The following research had been provided by: Rob Davis

Used with permission: Rob Davis 3/30/2002
Prepared and completed: F. Fedorowicz
Translated: A. Strukowska

Allied aircrew shot down during World War II were incarcerated after interrogation in Air Force Prisoner of War camps run by the Luftwaffe, called Stalag Luft, short for Stammlager Luft or Permanent Camps for Airmen.Stalag Luft III was situated in Sagan, 100 miles south-east of Berlin, now called Zagan, in Upper Silesia, Poland.

ariel luft3

It was opened in 1942 with the first prisoners arriving in April of that year, and was just one of a network of Air Force only PoW camps. The Germans treated captured Fleet Air Arm aircrew as Air Force and put them all together. There is no obvious reason for the occasional presence of a non-airman in the camps, although one possibility is that the captors would be able to spot "important" non-Air Force uniformed prisoners more readily.

Despite being an officers-only camp, it was not referred to as Oflag (Offizier Lager) like some other officer-only camps. The Luftwaffe seemed to have their own nomenclature.


Conditions and Kommandants

It must be made clear that the German Luftwaffe, who were responsible for Air Force prisoners of war, maintained a degree of professional respect for fellow flyers, and the general attitude of the camp security officers and guards should not be confused with the SS or Gestapo. The Luftwaffe treated the PoWs well, despite an erratic and inconsistent supply of food.

Prisoners were handled quite fairly within the Geneva Convention, and the Kommandant, Oberst (Colonel) Friedrich-Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau (below), was a professional and honourable soldier who won the respect of the senior prisoners.


He was 61 when the camp opened in May 1942, a capable, educated man who spoke good English. Having joined the army in 1908, and after being wounded three times in WW1, winning two Iron Cross awards, he left in 1919 and worked in several civilian posts, meanwhile marrying a Dutch baroness, whilst trying to steer clear of Nazi politics. Eventually he joined the Luftwaffe (the least Nazified of the three German forces) in 1937 as one of Goering’s personal staff. Refused retirement, he found himself posted as Sagan Kommandant, with Major Gustav Simoleit as deputy. The first Kommandant, Colonel Stephani, had been quickly replaced when found to be unsuited to the task.

Security was strict, but life was not intolerable, except for those for whom escape was a restless itch... this was reckoned to be just 25 percent of the camp population, and only 5% of those were considered to be dedicated escapers. The others would, however, work in support of any escape attempts.

After several major expansions, Luft III eventually grew to hold 10,000 PoWs; it had a size of 59 acres, with 5 miles of perimeter fencing.


Food and Parcels

Had it not been for food parcels sent in via the International Red Cross (who also made inspection visits), food would have been a serious problem in all PoW camps. Issued with little more than starvation rations, food parcels sent by relatives, despite being regularly stolen by the many hands through which they passed, were essential. It should be borne in mind that the guards themselves were not much better off than the prisoners, in terms of food. On average, one parcel per week per man was provided.

The rule in most of the camps was that both "individual" (for a named person, sent and paid for by relatives and containing a mixture of goods) and "bulk" parcels (for general distribution, sent and paid for by the International Red Cross, and containing a supply of a single item) were pooled. Thus, replacement clothing, shaving and washing kit, coffee, tea, tinned meat, jam, sugar and essentials were distributed equally.

In many other camps, captured officers were paid an equivalent of their pay in "lagergeld" or internal camp currency, and could buy items such as musical instruments and what few everyday goods which were available. Captured NCO’s did not receive any such allowance, but the officers regularly pooled lagergeld from their own pay, and transferred these to the NCOs’ compound. It was strictly forbidden to be in possession of real German currency, a vital escape aid. However, for some reason in Luft III, lagergeld was not issued.

An internal official method of collective bargaining and bartering called "Foodacco" was set up, allowing PoWs to market any surplus food or desirable item, for "points" which could be "spent" on other items, amongst themselves. Great trouble was taken in food preparation, with special occasions such as a birthday or Christmas requiring months of hoarding. PoWs usually banded together in groups of 8 men for cooking and messing purposes, and such groups usually became very close-knit.

The recommended intake for a normal healthy active man is 3,000 calories; German rations allowed between 1,500 and 1,900. It was a case of the issued official rations providing prolonged and unpleasant starvation and only the Red Cross food parcels saved the day.

Clothing was often a problem, items of civilian nature being strictly forbidden and military uniform often being cobbled together from whatever was available, regardless of branch. Thus it was not unusual to see officers of any rank in RAF battledress top, Army trousers, and whatever footwear was to hand. Most men made every attempt to maintain a military bearing, ensuring that their rank and flying badges were correct no matter what they were attached to! Any officer who had hidden a genuine civilian item of clothing took great care to keep it safe.

It was absolutely vital to carry aircrew badges and brevets in a secret place whilst escaping, in order to prove that an escapee was not a spy. The Geneva Convention dictated that a serviceman should always wear uniform, or be shot as a spy. Being able to produce evidence of being an escaped PoW was essential. The Germans issued each captive with an official PoW identity disc which could also be used to establish a man's genuine identity.

Newcomers to the camp had to be personally vouched for by two existing PoWs who knew them by sight. As the numbers of airmen increased, this became essential as it was not unknown for the Germans to introduce infiltrators in an attempt to spy on camp operations and escape attempts. Such infiltrators were known as "stool pigeons". Any newcomer who could not summon two men who knew him had to suffer the indignity of a heavy interrogation by senior officer POWs. Also, he was assigned a rota of men who had to escort him at all times, until he was deemed to be genuine. Any stool pigeons were quickly discovered and there is no evidence to suggest that infiltrators operated successfully at Luft III.

Several PoWs established means of exchanging coded messages with their relatives, via the Red Cross mail system. Such letters, which were heavily censored by the Germans, were invariably months in transit, but provided valuable information to the War Office. This coding was usually a pre-arranged method agreed between an airman and his wife, girlfriend or relative, such as taking every 9th word, or similar method.


The Escape Committee

At Luft III arrived some of the finest escape artists in the Allied Air Forces. Squadron Leader (S/L) Roger J Bushell, CO of No 92 Squadron (shot down 23rd May 1940, Spitfire I N3194) during the Battle of France. On a previous escape he had been hiding in Prague and was caught in the aftermath of the >Heydrich assassination. The family hiding him were all executed by the Gestapo and Jack Zaphouk, his Czech co-escaper, was purged to Colditz Castle. Bushell developed a cold unyielding hatred for the enemy but failed, however, to distinguish between the Gestapo and the far better type represented by the Camp Kommandant.


Although the first SBO (Senior British Officer) was Group Captain (G/C) Harry "Wings" Day (above) (57 Sqdn, shot down 13-Oct-39, Blenheim I, L1138), he was succeeded by the arrival in June 1942 of a more senior officer, G/C Herbert M Massey (7 Sqdn, shot down 1/2-Jun-1942, Stirling I, N3750 MG:D) a rugged veteran WW1 pilot, and in October 1942 Wings Day was sent to Offizierlager (Oflag, or Officer Camp) XXIB. Bushell masterminded the Luft III Escape Organization, together with an executive committee of Flying Officer (F/O) Wally Floody (J5481; 401 Sqdn RCAF, shot down 28-Oct-41, Spitfire V W3964), Peter 'Hornblower' Fanshawe RN and Flight Lieutenant (F/L) George Harsh (102 Sqdn, shot down 5/6-Oct-1942, Halifax II, W7824).

Ranks Page

Bushell collected the most skilled forgers, tailors, tunnel engineers and surveillance experts and announced his intention to put 250 men outside the wire. This would cause a tremendous problem and force the enemy to divert men and resources to round up the escapers. His idea was not so much to return escapers to the UK but mainly to cause a giant internal problem for the German administration. He went about this task with a typical determinedness, despite having been officially warned that his next escape and recapture would result in him being shot.


