Friday, 11 April 2014

THE GREAT ESCAPE AT 70

       In late March 2014,  the 70th anniversary of the Great Escape, 24-25 Mar 1944, was commemorated in the Zagan, Poland, area by the participation of 11 Zagan officials, military attachés from the 11 countries whose airmen were executed, 18 ambassadors, a Polish honour guard, 50 RAF volunteers each carrying a picture of one of the 50 executed and marching the 203 kilometres to Poznan where the ashes of 49 of them are interred, 54 relatives of those who worked on the tunnels including 24 relatives of 10 who were executed, and 33 military officials (33 RAF, 5 PAF, 4 RCAF,  one each from the RAAF, RNZAF, and SAAF, and 10 members of construction teams.  During the ceremonies this group was caught in 90 minutes of pouring rain but stood their ground in memory of all the kriegies (POWs) who many times had stood that long in falling rain or snow during roll calls.
     The above data was sent to me by Colin, son of Sqn Ldr Tom Kirby-Green who had flown 27 operations on Wellingtons with 40 Sqn in 1941 then was RAF training officer for 311 Czechoslovak Sqn.  He was shot down on his 10th op with them.  In the North compound at Sagan he became head of Security and was my boss.  For the escape he teamed with Gordon Kidder of St. Catherines, Ontario, shot down into the sea off Kiel Oct 42.  Both were recaptured in the woods near Vsetin, Czechoslovakia, 479 kilometres away, and executed by the Gestapo, 29 March.  Nephew Gordon Kidder also attended the reunion.  Ted Barris, author of “The Great Escape - A Canadian Story”, travelled with him.  Peter and Adam, grandson and great grandson of my Toronto schoolmate George McGill, executed in Breslau 6 Apr, were also there as was friend Paul from Calgary, son of Pawel Tobolski, 301 PAF Sqn, also executed.
      Today, it is only the wind that usually interrupts the brooding of the forest that now conceals what once was known as Stalag Luft III, just south of Sagan, Silesia, Germany, which was named for the Slavic princess, Sagana who settled here in 700 AD.  The trees, born in 1945, four years after their forerunners were cut down to make room for the first of 5 compounds that were to house 10,494 restless airmen from 23 countries and the kommandanteur that was home to our Luftwaffe captors.  In Jan,1944, a 6th compound was added at Belaria, NE of Sagan. 
     In between was a different universe - Stalag VIII-C built on 120 acres in 1939 to house Polish POWs, many later sent to forced labour sites as the population grew by late 1941 to over 50,000 prisoners from all theatres of war.  Conditions were appalling and thousands died from starvation, disease, and ill treatment. Two different worlds side by side, but knowing nothing about this other world we did not appreciate how grateful we should have been to our respectful Luftwaffe captors.
     Being on the winning side, we showed little concern for the locals when this whole area was part of the land torn from Germany to compensate Poland for its eastern provinces taken by the Ukraine and Belarus after WWII.  Sagan is now Zagan.
     In September 1939 we went to war to save Poland from Nazi invasion.  We failed and 6,000,000 civilians died.  It was not until 1990 that Poland won its freedom from USSR domination.  Yet in 1971 the Poles built on the Stalag VIII-C site “The Martyrdom Museum of Allied Prisoners of War” that has been added to over the years such as in 2008 when an exact replica of half the length of a Stalag Luft III housing block was erected by RAF volunteers after retired Air Commodore Charles Clarke, a former POW, had taken two years to raise the necessary  £60,000.
     It had taken incredible ingenuity and 11 months to build Harry, one of four tunnels in the North Compound (Tom, Dick, Harry, and George).  Tom was discovered when almost finished.  Harry was finished too early in the season and too late in the war but fear of discovery drove 76 to break out on a night still with snow on the ground. 
     Escaping then took immense guts.  We had been warned many times by our sympathetic Luftwaffe Kommandant that escaping was no longer a sport and that the Gestapo would shoot all of us.  The German people, once considerate of downed airmen, were now very hostile due to our heavy bombing and were prone to beat to death any “air gangsters”who fell into their hands.  Yet, the Soviets would soon overrun us and we were fearful as to how they would treat us.  The Poles stoked this fear by relating their sufferings as Soviet prisoners prior to rescue by Churchill.  We were well aware of the Soviet execution of tens of thousands of Polish elite at Katyn and Winitza as well as sabotaging our attempts to help the Warsaw ghetto Poles.  Our tunnel, George, was designed for us airmen turned commandos should the Soviets attempt to exterminate us.  I was a platoon commander for this.
     Our 76 escapers forced the diversion of 5 million people to hunt them down so only two Norwegians and 1 Dutchman got back to Britain.  Of the 73 recaptured Hitler ordered the Gestapo to execute all but Göring saved 23.  The 50 included 24 Britons, 6 Canadians, 5 Poles, 4 Australians, 3 South Africans, 2 New Zealanders, 2 Norwegians, 1 Czech, 1 Greek, 1 French, 1 Lithuanian.  I learned the nationalities later as we had thought ourselves all “Family”.                
Ye Olde Kriegie and Scribe, georgesweanor@comcast.net

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