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

Jersey’s German Occupation Museum…

Whilst the German Underground Hospital up at St Lawrence is the island’s most famous Occupation attraction, there is actually another superb military museum in private hands which you must definitely visit when you are next on Jersey, especially if, like me, you also have a great interest in that island’s German Occupation during the Second World War…

Owned by Jerseyman Damien Horn, and located down on the long St Ouen’s coast road, this wonderful museum is sited in an absolutely fabulous 10.5cm casemate bunker that was originally built by German Organisation Todt engineers and Forced Labour drawn from the occupied territories across Europe and was set right into the concrete sea wall, which in turn was a part of the massive defences that formed part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall defences.

This particular bunker was primarily constructed for beach defence and housed a 10.5cm First World War Schneider carriage-mounted artillery piece, which the Germans had captured in France during their rapid Blitzkrieg and bought to Jersey to add to the fortification weaponry. It was crewed by a German naval Marine-artillerie unit of 12 men; 8 permanently on duty whilst 4 were rostered off, and when on duty they actually lived in the bunker, known as Resistance Nest Lewis Tower, (after a nearby Victorian Martello tower), and when off-duty were billeted in a locally commandeered house.

The museum was officially opened on 29th of May 1989 by the Constable of the Parish, Arthur Queree, after three months of concentrated rubbish clearance to clear the way into the bunker. Following an internal paint-job, the repair of electrics and the building of cabinets to display initially two collections, Damien’s incredible German Occupation artefacts and a British collection owned by his former partner in the museum venture, the Museum was up and running…

Now in sole ownership of St Ouen’s Bunker and full to overflowing with wonderful & exciting Occupation artefacts, like many youngsters born on these beautiful British Channel Islands, Damien was aware of the vast numbers of concrete German fortifications dotted around this relatively small island, (measuring just 9 miles by 5), from an early age.

Also like many of those youngsters before him, Damien set out to track down and uncover the one ‘over-looked & undiscovered bunker’ that would still contain, he hoped, an Aladdin’s Cave full of German steel helmets and hidden Luger pistols and so forth, but again like those previous keen ‘bunker-hunters’ he too was unlucky in his search for the collector’s ‘Holy Grail’

However, undeterred, he resorted to asking anybody & everybody on Jersey if they had any Occupation treasures still tucked away in an attic or an outside shed somewhere… and helped by the fact of his father knowing most of the locals, he soon found himself the lucky recipient of a number of wonderful items donated to his growing collection, including several German steel helmets, three radio sets…and an example of the famous and fabled Enigma de-coding machine…

As his growing collection of items had a direct connection to the German Occupation of the Channel Islands of Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark & Herm, so he became more and more interested in the personal paperwork of the soldiers actually stationed in the islands’ garrisons, such as their Soldbuchs & Wehrpasses, along with highly personal  and very illuminating photo albums. From such documents and photos Damien found it a really engrossing past-time through which he could trace a Wehrmacht soldier’s war-time progress across Europe and then find out where and when he actually served in the Channel Islands…

Today Damien boasts a varied and exciting German helmet collection (now a fairly scare item of kit unlike 30 years ago when they were still pretty much everywhere), and also a German firearms collection which, being a member of his local gun club, can still be used; so it is not unusual to see a Luger or a Walther P38 pistol being fired on the club’s butts. He is also the owner of both a licensed M.P. 40 machine-pistol and a heavy M.G. 34, (a type of which would have been fired from the entrance slit of his St Ouen bunker to deter any attackers), and these two distinctly-Germanic infantry weapons can also be seen and heard) on Jersey’s firing range periodically.

Of great personal interest to me are some of the musical instruments and accoutrements used by the German army & air-force bandsmen stationed in Jersey during the Occupation and Damien graciously agreed to appear in my book The Military Music & Bandsmen of Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945 showing his superb example of a Luftwaffe Tuba that was left behind at the surrender of the German garrison in May 1945.

But tearing myself away from Damien’s captivating bunker, some 15 years ago he also acquired the rusting wreck of a Stoewer R200s radio car, (the last German vehicle left over from the Jersey Occupation), which was shipped to Jersey sometime in 1940 by the German occupying forces. Though there is no known history or photographic evidence of the car during the war, the first known photographs of it were taken shortly after the surrender in May 1945 when, along with another Stoewer and other German garrison vehicles, it was parked up at Springfield Stadium in St.Helier and was sold at auction on the 2nd of November 1945 for the princely sum of £50.