Key Personnel

Tunnel engineering was in the expert hands of Floody, a Canadian Spitfire pilot and prewar mining engineer. The original 'Tunnel King', he masterminded the construction of all three tunnels, aided by F/L R. G. "Crump" Ker-Ramsey (Fighter Interception Unit, shot down on a night patrol 13/14-Sep-1940, Blenheim IVF Z5721), Henry "Johnny" Marshall, Fanshawe, and a host of others. The dapper Rhodesian Johnny Travis and his team of manufacturers made escape kit such as compasses from fragments of broken Bakelite gramophone records, melted and shaped and incorporating a tiny needle made from slivers of magnetised razor blades. Stamped on the underside was 'Made in Stalag Luft 3 - Patent Pending'.

F/L Des Plunkett (218 Sqdn, shot down 20/21-6-1942, Stirling I, W7530 HA:Q) and his team assumed responsibility for map making. Real ID papers and passes were obtained by bribery or theft from the guards and copied by F/L 'Tim' Walenn and his forgers. These two departments were known as "Dean and Dawson" after a well-known firm of travel agents. Service uniforms were carefully recut by Tommy Guest and his men, who also produced workmens' clothes and other 'civilian' attire. These were often hidden in spaces created by ace carpenter Pilot Officer (P/O) "Digger" Macintosh (12 Sqdn, shot down 12-May-1940, Battle I, L5439 PH:N).

A surprising number of guards proved co-operative in supplying railway timetables, maps, and the bewildering number of official papers required for escapers. One tiny mistake in forgery, or one missing document would immediately betray the holder, a problem complicated by the fact that the official stamps and appearance of the various papers were changed regularly by the Germans. It was necessary to obtain details of the lie of the land directly outside the camp, and especially ascertain the location of the nearest railway station (arriving PoWs were brought by military road transport).

Bribery by cigarettes, coffee or chocolate usually worked. In one case, a less than intelligent guard provided key information for which he was paid in chocolate. The prisoner asked him to sign a receipt, explaining that it was necessary to account for the chocolate with the others in his mess group. The guard obliged, and was soon blackmailed into bringing in a camera and film, Bushell being quite ruthless in exploiting such opportunities.

Forged papers included Dienstausweise (a brown card printed on buckram, giving permission to be on Wehrmacht property), Urlaubscheine (a yellow form used as a leave-chit for foreign workers), Ruckkehrscheine (a pink form for foreign workers returning home), Kennkarte (a light grey general identity card), Sichtvermark (visa), Ausweise and Vorlaufweise (pass and temporary pass). Many of these were as complex as banknotes and required weeks of work to reproduce.


Guards, Goons and Ferrets

Germans were universally known as "Goons", a nickname which puzzled them. (When asked, a captured officer said that it stood for "German officer or Non-Com".) The tall sentry watch platforms which mounted searchlights and machine-guns were therefore "Goon Boxes", and annoying the guards was "Goon Baiting". Whilst the guards were not the cream of the Luftwaffe, they unhesitatingly shot first and asked questions afterwards if any prisoner was rash enough to stray over the knee-high warning wire, and then fail to surrender if challenged. Some were undoubtedly trigger-happy and records at Kew hold correspondence from the SBO to the Kommandant reporting cases of unnecessary use of firearms.

goon box
(watercolour by Geoffrey Willatt and reproduced by kind permission of the artist)

The German guards specialising in escape detection were known as 'Ferrets' and could enter the compound at any time and search any hut without warning. Equipped with metal probes, they searched for the bright yellow sand indicating that a tunnel was in progress, or an English-speaking ferret would lie concealed under a hut listening for careless talk. Their most active, unpredictable and generally dangerous member, Gefreiter (Corporal) Greise, was known as 'Rubberneck' (below)


There is evidence to suggest that when a tunnel was detected by the guards or ferrets, it was allowed to continue without intervention until it appeared to be near completion. Then, the ferrets would pounce, driving heavy trucks around the compound to collapse the tunnels and galleries.

Internal security was put into the capable hands of F/L George R Harsh (102 Sqdn, shot down 5/6-Oct-1942, Halifax II W7824) an American (with an extremely chequered personal history) serving with the RCAF. A rota of officers logged every guard or ferret entering the compound using what was called the "Duty Pilot" system, and Germans were tailed everywhere until they were logged out. An elaborate system of inconspicuous signals was put in place, warning those PoWs engaged on nefarious activities, and giving them time to either mask their activities with innocent-looking hobbies or completely conceal their illicit work. Unable to effectively combat the "Duty Pilot" system, the Germans allowed it to continue, and on one occasion used the log to bring charges against two of their own men who had slunk off duty some hours before they should have done.

F/O Geoffrey Willatt (106 Sqdn, shot down 5-Sep-43, Lancaster IIII DV182) said "I did many hours as 'Duty Pilot' identifying guards and ferrets as they came in the main gate (the only entrance) and putting up a signal, to warn other watchers round the camp - the signal comprised an empty tin in a certain position on a nearby rubbish heap. I was in fact accosted by von Lindeiner who saluted me as he always did, to know why I was out in the freezing cold. I said it was for fresh air and exercise and gave a false name and number. I never heard any more."

hot day
A Warm Day At Luft III, Sagan
(watercolour by Geoffrey Willatt and reproduced by kind permission of the artist)

The Tunnels : 'Tom', 'Dick' and 'Harry'

The tunnel entrances were masterpieces of deception. All barrack huts were elevated from the ground but each had stoves set on a brick and concrete plinth. 'Tom' (the 98th tunnel to be discovered at Luft III) in Hut 105 and 'Harry' in Hut 104 both exited through the centre of these pierced foundations. The entrance to 'Dick' is still there - concealed in a drain on the floor of the shower room in Hut 122, and when closed and sealed was under several feet of water. The Germans never found it and it probably still contains much contraband and escape material. (Anyone got an accurate plan of the camp, a passport, and a shovel?)

Sudden pounces by the ferrets were a constant nightmare and precision practice was required by the distraction and camouflage teams. In one close shave, F/L Pat Langford (16 OTU, shot down 28/29-7-1942, Wellington IC, R1450), replaced and fully camouflaged Harry's trapdoor in twenty seconds, leaving no sign of a tunnel entrance. German security was headed by Hauptmann (Captain) Broili and Oberfeldwebel (Warrant Officer) Glemnitz. The latter, usually referred to as "that bastard, Glemnitz" was both feared and respected by the prisoners, as he was a dedicated discoverer of escape plots.

Sand dispersal was effected by 'Penguins', prisoners filling long thin bags which were slipped inside their trousers and walking about the compound, losing the sand from the bottom of the bags. One penguin was careless and the ferrets spotted him trailing sand; they then knew a tunnel was in progress, but they did not pounce, wanting to find out where it originated.

Tunnelling was dangerous - both below ground and above it. The sand was treacherous, and would come crashing down with only the ghost of a warning. Many diggers had only time to protect their heads with their arms as the roof suddenly caved in, and hope that their No.2 could dig them out. No-one was killed, but several were forced to take days off after almost being suffocated. A fall left a large dome above the working face, and after clearing up, the damaged roof was shored and the sand packed back above it. The diggers found that sand dug out occupied thirty percent as much space again as it did normally, placing extra burdens on the disposal teams.

4,000 bed boards were removed to form the shoring, and prisoners became used to sleeping on the barest of supports - often a string semi-hammock, with only two or three real bed boards. The tunnel size was therefore dictated by the width of the boards, almost exactly two feet square, allowing a little for the alignment of the wood at each corner of the square. "Cookie" Long suffered concussion when a bed board fell the full height of the entrance shaft - 30 feet - and hit him square on the head. Another prisoner received a similar direct hit from a German-issue metal water-carrier, being used to bring sand up from the working to the surface.

