In Stalag Luft III a significant proportion of the RAF PoWs continued to regard it as their duty to attempt to escape. During 1943 they had had three tunnels underway – ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’, in the belief that one of them must prove successful. Tom had been discovered in September – the 98th tunnel that the Germans discovered in the camp during the war – and they had suspended their escape tunnelling activities to let the heat die down. The partially completed Dick’s planned exit point had now been built over by the Germans. So all hopes rested on Harry, which was also partially completed.
This was a truly international effort directly involving RAF officers from Britain, Canada, Poland, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Norway, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece and Lithuania. It was as much about defying the ‘Krauts’ as it was about a desire to escape, although this was an important motivation for many as well.
After a rebellious Christmas and New Year, in which they had once again provoked the Germans with their insubordinate enjoyment of illicitly brewed liquor, the escapers were eager to get back to tunnelling. Ken Rees was amongst them:
[O]n 4 January, Johnny Bull was called to an X Organisation Committee meeting. He came back into the room, an excited grin on his usually sombre face, and announced that Roger had decreed that operations should begin again.
The idea was that the goons would be far less suspicious of any tunnel-making activity in the harsh Polish wintertime, when the ground was frozen. Roger wanted to blitz Harry, and complete it in a couple of months, but with snow on the ground, the problem of sand dispersal was even more difficult. And with the new American compound on the west side, the only real option was to go north.
This time there wasn’t to be even a hint of any sand to set the goon [German] search-teams in motion. Roger asked the Committee to go away and see if they could come up with any ideas.
I believe it was Fanshawe whose inspired idea it was to use the theatre. The theatre had been built by kriegies; its walls went right down to the foundations, and without any trapdoors in the walls, the ferrets [German soldiers employed to 'ferret out' suspicious activity] could not search the large space beneath the floor of the sloping auditorium.
The theatrical crowd were less than happy with this solution; if the theatre were shut a great source of morale would be gone with it. But the SBO [Senior British Officer] declared that escaping was the priority, and after making sure that the theatre was indeed suitable, he gave orders that it could be used.
It was now up to Fanshawe to make the plans for transporting the sand from Harry to the theatre, a distance of about 200 yards. There was also still a useful length of tunnel in Dick which could be filled up, but it was decided to use that as a standby only. Communication between the blocks was allowed up to 10 pm, when we were all locked into our respective blocks.
During this time, as just before lockup it was after normal working hours, there was only one ferret on duty in the entire compound, so it seemed the best thing to use the long winter hours of darkness to transport the sand.
It now became more important than ever that the officers detailed to look after the various ferrets on duty should divert them from the ‘danger’ areas, if possible, even to the length of entertaining them in their rooms. Any difficulties depended on which ferret it was.
The sand was to be carried under greatcoats in sacks slung around the neck, but much larger sacks than the ones used before down the trouser legs. We really were going for broke.
Each sack weighed about thirty-five pounds. Fortunately, the entrance to Hut 104 could not actually be seen from the goon-boxes, which speeded things up considerably. The dispersal rate went up, too, whenever the tame ferret on duty was safely settled with his illicit coffee and fags in a room somewhere else.
First thing each morning the route used by the penguins the night before was inspected for any traces of sand in the snow-covered ground. I believe that on the best nights we got rid of almost four tons of sand, which represented about thirteen foot of tunnel.
The theatre was a real godsend. Twelve kriegies in two shifts of six worked under its floor, one team run by Jimmy James, the other by Ian Cross. When the penguins arrived at the theatre, they would empty the sand from their sacks through the trap. The sand was then hauled in aluminium wash-basins with ropes attached along channels to an area where it would be packed down.
Rob Davis has much more background information on the Great Escape.