30 Days to the Great Escape – March 9, 2014

View across the southwest corner of North Compound, 1943.
View across the southwest corner of North Compound, 1943.

Yesterday afternoon, in the town of Port Carling, Ontario, members of the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 529, gathered and exchanged stories relating to the Second World War and the Great Escape. Among them, Philip Gunyon remembered, at age 7 in September 1939, that he and his mother had survived the U-Boat torpedo attack against the S.S. Athenia the first British ship sunk by Nazi Germany in the war. And Jack Patterson, a veteran of the famed Algonquin Regiment from Central Ontario, recalled being captured during the Falaise campaign in July 1944, and ending up at Stalag VII-A near Munich.

Gord Kidder recalled his namesake, Gordon Kidder, the German scholar at Stalag Luft III and the roles he played familiarizing fellow kriegies with the idiosyncrasies of the German language.

Frank Sorensen's letters reflected his disappointment being a POW, but still played a role in the prisoners' designs.
Frank Sorensen’s letters reflected his disappointment being a POW, but still played a role in the prisoners’ designs.

Among his accomplices in the instruction was fellow-kriegie Frank Sorensen. Following his capture during the 1943 North African campaign, in letters home, P/O Sorensen wrote about his melancholy, but not with purpose.

“Although we are rationed to four cards and three letters, I think it extremely difficult to fill in a letter to you,” Sorensen wrote in May 1943. “The last letter I wrote to you from North Africa was a very short one… Dad, would you send me the Thesaurus, please?” And just two months later he again wrote, “Would like Thesaurus sent out.”

Examination of an average thesaurus, first published by English physician Peter Mark Roget in 1852, reveals that each dictionary of synonyms contains a section called “Foreign Phrases,” which translated common expressions of the street in such languages as French and German.

Gordon Kidder, by rights, should have been studying German in a master's program, but the war had him shot down and imprisoned at Luft III.
Gordon Kidder, by rights, should have been studying German in a master’s program, but the war had him shot down and imprisoned at Luft III.

And since German Luftwaffe guards at the North Compound encouraged their imprisoned enemy officers to spend their leisure time listening to music, watching theatre or reading in the library, the arrival of numerous volumes of Roget’s Thesaurus among the POWs’ packages from home seemed completely innocent.

In the hands of scholar Gordon Kidder, his nephew Gord Kidder reinforced yesterday, the thesaurus wasn’t so much a celebration of German culture, but tangible preparation. When the designated escapers of the planned breakout reached railways stations, border crossings or seaports, it was hoped they could rely on Kidder’s “Foreign Phrases” classes to help get them through.

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 8, 2014

MOVIE_POSTER_VERTICAL_EWhile John Sturgis, producer-director of the movie “The Great Escape” and his script writers generally played fast and loose with the history of the event, they did attempt to include vital elements of the escape committee business leading up to the breakout on March 24/25, 1944.

For example, they fabricated a character named Dai Nimmo (played by Tom Adams) who organized “diversions” within the movie plot.

Among the actual diversionary geniuses inside the North Compound, however, 25-year-old RCAF navigator George McGill (from Toronto,) helped to orchestrate boxing matches and other sport events to distract German guards and allow the penguins to disperse sand among the spectators. And 29-year-old Gordon Kidder RCAF navigator (from St. Catharines, Ontario), taught conversational German to the soon-to-be-escapers.

Beneath that official-looking exterior, Gordon Kidder loved language and culture.
Beneath that official-looking exterior, Gordon Kidder loved language and culture.

By rights that winter of 1944, F/O Kidder should have been attending Johns Hopkins University in the United States (the institution had invited him there in 1937 to finish his master’s degree in German). Instead, in the late 1930s, Kidder joined the air force, trained as a navigator, flew nine operations in the fall of 1942, was shot down and was processed to Stalag Luft III in December.

By all accounts a reserved POW, Kidder in the final weeks of X Organization planning is paired with Tom Kirby-Brown as an escape partner; they would have documents and a story worked out that portrayed them as Spanish labourers in transit. While he and Kirby-Brown worked out their patter for the escape, inside the North Compound Kidder conducted “culture appreciation sessions” in the theatre library.

To German captors the sessions feigned compliance to imprisonment; to Kidder’s audience they more likely helped escapers (with some linguistic ability) improve the fluency of their conversational German once outside the wire.

