Arnošt "Wolly" Valenta - The Great Escape

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2nd Lieutenant
Nov 3, 2004
Praga Mater Urbium



In June 1943, RAF pilots held in the Stalag Luft POW camp started preparations for a large scale escape of over 150 prisoners - the Great Escape. Intelligence work was needed to obtain information and documents from the German staff. The man in charge of this task was a former RAF bomber wireless operator - Czechoslovak Arnost Valenta.

Arnost Valenta was born on October 25, 1912 in Svebohov near Zabreh na Morave. He graduated from the Hranice Military Academy as a radio operator. He also took courses in philosophy at the Bratislava university. He was a deeply devoted but tolerant christian.

He left occupied Czechoslovakia on March 19, 1939. He took a short course with the Polish intelligence and returned secretly to the Protectorate. He supplied the Polish general command with information about the organization and plans of the German army.

He crossed the Polish border for the second time on the planned date of August 27, 1939. He joined Lieutenant-Colonel Svoboda's unit in Poland. While retreiting to the east, the unit was interned by the Soviets until March 1940. Following an agreement between the Czechoslovak and Soviet authorities, he was sent to Marseilles by way of Odessa and Beirut. He served with the military department of the Czechoslovak National Committee in Paris. After the fall of France, he was evecuated to Britain, where he joined the 311 (Czechoslovak) Bomber Squadron as a wireless operator. He flew six missions on a Wellington Mk. Ic (KX-T) with the crew of P/O Cigos.

These missions were extremely risky for the Czechs. The British, Americans, Canadians, French, Belgians, and even Poles and other allied nationals were protected by the international law. There were only two exceptions: the Soviets, not considered statutary POW's under the pretext that the USSR had not signed the Geneva agreement, and the Czechoslovaks. The Nazis formally used the so-called Protectorate Status issued by Hitler on March 16, 1939, according to which the citizens of the 'Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia' were considered Reich nationals. Any resistance - including membership in an allied regular army - was treated as high treason. Some Czech POW's were even tried on these charges and condemned to death. Only after the British government threatened with severe sanctions (including the executions of captive German pilots), did the Germans put off the executions until after the war. The prisoners were still harrased, interrogated and jailed.

On February 6, 1941, the navigator of Cigos's crew became sick, and had to be replaced by an inexperienced freshman. The mission bombed the Boulogne port successfully, but on the way back the navigator suffered from altitude sickness so badly that he was unable to do his work. The flight continued with regular position checks with the base in England. Unfortunately, the radio broke down. The pilots had to guess their position. They landed on an airfield which they believed to be near Honnington. In reality, they landed in Normandy near the city of Flers.

Cigos attempted to take off again, but the plane got stuck in mud, and the crew were taken prisoners. They pretended to be Canadians, but the Germans had good information about Czechs in RAF. Jailing and harsh Gestapo interrogations followed. In the end, they were sent to Stalag Luft III.

Valenta was among the most active Czechoslovak officers in the camp. He took part in sports, enrolled for the Staff College and he was soon able to even teach there. He spoke perfect English and German. He followed both German and English radio and newspapers, kept track of the military and political situation in Europe, and lectured on these subjects as well as Czechoslovak history and resistence. Wolly - as he was called - soon became a respected expert. This is why the X Committee charged him with his important intelligence task in the escape.

His job was difficult and dangerous. He had to assess all the German staff in order to learn about their character streaks and weaknesses. The best method to weaken them was corruption. American cigarettes, cans, chocolate, coffee and cocoa were irresistible temptation for the Germans. Once they accepted the first gift, they were lost. They got used to the bribes, and sometimes they were even blackmailed into bringing 'gifts' in exchange.

In order to obtain a camera, Valenta corrupted an inexperienced young officer. He once delivered newspaper to Valenta and signed the acceptance of a reward - a food package. Wolly claimed this was just a formality in order to keep the Red Cross papers in order. When he was later asked for a camera, he had no choice. Illegal trade with prisoners was punished by a front line assignment.

Another method was 'lost and found', although there is a better word for these activities. A new German officer took off his coat while having a cup of tee with the prisoners. He later found out he had lost his ID. He was afraid to report this to his superior. In two days the prisoners 'found' the card and returned it discreetly. Its copy was ready by then.

Valenta also obtained forms with various company headers to make invitation letters for business trips. Another important document was a travel permit. Valenta stole one and gave it to a trusted German kitchen employee. He sent it to his wife in Hamburg to make a printing template. Other Czechs, including Bedrich Dvorak, Frantisek Cigos, and Vaclav Kilian worked in the tailor workshop.

The escape was planned for 220 prisoners. Seventy 'tickets' were given to people most involved in the preparations. These included three Czechs: Ivo Tonder, Bedrich Dvorak, and Arnost Valenta. The remaining 150 had to play a lottery. There also was a lottery to assign everybody his exact number. Valenta was among the first four together with Roger Bushell, the mastermind behind the escape.

The escape was planned for the night of March 25, 1944. Unfortunately, travel through the tunnel took more time than expected, and the far end was a few yards short of the forest by mistake. By five in the morning, 76 prisoners got out. Then the tunnel was discovered by a German guard, and a chase began. The remaining prisoners destroyed all their equipment quickly.

Architect Müller alias Valenta and French enterpreneur Rougier-Marshall decided not to risk a train journey under these circumstances. Valenta suggested walking to Bohemia using his knowledge of the terrain and friends in Hirschberg. The distance was something over 100 kilometers. They spent the day in the forest. As they set off in the evening, they were stopped by guards. Valenta could speak the local dialect and his papers were perfect. Before he could explain why architect Müller was hiking around a village near Halbau, Marshall was discovered. His French was not bad, but unfortunatelly, one of the Germans knew the language even better.

Out of the 76 escapees, only three made it to freedom. Two Norwegians, young Per Bergsland (aka Rock Rockland) and Jens Einar Müller got to Sweden aboard a Swedish ship, while Dutchman Bram van der Stock travelled through Holland, Belgium, and France to Madrid. They all got to London within four months. Out of the remaining 73 men, 50 of them were shot to death after they were captured. Arnost Valenta was executed on March 31, 1944, together with Pole Kolanowski, Canadians McGill, Langford, Birkland, and Englishmen Hall, Evans, Stewart, and Swain.

The remaining escapees were returned to Stalag Luft III or to concentration camps. This happened to the other two Czechs - Dvorak and Tonder. Paradoxically, the "traitors" were the only non-British who were not shot on the spot. Unlike the others, they had to stay alive to face their high treason charges in court. They survived and were liberated by the allies from the Colditz fortress.

Arnost Valenta became the only Czechoslovak airman killed in German captivity.


Name: Arnost Valenta
RAF No.:
Born: 25.10.1912 - Svebohov, Zabreh na Morave, Moravia, Austro-Hungary
Killed: 31.3.1944

Written by ??? (CS HQ - Arnost Valenta)

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