Playing it safe

Over the weekend, my wife and I arrived at our daughter’s and son-in-law’s house. As usual, we brought the coffee and donuts. Our grandchildren supplied the entertainment. Last Saturday, Wyatt (who’s nearly two) and I played a little floor hockey in the kitchen. I flipped a rubber ball his way. He chased it – arms and stick flailing every which way – and then he whacked the ball back to me. It wasn’t too long before I cautioned him out loud.

“Be careful,” I said. And then almost instinctively, I added, “I don’t want you knocking somebody’s eye out.”

A playground in Washington, D.C., deemed unsafe was cordoned off by police.

A playground in Washington, D.C., deemed unsafe was cordoned off by police.

 

It wasn’t a really serious warning. In fact, he’s not old enough to understand many of the words in the warning. And, in truth, the only damage he might have inflicted would have been chipping a bit of plaster from a wall or denting a baseboard or two. My blurting out the warning was just a grandparent being protective and playing it safe.

But isn’t that a telltale sign of the times? We’re always telling our kids to take care, watch out and be safe. Funny, I don’t remember my parents ever saying that to my sister and me when we were growing up. In fact, like most parents back in the 1950s and ’60s, our folks pretty much kicked us out of the house most early evenings and weekends just to get us out of their hair.

BALLHOCKEY_PROHIBITED_SIGNAs long as we came back for suppertime or bedtime, I don’t think our parents ever worried where we went, because we were often in the company of the rest of the kids on the block. I don’t imagine they cared what we did, because we generally played in the backyard of one set of parents or another. And nobody worried just when we got home, since somebody along the block would call one of the kids inside and that would usually break up the playmaking for another day. Safety never really became an issue, unless somebody got more than a bruised knee or a cut lip. Those were just flesh wounds and to most families that seemed par for the course.

The other thought I had when I warned my grandson about his flailing stick was that scene in the movie “A Christmas Story.” That’s when the character Ralphie says, “I want an official Red Ryder air rifle.” To which one of his parents says, “No way. You’ll shoot your eye out!” And I guess that was the genesis of the paranoiac parent, who fussed and worried over everything his/her children explored for fear it could kill him. (Frankly, I’d have used the “shoot your eye out” line just to keep my kids away from any real firearms or even toy guns, but that’s a different discussion.)

In the 1970s and ’80s, as parents of young children, my wife and I were very conscious of the need for safe playgrounds and even safer streets. I remember “street-proofing” our kids not to talk the strangers and on occasion volunteering to stand around teeter-totters and swings just to make sure nobody got hurt to make the school liable for damages. It was the beginning of the era when municipalities, school boards and parents suddenly felt kids had to be protected from everything.

But wasn’t it our moms who told us, “You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die”?

And we often did eat dirt in pursuit of being king of the castle. I remember with both horror and gratefulness one occasion when a bunch of us kids went off into the woods to climb the tallest and most accessible of the trees – the cedars. My sister had absolutely no fear of heights. I was just the opposite. She scampered up the oldest, driest cedar tree, while I just hung upside down from the lowest, thickest branches.

Then it happened. I heard a crack above me and my sister came crashing down breaking through every cedar branch en route to the ground; in retrospect I guess the cedar limbs probably saved her. On the ground, she was screaming in pain, but she was very conscious. No matter. I was off like shot to retrieve the doctor who lived next door. And he was back just as rapidly, only to find my sister cut and sore, but with all the climbing kids gathered around her laughing about the commotion she’d caused.

There was something about play 50 years ago. Rightly or wrongly, we never considered the danger – either real or imagined. We all looked out for each other. And we never worried because our parents never appeared to worry. Today, I guess everything’s reversed. We teach our kids (or their kids) to worry because we worry, whether danger lurks or not. We want everybody to be safe from all risk at all cost.

In so doing, we may have taken away our kids’ best defence mechanism – lack of fear.

How history survives

50 young RAF officers marched with pictures of the 50 murdered officers.

50 young RAF officers marched with pictures of the 50 murdered officers.

The rain was steady. The air must have been as cold as the day they were commemorating – a few degrees just above zero. The years had changed the way the place looked. But neither the weather nor time had washed away the memory. During the 70th anniversary ceremony of The Great Escape, I witnessed, 50 young Royal Air Force officers marched in single file past the reviewing stand. Each contemporary soldier carried the photo of one of the 50 air officers murdered following famous prison breakout in March 1944. One of the commemorating airmen was Simon Flynn.