 

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 7, 2014

Don Edy outside his RAF squadron tent in North Africa.
Don Edy outside his RAF squadron tent in North Africa.

At the end of the first week of March 1944, the inner circle of X Organization was buoyed by progress reports from diggers up Tunnel “Harry.” Based on underground measurements, the tunnel was over 300 feet long, putting the face of the excavation nearly beyond the North Compound wire.

And though department heads could not share specifics of “Harry’s” progress, any of the kriegies who saw the continuous parade of penguins hauling sand to the theatre late at night, knew the escape project was making critical headway.

For some who had been inside German POW camps for years, completing the job couldn’t come soon enough. Hurricane pilot Don Edy considered himself in that category. In February of 1942 – while strafing a truck convoy near Msus, Libya – he took return fire, crash-landed and was captured. First imprisoned in Tripoli, then in Sicily, then Stalag VII-A at Mossburg, Oflag V-A at Weinsberg and finally Stalag Luft III, Edy articulated what perhaps many inside the wire could not.

“I doubt if there is a lonelier feeling in the world than when taken prisoner,” Edy wrote in November 1943. “Everything seems completely hopeless and the thought of being behind barbed wire for God knows how long, maybe years, brings on an immediate depression.”

Most kriegies recognized in themselves and fellow POWs the pent-up frustration of extended imprisonment in the German Straflager system. When life boiled down to twice-a-day roll calls, scrounging for food, and shivering inside poorly insulated barracks, men saw comrades become “barbed-wire happy,” obsessed with getting out.

Don Edy (second from right) performs at North Compound Theatre in "Six to the Bar."
Don Edy (second from right) performs at North Compound Theatre in “Six to the Bar.”

And so, Don Edy fought off his demons by taking on the role of permanent cook in Room 11 of Hut 123 – preparing meals, working out rations from Red Cross packages, and building kitchen utensils, including a coffee percolator that lasted a year! He also joined numerous casts in stage productions at the theatre. Edy considered his focus on kriegie work a life saver.

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 6, 2014

Anti-tunnelling guard displays captured penguin sand-dispersal bags after the escape.
Anti-tunnelling guard displays captured penguin sand-dispersal bags after the escape.

Among the unique elements of X Organization and its various departments – tunnel construction, sand dispersal, security, intelligence, diversion and manufacturing – was its ability to function in complete secrecy inside Stalag Luft III.

POWs recorded their individual roles as those of a digger, a penguin, a stooge or a forger without really having much knowledge of any other department. The system operated on a “need to know basis,” or with the understanding that the entire operation was safer if all any one man knew was his own job and nothing more.

John Colwell, the tin-basher who worked initially fabricating kitchen utensils for his barracks mates and digging tools for the tunnellers, had no concept of where the sand was going, until the day he joined a friendly game of horseshoes in the spring of 1943.

“Suddenly, these two Dutch POWs came along and sort of scuffed around in the middle of our game,” Colwell said. “I remember thinking it wasn’t very considerate of them. And then I saw the sand trickling out of their pant legs and I realized what was going on.”

Replica of the stove in Room 23, Hut 104, that concealed trapdoor to Tunnel "Harry."
Replica of the stove in Room 23, Hut 104, that concealed trapdoor to Tunnel “Harry.”

Meanwhile, Albert Wallace, a penguin carrying sand to the trapdoor in row 13 at the North Compound theatre in the winter of 1944, said he initially knew nothing about the escape plan. Originally assigned to Hut 101 when he arrived at Stalag Luft III in 1943, Wallace was shortly afterward transferred to Hut 104, in Room 23, next to the most important stove in the compound.

“I had no idea it was the tunnel room,” he said. “I didn’t know for weeks that goddamn tunnel was seven feet from my bunk bed (under that stove).”

In addition to his penguin duties, Wallace had one additional task – it was his and his alone – as each morning after roll call he dashed to the compound dump in search of one vital commodity – solder, enough solder to help patch together the Klim cans that formed the air-ventilation shaft under the trolley tracks in Tunnel “Harry” … a need to know basis.

 

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 5, 2014

Rob Buckham documented much of everyday life inside Stalag Luft III in sketches and paintings.
Rob Buckham documented much of everyday life inside Stalag Luft III in sketches and paintings.

