The great escape

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Nov 9, 2005
By late 1943, the only Polish bomber unit remaining in the British Isles in the service of the R.A.F.'s Bomber Command was No. 300 Squadron and its attendant No. 18 O.T.U. (Operational Training Unit). On the 1st March, 1944, No. 300 Squadron was transferred to R.A.F. Station, Faldingworth and the Squadron began to prepare itself for operations on the newly arrived Lancasters.

"Suddenly, one day in March, the whole station was in an uproar. News had been received, unbelievable news that the Germans had murdered R.A.F. prisoners of war, caught after an escape from their camp. Among the victims were Polish airmen, including some from No. 300 Bomber Squadron. The Squadron hoped it was a greatly exaggerated version or even an unfounded rumour, but full confirmation soon came."

What follows is an original account written by one of the organizers of this escape, Wing Commander M. Brzozowski, O.C. No. 301 (Pomeranian) Squadron, who had been taken prisoner on 2nd July, 1942, when shot down near Gronigen in Holland:

Stalag Luft III

"Some 80 miles west of the Polish-German frontier is a small place called by the Germans Sagan, where they prepared a prisoner of war camp in which were put some 2,000 R.A.F. officers, including a number of Poles. In international conventions concerning prisoners of war it is forbidden to extort undertakings not to escape from camp; on the contrary, it is recognised that all combatants have a duty to try and escape from captivity. So, despite the immense difficulties and risks involved, the prisoners at Zegan soon conceived the idea of organising a mass escape.

In the camp were civil engineers, electricians, radio specialists, physicists, chemists, tailors, cartographers, experts from every walk of life who pooled their knowledge and skill to make the scheme a practical success. Out of the 2,000 prisoners some 600 took part in the scheme and divided themselves into two main groups, one for Escaping and Security, the other for Planning.

The first group had to see that all secrets were zealously kept. It had to satisfy itself that all who worked on the scheme were absolutely reliable and that all details of the plan were practicable. It had to pick out the German agents masquerading as prisoners, who were from time to time introduced into the camp. Theirs was the responsibility of throwing dust into the eyes of the camp officials, and of organising an intelligence corps so that every advantage might be taken of local conditions in preparing for the Great Day. 'Duty Pilots' were detailed to guard vital workers and to give warning of the approach of danger.

Of course the Plan, though by far the most ambitious, was not the only one. Only those with a reasonable chance of success were approved, and those that fully succeeded could be counted on one hand. The supreme skill of the camp tailors in reproducing German uniforms correct in every detail played no small part in what success was achieved.

There was the delousing party, proceeding seemingly on its lawful purposes outside the camp confines under its seemingly official guard, which enjoyed a freedom cut short by the arrival of the authorised delousing party at the camp gates only a few minutes later. There was an alarm and speedy recapture.

There was the Polish officer whose resemblance to one of the guards was uncanny. He was fitted with the appropriate German uniform and started off while his friends in their own quarters plied his double with Red Cross coffee, chocolate and cigarettes which were not ersatz. Meanwhile the 'guard' was making for the open country through the quarters of the camp staff. Unfortunately the detailed information about his new personality, name, age, place of birth, etc., did not include a list of the 'friends' who might be encountered or what to say to them. One of these buttonholed him and asked to see some photographs, and would not be put off with a reply in somewhat broken German that it was neither the time nor place for producing snaps. The upshot was that the 'guard' was arrested before he broke out of the camp. There was some compensation when the real guard was discovered by his senior C.O. in a verboten barrack enjoying verboten luxuries in verboten company and was rudely asked to explain how he came to be there at all when he had just been placed under arrest.
"The other main group planning the escape was divided into numerous sections, each with its own experts. Some had to see to the excavation and construction of the tunnels, others to prepare maps, documents, tickets, food, to dye cloth, to make civilian clothes and so on. Every sort of human skill was needed, found and used.
Three tunnels were planned, each about 170 yards long and each with ingeniously concealed entrances. One entrance, planned by Flt. Lt. B. Mickiewicz, was under a stove, from which the tunnel sloped gradually to a depth of nearly nine feet. This deep burrowing was essential to defeat the listening apparatus of the guards, who in fact failed to hear any tunnelling activities.
Inside, the tunnels were strengthened with boards taken from the beds. Normally each bed had seven boards, of which two were sacrificed to the Cause. Some officers gave all seven, making do instead with hammock-like nets made from string.
"As the tunnels grew, electric light was fitted in them, and rails, mostly wooden, were laid down along which the sandy soil was pushed in tubs to the entrances. Thence it had to be distributed in bags slung round the body or pockets specially stitched in trouser-legs, and then surreptitiously buried in the camp garden or wherever chance offered. Many were the plans for maintaining constant movement in the camp, so that this soil disposal would be unsuspected. For instance, concerts were organised which nobody wanted, and compared to which even E.N.S.A.'s worst efforts seemed inspired. There were other shows equal to London's best. but whether good or bad these concerts were an excuse for movement, and movement meant concealement.

