The Boy Cooler King
When I was about ten years old, I dreamed about escaping from a German prison-of-war camp.
It was around that time that I first saw the movie, `The Great Escape’ and, not long afterwards, I devoured Paul Brickhill’s wonderful book. I have enjoyed both on multiple occasions since.
So inspired was I by the epic account, that I started digging a tunnel in my parents’ backyard. However, the shaft of my tunnel – measuring, perhaps, one metre in depth at best – was soon discovered by my father and I was sent to the `Cooler’ (otherwise known as my bedroom). Later, whilst spending a week with my grandparents, I took out some coloured pencils and set about forging my school bus pass. This time, my nefarious activities were uncovered by my grandfather. More time in the `Cooler’.
Despite failing in both my attempts to build a tunnel and to forge my travel documents, I sometimes pretended – on the way home from school – that I was an escaped POW trying to evade the Nazis. The train ride from a station in close proximity to my school represented the journey from the camp. The subsequent bus ride corresponded with the next segment of my daring escape plan. Once off the bus, I would be trekking into neutral Switzerland or Spain. If I made it home without my brothers talking to me then my escape was complete. If not, then it was back to the `Cooler’. Yes, my siblings (for the purpose of the fantasy) represented the Gestapo. I tended to do better on days when their journey home was delayed by sports practice.
Such were the meanderings of my youthful mind…
Against this background, you may well understand the anticipation I felt when my internet research revealed that the site of Stalag Luft III – the scene of the Great Escape – lay some three hours drive from Prague. The camp was located not far from the town of Zagan, now in southern Poland.
We and our guide, Jay, set off at around 8am. We travelled first to Dresden. Jay explained that the more time we spent in the Czech Republic and Germany the better; the roads in Poland were reputably rubbish.
We arrived in Zagan in the early afternoon and soon located a museum which was dedicated to Stalag Luft III generally and the Great Escape in particular. The museum itself was interesting, but limited in its appeal. Most of the items on display were photographs with descriptions in Polish. However, adjacent to the museum was a replica of Hut 104 which had been recently been constructed in conjunction with the 65th anniversary of the escape.
The curator of the museum was happy to take us on a tour and spoke loudly and excitedly in reasonable English for thirty or so consecutive minutes. Though a young man, he was clearly very enthusiastic about the subject matter of his museum.
The interior of the Hut was divided into eight rooms, separated by a wide hall way which ran down the middle of the building. One of the rooms featured some bunk beds similar to the ones used in the real camp over sixty years ago. I happily picked up one of the bed boards and showed Huckleberry B and Jay how these were used to shore the tunnels. The room also featured one of the original iron stoves retrieved from the camp.
The other rooms in Hut 104 were dedicated to different themes, including the role of Polish and Czech prisoners in various POW escapes.
The highlight, however, was a room honouring the tunnel `Dick’ which started from Hut 122 in the real camp.
A Brief History of the Great Escape
I should pause here to remind some of my readers of the details of `the Great Escape’. The escape was executed in the North Compound of Stalag Luft III. The majority of the prisoners were from Britain and the Commonwealth, although there were a large number from European countries who had fled to England in order to join the RAF and fight the Germans. Whilst there were American prisoners in the North Compound initially – contrary to the movie – none were ultimately involved in `the Great Escape’ because they were moved to their own camp before any of the tunnels was completed.
The mastermind of the escape was an English Squadron Leader named Roger Bushell. He devised a plan involving the construction of three tunnels simultaneously, called `Tom’, `Dick’ and `Harry’. `Tom’ was to head west from Hut 123, which was close to the western fence line of compound. `Dick’ was to head in the same direction as `Tom’, but from Hut 122, which was one of the inside Huts and, therefore, unlikely to be suspected by the Germans. `Harry’ was constructed to head north from Hut 104.
`Tom’ was found by the Germans when it was 67 metres long. It would have been more than long enough had the trees along the western side of the compound not been cut down in order to build a new compound. In any event, it was almost ready for use when discovered.
Some may recall the scene in the movie when one of the German `ferrets’ clumsily knocked over some coffee and heard the liquid dripping a long distance below, revealing the 10 metre deep shaft of the tunnel. Whilst wonderfully dramatic, this scene is pure fiction. In real life, `Tom’s` trap door was, unfortunately, detected when a `ferret’ was tapping the concrete floor with a pick and the end of the pick got caught in the thin crack between the trap door and the remainder of the floor. After struggling to free the pick, a segment of the concrete came loose and, getting down onto his hands and knees, it was only then that the ferret made out the outline of the trap door.
`Dick’, on the other hand, was never discovered. `Dick’s’ trap door, located in the washroom in Hut 122, was ingenious. By emptying the water from one of the drains, the prisoners found that a man could enter the square drain to the level of his waist. One of the vertical planes of the concrete drain was replaced with a trap door and water proofed. When water was poured back into the drain, the Germans had no hope of ever finding the entrance to the tunnel.