Peacetime commercial artist Robert Buckham had little choice what function he’d fulfill with X Organization. Shot down by a night fighter in April 1943, F/L Buckham at Stalag Luft III was immediately recruited into the forgery section (named after the British travel agency Dean & Dawson) reproducing documents for the coming breakout. He credited the quality of his forgeries to one of his mentors, Canadian artist Arthur Lismer (of The Group of Seven).

“I said I was going to major in art (at Stalag Luft III,)” Buckham said. “And I did.”

The team of Dean & Dawson forgers replicated an entire inventory of documents the escapers would need to travel inconspicuously across Nazi-occupied Europe. Among the forgeries were grey identity cards (Kennkarte) or better, visas (Sichtvermerk), plus a pass (Ausweise), and likely a brown card (Dienstausweise) legally allowing the holder to be on Wehrmacht property.

FORGERY_URLAUBSSCHEIN_(FORGED_LEAVE_PERMIT)_EIn addition, if a POW were disguised as a foreign worker, he would require Polizeitliche Bescheinigung, a police permit authorizing him to be in a specific area; Urlaubsscheine, a yellow paper entitling the holder to be on leave to get there; or, Rückkehrscheine, a pink-coloured form that signified a worker was legally en route to his home country.

Buckham worked in a team of more than 100 artists and calligraphers under Tim Walenn and Tony Pengelly delivering credible reproductions of documents they hoped would convince authorities outside the POW camp their holders were legitimate travellers.

Buckham worked in a team of more than 100 artists and calligraphers under Tim Walenn and Tony Pengelly delivering credible reproductions of documents they hoped would convince authorities outside the POW camp their holders were legitimate travellers.

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 4, 2014

George Sweanor had always said the last thing he'd do would be to fall in love during the war.
George Sweanor had always said the last thing he’d do would be to fall in love during the war.

In early March, with excavation in Tunnel “Harry” at full throttle, a number of factors played into and out of the escape committee’s hands. With fewer daylight hours, Group Captain H.M. Massey convinced the camp Kommandant to ease the outdoor nighttime curfew; kriegies were allowed to walk between barracks huts until 10 p.m. (which simply meant more penguins could transport more sand later each night to the theatre disposal site).

Still, the sand-dispersal crew had to ensure spillage in the snow during the night didn’t reveal a telltale trail the next day. There were also moonlit nights during which production ceased.

RCAF navigator George Sweanor served as a security stooge throughout this nerve-racking period. Born and trained in Canada, Sweanor had arrived in the U.K. halfway through 1942 and was posted to Bomber Command with RCAF 419 Squadron.

Joan Saunders met George at a dance raising funds for U.K. POWs.
Joan Saunders met George at a dance raising funds for U.K. POWs.

He met Joan Saunders. They fell in love and were married Jan. 6, 1943. Just over two months later, his Halifax bomber was shot down and he was processed to Stalag Luft III. He soon joined X Organization’s growing security staff on nighttime duty.

“Penguins could now carry full bags of sand concealed by darkness,” Sweanor wrote, “(but) darkness also concealed (anti-tunnelling) ferrets, so we stooges had to be even more alert. At the gate, I had to watch for the slightest sign that guards were about to rush in for a surprise search.

“We (had) a 20-second drill for sealing ‘Harry’ with diggers still down there; this would suffice for casual inspections. But for appells we had a lengthier drill with numerous ruses for delaying the Germans so we could empty the tunnel before sealing it.”

During one of Rubberneck’s late February snap security checks, Sweanor found himself carrying a metal file and escape map. Out on the appell grounds and standing in snow, Sweanor chanced dumping the incriminating evidence into the snow to be retrieved later. When Rubberneck and fellow ferrets descended on Hut 110, about that time, they discovered a secret wall panel. “Rubberneck eagerly snatched a piece of paper it held,” Sweanor said. “It read, ‘Sorry, Rubberneck, you are too late.’”

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 3, 2014

Don McKim, pictured at his navigation table, endured the cold of being shot down in winter and being imprisoned in winter.
Don McKim, pictured at his navigation table, endured the cold of being shot down in winter and of being imprisoned in winter.

If the 1963 movie portrayal of The Great Escape succeeds in delivering the drama and tension leading up to the mass breakout planned for late March in 1944, it utterly fails to capture the reality of winter in western Poland.

