiers, including medics & musicians, were made to suffer the deprivations of the terrible Soviet P.O.W camps right up until the early 1960s. 

More photos and an extended chapter looking at how the war ended for so many fine German military musicians can be found in my book:The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-45…

Copyright Brian Matthews @2013