Just five years ago, somebody had the bright idea of excavating the site of Hut 122 to see whether `Dick’ was still there. Remarkably, they found the concrete trap door and moved it to the exhibition I mentioned earlier. It was an incredible experience to stand there and touch the concrete slab which the planners of `The Great Escape’ had constructed over 65 years ago.
After `Tom’ was discovered by the Germans, the prisoners concentrated on digging `Harry’. There was no point extending `Dick’ any further given the new compound which was being built on the western side of the North Compound. From then on, `Dick’ was used to hide contraband and for the purpose of dispersing sand from `Harry’.
By the time `Harry’ was finished, it extended for a distance of 111 metres. On the night of 23 March 1944, seventy-six prisoners escaped from `Harry’. There was a plan to send over two hundred men through the tunnel. However, not everything went to plan. Most importantly, `Harry’ proved to be some three or four metres short. The plan was for `Harry’s’ exit to come up within the trees, out of sight of the sentries who guarded the compound. Through an unfortunate error, when a prisoner named Johnny Bull – who was nothing like the character played by Steve McQueen in the movie (for one thing he was British) – stuck his head out of the tunnel’s exit, he found he was out in the open and in plain sight of both the sentries and the guard tower. Given that a moonless night had been chosen for the escape, and all the forged travel documents had been dated, Roger Bushell decided that it was now or never.
Of the seventy-six prisoners who escaped, only three made it back to England. Two Norwegians stowed away on a Swedish ship and one Dutchman located members of the French Resistance who helped him to slip into neutral Spain.
Tragically, however, Hitler was so enraged by the escape that he ordered that all the recaptured escapees be shot. When Goering pointed out that he had friends who were POWs held by the British, and there may be be reprisals, Hitler compromised by ordering that only fifty be executed. As always, Hitler’s orders were carried out.
It was a wretched ending to an epic tale.
In the Footsteps of Heroes
Walking around the remains of Stalag Luft III was one of the most enthralling experiences of my travelling life. Huck B, who had also seen the movie many times, was familiar with the story and seemed to be enjoying herself too. Jay, our guide, had never heard of `The Great Escape’, but had read up about it on Wikipedia the night before. He was thrilled to have a new World War II site which he could offer to his clients.
The obvious highlight of our visit was a memorial to `Harry’. Given that the remains of the foundations of each of the huts in the compound were still in place, it was an easy task for historians to identify Hut 104. At some point – I suspect quite recently – somebody had laid down a concrete outline of `Harry’ on the surface of the ground, with concrete memorials at each end to make `Harry’s’ entrance and exit points.
As such, B and I were able to walk along `Harry’s’ path and imagine the tunnel which once lay 10 metres below. Having had the events of March 1944 ingrained in my consciousness for the majority of my life, it really was quite a thrill to tread that path.
Once at `Harry’s’ exit, we looked back at how long the tunnel really was. I always knew the prisoners had dug an awful long way. However, it was only as I stood there that I fully understood the distance.
Whilst on the subject of distance, the other feature which truly struck home was how close the perimeter fence of the compound and the guard tower were to the exit of the tunnel. The people who had put in place `Harry’s’ outline on the ground had also erected a couple of strands of wire to denote the original position of the outer fence of the compound. It was remarkably close. As they exited the tunnel, the escapers must have felt incredibly exposed, even on a moonless night.
Next, the three of us traced the like steps taken by the Great Escapers through the woods towards Zagan train station. Again, my mental image of the scene only partially matched reality. What struck all three of us was how narrow the Fir Trees were. If a man attempted to hide behind one of them, he would be lucky if it obscured one of his legs. Whilst there were a vast number of trees, none of them were very thick.
Narrowing my eyes, I tried to imagine what it must have felt like to be imprisoned for two or three years and suddenly find oneself, out here, in the woods, trying to get away. I’d imagine it must have been more frightening than thrilling. After all, for all its faults, the prison camp was, at least, safe.
We headed back towards the camp and walked amongst the remains of North Compound. We located the Hospital Building and, with a smirk, walked across what remained of the concrete floor of `the Cooler’. These buildings and others were marked by notice boards which had been erected at some point.
The compound itself has now been taken over by trees and, if it were not for the foundations of the buildings which once stood there, would now be indistinguishable from the rest of the forest. We were, however, able to locate Hut 120, where Roger Bushell lived during his time at Stalag Luft III. My knowledge of the layout of the camp allowed me to point to the direction where we might find Huts 122 and 123, where `Dick’ and `Tom’ were built all those years ago.
After leaving the camp, we located the cemetery where a memorial was built by the prisoners, dedicated to the fifty who were murdered by the Gestapo following the escape. The cemetery also features a general memorial which the prisoners built in order to commemorate those who died in Stalag Luft III during the war. Rather poignantly, the inscription described the period of the war as `1939 to 194_’. The last digit was never completed; at the time of construction, the prisoners did not know when the war was going to end.
I truly relished my time at the site of Stalag Luft III. It appealed to that bashful young boy – who always found the world so full of wonder – who lives eternally within my heart.