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.”

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