In the POW camp of Stalag Luft III a multi national group of RAF officers had dedicated their time and energy to an unprecedented escape plan. During the course of 1943 three tunnels, ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’ had been excavated. Only Harry remained at the beginning of 1944, after the Germans had built over the exit to Dick and discovered Tom. 200 officers now planned to make their escape in a single overnight breakout.
All would travel down the 102 metre long tunnel on trollies pulled along wooden tracks. It was planned that they would emerge in woods away from the barbed wire fence, out of sight of the prison guards. With so many escaping they knew the Germans would mount a huge manhunt for them. The expectation was that at least some men would make a ‘home run’:
Ken Reese had been actively involved in the tunnelling and on the evening of the 24th anxiously waited his turn in the queue:
The weather outside was as grim as it could be – well below freezing with lots of snow – so I dressed accordingly: long-johns, long-sleeved vest, thick pullover from my parcel, greatcoat and cloth cap. Our pockets were stuffed with matches, escape rations, maps, a compass, a tin oil light and tin can hopeful for any hot drink. Gloves, spare socks and some toiletries completed the kit; we thought we looked bad enough without having to add a few days stubble to our convict-like appearance.
The tension in the room was stomach-churning, almost worse than before any operation I could remember. We were bubbling over with excitement. It was a genuine adventure in the sense that no-one really knew what would happen, but the ultimate prize, of getting home and being free again was vivid in the minds of every one of us. This was a lottery and that winning ticket might be ours.
Red, staring down at his feast, but like the rest of us almost unable to eat it, said, ‘This should see us through the first couple of days. We won’t need to touch any escape rations.’
There was a lot of good-humoured banter and leg-pulling about what to do when we got back home, then at 19:00 hours we shook hands and slipped out into the dark.
When Red and I entered Block 104 for a horrible moment I thought we’d had it: in the dim light the first thing I saw standing before me in the corridor was a German unteroffizier. Panic hit me and I nearly passed out, then from under the hat I made out the face of Tobolski, a Polish flying officer, going out with Wings Day.
They were going to catch a train to Stettin, then try to stow away on a Swedish ship. Wings was resplendent in a very smart suit, while Tobolski’s German uniform, even now I had the chance to see it up close, was a masterpiece, every swastika, badge and belt in the right place. Tommy Guest was a genius.
There were about 200 of us spread evenly in the rooms throughout the hut. I can’t honestly remember if we had been allocated rooms according to our escape numbers, but that was probably the case. Everyone was nervous, checking constantly papers, escape rations, appearance — all the small details your life might depend upon later.
Pat Langford had already opened up the entrance, and as planned, Crump and Conk Canton were down the tunnel. Apart from hanging blankets to block the light, they also fastened six-inch strips of blanket to the shaft ends of the railway lines to muffle any sound, and made sure that all the electric light bulbs were working.
Yet again I sent up a prayer of thanks that Red had bagged that cable; electric light would make a big difference to those who had not yet been down the tunnel. At 8:45 pm, Crump and Conk emerged from the shaft and announced that everything was complete and ready to go.
The first group now went down the shaft to the tunnel led by the two hauliers for Piccadilly and Leicester Square, who then hauled the group through to open the tunnel exit.
Unfortunately the tunnel ended a few feet short of the expected exit in the woods. They would have to emerge in the open and then run into the woods. It was necessary to have a lookout manage the escape – so that they did not emerge while a sentry was passing. Inevitably these improvised arrangements caused huge delays. Ken Rees found himself in the tunnel itself in the early hours of the morning of the 25th. He had to rapidly retrace his steps when the tunnel was eventually discovered by the passing Germans sentry.
The delays probably saved his life. 76 men had escaped, causing a massive manhunt across wartime Germany. Hitler was incensed and ordered that all those caught should be shot. Eventually 50 men were murdered by the Gestapo.
Much more about the ensuing events , including full details of every escaper and their fate can be found at Rob Davis’ Great Escape