None of my family members – as much as they love me – wanted to consider what I was saying this week was possible. Certainly, my friends won’t believe me either. But I was up in a part of Ontario the weather forecasters call Huronia. It’s that stretch of the Georgian Bay shoreline that runs from about Victoria Harbour to Penetanguishene. Actually, it was along the Midland, Ont., waterfront. And when I got there to visit a friend, last Saturday, I looked at the bay in front of his home and said we had to walk.
“It’s my chance to walk on water,” I told him in fun.
They are the most soothing and at the same time perhaps the most mysterious symbols of Christmas. They appear in carols, in the Bible, in Christmas cards and just about every nativity scene one could imagine. They are seldom quoted, but always acknowledged as trusted and worthy guides to a safe and protected place.
“And there were in the same country,” it says in the Book of Luke, “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night…”
Seventy years ago, Europeans sensed the end of the Second World War was near. VE Day arrived May 8, 1945. A generation later, historians and moviemakers are still discovering how Victory in Europe was achieved. At Bletchley Park, an estate just two hours from London, England, details of the Allied intelligence victory continue to emerge. Last year, the movie The Imitation Game depicted the secret world of Enigma, Alan Turing and war work at Bletchley.
In the March 2015 edition of Zoomer magazine, read Ted Barris’s account of the Canadian angle on the code-breakers who hastened victory.
Regulations clearly stipulated against it. An exposed light in the middle of the darkness, especially on the open sea when the country was at war made the vessel emitting the light extremely vulnerable. German U-boats could spot it in a second, and attack in the next. And the risk was made extremely clear to merchant navy man Jim Hunt during one North Atlantic crossing when his tanker convoy was under an escort by U.S. navy ships.
“Someone had left a porthole open with a light on at dusk on board our tanker,” Hunt said, remembering his time in the Second World War as a teenaged sailor at sea aboard a Norwegian merchant navy ship. “So, an American destroyer came alongside our ship and signaled for us to turn the light out … or they would sink us.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.