Simon Flynn

Simon Flynn

“I loved the movie, but I knew it wasn’t fact,” Flynn said. “But I feel honoured to be part of the commemoration.”

The more I attend these observances harkening back to wartime events of the 20th century, the more I’m reminded that these conflicts happened nearly two generations ago. People wonder out loud to me in another generation whether anyone will remember, whether anyone will care. If you’ll allow me this column to respond to that suggestion, I’d like to illustrate why stories such as The Great Escape will not die with its last witnesses, but will continue to capture the public’s imagination and prompt further questions, research and more stories.

Simon Flynn, a 25-year-old helicopter pilot in the RAF, is a primary example. Yes, he is military. Yes, he does have a direct armed forces connection – via the air force – with the story of the Commonwealth air officers who built the famous tunnels out of Stalag Luft III in 1943-44. And yes, he’s been taught to preserve the past while serving the future.

But the difference was that on the day following the commemoration of the escape – March 24 – he and the other 49 RAF air officers marching in that rainy ceremony were going further. On March 25, they packed up their kit bags and marched for four days on foot 107 miles to the town of Poznan where the cremated remains of the 50 murdered officers are housed today. And Flynn wasn’t just following his superior’s orders. He’d volunteered.

“We all went through 10 weeks of training,” he said. “We walked four-to-five miles a day at first; but then we worked up to 18 miles a day near the end.”

Jon England beside his line of portraits of the 50.

Jon England beside his line of portraits of the 50.

But the unique commemoration instinct was not limited to the RAF officers. The first day I spent in Zagan, Poland, the town adjacent to the wartime German POW camp, I met a young contemporary artist named Jon England. In fact, he joined me over dinner at a reception staged by Alexandra Bugailiskis, the Canadian ambassador to Poland. I asked why a man as young as he – in his 20s – cared about something as apparently ancient as The Great Escape.

“The story,” he said. “It’s such a compelling story.”

An artist from Somerset, England, Jon England had originally become interested in the story because of its ties to his part of the U.K. But more than that, the young artist became curious about the day-to-day life among the POWs at Stalag Luft III during the war. In particular, he was drawn to the product called “Klim” (milk spelled backwards) and its versatility in the lives of the prisoners-of-war.

Not only did the contents of the Klim cans – powdered milk – sustain the men in their diets. But 750 of the empty tins (when put together) became the ventilation duct for the tunnellers in the escape Tunnel “Harry.” Jon England felt so inspired by the Klim, that he reconstituted the milk powder into sepia-toned paint, which he then used to paint portraits of the 50 slain officers.

“There’s a particular physical and metaphorical resonance in utilizing milk to reproduce the identity card photos of the 50,” England said. “It is the most basic, humble, elemental foodstuff, sustaining life by multiple means.”

The portraits lined the reception hall on the anniversary of the escape.

WO Maxine Staple

WO Maxine Staple

And beside me as we dined that night in our best bib and tucker, I met British Warrant Officer Maxine Staple, the young woman who had assisted RAF Group Captain David Houghton orchestrate the formal reception on the anniversary. Not unlike artist Jon England WO Staple had dedicated much time and effort to this event. She had helped arrange for the RAF band, the food catering, the speakers’ list and even the civilian guest list, including myself and another dozen Canadians who’d travelled 3,000 miles to pay our respects to the survivors of Stalag Luft III and the murdered 50 officers. Yes, it was her duty, as an officer in the Royal Army, but like RAF chopper pilot Simon Flynn there was more than duty here.

“We are here to honour the men who were killed,” Flynn said. “But we’re also here to learn what gave them the spirit, the strength, the courage to survive and become the actual legend of The Great Escape.”

Memorial to the 50 at Stalag Luft III POW compound

Memorial to the 50 at Stalag Luft III POW compound

Great Escape in Port Colborne

Photo courtesy Dave Johnson

Photo courtesy Dave Johnson

By Dave Johnson (Erie Media)

On the night of March 24, 1944, 80 Commonwealth airmen crawled through a 400-foot long tunnel, escaping Stalag Luft III, a POW camp near Sagan, Poland.