The teams dug out large chambers at the foot of the entrance shafts for the air pump and storage, and took it in turns to operate the manual pump. As the tunnel progressed, empty dried-milk tins were laid under the floor, and caulked with tape or waxed string, provided very effective ventilation, with the flue being camouflaged into the genuine stove's chimney. A wooden railway carried small trucks for sand removal along the bed of the tunnel, the trolleys being pulled from haulage points at intervals along the length. Red Noble spotted an 800 foot coil of electrical flex unattended by German workmen and 'liberated' it; the tunnel was then wired for electric light. The workmen didn't report the theft and were later executed by the Gestapo when the tunnel was discovered. (Joe "Red" Noble stayed with the RCAF after WW2 and ended up as a Group Captain. He lived on Lake Huron, Canada, and died some years ago.)

The Germans were aware that something major was going on but all attempts to discover tunnels failed. As a desperate move, 19 top suspects, including 6 key men, were transferred with no warning to the nearby Stalag VIIIC at Belaria, only weeks before the escape was scheduled to take place. Bushell's part in the Escape Committee was well camouflaged and the Germans left him behind. Deputies took over from the missing prisoners, and work went on.

Even when the Luftwaffe removed all the increasing number of American airmen to their own, separate compound, work on the tunnels did not stop. (Communication between the separate compounds was forbidden, but the British placed a semaphore expert well inside one hut which faced the US airmens' compound. He was concealed from the guards, but visible on the other side of the wire. The US airmen soon spotted him, and communications were quickly resumed.)

'Dick' was abandoned when the area in which it was to have surfaced was suddenly cleared of trees and a new compound built there. However, the abortive short tunnel proved an ideal place for concealing the growing amount of false clothing and general contraband, as well as providing a workshop for the manufacturers. Later, when sand disposal fell well behind the digging, much of the surplus sand was shovelled down 'Dick'.

Eventually, even this proved insufficient and the X Committee faced major disposal problems. Eventually it dawned on them that there was a huge closed-off area under the seats of the Theatre. Some time before, the Germans had allowed this to be built, using tools and equipment supplied on parole. Such equipment was never used for other purposes, and the parole system was regarded as inviolate. But did this also include the results of the paroled equipment, i.e. the Theatre itself? The tools had been properly returned, after all ... internal "legal advice" was taken, and the SBO's decision was that the popular and very successful Theatre itself did not fall within the parole system. Seat 13 was therefore hinged and camouflaged, and the vast space beneath used for sand disposal.

Many excellent shows were put on in the Theatre, which had an enviable standard. Post-war British Theatre and Television "names" such as Talbot Rothwell, Roy Dotrice, George Cole, and Peter Butterworth appear in the Luft III programmes. Geoffrey Willatt told me that the Theatre Shows were certainly "one of the redeeming features of the camp." Rupert Davies, of "Maigret" fame, also featured in productions.

Anyone interested in PoW Camp Theatres and Actors should look at the page devoted to the British actor Michael Goodliffe.

Even a highly simplistic calculation shows that at the barest minimum, for Harry alone the prisoners had to dispose of a staggering ((336 + 28 + 30) x 4) = 1,536 cubic feet of sand. In practice, the actual figure was well over double this, as it does not include the sand excavated for either Tom or Dick or the amount of extra sand removed after roof falls, or the addition of haulage, air pumping and storage chambers. I estimate that for the Great Escape only, the prisoners disposed of a figure in the region of 140 cubic metres, 200 tons of sand, which works out to almost an entire large truck or lorry containerful. A lot of sand.


As Tom neared completion in summer 1943, a ferret discovered the entrance and the Germans destroyed it all. Concentration switched to 'Harry' which in March 1944 reached the length of 336 feet (some sources say 360 feet, but this may have included the vertical shafts), 28 feet down. Would-be escapers were divided into two groups:

Those German-speakers and experienced escapers who stood a good chance of making a "home run" to England, and those who had made the greatest contribution to the construction of the tunnel. These men were given priority with forged papers, "civilian" clothes, and a higher place in the exit order. They were expected to travel by train, masquerading as foreign workers. Germany at the time was flooded with genuine foreign workers, who often spoke no German and whose papers were frequently out of order.

The "hard-arsers" who filled the rest of the tunnel places were planning to lie up by day and foot-slog by night, over hundreds of miles of enemy territory. Equipped with only the most rudimentary false papers and identities, much praise is due to this group of men, who knew that their chances - especially in winter - were thin. Most of them had baked iron rations known as "fudge" which was poured into small, pocket-sized tins, and intended as survival food. The rest of the prisoners drew lots, and 220 men prepared to go on the night of March 24/25th, 1944. Snow still lay on the ground and the night time temperature was below freezing.


The Escapers Get Away

As night fell, those allocated a place on the tunnel moved to Hut 104. Prisoners, nerves at cracking-point, were terrified to see a German soldier enter the hut. It was F/O Pawel Tobolski, (301 Sqdn, shot down over Bremen, 25/26-Jun-1942, Wellington IV, Z1479 GR:A) dressed for his escape as a German soldier, travelling in company with W/C Day. (I was very pleased to receive emails from and subsequently meet F/O Tobolski's son, Paul, who had seen this page.) On opening the far end at 2215, F/L Johnny Bull discovered that the tunnel mouth was well short of the tree line and within 30 yards of the nearest watch tower. But guards were watchful towards the compound and did not shine their searchlights outside. The first escaper went onto the trolley railway at 2230.

Prowling sentries circled outside the wire, passing at intervals between the tree line and the camp compound. Snow lay on the ground and it was impossible for the escapers not to leave a trail as they hastily crawled out of the exit and into the cover of the trees. This greatly slowed the passage of escapers, a situation worsened by an air raid which made the Germans switch off the power, forcing the use of fat lamps inside the tunnel.

It was soon apparent in Hut 104 that things were going badly wrong, but little news filtered back from the far end of the tunnel. A request for a long length of rope was fulfilled, but the passage of men stalled. Although the briefing had called for each man to ride the tiny railway trolley, being pulled by the previous man, once the tunnel had swallowed the first couple of dozen, no more were being called. The dispatcher, waiting at the tunnel entrance, had no more idea what was wrong than did the long queue of impatient and highly-strung men.

The necessity to wait until the circuiting sentries were not close to the tunnel exit, and the need to exercise great discretion in sending the next man out, considerably slowed the throughput. Instead of one man every minute, the escape was reduced to a dozen per hour. Word was sent back that those men with escape numbers higher than 100 had no chance of escaping. Since exiting Hut 104 during the curfew to return to their own huts would entail being shot at by the guards, they lay down where they could to await daylight. By dawn, only 76 men had made their escape into the darkness beyond the trees.

At 04:55, by which time 87 escapers had left Hut 104, F/L Shand at the mouth of the tunnel was awaiting the signal to go. In the woods was F/L Langlois (12 Sqdn, shot down 5-Aug-1941, Wellington II, W5421 PH:G) who could see that a patrolling sentry had deviated from his beat and would tread within a few feet of the tunnel. He tugged at the signal rope, meaning "stay put." Shand, thinking this was the opposite signal, emerged from the tunnel right under the feet of the guard, who until then had passed by. For some seconds he did not see the tracks in the snow and body-heat steam drifting upwards from the tunnel mouth. Finally noticing the signs, he raised his rifle, fired a wild shot at Langlois (which missed) and blew his whistle. F/L Laurence Reavell-Carter (49 Sqdn, shot down 26/27-Jun-1940, Hampden I P4305) and F/L Ogilvie, waiting in the woods, ran for it and so did Shand. The next man in the tunnel, S/L McBride, was apprehended at rifle point, and S/L Len Trent (487 Sqdn, shot down 3-May-1943, Ventura II AJ209, EG:G) a holder of the VC and DSO, lying face down just inside the tree line, stood up and surrendered.