On March 1, as F/O John Colwell recorded in his diary, six inches of snow fell. Temperatures generally dipped below freezing pre-Christmas and stayed there until April. Even kriegies used to cold winters in Canada, found conditions at the North Compound of Stalag Luft III tough to endure.

Flying Officer Don McKim’s Halifax bomber was shot down over Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, in December 1942, in a frigid 185-mile-per-hour wind. Still, on Christmas Eve, having to sleep in the bottom tier of a bunk bed – closest to the floor – McKim said he was never so cold in all his life.

“The mattress was made of bags of wood chips,” he said, “so, the cold would work its way through (and) I put all the clothes I had on. My greatcoat. My mittens. Everything trying to stay warm.” McKim was claustrophobic, so he worked as a stooge, yes, outside in the winter air passing X Organization communiqués.

Frank Sorensen's efforts to teach Big X, required it be done along the warning wire during the winter of 1943-44.
Frank Sorensen’s efforts to teach Danish to Big X, required it be done outside along the warning wire during the winter of 1943-44.

Equally affected by freezing temperatures, Pilot Officer Frank Sorensen (shot down over North Africa in 1943) wrote of the environment and its impact on him often during his first winter at Stalag Luft III. On Feb. 25, 1944, he wrote to his father, “It’s been very cold here lately (and) as I am very restless, unable to keep my blankets on me at night, I sewed them into a sleeping bag.”

And a few weeks later, he wrote about winter dragging on, “leaving the ground wet and miserable and forcing most everyone to remain indoors. Indoor life in a kriegie camp does not make time go any faster.”

Sorensen contributed in many ways to the escape effort, but among the most valuable required him to be outside. Big X (Roger Bushell) was fluent in German, French, and some Russian phrases, but he was deficient in Danish. Since Sorensen had been born in Denmark, through the fall and winter of 1943-44, the two walked along the circuit (just inside the warning wire where they couldn’t be heard by guards or any other listening devices) as P/O Sorensen taught Big X common Danish phrases that Bushell could use if he escaped and got aboard a vessel sailing from Germany toward Scandinavia.

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 2, 2014

 

Roger Bushell, head of the escape committee was a master of hiding a deathly serious business with an easy-going smile.
Roger Bushell, head of the escape committee, was a master at hiding a deathly serious business with an easy-going smile.

The purge and transfer of 19 Commonwealth air officers away from Stalag Luft III to Belaria, the satellite prison camp, on Feb. 29, 1944, put several key escape committee department heads – Floody, Fanshawe, Brown and Harsh – out of action.

Ironically, the anti-tunnelling guards did not purge Roger Bushell, apparently on the assumption that Big X had disconnected himself from all escape attempts. Indeed, Bushell made certain he was spotted in innocuous pursuits – attending language classes and rehearsing for an upcoming production of “Pygmalion” at the North Compound theatre. In fact, he extolled fellow kriegies to redouble their escape efforts.

With Wally Floody, the original tunnel king, out of the picture, digger Robert Ker-Ramsey took the lead underground in Tunnel “Harry.” Frustrated by the loss of their compatriots, the tunnellers ramped up their workload.

The crew underground doubled with two diggers at the face of the tunnel and two in each of the two halfway houses – Piccadilly and Leicester Square – moving the sand out even faster. Carpenter Jim McCague had assistance preparing timber for shoring up the tunnel walls and Gordie King’s shift on the bellows pumping air through the ventilation system went to 8 hours.

John Colwell, a.k.a. "The Tin Man," worked above ground making utensils POWs needed, and below ground "disappearing" sand.
John Colwell, a.k.a. “The Tin Man,” worked above ground making utensils POWs needed, and below ground “disappearing” sand.

Flying Officer John Colwell (below left), a peacetime chicken farmer from Vancouver Island, kept a daily and detailed diary of the kriegies’ experience through this period. “March 1. Six inches of fresh snow. They purged POWs to Belaria on morning appell. March 3. Made a pair of wooden chuppils (sandals). March 4. Made baking pan. Saw a daylight raid by USAAF.”

If his diary references seemed clipped, it’s because F/O Colwell, a.k.a. “The Tin Man,” spent most of these early March days and evenings in his other job, receiving sand through the theatre seat trapdoor and disposing of it beneath the raked floor boards of the North Compound theatre. With the volume of excavated sand multiplying exponentially, Colwell’s crew increased in number tamping the sand into every nook and cranny of the theatre basement. They were “disappearing” upwards of a ton of sand every few days.

