30 Days to the Great Escape – March 19, 2014

Frank Sorensen figured that the slower-moving milk-run trains would attract less attention than the high-speed expresses.
Frank Sorensen figured that the slower-moving milk-run trains would attract less attention than the high-speed expresses.

With the potential of even short-lived freedom waiting for them perhaps just days away and at the end of nearly 400 feet of completed shafts and tunnel works, hundreds of kriegies contemplated that potential.

Frank Sorensen, the Canadian Spitfire pilot shot down over North Africa in April 1943, felt the anticipation and excitement as much as any man inside the North Compound of Stalag Luft III. In numerous letters home to his family, Sorensen sometimes exhibited what fellow kriegie Albert Wallace described as  a “barbed-wire happy” attitude, that is, an obsession for getting out of prison.

“Indoor life in a kriegie camp,” Sorensen wrote on March 20, 1944, “does not make time go any faster.”

However, several realities in the compound influenced Sorensen’s eventual decision to forfeit his higher position (lower number) on the escape list. X Organization intelligence suggested the first escapers – fluent in German and dressed like businessmen or travellers – stood the best chance of getting away safely if they caught the fast morning trains leaving Sagan. Sorensen deduced those same express trains would also face the greatest scrutiny and surveillance by German police and railway guards. Sorensen therefore considered going through the tunnel lower on the list to catch a later, slower train, where his presence might attract less attention.

But Sorensen weighed yet other considerations. Among his closest friends inside the wire was James Catanach, an Australian officer who’d grown up in a tightly knit family… and Arnold Christensen, a New Zealand officer who shared Sorensen’s Danish heritage. Both Catanach and Christensen had been imprisoned longer than Sorensen had, and in the grand scheme of the mass breakout, their successful escape seemed to hold greater emotional significance, at least in the way Sorensen looked at it.

So, for strategic purposes or matters of the heart – or both – Sorensen chose to trade his earlier spot on the escape list for a higher number and later exit through the tunnel.

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 18, 2014

For most of the four years he spent in POW camps, Bartlett had been custodian of "the canary" aka the radio.
For most of the four years he spent in POW camps, Bartlett had been custodian of “the canary” aka the radio.

Even as the upper echelon of the escape committee contemplated its last crucial decision – exactly what night the breakout would occur – the jostling of X Organization personnel for positions in the order of escape seemed to change daily.

For Canadian Fleet Air Arm pilot Dick Bartlett – the officer in charge of hiding the shortwave radio inside various POW camps since being shot down in 1940 – it seemed he would be a high-priority escaper. He’d even been assigned position number 16 in escape list and paired with Norwegian pilot officer Halldor Espelid, who was 15th. Then, suddenly, Nils Fugelsang, another Norwegian officer, arrived in the North Compound, and Bartlett offered to give up his spot to Fugelsang, who with Espelid, the committee figured, would have a better chance of getting all the way back to England.

(For those paying close attention, ironically, in the movie script, the Roger Bushell character was renamed “Roger Bartlett.”)

Since his earliest days at Dulag Luft, Barry Davidson had worked as camp scrounger.
Since his earliest days at Dulag Luft, Barry Davidson had worked as camp scrounger.

The situation turned out to be more cut and dry for the pilot Barry Davidson. Among the longest serving members of the escape committee, the scrounger initially was given the number 78th position in the list going through the tunnel. But suddenly there was a problem with Davidson’s profile in the North Compound.

“I had been seen talking to one of the guards, shortly before the escape,” Davidson said. “He hated the Nazis and had sympathy for the POWs. We had such a good security system that (X Organization) knew the Germans had seen me talking to him… My relationship with this guard would have risked his life had I gone. So Roger Bushell asked me if I’d step back and not go out.” Reluctantly, Davidson agreed.

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 17, 2014

Keith Ogilvie won widespread recognition for shooting down a German aircraft about to bomb Buckingham Palace early in the war.
Keith Ogilvie won widespread recognition for shooting down a German aircraft about to bomb Buckingham Palace early in the war.

In the last days before the mass breakout, work reached completion all major sections of X Organization activity. Tommy Guest’s tailors put the final stitching and buttons on clothes for kriegies with low numbers and high linguistic capability about to go through “Harry” in the first wave. Al Hake’s assembly line in Hut 103 stowed as many as 250 homemade compasses in Tunnel “Dick” for safekeeping. And Des Plunkett’s team of mapmakers completed mimeographing 4,000 escape maps. One such map was distributed to designated hard-arser Keith Ogilvie.

“I was one of the great majority who (was to go) out in (air force) uniform,” Ogilvie told members of the Ashbury Journal in 1971, “creating a smokescreen to enable the chaps who were better equipped with civilian clothes and passes to get away on the trains. We had maps and our hope was to get into Czechoslovakia.”

