The Hermitage Ballroom at the Best Western Mariposa Inn was the room with the Sir John A view Saturday night.
The 19th annual Sir John A Macdonald Celebration was once again sold out, with approximately 200 people on hand to show their support for the Orillia Museum of Art and History while feting one of the Fathers of Confederation.
The celebration took on an added significance this year, as 2017 not only marks the 150th anniversaries of both Confederation and the incorporation of Orillia, but also the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, pointed to as pivotal moment in making Canada the nation it is today.
That made Ted Barris a fitting speaker for the evening. He has written extensively on the country around the time of Confederation, as well as specifically on Vimy, in 2007’s Victory at Vimy.
On December 30, 2016, RCAF Association News website announced:
“As 2016 comes to a close, the RCAF Association would like to wish its members, partners and other industry professionals a safe and happy holiday season. As we reflect on the past year for the industry, we would like to provide the readers of the RCAF Assocation News a look at the most accessed articles from the year…”
Among them was “Bringing the Hally home,” published by the National Post.
The Great Escape: A Canadian Story has received its first recognition in the United States. In late August 2014, members of the Stalag Luft III Prisoners of War Association in the U.S. presented Ted Barris with a “Certificate of Honor” for his work on publishing the historical account of the famous 1944 breakout in the Second World War.
Barris delivered the keynote at the association’s annual reunion, this year in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Then, during the reunion’s formal banquet – featuring the parading of the colours, the lighting of candles in honour of the fallen, and recognition of service to the veterans – the U.S. reunion co-chairs Marilyn Walton and Mike Eberhardt (both the offspring of former Stalag Luft III POWs) presented Certificates of Honor for what the association called service above and beyond.
They recognized five civilians, including: Mary Elizabeth Ruwell, an archivist at the U.S. Air Force Academy; Ben van Drogenbroek, a Dutch researcher; Val Burgess, an American oral historian; Marek Lazarz, the director of the Stalag Luft III Museum in Poland; and a Canadian author/historian whose writing, they said, has brought valuable attention to the Stalag Luft III story… Ted Barris. They handed recipients only copies of the certificate, because the originals will be housed permanently at the U.S. Air Force Academy archives in Colorado Springs.
On June 2, 2014, the Retail Council of Canada hosted the annual Libris Awards, at a gala in the Toronto Congress Centre. Having voted on their choices for the best in Canadian literature for the year, Canadian booksellers within the RCC handed out the Libris Awards in a variety of categories. Among the awards presented, The Great Escape: A Canadian Story received the 2014 Libris Best Non-Fiction Book Award (sharing the award, because judges declared a tie in the category, with Chris Hadfield for his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.)
In announcing the award, author Terry Fallis, the host of the evening, said this as the envelope was about to be opened: “At its best, non-fiction helps us to explore the believable and the unbelievable, to question and to find meaning – not what do think, but how to think. The award for non-fiction book of the year goes to a Canadian work of non-fiction published in 2013 that made a lasting impression on the Canadian book selling industry, through wide media attention, increased traffic to bookstores and strong sales… And the winner is… We have a tie. The Libris Award for Best Non-Fiction Book of 2013 goes to The Great Escape: A Canadian Story (published by Dundurn) by Ted Barris … and to An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth (published by Random House Canada) by Chris Hadfield.”
Here are a few thoughts Ted Barris offered on receiving the recognition: “Through nearly 40 years as a professional writer and 17 books, I have received applause and praise from the Canadians whose lives and accomplishments I’ve tried to capture in print. Thanks to this Libris Award, now the acclaim comes to the word-pictures I’ve created, their accuracy and their style. I am humbled and proud at the same time.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.)