Now, well into my hundredth tour around the sun, I am one of the few living graduates of the University of Sagan. Of the schools I have attended in Canada, England, Germany, Scotland, and the United States, one stands out above all the rest. The University of Sagan may never had existed in name, but I consider it my Alma Mater.
Its values were not lauded at the time. Both faculty and students were aircrew officers, all discovering unrealized and untapped talents, revealed by a mix of danger, uncertainty, privation, dreams, determination, spirit, dignity, comradeship. mutual respect, and deep nostalgia. We had that proper mix in Sagan, Silesia.
Like many universities this one was approached through an arbor of trees. Some would call it a forest as the pine trees did stretch as far as the eye could see. When the wind blew through them we could smell the sea - strange because the Baltic Sea was 150 miles (241 km) north of us. Wind and sea were among the forces that had brought us to Sagan. Then they taunted our plight, but whispered that, someday, they could return us.
I was among the first group of new prisoners to pass the two gates to enter this new campus which had just opened in April 1943. We were individually interrogated by a panel of 3 Allied Aircrew officers to ensure we were genuine Allied aircrew and not enemy implants, then divided into groups of 5 and assigned rooms.
It impressed me at how quickly our new compound, with the help of older kriegies from other compounds, became quietly so well organised. We called ourselves kriegies, short for kriegsgefangenen (prisoner of war)
Management had been discouraged with the high absentee rate that our social group had achieved on previous campuses, so extreme care was taken in the construction of this new campus to eliminate absenteeism. Two tall wire fences that surrounded us were separated by coils of well-woven wire containing countless pointed reminders of management’s concern. Instruments that could detect tunnelling to a depth of 30 feet hung on the wire wall.
Universities are proud of their towers. Ours had eight, all manned by curious men highly interested, day and night, in our conduct. Their concern was such that, at night, they left on campus handsome large dogs with dazzling teeth. To enhance their inquisitive view of us, our hosts sacrificed most of the trees in the enclosure.
Although knowing it was a strong possibility, I had no plans to enroll in this school. But flak and fighters so disfigured my RCAF Halifax bomber that, after impolitely dropping my calling cards on Berlin I had to drop my aircraft on Hamburg, I was surprised that the well-bombed civilians who captured me treated me well as did the police and Luftwaffe they escorted me to. The week-long interrogation in solitary confinement on a bowl of sauerkraut a day was uncomfortable but always polite as was the train journey to Sagan for my group of new prisoners. I had encountered no SS or Gestapo so began to admire these long-suffering, yet tolerant, Germans. At Stalag Luft III, Sagan, the new North Compound was designed to hold 2,000 guests. As intake averaged 30 every two weeks, assimilation was gradual and effective. When our population met its capacity, it was made up of 1,200 British RAF, 300 from occupied Europe who had escaped to fly with us, 250 Canadians RCAF, 150 Australians and New Zealanders RAAF & RNZAF, 50 South Africans SAAF, and 50 Americans USAAF. A black USAAF major was assigned to a room of 4 USAAF who refused to accept him. An RAF room happily took him. When our population grew beyond 2,000 we had to convert our double bunks into triple bunks.
Germany endured immense shortages during the war so was ill equipped to care for the millions of captives they housed in about 1,000 camps, So they allowed the International Red Cross to send parcels. British and Canadian parcels numbered over 9 million food and 800,000 clothing parcels. New Zealand contributed a million parcels before financing a share of Canadian parcels. The USA was to end up with some 27 million.
The Canadian food parcels included powdered milk in large ‘Klim’ cans, excellent for our ‘tin bashers’ to learn to turn empty cans into tools and, for the plays we enacted, artifacts such as telephones and Roman armour, Long lines of joined Klim cans provided conduits to pump air down to workers in our 4 deep tunnels.
When, in spite of our bombing and strafing, the Red Cross was able to stack and store parcels at our camps we often ate better than our captors, permitting us to bribe some Luftwaffe to smuggle in to us such items as cameras and radios. As we also got German magazines we were able to be better informed about the war than those still fighting it. New kriegies were amazed at what we could teach them.
Contact with the outside world was maintained via the allowance of 2 letter forms and 4 post cards per person per month. Incoming mail was not rationed but all mail was censored. I was able to enroll in a University of Saskatchewan political science course and receive 3 large books free of charge. Parents and friends sent us books that slowly built up an impressive library in a room provided by our hosts.