Of those 80 men, including Canadians, British, Poles, Greeks, Australians and others, only three — two Norwegians and a Dutch pilot — successfully escaped.

The remaining 77 were caught by the Germans, and of those, 50 were murdered by the Gestapo on the orders of Adolf Hitler.

The Great Escape, as it was known, was considered the greatest prison breakout in the history of the Second World War.

And, despite what the Hollywood movie of the same name would have everyone believe, it was not planned and carried out by Americans. No one escaped by motorcycle or plane and the 50 murdered men were not all shot at the same time.

“Hollywood never let facts get in the way of telling a good story,” Canadian author Ted Barris told a packed house at Readings at Roselawn Thursday evening.

Barris wrote The Great Escape: A Canadian Story, and told the real story of how Canadians were behind it all.

The Great Escape, the third most popular war film, has stars like Richard Attenborough as a British soldier who masterminds the whole plan, with Charles Bronson as a Polish trench-digging expert, James Garner as an American with a talent for theft, Donald Pleasence as a master forger, and Steve McQueen as an American rebel.

“Hollywood would have us believe the tunnel king was Charles Bronson … it was Wally Floody from Chatham, Ont., not a Polish RAF officer”

Barris said Floody worked gold and ore mines of northern Ontario, and it was there he learned his tunnelling skills.

The real scrounger in the escape from Stalag Luft III was Barry Davidson, of Calgary, who had offered to fly for Chinese General Chiang Kai-shek against the Japanese.

Davidson had learned to fly well before the Second World War.

Tony Pengelly, of Truro, Nova Scotia, Barris said, was the master forger in the operation, and flew all manner of planes when he was with the RAF.

Barris revealed a local connection to the Great Escape during his talk.

He said Gordon Kidder, of St. Catharines, who was one of the 50 officers murdered by the Germans, was instrumental in teaching other escapees German.

One day before his talk, Barris had been in Poland at the former POW camp with Kidder’s nephew.

“It was a moving time.”

Photo courtesy Dave Johnson

Photo courtesy Dave Johnson

He said the Great Escape was actually years in the making.

Many of those involved in the action had been in other POW camps and had made many unsuccessful escape attempts.

Several of the men, he said, were together in Stalag Luft I near Barth, Germany.

“Escape was a private enterprise then,” said Barris, adding there 47 tunnels dug at Stalag Luft I.

Stalag Luft III was the Luftwaffe’s main POW camp for those prisoners considered to be troublemakers, meaning those who had tried to escape from other camps.

With the German air force running the facility, it abided by the Geneva Convention, which meant officers didn’t have to work. All they had to do was show up for roll call.

Barris said it freed them up to plan the escape.

With the camp built in the middle of a pine forest on powdery white sand, the escapees had to find a way to dispose of the coarse yellow sand found 30 feet below ground where the tunnels were.

One element the Hollywood movie got right, the author said, was how soil was disposed of. Prisoners, called penguins, had bags of sand in their legs and dispersed it near a fire pool that had been dug in the ground and had the same coarse yellow sand.

The sand was later dumped underneath a theatre built on site. The theatre had a basement, and unlike every other building, a solid foundation.

Barris said the POW’s buildings were built on stilts so the Germans could watch and make sure no one was tunnelling below.

The prisoners, however, exploited the one weakness of the buildings – the chimneys, which were built of concrete and went into the ground. They went through that concrete and rebuilt a floor system so perfectly, the Germans never knew it had been broken through.

Barris said the POW’s had a system set up with stooges, basically lookouts, in the camp to alert the men tunnelling.

“They could close up a tunnel in 60 seconds if they had to,” he said.

Anatomy of a tribute

 

March 24, 2014, ceremony at Stalag Luft III with the newly built replica sentry tower.

March 24, 2014, ceremony at Stalag Luft III with the newly built replica sentry tower in background.

 

When two recent acquaintances of mine arrived at the former Stalag Luft III location, in September 2013, they expected that the former German prison camp, while now a museum site near the town of Zagan in western Poland, would be fairly peaceful. The two Britons (as well as builder David Dunn and painter Johnnie Tait) had plans to erect a replica sentry tower in time for the upcoming 70th anniversary commemoration of The Great Escape eight months later. Andy Hunter, one of the two tower builders, was suddenly startled by what he saw.