Keith “Skeets” Ogilvie was an Ottawa-born RAF fighter pilot, who had been shot down over Lille, France, early in the war. In fact, the Germans scored propaganda points in the event when William Joyce (a.k.a. Lord Haw Haw, the British-born fascist who became the Nazis’ chief English-language broadcaster) announced Ogilvie’s capture immediately after it happened on July 4, 1941.

At Stalag Luft III, Ogilvie joined escape committee activity by lifting the wallet of a guard and rushing it to Tony Pengelly’s forgery team for examination. Ogilvie then informed the guard he’d found the wallet on the floor. Worried about the consequences of prison authorities discovering he’d lost his papers while inside the compound, the guard thanked Ogilvie profusely. Another guard had thus been tamed and vital identification papers had made their way to the forgery group for replication.

In this final week of winter in March, Ogilvie recalled his feelings about the looming escape, as “much the same feeling one would have before playing an important football game. (I) was keyed up and anxious for the show to start.”

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 16, 2014

Red Cross parcels came to the officers about once or twice a month. Most called their contents "life-savers."
Red Cross parcels came to the officers about once or twice a month. Most called their contents “life-savers.”

The Ides of March brought a shift in the escape committee’s manufacturing and preparation. Where they had previously focused on the fashioning of tunnelling tools and manipulation of materiel for underground construction, kriegie engineers began transforming food tins into water bottles for the escapers.

Roger Bushell called for one last levy on the Red Cross parcels, so that a cooking crew in Hut 112 could mix every ounce of sugar, cocoa, raisins, milk and biscuits into a stewing pot to create a concoction of high-calorie fudge for the escapers to consume outside the wire.

John R. Harris realized language wouldn't help him escape, but having survival gear might.
John R. Harris realized language wouldn’t help him escape, but having survival gear might.

Unlike the kriegies with higher linguistic capabilities (working with German scholar Gordon Kidder in his so-called “culture appreciation classes”) RCAF navigator John R. Harris prepared himself among the “hard-arsers” masquerading as a Hungarian ironworker in transit. He was number 179 on the escape list, should his turn arrive.

“We spent the (last week) in a frenzy of secret activity,” John Harris wrote, “as we prepared our clothes, acquired quantities of compact, nourishing food, and collected our forged papers,” Harris wrote. “I was provided a with a very official looking Nazi document which affirmed that I was Antoine Zabadose.”

Meanwhile section leaders Robert Ker-Ramsey and Johnny Marshall began assembling the escapers in small groups to explain – when the time came – how to get through the tunnel.

“Most of us had never been beyond the trapdoor at the mouth of ‘Harry,’ Harris wrote, “but we were given a cook’s tour of the tunnel, so that we would have some idea of what faced us once we went below ground.”

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 15, 2014

Tommy Thompson had assisted the scrounging team since his first imprisonment in 1939.
Tommy Thompson had assisted the scrounging team since his first imprisonment in 1939.

The escape list largely determined during the March 14 meeting began to disseminate through the barracks huts the next day.

Among those Canadians learning their position on the list, George McGill, who had conjured up diversions during earlier escape attempts and later a tunnel security leader, would be 75th into the tunnel. Gordon Kidder, who with fluency in European languages had taught fellow kriegies how to converse in German on the outside, would be 31st on the list. Hank Birkland, the last of the Canadian tunnellers after the Feb. 29 purge, would exit the tunnel 51st. And Tommy Thompson, the Canadian pilot who’d personally earned the wrath of Herman Göring for waking the Reichsmarschall in the September night he was shot down in 1939, would be 68th out the tunnel.

Weighing on the minds of so many of the active escape committee personnel were the details of duty. As a section head in the forgery team, Tony Pengelly had directed the production of many of the escape documents. He knew their design, detail and delivery better than almost anyone inside the wire. But also wondered whether, on the night of the escape, somebody in his branch of Dean and Dawson should stay behind to check that every identification card was in the right hand s of the right escaper as he entered “Harry” on his way out. Nothing could be left to chance.

George Sweanor had to get home to see his new bride and baby daughter.
George Sweanor had to get home to see his new bride and baby daughter.

“As a prisoner of war… it was the greatest decision of my life,” Pengelly said. “There was this responsibility, and on my acceptance or rejection of it, depended my chance at freedom.” In the end, Pengelly decided to forfeit his spot, number 93 on the escape list.

Meanwhile, George Sweanor, who had even more to hurry home to, including a new bride and a newborn daughter he had never seen, had trepidations about the entire enterprize.

“I argued that a mass escape would cause a desired disruption to the German war effort, yes, because it would take a lot of people to track us down,” Sweanor said. “But there was really little hope of anybody getting home. … I felt relieved (that) my name was not drawn.”