Soon air-conditioning apparatus was required, and a glorified blacksmith's bellows, hand-operated, was made; well-camouflaged air-shafts were constructed at intervals along the tunnels, and the diggers carried on. The passages themselves were wide enough for only one-way traffic, but every 30 yards or so there were recesses where it was possible to turn around, to meet oncoming workers or tubs and to store the tools and other equipment. Thus working parties could conveniently work in shifts.

Unfortunately, in June 1943 the Germans discovered the tunnel leading from Barrack 123, and work which had gone on night and day thenceforward ceased at dawn. There were further difficulties when the Germans began to hold roll-calls at arbitrary times, occasionally as often as four times a day.

More precautionary measures were taken and stricter secrecy enforced, but nobody lost heart in the venture. Listening to the B.B.C., now that the war news was becoming better and better, helped to keep up everyone's spirits. Between bulletins the receiving sets, obtained by devious ways and used exclusively for the news, were dismantled or carefully concealed.

In March 1944 one tunnel was finished. The work had taken a year to complete under most difficult conditions. The workers were enthusiasts for freedom, but they were severely handicapped by the physical weakness of the undernourished. Lots were drawn to decide who was to leave in the first batch of 200. The winners were supplied with civilian clothes tailored in the camp and with appropriate documents and maps, all expertly prepared. Each had a different route for his escape, so that the difficulties of the pursuers would be multiplied, and travelling in large groups avoided. As soon as possible after leaving the tunnel, the escapers were to disperse. Some were to go entirely on foot, others had railway tickets, some for long, others for short journeys. Most of the routes were toward the Baltic, France or Czechoslovakia.

On the night of the 24th-25th March, 1944, the inhabitants of Barrack 104, where the tunnel started, had to evacuate to make room for the lottery winners. The escape began.

The failure of the current and thus the intense darkness in the tunnel made progress slower than had been expected. Only 78 of the 200, among whom were six Poles - Sqn. Ldr. A. Kiewnarski, Flt. Lt. W. Kolanowski, Ft. Lt. J. Mondszajn, Flt. Lt. S. Krol, Flt. Lt. K. Pawluk, Flt. Lt. P. Tobolski - got away. Then, as luck would have it, some of them were seen by guards in the wood near the exit, the secret of which was betrayed by footprints in the snow.

The alarm was given. The remaining maps and documents were to have been destroyed but there was no time. The Germans ordered all those in the barrack to strip in front of the block and everything that was not permitted property was confiscated. All were placed in close arrest for 14 days.

(part1 )
A few days later we heard that almost all who had got away had been recaptured. Rumour had it that they had fallen into the hands of the Gestapo and would not return to the camp.

Several weeks later a batch of dispirited officers returned with the news that those who had been captured had been taken to Gorlice for cross-examination by the Gestapo. While there they themselves had seen other fugitives from Stalag Luft III, including Sqn. Leader A. Kiewnarski. All of them were quite fit and expecting to return to the camp.

When they did not reappear at the camp, the senior officer went to the German commandant to make enquiries. The German replied by showing him a list of 41 of the escaped officers who, he asserted, had been killed while trying a second time to get away. Not long after another list was forthcoming, making 53 in all.

All those who returned to the camp were agreed that at Gorlice there had been no idea of attempting further escape. The story that there had been such an attempt did not ring true - much less so since all 53 were shot dead while escaping. Not one was wounded. Not one got away.

Two years after, in 1947, when the murderers of the 53 officers were being tried for this crime, it was ascertained that the victims were first interrogated by the Gestapo at Gorlice. They were then taken in batches to the Wroclaw motor road, where they were shot down in cold blood; those who still showed signs of life were finished off by revolver shots."

A number of these men are buried in the Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery, Commonwealth Section, where their graves are being looked after in perpetuity by the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission (there are 3 Polish Army soldiers and 13 Polish airmen interred in this section).

(part 2)
source: (fallen soldiers)

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