Re-enactors at Stalag Luft III provided frighteningly real portrayals of 70 years ago.

Re-enactors at Stalag Luft III provide frighteningly real portrayals.

“The day we arrived, we were suddenly confronted by a World War II German military motorcycle and sidecar,” Hunter said. “The occupants were dressed in German military uniform. And they had guns pointed at us.”

Hunter’s heart palpitations, while understandable, were unnecessary. He soon discovered that the entire area around Zagan, including Stalag Luft III (the location of The Great Escape in 1944,) was in overdrive preparing for the commemorative ceremony, scheduled to happen right next to the replica sentry tower. And the men with German uniforms, motorcycle and guns were simply re-enactors also preparing for the 70th anniversary observances. In fact, the curator of the site, the Museum of Allied Forces Prisoners of War Martyrdom, Marek Lazarz, when I caught up with him just before the commemoration on Monday, seemed startled by the momentum.

Museum director in RAF uniform escorts real kriegie Andy Wiseman to mock inspection at the camp.

Museum director in RAF uniform, Marek Lazarz, escorts real kriegie Andy Wiseman to mock inspection at the camp.

“We’ve had more visitors here in the past few days,” Lazarz said, “than we’ve had in a year.”

Lazarz and I first met three years ago as I prepared my telling of The Great Escape story with a Canadian perspective. Even then, the tall and lean director of the museum explained that he prayed everything would be ready for the anniversary – the new exhibits hall, the souvenir sales area, the replica of Hut 104 (from which the famous Great Escape tunnel “Harry” was excavated to deliver 80 Commonwealth air officers outside the wire on March 24/25, 1944), the ceremony site near the exit shaft of tunnel “Harry,” the military personnel, the ambassadorial dignitaries, any surviving POW vets, and the re-enactors.

In fact, when I caught up with Lazarz on Sunday afternoon he was dressed in an RAF officer’s uniform as part of the re-enacting team himself. At that moment, he’d found Stalag Luft III POW veteran Andy Wiseman, who’d come in from the U.K. for the commemoration. Lazarz was escorting the 90-year-old Stalag Luft III alumnus to a mock inspection.

Wiseman took great delight as a kriegie unravelling guard systems and protocol.

Wiseman took great delight as a kriegie unravelling guard systems and protocol.

“The Germans conducted a roll call twice a day,” Wiseman told me. He further explained that the Luftwaffe guards in the camp counted each row of POWs calling out the total from front to back to front. Whenever they could the Canadian, British, New Zealand, Australian and South African air officer inmates moved around in mid-count.

“We did our level best to mess things up for them,” Wiseman said. “It was our job to confuse the enemy as often as we could.”

Later that Sunday evening, my fellow travellers to Stalag Luft III – Mark Christoff from Uxbridge and Gord Kidder (whose uncle RCAF navigator Gordon Kidder escaped through the tunnel, but was later killed) – attended a reception hosted by the Canadian ambassador to Poland. Besides the requisite diplomats, civic officials and military dignitaries, Ambassador Alexandra Bugailiskis acknowledged another important volunteer component in the anniversary.

(l-r) Author, Keith Ogilvie, Casey Ogilvie, Ambassador Alexander Bailiskis, Peter McGill, Paul Tibolski, Jean Ogilvie.

(l-r) Myself, Keith Ogilvie, Casey Ogilvie, Ambassador Alexandra Bugailiskis, Peter McGill, Paul Tibolski and Jean Ogilvie.

“I remember seeing the Great Escape movie as a little girl,” she said. “But I had no idea the extent to which the POWs families contributed to their survival of Stalag Luft III.”

Among her invited guests, brother and sister Keith and Jean Ogilvie were representing their father Keith (who was recaptured, but survived); Peter McGill and son Adam attended in remembrance of Peter’s grandfather, George McGill (murdered by Gestapo); and Gord Kidder was honouring his namesake, Gordon Kidder (killed by Gestapo after the escape).

“We often forget the impact of these events on their families,” Ambassador Bugailiskis said. “And yet the families’ connection to these POWs likely gave them hope to get through their days as POWs.”

Andy Hunter, with the British Ministry of Defence, and British Army Col. Phil Westwood, his team leader in the construction of the replica sentry tower at Stalag Luft III, represented another blood connection to events this week near Zagan. Westwood served 38 years in the British Army with deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Falkland Islands and Northern Ireland, he told me.