Among our ethnically-varied kriegies we had many experts in numerous fields so lectures were common.
The Luftwaffe also provided materials for us to build a theatre for our plays, musical concerts, and lectures. We were able to rent costumes and musical instruments with money which, by mutual agreement, our governments, friend and foe, deducted from our continuing pay. German POWs in Canada, the UK and US could buy from canteens. Germany had no canteens for us, only costumes and musical instruments to rent to us.
Viewpoints varied widely and friendly discussions were numerous and very educational. However, I was frightened by the indifference of many to our precarious position. The SS and Gestapo were highly critical of the Luftwaffe’s pampered treatment of POWs under Hermann Wilhelm Göring a World War I fighter pilot ace who earned the Pour le Mérite, established in 1740 by King Frederick II of Prussia.
Those intent on escaping and damaging the enemy war effort prevailed to dominate executive positions. Compound possessions and energies were organized mainly into building 4 tunnels, Tom, Dick, Harry, and George. George was designed for post-war Soviet occupation which we knew was inevitable but we wondered whether they would consider us friend or foe, From captured Soviet soldiers who spoke English I had learned they feared our capitalism more than our military might. I was asked to command a platoon to train as commandos to use George to steal German or Soviet arms to defend ourselves if needed.
Tom was just days short of completion when it was discovered after intensive Luftwaffe searches during the 1943 summer. To discourage future use it was filled with wagon loads of deterrent from our outdoor toilets.
A new West compound was built in the field we had meant for Tom and reserved for USAAF only. A new South Compound, also for USAAF only, had been built and our USAAF were moved there in August, thus missing the Great Escape. A new compound for Commonwealth kriegies was opened in Belaria, 4 km west.
Days after our North Compound opened, Harry was started 11 Apr 43 and finished 24 Mar 1944, We got 76 out with 3 (a Dutchman and 2 Norwegians) making it back to Britain. 73 were recaptured of whom 50 were shot (24 Britons, 6 Canadian, 5 Poles, 4 Australians, 3 South Africans, 2 New Zealanders, 2 Norwegians, plus 1 each from Greece, France, Czechoslovakia, and Lithuania). I knew, and had worked with, all of them, often trying to convince them it was too early in the season to steal food from farmers, and too late in the war, so escaping was suicidal and counter-productive. Our carpet bombing was intensifying so much civilian misery that escaped aircrew kriegies would be targets for revenge. How much better to cultivate our captors into world citizens for a peaceful post-war world. Nevertheless I did contribute much time to permit those so anxious to escape our barbed wire, if only for a few hours, to do so.
Sadly, my fears became fact. We did harm the German war effort in that 5 million people spent weeks hunting down kriegies ranging far and wide. Hitler ordered that all 73 caught be shot. Hermann Goring fought shooting any but had to compromise on 50 as he lost control of us to Heinrich Luitpold Himmler (Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel (SS), and a leading member of the Nazi Party. He was one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany and a main architect of the Holocaust. Our excellent commandant, Colonel von Lindeiner, was disgraced and fired. He never handcuffed a prisoner but was handcuffed himself and ill treated when later captured by the Allies, and kept in jail in the UK for 2 years unable to help his impoverished wife who lost homes in Berlin to our bombing. In reprisal for getting back to Britain, Bram Van der Stok’s brother in Holland was shot by the Gestapo and his father tortured to death, Himmler gave control of us to SS general Gottlob Berger who, along with Eva Braun, failed to carry out Hitler’s harshest orders. They saved my life.
Using RAAF kriegie Paul Brickhill’s book, Hollywood grossed $12 million in its good 1963 film about our escape, but erred in inventing a motorcycle chase to please Steve McQueen who played a role making up for our valued USAAF missing their earned part in the Great Escape. He acted as a key USAAF kriegie hero in a role that was actually a composite of 3 Canadians. In 2009 I published my first blog. It answered this film.
In Sagan we had an unique situation where our individual latent talents could flourish. We lacked the diversions of cars, generation gaps, girls, grades, money, parties, and excess calories, We did have a worthy cause - the defeat of human failings so dominant in Nazi actions.
And, we had an inspiring motto, inherited from the RAF: “Per Ardua Ad Astra” (Through Difficulties to the Stars), so appropriate today.