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 14, 2014

Roger Bushell and the section heads determined the final act of The Great Escape on March 14.
Roger Bushell and the section heads determined the final act of The Great Escape on March 14.

March 14, 1944, proved a crucial day in the history of The Great Escape. Diggers reported the upward vertical shaft, the exit from “Harry,” was complete. The wooden ceiling just beneath the pine-tree roots, presumably in the forest beyond the wire, was secure. That day also marked the return of Unteroffizier Karl Griese, perhaps the most rabid anti-tunnelling guard prowling the North Compound.

Meantime, in Hut 110, the escape committee conducted a two-hour meeting in the library. Big X, Roger Bushell led a discussion about the timing of the breakout. The committee considered three possible dates – March 23, 24 and 25 – the next three nights without potential exposure by bright moonlight. March 25 was a Saturday, which likely meant additional train traffic and potential congestion along some of the railway routes through Sagan; that would affect the first wave of fluent speakers making their way through train stations.

The committee members would wait to see what the weather would bring on March 23 and 24. The section heads debated whether a mass escape in bad weather – with freezing nighttime temperatures and with several feet of snow on the ground – might jeopardize attempts to get away by the hard-arsers, those escaping on foot and relying on survival skills to put distance between them and Stalag Luft III.

Bushell and the X Organization section heads agreed they would go on either Thursday, March 23, or Friday, March 24, depending on the weather. The committee hoped between 9 o’clock on the night of the escape and 5:30 the next morning the tunnel could spring more than 200 kriegies – one every three of four minutes – across the occupied European countryside.

Tony Pengelly felt the tension most as the order of escape was drawn.
Tony Pengelly felt the tension most as the order of escape was drawn.

The final item on the meeting agenda was drawing the names and determining the order on the list of escapers. The first 30 names selected came from a list of the best German speakers. The next 20 names came from the most prominent escape committee workers. Then, 30 more were drawn from a list of stooges, penguins, tailors, compass and mapmakers and forgers. Finally, all remaining names were pulled from a hat to bring the total number to about 200. Tony Pengelly, a forgery section head, recalled the tension of this moment.

“When the time came close,” Pengelly wrote, “we drew lots intensely, in small groups. Mere slips of paper they were, holding the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ of freedom – and for the lucky ones, how long he would be after the first to leave. I drew number 93.”

 

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 13, 2014

Dick Bartlett, and his so-called canary, delivered the sound of home to kriegies inside the POW camps.
Dick Bartlett, and his so-called canary, delivered the sound of home to kriegies inside the POW camps.

As distant as the 2,000 air officers inside the North Compound at Stalag Luft III felt from their original wartime British air stations thousands of kilometres to the west, on the eve of their historic breakout, the POWs were remarkably close to the U.K. by air waves… thanks to Canadian Richard Bartlett.

Born and raised on a dairy farm near Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, in western Canada, Bartlett raised silver foxes, the assets of which provided him with passage to England and entry to the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm by 1938. Posted to 803 Squadron and flying Skua dive-bombers in the spring of 1940, S/L Bartlett flew in the futile defence of Norway against the Nazi invasion. That June he was shot down and was shipped off to POW camps in northern Germany and Poland. He got involved in clandestine work right away.

“Through friendly relations with Polish labourers at (Stalag Luft I), we bribed one of the Poles to sneak the components for a small radio receiver into the camp.”

A radio operator, a shorthand writing expert and Bartlett guarding at the door delivered daily info from BBC by shortwave.
A radio operator, a shorthand writing expert and Bartlett guarding at the door of the latrine… delivered daily info from BBC by shortwave.

And the resulting wireless set allowed the POWs to hear BBC broadcasts. Then, to ensure that the crystal set was never discovered by German guards, Bartlett regularly disassembled the crystal set and placed its parts inside a medicine ball. The ball, a bit larger than a basketball and usually weighted with sand, was used by prisoners of war for calisthenics and other sporting pursuits.

“That way, the radio-equipped medicine ball subsequently travelled from camp to camp (becoming) a continuous source of war news and intelligence,” Bartlett pointed out. In this fashion, by the time the Commonwealth aircrew men had arrived at Stalag Luft III and throughout their stay there, kriegie Richard Bartlett served the escape committee as the custodian of the canary.

 

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 12, 2014

As solid as the shaft walls looked, they could be deadly if a single board broke and sand cascaded down on the tunnellers.
As solid as the shaft walls looked, they could be deadly if a single board broke and sand cascaded down on the tunnellers.