Joining me at a post-reception part were Phil Westwood (l) and Andy Hunter ®.

At a post-reception party were Phil Westwood (l) and Andy Hunter (r).

“We built the replica of Hut 104 (with the trapdoor to Tunnel “Harry” under a stove,)” Westwood said, “and with some of the donations leftover, we came up with the idea of building the sentry tower… It just seemed the right thing to do.”

Monday’s commemoration at Stalag Luft III and tribute to the 50 murdered Commonwealth officers succeeded because the re-enactments and artifacts were frighteningly believable… but more because volunteers involved knew a legacy was at stake and felt moved to contribute.

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 24, 2014

It appeared even during the Great Escape, Hank Birkland's job was still never done.

It appeared even during the Great Escape, Hank Birkland’s job was still never done.

Just before 9 p.m., on March 24, Les “Johnny” Bull became the first man through the trapdoor under the stove in Room 23 of Hut 104 on his way to open the exit shaft to freedom. In Tunnel “Harry” itself, Bull stretched himself face down on the trolley, and dog-paddled his way to Piccadilly, the first half-way house, a hundred feet up the tunnel. Once there, he jerked the rope for Johnny Marshall, who would act as underground conductor for the first hour and once his 10 men were through would exit the tunnel in the number 11 spot. The two men repeated the travel sequence past the Leicester Square half-way house and at the base of the exit shaft climbed to the top of the shaft to make the final cut through the ceiling boards and sod beyond in the pine forest.

It took Bull and Marshall nearly 30 minutes to break through the ceiling since the planks had swollen with dampness and frozen in the sub-zero temperatures. They’d stripped off the civilian clothing that would disguise them at the train station and in their underwear finally pulled the wood free and poked into the grass roots and snow above. That’s when the two discovered Tunnel “Harry” was 10 feet short of the pine forest and in plain view of the goon tower and fence-line sentries 40 feet away. They improvised and rigged a rope from the exit shaft hole to a blind in the woods and implemented a tug-on-the-rope system for each kriegie to interpret as an all-clear signal for the dash to the woods.

Bob Nelson had helped to engineer Tunnel "Harry." He also had to save it from falling apart at the last minute.

Bob Nelson had helped to engineer Tunnel “Harry.” He also had to save it from falling apart at the last minute.

Of all the legendary personal stories involving escapers on the 360-foot trolley ride to the exit shaft and beyond, among the more compelling involved Canadians Hank Birkland and Briton Bob Nelson (who later immigrated to Canada). As some of the hard-arsers rolled their way through “Harry” some (because of their nervousness, claustrophobia, or just because they were so bulky with clothing, bundled blankets and provisions) inadvertently bumped the tunnel timber causing cave-ins.

Tom Kirby-Green, 13th in the tunnel, accidentally derailed the trolley between Piccadilly and Leicester Square breaking some of the bunk boards in the tunnel walls and sand began to pour in and bury him. Digger Hank Birkland realized the problem, crawled to Kirby-Green and freed him from the sand. Bob Nelson remembered a similar incident.

“When I was hauling (James Long) through the tunnel, the roof fell on top of him,” Nelson said. “I had to pull him out and then when he got past me, I then had to go up the tunnel on my elbows and toes to repair the roof and clear the sand.”

The difficulty of manoeuvring broad-shouldered men wrapped with as much clothing as they might need to fend off the cold and hauling enough food to fuel their progress, meant the narrow passageways became even narrower. At the trapdoor entrance, Robert Ker-Ramsey and Tony Pengelly made the difficult decision to trim back hard-arsers’ layers of clothing and carrying gear. The hard-arsers understood the safety factor, but feared the impact on their survivability. Keith Ogilvie’s thoughts summed up their fears.

“They hoped for the sake of fellas like myself, going hard-ass, that our chances of hiding out in the woods or getting something to eat would be a little better,” Ogilvie said, “but (once out and on the run) it was really cold and frosty.”

Through the night the flow of escapers continued until nearly 80 were either out of the tunnel or already on the run. The months and years of planning and trial and error had yielded not 200 escapers outside the wire (as Bushell had hoped), but it had delivered sufficient numbers to divert as many as 70,000 German troops, police and civilians – in the hours that followed – in an all-out effort to recapture the escapers.