Immediately after the auction the German military registration plates were removed as per the auctioneer’s instructions and it was driven home by its new owner Mr Langlois of the St Brelade camp-site where it was totally de-militarised The front & rear blackout/convoy lights were removed along with the rifle clips and the shovel rackets were also taken off. The 3rd rear seat was also taken out to turn it into a pick-up truck and it became a very useful run-around on the camp-site for a number of years where it helped ferry visitors luggage around the site.

Sometime in the 1950′s it was acquired by Harrington’s Garage in St Brelade and used  as a tow-truck but when it finally gave up the ghost it was simply dumped at the side of the garage. Many locals interested in the German occupation story tried to buy this rusting old field-car, but to no avail. However in April 1990 after many years of it sitting unprotected in the open air, Mr. Harrington decided to give it to Damien.

Restoration began in early 1991, and most of the original fittings that had been removed were actually found after many hours of searching in the old sheds and out-buildings of the shortly-to-be-demolished campsite; even the jack that had been thrown into a hedge in the mid 1940s!

Luckily for Damien the engine from the second Stoewer at the 1945 auction sale had also somehow found its way to Harrington’s Garage and was still sitting under his old work bench and this was also acquired for the spare parts that it would be able to provide. Meanwhile parts that were missing from the car which could not be found locally on Jersey were eventually tracked down in various countries on the continent including, Germany, France and Norway.

Tragically the car was almost totally wrecked from the years standing outside in the open air, but every part was sandblasted, painted & reassembled and all the mechanics were gone over with a fine tooth-comb and repairs made where necessary and as many of the original car parts had been kept, happily they could repaired, rather than have all new parts made.

Many hundreds of hours’ work went into the rebuilding of this last fabulous German-made survivor of the Occupation and happily the majority of the work was completed in time for it to take part in the 1995 50th Anniversary Liberation Cavalcade, where it rightly won the trophy for ‘Best Restoration’.

Since then work on the Stoewer has continued and now it is in almost exactly the same condition as it was when it first came over to Jersey in 1940, complete with restored military radios and antenna and, as a member of Jersey’s Military Vehicle Club, it can now be seen out and about on the island’s roads, with Damien at the wheel and son Sebastian in the passenger seat.

But returning to the bunker, you only have to enter this beautifully restored case-mate full of so many exciting items of militaria on display to see what a wonderful job Damien and his team have done. It must surely be every collector’s dream to own such an original German bunker that was fully crewed and full serviced during the war and to now have it to house your own personal collection of Occupation artefacts and open to an amazed public..!

As a former collector myself, I don’t think it gets any better than this…and on the several occasions I have had the pleasure of visiting Damien’s bunker collection I have always been excited & captivated from the moment I passed through the outer door to see everything seemingly where it should be where. Even though the post-war scrap drives in the 1950s saw many such bunkers completely stripped of their heavy metal doors and the inner workings & furnishings, Damien has scoured Jersey to find original replacement doors & gas lock equipment and so forth so that his restoration of this German bunker is complete & original and he should be extremely proud of what he has achieved.

To this end, with Jersey’s Underground Hospital now focussing more on its hospital wards & air-raid shelter, I think I am right in saying that Damien Horn’s bunker is now the only dedicated Occupation Museum displaying all aspects of German & civilian artefacts and though many Jersey visitors will naturally & rightly make a bee-line to the re-named Jersey War Tunnels, I also urge all visiting collectors & enthusiasts to also head for Damien’s Bunker at St Ouen as well… you most certainly won’t regret it!

In fact Damien tells me that he has also recently acquired some of the Underground Hospital’s surplus Occupation items…  however one of his newest and most exciting new additions is an actual German light Flak 38 anti-aircraft gun along with all the different tools and accessories that would have been needed to fire and maintain this distinctive gun. Again showing great ingenuity, Damien has now recreated an anti-aircraft position similar to the many examples which the German Occupiers had built around the Island to defend the larger gun positions from air attack.

Personally for me, a welcome visit to Damien’s incredible bunker is always one of those rare treats when visiting Jersey and Tomahawk Films are therefore, perhaps unsurprisingly, absolutely delighted that his stunning museum continues to be the only outlet on this pretty channel island that is both playing and selling our collection of Third Reich music to visitors; so effectively allowing this stirring Nazi-era military & civilian music to actually ‘come home’ and be played in the islands’ myriad bunkers and mess-rooms, exactly as it would have done during the war-time German Occupation years of 1940 and 1945!

Damien’s restored German case-mate right down on the shore-line at St Ouen is also a very important outlet for our ‘Channel Islands Occupied’ DVD, telling the story of the German garrison in the Islands between 1940 and 1945… and I couldn’t think of a more perfect Jersey setting for my German Occupation television documentary..!

 Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013