(John Clinch has a web page devoted to F/L Langlois.)

F/O Ken "Shag" Rees (150 Sqdn, shot down 23/24-Oct-1942, Wellington III BK309, JN:N) and S/L Clive Saxelby (103 Sqdn, shot down 7/8 Sep-1942, Halifax W1219 PM:S) were in the tunnel close to the foot of the final ladder, awaiting their turns to exit. On hearing the shots, Sax together with Joe Moul (416 Sqdn, shot down 23 Oct 42, Spitfire Vb BL575), hared at top speed on all fours back the way they had come, closely followed by Rees, who believing a ferret might jump down the escape end and shoot along the tunnel, tried to kick out the shoring, with little success. Ken said "As I was haring up the tunnel, all I could see was Sax's bum blocking the way and I expected a bayonet or a bullet up my arse at any moment!"

(I am sorry to report that Clive Saxelby died on March 22nd 1999. When I interviewed him at his home in Torquay in August 1997, he was quite genuinely astounded that anyone was interested in his time with 103 Sqdn or his contribution to the Great Escape. His comment at the end of the evening was "I'm sorry I can't remember very much but I haven't thought about, or considered important, any of this, for forty years.")

After a few minutes, all the men who had been waiting in the tunnel managed to return to Hut 104, where the shots were also heard. The escapers remaining, and those scrambling out of the tunnel entrance, burned their false papers and began to eat their carefully-saved rations, as the Germans would be sure to confiscate them. The ferrets could not find the entrance; their dog crawled into a pile of coats and fell asleep. Finally, the ferret Charlie Pilz crawled down from the far end. By this time the Germans were in Hut 104 and noises could be heard from underneath as Charlie shouted for help. Taking pity on him, the prisoners opened the trap and Charlie emerged, full of praise for the superb tunnel.

In the darkness, many of the escapers had not found the railway station entrance, which was unusually positioned in a dark recessed pedestrian tunnel, right under the actual platforms. Consequently, many of them missed their trains and were very unhappily hanging round the platforms at first light, trying to ignore each other. Eventually they caught the first trains out of Sagan, or having given up the wait, footslogged it over the horizon. Due to this sad delay, they were nearly all caught in the Sagan area.


The Reprisal

The balloon went up in spectacular style. A 'Grossfahndung' (national alert) was ordered with troops, police, Gestapo and Landwacht (Home Guard) alerted. Hitler, incensed, ordered that all those recaptured were to be shot. Goering, Feldmarschall Keitel, Maj-Gen Graevenitz and Maj-Gen Westhoff tried to persuade Hitler to see sense. Eventually he calmed down and decreed that 'more than half are to be shot and cremated.' This directive was teleprinted to Gestapo headquarters under Himmler's order, and a list of 50 was composed by General Nebe and Dr Hans Merton.

One by one the escapers were recaptured and on Himmler's orders, handed over to the Gestapo. This was not the normal practice; usually, recaptured PoWs were handed over to, and dealt with, by the civilian police. Singly, or in small groups, they were taken from civilian or military prisons, driven to remote locations, and shot whilst offered the chance to relieve themselves. The Gestapo groups submitted almost identical reports that "the prisoners whilst relieving themselves, bolted for freedom and were shot whilst trying to escape." This infamous expression has now passed into history as an euphemism for cold blooded murder.

Three escapers,Per Bergsland (aka Rocky Rockland, because he Anglicised his name as the authorities were unsure how Norwegians serving in the RAF and then becoming PoWs would be treated by the Germans), (332 Sqdn, shot down Spitfire VB AB269 AH:D, during the Dieppe Landings), Jens Muller (331 Sqdn, shot down 19th June 1942, Spitfire VB AR298 FN:N), and Bram van der Stok, succeeded in reaching safety. Bergsland and Muller reached neutral Sweden, and van der Stock arrived in Gibraltar via Holland, Belgium, France and Spain. Out of the 73 others, 50 were murdered by the Gestapo, 17 were returned to Sagan, four sent to Sachsenhausen, and two to Colditz Castle. Word reached England of the atrocity; in mid July 1944 Anthony Eden, British Foreign Minister, made a speech in the House of Commons declaring that the perpetrators of the crime would be brought to justice.

At the camp, von Lindeiner-Wildau, the Kommandant, had surrendered to his superiors and been arrested. (He escaped execution, and was sentenced to two years' fortress arrest, which he survived.) A new man, Oberst (Colonel) Braune, arrived. On April 6th 1944 he called G/C Massey to his office. Under different circumstances, von Lindeiner and Massey, both professional and honourable career officers, would have been friends. Normally such meetings were as cordial as the peculiar circumstances allowed, and were preceded with a formal handshake. This time and with a new man in command, there was none. With a clear reluctance, the new Kommandant announced via the interpreter, S/L 'Wank' Murray, (102 Sqdn, shot down 8/9-Sep-39, Whitley III K8950 DY:M) that he was ordered to inform the Senior British Officer that forty-one escaping officers had been "shot whilst trying to escape." Massey couldn't believe it. "How many were wounded?" he asked, staggered. "None, and I am not permitted to give you any further information, except that their bodies and personal effects will be returned to you," was the stilted reply.

Prisoners and Luftwaffe alike were horrified. Hauptmann Pieber, the adjutant, afterwards said to Murray, "You must not think the Luftwaffe had anything to do with this ... we do not wish to be associated ... it is terrible." Later the list of names was posted and contained 47 names; an update a few days later added three more. The aftermath was a grim time with the Gestapo investigators poking their noses everywhere and prisoners and guards alike were very edgy. Pieber even told the PoWs to "be very careful, you are in great danger; no more tricks."

Later the Luftwaffe quietly allowed the prisoners to build a local memorial (left). This was designed by Wilton Todd (possibly 169 Sqdn, shot down 15/16-Feb-44, Mosquito II, HJ707 VI:B), and two of the stonemasons who carved the names were Dickie Head (possibly 139 Sqdn, shot down 24/25-Nov-43, Mosquito IV DZ614) and S/L John Hartnell-Beavis (10 Sqdn, shot down 25/26-Jul-1943, Halifax II, JD207 ZA:V, a former architect) and erected in the local cemetery.


Urns containing ashes of the Fifty were originally buried there, but after the war were taken to the Old Garrison Cemetery at Poznan. Both still remain today, but there were very few traces of the camp left when some veterans and survivors visited it all 50 years later. One local man, Franciszek Fedorowicz, has a museum of camp exhibits. Paul Tobolski on visiting the memorial, corrected a small error on his father's initials, and liberated one of the tiles from Harry's entrance. He had never known his father.

An examination of the local road showed a shallow depression running at right angles across it, where 'Harry' runs 30 feet beneath. Some subsidence since 1944 has caused the depression to occur.


The Fifty Victims

Ian Le Sueur reports that a memorial to Bernard Scheidhauer was unveiled by his sister on September 17th 1999, the service was attended by over 300 people including members of his family, Free French Air Force veterans, and also Great Escape's Sydney Dowse (left) and Raymond Van Wymeersch (174 Free French Sqdn, shot down Hurricane IIc BP299 XP:U). The service ended with a fly past by a Spitfire MkVb and two Mirage 2000 of the French Air Force.