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 23, 2014

A cross-section view of Tunnel "Harry" just as the tunnelling efforts neared an end in late March 1944.

A cross-section view of Tunnel “Harry” just as the tunnelling efforts neared an end in late March 1944.

All day long on March 23, the atmosphere was electric across the North Compound. Behind barracks doors – all with stooges at the watch – kriegies collected their forged maps, manufactured compasses and food rations. They stitched them into shirt pockets, jacket linings and pant legs.

Meanwhile, Robert Ker-Ramsey, staying behind in Stalag Luft III with Tony Pengelly as escape committee veterans, made last minute adjustments underground. He covered the trolley tracks with fresh blankets to muffle the sound, rigged new tow ropes (passed through the main gate by the Vorlager on the premise they would be used for a North Compound boxing ring) on the trolleys, and installed light bulbs (taken from the barracks huts) in every socket available along the full length of “Harry.”

Roommates John Travis (one of the tunnel engineers), Roger Bushell (Big X) and Bob van der Stok, modeled their civilian outfits for Canadian air officer Gordie King. Van der Stok, the Dutch flyer, was going out in the first 20 of the escape order. He emerged from his bunk area in his escape apparel; unlike the fake German corporal’s uniform he’d used during Operation Bedbug, this time van der Stok wore a civilian business suit, handmade by Tommy Guest’s tailors.

“How do I look?” he asked his roommates. “Immaculate,” Gordie King told him.

Pilot Officer Gordon King, from Winnipeg, had arrived just in time for the move from the East Compound to the North Compound in 1943. At 19, in 1940, he knew Morse code, so the air force streamed him into the wireless air-gunner trade, but he was upgraded to pilot training. The RCAF rushed him overseas and sent him, as Second Dickie (observing pilot) on several large bombing operations, including the first thousand-bomber raid on Cologne, Germany, on May 31, 1942. A few nights later, without security in numbers and piloting a Wellington bomber, he and his crew were shot down and captured.

King arrived at Sagan, barefoot, having lost his boots when he bailed out. At the train station he faced the mile-long walk to the compound with nothing on his feet; somebody loaned him footwear he’d never seen before – wooden Dutch clogs. They served him well as he joined the officers’ work crews preparing the North Compound and then later relied on them while working on the tunnel bellows pumping fresh air up the Klim-can air ventilation shaft to the farthest reaches of Tunnel “Harry.”

As the final preparations came together at the base of the shaft to “Harry,” King volunteered to pump the bellows through the night until his turn came, way down the list. Every component in the escape mechanism – no matter how small or large – needed the commitment of every man on the escape team.

“I was a hard-arser,” King said. “I had a map of the area, a little package of food, and my compass just waiting my turn.”

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 22, 2014

 

George Wiley had never attempted an escape until the Great Escape.

George Wiley had never attempted an escape until the Great Escape.

Remarkably, in the final days before the breakout, the anti-tunnelling guards at Stalag Luft III, didn’t appear to notice the diminished movement of POWs outside and around the barracks huts. Perhaps the repeating nighttime snowfalls and early spring chill in the air, helped disguise the fact that kriegies all over the North Compound were busily focused on indoor escape activities. The product of more than a year’s work from Tommy Guest’s tailors, Des Plunkett’s mapmakers and Al Hake’s compass builders, was now being distributed among the 200 men on the final escape list.

Just 22, and only a year inside the wire, George Wiley was typical of the kriegies in final preparation mode. He’d flown Kittyhawks (with 112 Squadron) in support of the British Eighth Army in Tunisia where he was shot down in March of 1943. Welcomed into the escape committee as a penguin working with John Colwell dispersing sand beneath the raked floor of the theatre, with “Harry” virtually completed, Wiley then moved from the basement to the stage. With subtle hints about his extracurricular activity in X Organization, that winter he wrote home to his family in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

North Compound theatre had activity above and below the floor boards.

North Compound theatre had activity above and below the floor boards.

“I’ve got an important part to play in one of our kriegie plays, and I’m a bit nervous about doing my part well,” he wrote. Then, he signed off, “May see you sooner than expected.”

