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

America’s WW-II Ghost Squadron..!

Some years back I had the great privilege and unalloyed excitement of flying with America’s ‘Confederate Air Force’ down at its base at Midland-Odessa in Texas. One of the world’s largest private air forces, it comprises an absolutely fabulous collection of hugely famous and most eye-wateringly expensive, airworthy US fighter & bomber aircraft from the Second World War, all coming together to fly under the banner of ’The Ghost Squadron’..!

Dating from 1957, a small group of oil-rich Texan millionaire buddies clubbed together to purchase a ‘Cadillac of the Skies’ -  a stunning P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft that came into its own as a never-bettered, long-range escort to the USAAF Flying Fortresses & Liberator bombers in the skies above the Third Reich between 1943 and 1945 – and then one year later they bought 2 US Navy carrier-borne Grumman Bearcats and so, with two of the fastest piston-engined fighters in US aviation history, an unofficial squadron was formed.

With each CAF member being given an honorary title of ‘Colonel’ and a fictional Squadron Commander known as Colonel Jethro E. Culpepper, the group began what was to be a long & extensive search for other aircraft that served so valiantly during WW-II; but they were shocked at just how little was being done by America’s military to preserve these wonderful ‘Warbirds’. Indeed of those that still flying, many had been modified into air-racers, (something that was, and still is, very big in the US), or bombers that had been converted into civilian freighters! .

Nowhere had any official body been formed or come forward with any suggestions on how to preserve flying versions of these famous marques… so in 1961 the official Confederate Air Force was formed in Texas to focus on locating and restoring to full flying condition as many types of America’s famous fighters & bombers as they could…  and by the time the little group had grown enough to put on its first actual flying display in 1963 they had added an additional 8 aircraft to their original, P-51.

The Confederate’s first home-base was at Mercedes, then in 1968 they moved to Harlingen where they set-up a museum and continued to grow and add examples of USAAF medium & heavy bombers to their inventory: a B.25 Mitchell, a B.17 Flying Fortress, a B-24 Liberator and the world’s only flying B.29 Superfortress, the type infamous for dropping the Atomic bomb at Hiroshima & Nagasaki in 1945 and so bringing about the end of the war in the Far East..

The CAF slowly continued to grown and by the early 90’s had moved from Harlingen, (due, I was told, to the close proximity of the sea and the accompanying salt air that would eat away at these valuable historic aircraft), and took up home at Midland-Odessa, where today the CAF, (renamed, sadly to my mind, as the Commemorative Air Force), boasts over 150 flying aircraft and 11,000 Members (all ‘honorary Colonels,) spread over 70 regional ‘wings’ in 27 US States and 4 overseas countries.

The CAF membership established the American Air Power Heritage Museum at Midland-Odessa and every year the ‘Ghost Squadron’, (happily as it is still known), puts on a mind-blowing weekend of display flying in what is now deemed the largest annual gathering of Warbirds anywhere in the world…  and it was to one of these weekends that I rolled up, looking to film a German aircraft in action, a very rare Luftwaffe ‘Fiesler Storch’ communications & reconnaissance aircraft..

Teamed up with a local cameraman & his sound-recordist I headed off to the sun-bleached airstrip at Midland one very hot dusty Texan morning, (with the pungent smell of the nearby oil-wells carried on the very light wind), to be faced with a boy-hood dream! There before me was almost every American fighter & bomber that I had ever dreamed of seeing as a young man..Mustangs, Tomahawks, a Dauntless Dive-bomber, an Aircobra, a Helldiver, DC.3 Dakota troop transports, Flying Forts, the beautiful Liberator..and bomber nose-art as far as the eye could see…Holy Moly there was even an original carrier-borne Japanese Zero…. I truly thought I’d died and gone to heaven..!

But I was here to work and following a very strict flight briefing, (something all air shows and their display pilots take very seriously indeed), and signing a ‘Hold Safe’ form, without which nobody can fly in these beautiful historical Warbirds, (effectively my legal American declaration that if the plane I fly in decided to ‘bite the dust’.. so be it, it was a risk I was prepared to take, though my travel insurers would have been doing hand-springs, no doubt!)

With cameraman John safely ensconced in the rear seat of his A-6 Texan, (better known in RAF & RCAF circles as the Harvard), and me happily belted up in the front seat of a small American WW-II Army co-operation reconnaissance Grasshopper, the Fiesler Storch we were hunting, almost with no ceremony, lifted gently and in a very ‘lady-like fashion’ from its short take-over and headed out over the Texas ‘desert’ with our two planes in hot pursuit…!

So followed an incredible 30 minutes or so, (that seemed like a lifetime), filming this rare Luftwaffe plane as it gently turned and floated above those Texan oilfields… a superb flight that was only ruffled by the sudden presence of a USAF ‘Fighting Falcon’ jet-fighter that buzzed over us and my little lightweight plane bounced around in its jet wash, (the F.16 pilot must have missed the briefing!), and suddenly I was facing the earth from a rather unnerving angle..the ‘Hold Safe’ form in my pocket understandingly taking on a whole new significance…!

However my veteran pilot sitting behind me obviously wrestled skillfully, (and successfully), with his controls, caught our dive and we managed to return in relative safety to Midland-Odessa, John’s Texan landing a few minutes before us…. to date still my only flight in an original World War Two aircraft.

The rest of the weekend was taken up filming the actual Air Show itself in which, entitled Tora Tora, Tora, the complete attack on Pearl Harbor scenario was acted out by all of the aircraft involved in that sudden surprise Japanese attack on the Hawaiian islands in December 1941… even down to recreating the famous shot of a returning B17 Flying Fortress return to Pearl with just one  undercarriage wheel down. Amidst all the amazing pyrotechnics and fighter aircraft in mock combat, you could have quite easily believed that you were actually back there in that time & place, such was the noise, the heat, the sound of straining aero-engines.

The sheer amount of explosions, tension & excitement of the display all gave lie to the fact this was just a facsimile of a real bombing raid…the pilots all giving a superb example of combat flying… each and everyone a volunteer!

Sadly the Messerschmitt Bf109 I was hoping to film crashed on its way to the show and though the pilot was OK, the rare plane itself was not, so I would have to make alternative arrangements, (which will be detailed in a forthcoming Blog); meantime the most surreal event of the weekend, during which I met some incredibly welcoming and kind fighter pilots & Texan combat veterans), was the scrum of people, coming towards me in one of the airport’s corridors after a day’s filming out on the strip…

With cameras flashing and microphones thrust forward I thought I was about to be flattened by the entourage of a ‘Grade A’ movie star…but amidst the crush of ‘minders’ was a tiny little Japanese man in his 90s, but trying desperately to fight my way into the scrum to see what’s what, I was gently, but politely pushed aside by one of the little old man’s ‘bodyguard’ as the group swept past me and on up the airport’s corridor…

On asking one of my most hospitable CAF guides.. “who was that”?  The answer came..”the world’s only surviving Kamikaze pilot”…dang! now that would have been an interview and a half..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013