The Survivors

Evaded recapture and returned to England:
  • F/Lt Peter Bergsland-(Norwegian, 332 Sqdn, shot down 19 Aug 42, Spitfire Vb AB269, aka "Rocky Rockland") born 17-Jan-19, died 22-Jun-92. There is a fine study of this officer on page 61 of Norman Franks' book FIGHTER COMMAND LOSSES : Volume 2 (ISBN 1857800753).
  • F/Lt Peter Bergsland-(Norwegian, 332 Sqdn, shot down 19 Aug 42, Spitfire Vb AB269, aka "Rocky Rockland") born 17-Jan-19, died 22-Jun-92. There is a fine study of this officer on page 61 of Norman Franks' book FIGHTER COMMAND LOSSES : Volume 2 (ISBN 1857800753).
  • Jens Muller-(Norwegian) 331 Sqdn … reached England via Sweden, in March.
  • F/Lt Bob van der Stok-(Dutch, 41 Sqdn, shot down 12 Apr 42, Spitfire Vb BL595) born 13-Oct-15, died 1992 … reached England via Spain, in July.
Recaptured and returned to Luft III, Sagan:
  • F/Lt Albert Armstrong-109946 (268 Sqdn, died 1987).
  • F/Lt R Anthony Bethell- 120413 (268 Sqdn, shot down near Alkmaar, 7-Dec-1942, Mustang AP212 “V”) born 9-Apr-22, living in Canada.
  • F/Lt Leslie Charles James Brodrick-122363 (106 Sqdn, shot down Stuttgart, 14/15-Apr-1943, Lancaster ED752 ZN:H, born May 1921, living in South Africa).
  • F/O William J Cameron- J6487 (RCAF, since died).
  • F/Lt Richard Sidney Albion Churchill- 41255 (144 Sqdn, born 1918).
  • F/Lt Bernard "Pop"Green- 76904 (died 1960s).
  • Lamond(Carter?)-information is welcomed.
  • F/Lt Roy Brouard Langlois- (12 Sqdn, shot down 5-Aug-1941, Wellington II, W5421 PH:G).
  • F/Lt Henry Cuthbert "Johnny" Marshall- 36103 gave evidence (by then, a Wing Commander) at the trial of the accused murderers (died 1987).
  • F/Lt Robert McBride- (details unknown).
  • F/Lt Alistair Thompson McDonald- 115320 (since died).
  • Lt Alexander Desmond Neely- (825 Sqdn Fleet Air Arm, born November 1917).
  • F/Lt Thomas Robert Nelson- 70811 (37 Sqdn, born March 1915, died late 1999)
  • F/Lt Alfred Keith Ogilvie- DFC 42872 (Canadian, 609 Sqdn, born March 1915).
  • Lt Douglas Arthur Poynter- (Fleet Air Arm, born 1921).
  • F/Lt Laurence Reavell-Carter- (49 Sqdn, died 1985).
  • F/Lt Paul Gordon Royle- 42152 (53 Sqdn RAAF).
  • F/Lt Michael Moray Shand- NZ/391368 (485 Sqdn RNZAF, born 18-March-15).
  • F/L Alfred Burke Thompson-39585 (died 1985).
  • S/Ldr Leonard Henry Trent- VC (487 Sqdn, shot down 3-May-1943, Ventura II AJ209, EG:G, died 1986).
Recaptured and taken to Sachsenhausen, later returned to Luft III, Sagan:
  • F/Lt Desmond Lancelot Plunkett- 78847 (Rhodesian, 218 Sqdn, shot down Emden 20/21-Jun-1942, Stirling I W7530, HA:Q, born February 1915).
  • F/Lt Ray van Wymeersch- 30268 (174 Sqdn Free French Air Force, born September 1920, shot down 19 Aug 42, Hurricane IIc BP299 "U"). I am sorry to announce that van Wymeersch died in June 2000.
Recaptured at sent to Oflag IVC, Colditz Castle:
  • F/Lt Bedrich Dvorak- 82542 (died 1960s).
  • F/Lt Ivor B Tonder- 83232 (Czech, 312 Sqdn, born April 1913).
Recaptured, sent to Sachsenhausen and later escaped to safety:
  • W/C Harry Melville Arbuthnot "Wings"Day- DSO OBE 5175 (died 1977).
  • Maj Johnnie Dodge-DSO DSC MC (1896 - 1960). Dodge, related to Winston Churchill, was released into Switzerland by the Germans.
  • F/Lt Sydney Henstings Dowse- MC 86685 (PRU, born 1919).
  • F/Lt Bertram Arthur James- MC 42232 (left, 9 Sqdn, shot sdown Duisburg 5/6-Jun-1940, Wellington IA P9232 WS:M, born April 1915, living in Shropshire, England).

The Investigators

W/Cdr Wilfred "Freddie" Bowes, F/Lt (later S/Ldr) Francis McKenna, F/Lt (later S/Ldr) "Dickie" Lyon, F/Lt Stephen Courtney, F/Lt Harold Harrison and W/O H J Williams, of the Royal Air Force Special Investigation Branch, painstakingly travelled Europe and gradually pieced together enough evidence to identify the culprits. Lt. Col. A P Scotland, an Army Intelligence expert, interrogated many suspects at the London Cage.

S/Ldr McKenna died in April 2000.

The Court President at the resulting trials was Maj-General H L Longden; the Judge Advocate was Mr C L Stirling, with a panel of six senior military officers - three Army Colonels, two RAF Wing Commanders and an RAF Air Commodore. Ten German lawyers - one a woman, Dr Anna Oehlert - formed the defence team. The Court pronounced its verdict on September 3rd 1947, and in early February 1948, thirteen of the perpetrators were hanged at Hamelin Gaol, Hamburg. The executioner was the famous Albert Pierrepoint.

A short while after this, a second trial took place for three more of the accused.

W/Cdr Bowes and S/Ldr McKenna were later both awarded the OBE for their work in bringing the culprits to justice. Lt Col Scotland also received the OBE for this, and other, duties.


The Murderers and their Accessories

German Luftwaffe

General Grosch was the Luftwaffe officer directly responsible for the security and welfare of prisoners of war. He and his deputy, Colonel Waelde, were interrogated by Lt. Col. Scotland at the London Cage. A German civilian, Peter Mohr, who worked in the Kriminalpolizei and who was outraged at the murders, provided key information to the interrogators.

Breslau Gestapo

Standartenfuhrer Seetzen was involved with the Breslau Sicherheitsdienst, and arrested in Hamburg on September 28th 1945, after identification by former colleagues. He bit on a cyanide capsule whilst being taken for interrogation, and died within minutes.

Obersturmbannfuhrer Max Wielen, Breslau Gestapo Chief, was sentenced to life imprisonment on 3-Sep-47 but only served a few years before being released.

Gestapo Chief Dr Wilhelm Scharpwinkel was masquerading as a Lt Hagamann in the No 6 Hospital at Breslau when Frau Gerda Zembrodt, corroborated by Klaus Lonsky, saw Russian officers remove him at gunpoint. During the enquiry into the murders, the Russians refused to co-operate with the Allied investigation, although after much prodding they allowed Scharpwinkel to make a statement, in Moscow, during August and September 1946. Soon afterwards, Scharpwinkel disappeared and although reported dead by the Russians on 17-Oct-1947, was believed to have found a high position in the Soviet administration. He is almost certain to have died by now.

He and his associate Lux murdered Cross, Casey, Wiley, Leigh, Pohe and Hake. The next day Lux executed Humphries, McGill, Swain, Hall, Langford, Evans, Valenta, Kolanowski, Stewart and Birkland. The day after that, he executed Kiewnarski, Pawluk, Wernham and Skanzikas. On April 6th, Lux murdered Grisman, J E Williams, Milford, Street and McGarr. Long followed soon after. Lux is also believed to have killed Tobolski and Krol, who vanished in the same area as the others. Lux, with at least twenty-seven murders on his soul, died in the fighting around Breslau at the end of the war. Gunn, killed at Breslau, is likely to have been another of their victims.


Krimilalkommissar Dr Gunther Absalon investigated the escape and poked around at Sagan for some weeks. He chaired the German enquiry into the Escape and collected evidence. It is not clear what happened to him or whether or not he was involved in the murder conspiracy. Absalon, seen alive and well in Breslau in May 1946, was reported to me as (a) being hanged and (b) having died in a Russian prison in May 1948.