RCAF observer James Wernham had served in both the Commonwealth air force and the escape committee among the longest. At 25, he’d participated in the first thousand-bomber raid on Cologne, Germany (Operation Millennium); but he’d been shot down over Holland about the time the Germans first moved captured officers into Stalag Luft III. He discovered the way to boost his own morale and that of his fellow kriegies in the prison was working backstage and on-stage at the North Compound theatre.

James Wernham and George Wiley would exit the North Compound through Tunnel “Harry” 32nd and 33rd respectively.

In Hut 112, Wiley prepared himself for his first escape attempt. He approached his roommate Alan Righetti, handing him his watch and some personal items; he asked Righetti to pass them along to his mother back in Windsor if things didn’t work out. Righetti, a veteran of earlier escape attempts, joked that Wiley would likely be home before Righetti; still, he accepted Wiley’s belongings and promised he’d fulfill the obligation.

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 21, 2014

Don McKim, pictured at his navigation table, waited and wondered if his name would come up in the lottery.

Don McKim, pictured at his navigation table, waited and wondered if his name would come up in the lottery.

On or about the first day of spring, 1944, the Sagan area of Silesia still had six inches of snow on the ground. Still, the air above the ground was mild. The escape committee met in Hut 104 and decided to delay the breakout at least while the nights were still moonless.

There was more snow over the next couple of nights. But when X Organization met next in Hut 101, the section heads knew a decision had to be made right away to give Ker-Ramsey time to prepare Tunnel “Harry” for the wear and tear of the escape and to allow Pengelly leeway to have all the required documents signed and date-stamped with as timely a date as possible. They settled on Friday, March 24, as the breakout day.

At that meeting of the brain-trust, the section heads then focused on the plight of the hard-arsers in the snow and the cold of the night. Wings Day and Roger Bushell agreed the hard-arsers’ chances of escaping were slim anyway, but even if they were only on the loose for a few days, the resulting chaos across Germany rounding them up would have as desirable an effect as if they all got back to Britain. Bushell gave his blessing to the March 24 date.

Don “Tiger” McKim, an RCAF flying officer who’d been shot down in December 1942, was into his second winter at Stalag Luft III. Because of his diminutive size and claustrophobia, he had worked as a stooge carrying messages and relaying warnings.

“The Germans knew there was a tunnel, but they were tearing their hair out because they couldn’t find it,” he said. “They knew there was a tunnel; at least we thought they knew. They were aware of the dirt, but they didn’t know how much dirt.”

In March, McKim said he felt the stress of the last days before the breakout, awaiting word of whether his name was on the list of hard-arsers. Just in case, he prepared his warmest clothing and whatever food he could assemble and stitch into his clothing.

“Then came the lottery on who would go,” he said, “My name wasn’t pulled from the hat… But the place was really tense.”

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 20, 2014

Tony Pengelly (right) in makeup and costume for a performance at North Compound theatre.

Tony Pengelly (right) in makeup and costume for a performance at North Compound theatre.

After nearly three months of furious activity, moving the last of the excavated sand from the trapdoor of Tunnel “Harry” to the trapdoor under a seat in Row 13 at the North Compound theatre, the dust was quite literally settling for the sand dispersal team. The basement of the theatre had become the final burial ground for 30-to-50 tons of “Harry’s” sand.

Meanwhile, life under the lights – one floor up – went on as usual.

The theatre troupe made a couple of offbeat choices to complete its 1944 winter playbill. In late March, the POW thespians presented the farcical black comedy “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

Cast of "Escape" from March 1944 at Stalag Luft III.

Cast of “Escape” from March 1944 at Stalag Luft III.

Ironically enough, next came “Escape,” a 1926 play be celebrated British Novelist and playwright John Galsworthy. The storyline followed the life of a law-abiding man who met a prostitute, accidentally killed a police officer defending her, and then escaped from prison. The POW production featured longtime kriegies Peter Butterworth as the shopkeeper, John Casson as the parson, and, of course, taking on the female leads were John Dowler, Malcolm Freegard, and Tony Pengelly.

“I spent much of the war in drag,” Pengelly said later.

The next production up required a slight alteration. Roger Bushell, who had been learning lines and rehearsing the blocking for the March 24 premiere of “Pygmalion,” had to inform his understudy, Kenneth Mackintosh, that he would have to take over the role of Professor Higgins. Bushell had a previous engagement.