For the better part of three months, X Organization diggers had worked on their bellies, their sides, or their backs excavating the horizontal section of Tunnel “Harry” roughly 22 inches tall and 22 inches wide. But by March 12, 1944, the dig had returned to the vertical. Gingerly, just as Wally Floody had done downward in April 1943, they crafted an upward shaft that would give the escapers an exit from “Harry” into the woods beyond the wire.

At the upper end of their vertical shaft, Hank Birkland and the other diggers built a final solid box frame around four bedposts and a wooden ceiling. It was positioned right below some pine tree roots, to remain in place until the night chosen for the breakout.

They had tunnelled for eleven months – from April 11, 1943, to nearly the end of the second week of March 1944. They had removed and dispersed several hundred tons of sand from three major tunnels. Scrounging from every corner of the North Compound, kriegies had incorporated more than 4,000 bed-boards, 90 double bunk beds, 1,212 bed bolsters, 1,370 battens, 1,699 blankets, 161 pillow cases, 635 mattresses, 192 bed covers, 3,424 towels, 76 benches, 52 twenty-man tables, 10 single tables, 34 chairs, 30 shovels, 246 water cans, 1,219 knives, 582 forks, 478 spoons, 1,000 feet of electric wire, 600 feet of rope, and 69 lamps into “Tom,” “Dick,” and mostly “Harry.”

According to the measured ball of string the diggers unraveled in the tunnel, “Harry” covered 336 feet (nearly 400 feet including the two vertical shafts). The escape committee was just six inches away from the sod and roots of the forest floor, well outside the wire – six inches to freedom.

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 11, 2014

Among his many occupations, his work as a miner in B.C. served Hank Birkland well as a POW.
Among his many occupations, his work as a miner in B.C. served Hank Birkland well as a POW.

With two of the principal Great Escape diggers – Wally Floody and John Weir – out of the mix, and with a big push on to complete “Harry” by late March 1944, the bulk of the work fell to stalwart tunnellers, such as Hank Birkland.

At age 27, the Canadian carpenter’s son, former farmer, one-time salesman, itinerant miner and lacrosse player, had seen his share of hard labour and unexpected responsibility. During the Depression, when the family farm in Western Canada fell on tough times, Birkland worked to keep the enterprize afloat, while keeping his studies up at high school. But when the war broke out, he was quick to enlist – trained as a fighter pilot in 1940-41, on ops with 72 Squadron through the fall of 1941, and shot down Nov. 7.

By the time their German captors had installed them at Stalag Luft III, Floody had teamed up Birkland and Weir as co-tunnellers. Floody learned that when “Scruffy” Weir dug in “Harry” he tended to veer to the left and when “Big Train” Birkland dug, he veered to the right. So Floody made sure the two worked on back-to-back shifts to compensate.

According to Canadian historian Jonathan Vance (A Gallant Company), Birkland wrote family in the last days before the breakout: “I got a letter last month to which I will not be able to reply,” Birkland wrote. “I am not in a position to carry on a letter-for-letter correspondence for long.”

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 10, 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.

 

Just nine days after the tunnellers’ nemesis, Karl Griese (Rubberneck), went on leave – on Feb. 29, 1944 – Tunnel “Harry” had been extended the 100 feet that – based on underground measurements – the escape committee figured put its main escape route beyond the wire, beyond the road and well into the pine forest. Thus, on March 10, 1944 the diggers carved out what would be the base of the vertical shaft soon to be dug to the surface about 30 feet above them.

But the configuration of the digging team had changed dramatically since it first broke through the chimney foundation in Hut 104 almost a year before. Wally Floody, the tunnel king was gone – purged to Belaria POW camp on Feb. 29.

John Weir wrote more than a hundred letters for his fiancée Fran full of code for her.And John Weir, the digger from Toronto, was gone – off to a German hospital near Frankfurt-am-Main where he underwent skin-graft surgery to reconstruct his eyelids (burned off when his Spitfire was hit by enemy fire in November 1941).

Since December 1941, Flying Officer John Weir had been writing regularly to his fiancée Frances McCormack in Toronto. Naturally, Fran had become accustomed to his words of love and longing to be with her. But she also began to understand he wasn’t sitting idly by waiting for the war to end. He had told her of his German language lessons, sent her pictures of himself and his Canadian fellow kriegies. But John Weir had also sent Fran a coded request.

“The pajamas you sent in the July parcel just came in time,” he had written in 1942. “My others were sort of on their bum ends.”

And when he kept asking for more pairs of silk pajamas, and she obliged, she sensed her fiancé was up to something. Indeed, in place of street clothes or digging naked (both of which could reveal yellow stains or scratches sustained by tunnelling activity), Weir’s silk pajamas served as easily disposable, very resistant to sand stains, digging outfits for the tunnellers. And Weir’s fiancée – though not sure how – was a willing and able accomplice to her husband’s escape activity at Stalag Luft III.