Soon after 1948 the investigators caught up with Erwin Wieczorek had been involved with the killing of Cross, Casey, Leigh, Wiley, Poole and Hake. He was sentenced to death but later the sentence was quashed.

Richard Haensel was acquitted on 6-Nov-48; Dankert and Kreuzer disappeared. Kiske, Knappe, Kuhnel, Pattke and Lang were killed in the Breslau fighting. Lauffer committed suicide. Prosse died in 1944 after an unsuccessful stomach operation. Hampel was not tried, and Schroeder was a material witness.

Brno/Zlin Gestapo

Brno Gestapo Chief Hugo Romer, believed to have given instructions for the murders of Kirby-Green and Kidder, disappeared.


Kriminalrat Hans Ziegler (above) Gestapo Chief of Moravia, arranged the killing of S/L Tim Kirby-Green and F/O Kidder. Ziegler committed suicide in the London Cage (Cockfosters) on 3-Feb-48.


Kirby-Green's and Kidder's murder were effected by Erich Zacharias (above). Arrested in Fallersleben, also after having been given away by his deserted wife.


Adolf Knippelberg (above, arrested in Czechoslovakia), with drivers Friedrich Kiowsky (bottom, arrested in Prague by the Czechs) and Schwartzer.


Knippelberg, Hauptsturmfuhrer Franz Schauschutz (arrested in Austria) and Zacharias were recognised from a painted mural in a dubious wartime Gestapo night club. The Czechs executed Schwarzer and Kiowski in 1947, for what they described as "other crimes". Zacharias, described by LtCol Scotland as "without doubt the most uncivilised, brutal, and morally indecent character in the entire story" was hanged at Hamelin on 27-Feb-48. Knippelberg was captured by the Russians; released in 1945, he disappeared.

Wilhelm Nolle was arrested 10-Jun-48 but was not tried.


Wilhelm Nolle was arrested 10-Jun-48 but was not tried; Otto Koslowsky (above) was executed "for other crimes" by the Czechs in 1947.

Danzig Gestapo

Danzig Gestapo Chief Dr Venediger ordered many of the killings and received 2 years on 17-Dec-1957. The deaths of Henri Picard, Tim Walenn, Edward Brettell and Romas Marcinkus were believed to have been at the hands of Hauptmann Reinholt Bruchardt, who was traced in 1948 and sentenced to death but later commuted to life imprisonment (in Germany, this meant 21 years). Max Kilpe, Harry Witt and Herbert Wenzler were not prosecuted; Walter Sasse, Walter Voelz and Julius Hug disappeared.

Karlsruhe Gestapo

Oberregierungsrat Josef Gmeiner, who with Kriminalsekretar Otto Preiss shot Cochran, aided by his driver Heinrich Boschert. The latter was arrested in Karlsruhe, the French handed over Gmeiner, and all three were sentenced to death, although Boschert's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Gmeiner, Preiss and Walter Herberg were hanged at Hamelin on 27-Feb-48.

Otto Gannicher committed suicide 26-Apr-46; Magnus Wochner given 10 years.

Kiel Gestapo


Chief Friedrich Schmidt (above) and his deputy Sturmbannfuhrer Johannes Post (below) were being eagerly sought by the RAF SIB. Post, living with his mistress Marianne Heydt, was arrested at Minden under a false name after being given away by the wife he had deserted. Arrogant to the last, he admitted the murder of Catanach, Christiansen, Espelid and Fugelsgang, under the orders and assistance of Danzig Gestapo Chief Dr Venediger, and aided by Hans Kaehler and his associate at Danzig.


Post, Oskar Schmidt, Walter Jacobs and Kaehler were hanged at Hamelin on 27-Feb-48; Friedrich Schmidt escaped prosecution until May 1968 when he was sentenced to 2 years in prison. Drivers Arthur Denkman and Wilhelm Struve were each given 10 years on 3-Sep-47.

Franz Schmidt committed suicide 27-Oct-46.

Munich Gestapo

Gestapo agents Johan Schneider, Emil Weil and Eduard Geith shot Gouws and Stevens; all were hanged at Hamelin on 27-Feb-48. Charges against Oswald Schafer were dismissed on 11-Dec-68; Martin Schermer committed suicide on 25-Mar-1945.

Reichenburg Gestapo

Gestapo Chief Bernhard Baatz, Robert Weyland and Robert Weissman of Bruex arranged the killing of W Williams, Bull, Kierath and Mondschein. Baatz disappeared after being released by the Russians; Weyland stayed living in the Russian Zone. The French later captured Weissman, but his fate is unknown.

Saarbrucken Gestapo

Oberleutnant Dr Leopold Spann (killed 25-Apr-1945 in an air raid on Linz), Gestapo Chief at Saarbrucken, Kriminalsekretar Emil Schulz (below, found to be custody at Saarbrucken under a false identity) and driver Walter Breithaupt (arrested in Frankfurt) were responsible for the deaths of Roger Bushell and Bernard Scheidhauer. Schulz was hanged at Hamelin 27-Feb-48, Breithaupt given life on 3-Sep-47.


Strasburg Gestapo


The portly Alfred Schimmel (above), a former solicitor, and another unidentified Gestapo man took Hayter from Strasburg jail on April 6th 1944, and killed him near Breslau. Schimmel was hanged at Hamelin, 27-Feb-48.


Max Dissner committed suicide 11-May-1945; Heinrich Hilker (above) acquitted 1966; Erich Isslhorst executed for other crimes.


The 1963 Film of "The Great Escape"

The Great Escape

The feature film of the Great Escape was made by the Mirish Company and released in 1963. The director, John Sturges, had bought the rights to Paul Brickhill's book and was well known for films such as Gunfight At The OK Corrall, Bad Day at Black Rock, and The Magnificent Seven. Filming on The Great Escape began in the summer of 1962.

The screenwriter was the late James Clavell (of SHOGUN and KING RAT fame) who was himself a PoW of the Japanese during WW2. The film lasts almost three hours, although for television showing it is often cut to just over two and a half hours. In the UK there is a standing joke that the film is shown every Boxing Day.

The prisoner-of-war camp used in the film was named Stalag Luft Nord and was built amongst pine forests near Munich in Bavaria, with interiors shot at local studios. One of the technical advisors was former F/Lt Wally Floody, a Canadian mining engineer and wartime Spitfire pilot, who had been responsible for the tunnel traps and their camouflage.

Nearly all of the incidences, both serious and humorous, which are shown in the film are completely true, although there is some inevitable telescoping of events, and many characters are rolled into one. In particular, the method of "stooging" (keeping watch for German guards and ferrets) is well demonstrated, and the method of constructing the tunnels is extremely accurate. However, the stifling boredom of PoW life, and the extent to which the prisoners attempted to combat this by means of lessons, studying, debating, theatre, etc. is hardly shown, unless it provided a cover for illegal activities.

Comments from ex-Luft III inmates range from "I suppose they did a reasonable job with the film, for Hollywood" to "it's a complete nonsense." Typically, the comment is that the weather is never shown as the freezing cold it often was, and that far too little prominence is given to "Roger Bartlett" the film version of Roger Bushell, with far too much importance placed on the fictional part played by Steve McQueen. One former inmate made a point of writing to his local paper, giving the true version of events, every time the film was shown at his local cinemas. But this had little or no effect.

There was indeed Christmas Carol singing taking place to mask the sound of "manufacturing" and "building" whilst escape materials, air piping, and compasses were made, and concrete plinths pierced. (The Germans did not seem to notice that, at the time, it was nowhere near Christmas.) The trap for "Dick" in the wash-room floor is particularly well shown - the Germans never found it, because 'Dick' had a perfect disguise. In the film, whilst the escape takes place through the tunnel called 'Harry' the trap is portrayed as being in the wash-room floor, and is definitely that of 'Dick' in real life.