(Incidentally, one air force officer arrived at Stalag Luft III that winter with unused tickets in his pocket to a production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” being staged at the Hudson Theatre in London; his tickets were honoured at the North Compound theatre.)

Destructive driving

 

My Corolla sitting in a wrecking yard the afternoon of Dec. 30, 2009. I was hit by a distracted driver.

My Corolla sitting in a wrecking yard the afternoon of Dec. 30, 2009. I was hit by a distracted driver.

The man was driving his pickup that day, as I remember it, with his young daughter in the car seat beside him. Maybe he was in a hurry. Maybe he had too many things on the go. But – like too many of us – he decided to do some of his business while driving, on the phone. He happened to be driving along Brock Road in Pickering, Not., back in the days when the railway line below Taunton Road was a level crossing. He didn’t see the train in time and plowed into it. Bad enough, as I recall, he killed himself, but I remember the newspaper headline.

“Man drives truck into moving train,” it said. “Kills infant daughter.”

While the details were a bit foggy, I recalled the story (from maybe a decade ago) as I thought about making what I considered an important phone call while driving to the city this week. Even though I’ve got hands-free capability in my car, the recollection of that innocent kid paying the price of a father’s need to multi-task gave me pause. I considered how an inappropriate decision had cost that family dearly. Not to mention the trauma that first responders likely experienced when they arrived on the scene to deal with the death and destruction. Indeed, the CBC spoke to a retired B.C. firefighter, Tim Baillie, this week, about distracted driving.

“Ever since those damned (cell phones) came in, there’s been distractions,” Baillie told reporter Amber Hildebrandt. “You pick up bodies for 27 years, it pisses you off.”

It likely won’t placate firefighter Baillie, but this week his fellow law enforcers – Ontario provincial and municipal police – began levying stiffer fines ($280 up from $155) in an effort to curb the problem. It’s probably no surprise, but Canadian studies indicate up to 80 per cent of vehicle collisions in this country come as a result of inappropriate cell-phone use. Related fatalities are up 17 per cent (from 302 to 352 deaths) between the years 2006 and 2010. Police in Ontario hope a further penalty of assessing demerit points will help deter drivers even more. But according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, hitting distracted drivers’ bank accounts may be the only way.

“Demerit points will certainly cause an insurer to look at a driver as a greater risk,” an IBC representative told the Toronto Star this week.

As I suggest, I support the idea of making distracted drivers feel like pariah. But – in our haste to reduce inappropriate cell-phone use – I do wonder about definitions here. I listened to a number of radio hosts this week going on about the police blitz and new fines. They wanted everybody to chime in on the issue. And, well, they did. What I heard were some intriguing contradictions about the definition of “distracted driving.”

It appears people are bothered that simply holding a cell phone constitutes “distracted driving,” while other activities do not. Among examples cited were: people who eat and drive, people who do their make-up and drive, people who scan the newspaper and drive. One person wondered why having a dog in one’s lap would not constitute “distracted driving” under the law, but simply having a cell phone lying between one’s legs would.

I have a vivid memory of the most extraordinary combination of distractions happening right in front of me. I was stopped at a light northbound on Kennedy Road (just below Hwy 401) and when the light turned green, a woman in the southbound left-turn lane did a complete u-turn in front of us northbound drivers. And as she wheeled her Mercedes across our lanes, I noticed she was also applying lip stick in mid-manoeuvre. Had I been the cop, I’d have charged her with three offences, none involving a cell phone, but all exhibiting forms of distracted driving.

I hasten to add the story I’ve repeated here a couple of times. En route home from Whitby a few days before New Year’s back in 2009, I was t-boned by a pickup truck that came through a red light and plowed into the right side of my Toyota. The driver, I learned from a witness, was on a cell phone, but because the grace period for warning drivers against such activity was still in effect, the driver managed to get off on a lesser charge. I still had to replace my car totaled by the collision. However, I counted my lucky stars that the pickup had hit the passenger’s side (where there was no one sitting), not the driver’s side.

So I think the increased fines and the potential for demerit points may be effective, but until distracted driving becomes as unacceptable as drunk driving or driving without a seatbelt, the legislators, the police and innocent victims will continue to lose out to multi-taskers who believe they’re not the problem.