30 Days to the Great Escape – March 1, 2014

In the last days of February, when Tunnel “Harry” was 100 feet short of its completed run underground beyond the wire, the escape committee at Stalag Luft III learned valuable information. One of X Organization’s nemeses, anti-tunnelling guard Unteroffizier Karl Griese, was about to go on leave.

Karl "Rubberneck" Griese, the anti-tunnelling guard at Stalag Luft III.
Karl “Rubberneck” Griese, the anti-tunnelling guard at Stalag Luft III.

In the weeks before his rest time away from the compound, Griese (whom the POWs nicknamed “Rubberneck,”) had been snooping more suspiciously than usual around the North Compound barracks. He had periodically ordered impromptu appells, when POWs had to line up across the sports grounds beyond the theatre for roll calls (presumably to catch any kriegies who might be absent and in a tunnel).

In the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between Rubberneck and the POWs, when the spot searches came, the kriegies made sure they dawdled en route to the assembly area, to allow tunnel crews enough time to be pulled from “Harry” and cleaned up before appell.

During this same period – as the end of February approached – Rubberneck sprang a sudden search in Hut 104 (where the entrance to “Harry” was located,) then one in Hut 110. Then, he assembled Wally Floody, George Harsh, Wings Day and Roger Bushell and strip-searched them.

Lea Kenyon's sketch "The Purge" when 19 POWs were marched out of Stalag Luft III to Belaria. (Kenyon sketch with permission)
Ley Kenyon’s sketch “The Purge.” Feb. 29, 1944, 19 POWs were marched out of Stalag Luft III to Belaria. (Kenyon sketch with permission)

Then on Feb. 29, 1944 (70 years ago today), Rubberneck delivered a nearly fatal blow to the escape committee before taking his leave. That day, during morning appell, the pesky ferret appeared with 30 additional guards. They called out the names of 19 kriegies, including Floody, Harsh, Peter Fanshawe, Kingsley Brown, MacKinnon “Mac Jarrell, Gordon “Nic Nicholl, Robert Stanford Tuck, Jim Tyrie and Gwyn Martin. The 19 were searched for two hours and then marched under guard through the main gate (no time to retrieve any belongings) and down the road to a satellite POW camp at Belaria for good.

“They just wanted to get rid of us,” Floody said. “But they had a pretty good shot at it, because they got the man in charge of sand dispersal (Fanshawe), the man in charge of security (Harsh), an intelligence specialist (Brown) and myself, a tunnel digger.”

30 Days to the Great Escape – Feb. 28, 2014

Pengelly knew and used his skills in photography, calligraphy and bribery.
Pengelly knew and used his skills in photography, cartography, calligraphy and bribery.

By the last week of February, Flight Lieutenant Tony Pengelly had been a POW in the German military prison system for three and a half years. Shot down in November 1940 and imprisoned first at Stalag Luft I (at Barth, Germany) and then transferred to Stalag Luft III (near Sagan, Poland) in 1942, Pengelly had graduated from escape committee member-at-large to leading a forgery section. But since he also handled the distribution of Red Cross parcels, Pengelly took on the added duty of using the premium items in the parcels to bribe German guards.

First step, Pengelly said, involved chatting up the guards, comparing family snapshots and exchanging pleasantries. When the Canadian pilot knew his prey might soon be going on leave, he might offer the guard some coffee (something most Germans hadn’t enjoyed since 1936). To further bait the hook, Pengelly might offer some chocolate for the guard’s children. Often that gift drew the offer of a favour from the guard.

“Can I bring you anything from outside?” the guard might ask.

“Yes, if you don’t mind,” Pengelly would say. “I’d like a hundred toothpicks.”

Something that inconsequential would be sufficient the first time, but it was oil for the machine With each trip the guard made, Pengelly might repeat the exchange until it got to be habitual. And having broken the rules once, the “tame” guard wouldn’t likely refuse Pengelly’s requests, fearing the POWs might expose him. Coffee and chocolate yielded a camera, developing and printing equipment, and even the short-term loan of passes and visas.

“It was the psychology of binding a man with a thread,” Pengelly said. “They never foresaw where it led … and we paid them in wartime Europe’s vest currency – food commandeered from our Red Cross parcels.”