The camouflage of the traps used for 'Tom' and 'Harry' is again extremely accurate and reflect the advice given by Wally Floody. Manners of the guards and ferrets, and even the way some of them were suborned, is again quite true to life. "S/Ldr Roger Bartlett" gives a good impression of the driving power behind Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, but his sister said that Dickie Attenborough, who played the part, looked nothing like him. Dickie even had the facial scar of Bushell, incurred in a prewar-skiing accident (he was an Olympic skier) which often caused him discomfort.

The Great Escape
“Two hundred and fifty? You’re crazy. You should be locked up. You, too. Two hundred and fifty guys, just walking down the street?”
Hilts (Steve McQueen) berates Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) and MacDonald (Gordon Jackson).

"Group Captain Ramsey", the SBO or Senior British Officer, has the severe leg injury suffered by his real counterpart, G/C Herbert Massey, who in real life was repatriated shortly after the escape, and who was instrumental in bringing the atrocity to the attention of H.M. Government.

The sequence where several prisoners hide in an outgoing lorry loaded with cut tree branches actually happened, almost exactly as shown; also, the piece where Bronson and Coburn try to escape masquerading as Russian prisoners is remarkably close to an actual escape attempt. True, too, is the scene where McQueen, having removed numerous bedboards, watches helplessly as a fellow prisoner crashes through his fatally weakened bunk and lands on the man below.

I have obtained the following cast list from Microsoft's excellent Cinemania CD-ROM database and offer the following comparisons of the real and the imagined:

Steve McQueen (Hilts, the Cooler King). Likely to be an amalgamation of several characters, he has no direct counterpart, although one likely candidate is Jerry Sage. The sequence where McQueen sees a blind spot in the guards' coverage of the perimeter wire is true; this escape was by Toft and Nichols, who cut through the wire but were soon recaptured. The motorcycle sequences are pure Hollywood and were put in at McQueen's request; he did nearly all the stunt riding himself, as the long shots show. The single motorcycle was in fact a pair of 1961 British 650cc Triumphs, mocked up in German colours; the final leap is believed to have been done by the American rider Bud Elkins, as it proved impossible for the film company to obtain insurance cover for McQueen to do it himself. For this leap, there is obviously a ramp just out of camera frame, over which the rider launches the motorcycle to get the necessary height for the jump over the barbed wire fence.

There was indeed a group of prisoners (headed by Jerry Sage and Davey Jones) who manufactured raisin wine and distilled raw liquor from vegetables and virtually any ingredient. The party on the 4th July actually happened, although 'Tom' was not discovered on this particular day.

My Internet correspondent Tom Cleaver offers the opinion that the Steve McQueen character was based on F/Lt Barry Mahon of 121 Squadron RAF -the second Eagle Squadron. Mahon was shot down on Operation Jubilee in August 1942 (where he had just become the 4th Eagle Squadron ace) and sent to Stalag Luft III where he became 'the cooler king' for his many escape attempts. He was brought in from his most recent escape just before "The Great Escape" and actually received first place to go through the tunnel, but decided against accepting, thereby saving his life. Barry later became part of the movie business and was active with the makers of "The Great Escape," and served as a technical advisor on the film. McQueen took a liking to him and had Barry's facts written into his character; Barry allegedly fought hard to get the movie as real as he could, as his own way of paying respects to the dead.

Another correspondent, Bob Heffner, suggests that the McQuen character was based on John Dortch Lewis, whose exploits as a prisoner of war in Germany provided the basis for Hilts. Lewis died of pancreatic cancer on August 13th 1999 at his home in Goldsboro, N.C. He was 84. His obituary mentions his presence in Luft III.

McQueen's character, and that of Angus Lennie, are representative of two prisoners 'Shag' Rees and 'Red' Noble who enjoyed baiting the ferrets; consequently both spent a fair time in the cooler.

Steve McQueen died in November 1980.

The Great Escape

James Garner (Hendley, the Scrounger). Again, no direct counterpart, although there is some similarity with a fluent German-speaking prisoner who insisted on being known as Axel Zillessen, his "cover" name. (He reckoned that if he was used to being called this, he wouldn't be caught out by checkpoint guards.) He suborned one of the most dangerous ferrets, by carefully chipping away at his morale, and bribing him with chocolate and cigarettes, which were plentifully supplied by the Red Cross. Left, Hendley and Blythe leap off the moving train as the Gestapo start a papers check.

(A Daily Mail report noted that Marcel Zillessen, who was the real scrounger portrayed by Garner, died at Whitby on Jan 12th 1999. A fluent German speaker born in 1917, his father's business has involved him with frequent trips to Germany before the war, and refusing the opportunity to spy for Britain, he enrolled in the RAF and became a fighter pilot, being shot down and taken prisoner on April 6th 1943, in North Africa.)

The Great Escape

Richard Attenborough (above) (Roger Bartlett, Big X). Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, correctly breveted and ranked, with Bushell's eye injury, fluent German, and driving determination.

The Great Escape

James Donald (above) (the SBO). Group Captain Herbert M. Massey, age correct (Massey was a First World War career officer) correctly breveted and ranked and with Massey's badly wounded leg.

Charles Bronson (Danny Velinski, Tunnel King). An amalgamation of F/Lt Wally Floody, F/Lt Ernst Valenta and F/O Danny Krol who were all tunnel specialists. Also very representative of F/O Wlodzimierz Adam Kolanowski, the architect of the tunnel traps. Kolanowski, Krol and Valenta were all shot by the Gestapo, but Floody was transferred to Belaria shortly before the escape. Bronson's character (along with that of John Leyton) reaches safety, and the two who escaped in this way were really Per Bergsland (aka Rocky Rockland) and Jens Muller. Bronson's part thus encompasses no less than five real people. Certainly several prisoners were claustrophobic, including W/C Harry Day who never once let on about it despite frequent inspections of the tunnel and its workings. It is documented that some prisoners were refused places on the tunnelling team, due to known claustrophobia, and had to be found other escape activities to occupy them.

The Great Escape

Donald Pleasence (above) (Colin Blythe, the Forger). An amalgamation of Desmond Plunkett, the map maker, and F/Lt Gilbert "Tim" Walenn, the real forger. Pleasence had been a real-life member of wartime aircrew; he had flown as a wireless-operator with No 166 Squadron, flying Lancasters from Kirmington, being shot down on a Agenville operation on 31-Aug/1-Sep-1944, Lancaster NE112 AS:M; he died in France on 2-Feb-95 . Walenn was murdered; Plunkett survived. Blythe is shot by a German sharpshooter.

The Great Escape

James Coburn (above, in light blue shirt) (Sedgewick, the Manufacturer). An amalgamation of Al Hake, compass maker, and Johnny Travis, the real manufacturer. Coburn also reaches safety (although the shooting of the three German officers in the riverside café is ficticious), and this, the third successful escaper, was in real life Bob van der Stok, who escaped into Holland and Belgium, then over the Pyrenees into Spain and Gibraltar. The scene where Sedgewick produces a large suitcase which has to go down the tunnel is true, but the real escaper in this case was Tim Walenn, the real-life forger. Hake and Walenn were murdered; Travis did not escape.

The Great Escape

David McCallum (above), (Ashley-Pitt, Dispersal). A very close match to Peter "Hornblower" Fanshawe, a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm pilot who was the real sand dispersal specialist. The method of sand disposal shown in the film is an exact match for the real events. Fanshawe was transferred to Belaria shortly before the escape, but Ashley-Pitt was one of the victims.

The Great Escape

Gordon Jackson (MacDonald, Security). This is a compilation of George Harsh and Tim Kirby-Green (both security) and Bernard Scheidhauer (Bushell's escaping companion). Harsh was one of those transferred to Belaria just before the escape, but Scheidhauer, a Frenchman, partnered Bushell. It was Scheidhauer, used to speaking English in the camp, who inadvertently answered a Gestapo agent in English, a mistake which led to he and Bushell being caught. This is shown very clearly in the film. Scheidhauer, Kirby-Green and Bushell were amongst the 50 victims. Gordon Jackson (left, with Dickie Attenborough during the train Gestapo papers-check scene) died in the early 1990s.

John Leyton (Willie, tunneller). No particular representation amongst the tunnellers, but one of the two (Per Bergsland and Jens Muller) who together reached Sweden. John, until the film, was better known for his magnificent singing voice ("Johnny Remember Me") of several pop songs of the early 60s.

Angus Lennie (Ives, The Mole). Again no direct representation; but he is referred to by Gordon Jackson as "Piglet" at one point in the film, just before Tom is discovered. This can be no other than F/L H W "Piglet" Lamond, a tunneller and escapee who survived the massacre of the 50 victims. As far as Lennie's character is concerned, some prisoners certainly did go 'round the bend' and tried ill-conceived or absurd escapes, sometimes with fatal consequences.

Nigel Stock (Cavendish). During the film interrogation of this character, the dialogue represents that between the Gestapo and one of the victims, who before his being taken away by the Gestapo, recounted his interrogation to a fellow escaper, who survived the murders.

Robert Desmond (Griff, the Tailor). Obviously Tommy Guest, who was a prewar tailor and whose team made the civilian clothes from bits of blanket and uniforms. Guest did not escape.

The Great Escape

Hannes Messemer, above, (von Luger, the Kommandant). Oberst Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau, an excellent representation of an honourable career Luftwaffe senior officer who was a humane, and where possible, kindly man, respected by the prisoners. Arrested immediately after the escape, he developed heart trouble. He and his two immediate subordinates (Broili and Pieber) were sentenced to one year's fortress arrest. (von Lindeiner was interrogated by the RAF SIB at the London Cage, and proved extremely pro-British and very helpful.) The actual Kommandant at the time of the announcement of the murders was Oberst Braune and his demeanour at the time - one of shock, disbelief and horror - is well represented.

The Gestapo man (Kuhn, played by Hans Reisser) in the leather coat who is so nasty to Bartlett ("If you escape again and be recaptured, you will be shot") at the start of the film and the bald bespectacled Gestapo man (Preissen, played by Ulrich Beiger) who is so delighted at the capture of most of the escapers ("Ah - Herr Bartlett! You are going to be sorry you put us to so much trouble") have no direct counterparts in real life. However, if the bounds of credibility, artistic licence and real information may be stretched, they may be interpreted as being (a) Sturmbannfuhrer Johannes Post, deputy Gestapo chief at Kiel and together with his subordinate Lux, responsible for the murders of over twenty-five of the escapers. Post and his cohorts were hanged; (b) Dr Wilhelm Scharpwinkel, or (c) Dr Leopold Spann as any of these three Gestapo men would readily fit the bill. (d) Dr Gunther Absalon is another candidate. More details of these men are on the main page.

Whilst the film does suggest that the convoy of trucks carrying the captured airmen was split three ways, the actual murders were not en masse, but the captured prisoners were taken in small groups and killed whilst in transit. Details are on the main page.


Research and Reading

After The Battle Magazine, Issue No 87. Church House, Church Street, London E15 3JA UK. 0181 534 8833. Fax 0181 555 7567. An excellent read, full of useful information.

"The Longest Tunnel" Alan Burgess. 1990 Bloomsbury Publishing, 2 Soho Square, London W1VV 5DE. ISBN 0-7475-0589-6. Burgess' account is excellent and should be read by anyone interested in the escape.

"Exemplary Justice" Alan Andrews. 1976, George G Harrap Ltd, London. ISBN 0-245-52775-3. Excellently detailed account of the search for the murderers and accessories.

"The Great Escape" Paul Brickhill. 1951 Arrow Books, 3 Fitzroy Square, London W1P 6JD. ISBN 0-09-919020-6. Brickhill speaks from a personal point of view (he was there) but as always is occasionally vague, or wrong, on the fine detail.

"Fly For Your Life" Larry Forrester. 1956 Frederick Muller. The biography of W/Cdr Roland Robert Stanford-Tuck, DSO, DFC and 2 bars.

"The Escape Factory: The Story of Mis-X" Lloyd Shoemaker. St Martin's Press, May 1990. ISBN 0312038267.

"Wirebound World" by H P Clark, published by Alfred H Cooper Ltd, arranged by Wallace Heaton Ltd. An immediate postwar publication (7-Mar-46) unlikely to be available today.

"A Glimpse at Stalag Luft III (North Compound)" a privately compiled album by Tony Bethel.

"Stalag Luft III" by Arthur A Durand, Patrick Stephens Ltd 1989, ISBN 1-85260-248-1.

"Spotlight on Stalag Luft III" by "Scangriff", a private compendium published in 1947.

"Flak and Ferrets" by Walter Morison, Motor Books, ISBN 1-87467-092.

"Wingless Victory" by L R Sidwell, private publication by Merlin Books Ltd, Braunston, Devon, England.

"Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War" by W R Chorley (various volumes).

"Fighter Command Losses of the Second World War" by Norman L Franks (various volumes).

"Final Flight" John Hartnell-Beavis. Private publication via Anthony Rowe, Chippenham, Wiltshire UK. ISBN 0 86303 251 6.

"The London Cage" by Lt. Col. A.P. Scotland OBE, Evans Brothers Ltd, 1957, ISBN 0 7041 0015 0. This covers the interrogation by the author of several of the Nazis responsible for the murders.

"Sagan Befehl, Fakty i dokumenty" ("The Sagan Command, Facts and Documents") by Tadeusz Sojka. Lubuskie Towarzystwo Naukowe, Warszawa-Poznan 1975.

"Piecdziesieciu z Zagania" by Rajmund Szubanski Wydawnictwo "Ksiazka i Wiedza" Warszawa 1987. ISBN 83-05-11595-8.

There are some references to the Escape in the Nuremburg Trials pages at the Avalon Project and also at their pages relating to the treatment of prisoners of war.

There was a BBC2 Documentary in the series "Going Underground" broadcast on the 50th Anniversary of the Escape, 29th March 1994. This revisited the site and the local railway station with some of the survivors, retracing their steps.

Documents in the AIR40 section of the Public Records Office Kew, London are extremely comprehensive and contain many documents relating to, or even signed by, the people in this article. Notable is AIR40/268 which is the official history of Stalag Luft III, and other documents in the range AIR40/2265 to AIR40/2293, which refer in great detail to the investigation and its progress as well as fascinating minutiae of Camp life, such as correspondence between the Kommandant and the SBO and many preserved internal documents, all of which are well worth a browse. Details of accessing PRO documents.


Thank You To The Following:

All those ex-Luft III PoWs, especially Ken Rees, Clive Saxelby and Geoffrey Willatt, who gave me so many hours of their time.

John Williams, Kingswood, NSW Australia; Mike Mucha of Poznan, Poland; and Dr Jonathan Vance for kindly filling in gaps and correcting errors.

Graham Welsh (former Luft III prisoner) who passed additional useful information, having read the web pages.

Paul Tobolski also supplied information and drew on my Bomber Command data to assist him in his search for people who knew his father.

Olav Hungnes for details on Norwegian airmen.

Hans Nauta for details of Tony Bethell’s crash.

Denys and Pam Ayres who corrected the entry for F/Lt Street.

Paul McMillan for additional Fighter Command information.

The Imperial War Museum who very kindly gave permission to reproduce photographs which are individually credited to them.


Photos of Stalag #3

Click on thumbs for a larger image
3 luft neary1
Evacuation Route from luft 3 by Bob Neary
3 luft gilker 1
Drawing by Luft 3 POW Arthur Gilker
3 luft gilker 2
Drawing by Luft 3 POW Arthur Gilker
3 luft gilker 3
Drawing by Luft 3 POW Arthur Gilker