"While dictators rage and statesmen talk, all Europe dances — to The Lambeth Walk."

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The Great Escape

In March 1944, 'Harry', one of the many tunnels built by interred Allied airmen in Stalag Luft III in Żagań, Poland was completed satisfactorily. The events that followed, by all measures courageous and tragic, would become the stuff of legend - spawning the film 'The Great Escape'.

Many of the US airmen who helped to build the tunnel were transferred just before it was considered safe, so on the evening of 24th March 1944 - a moonless night, therefore considered most desirable - 76 men managed to escape from German captivity, many of them all too briefly.

The tunnel came up short of the pine forest it was supposed to lead into, but 76 prisoners managed to go through it and emerge outside the camp before the 77th man was spotted by a guard and stopped at 5 am on 25th March.

The 76 men who escaped comprised 21 British, 6 Canadians, 6 Poles, 5 Australians, 3 South Africans, 2 Dutchmen, 2 New Zealanders, 2 Norwegians, a Belgian, a Greek, a Lithuanian, a Czech and a Frenchman.

Of these men, 73 were recaptured; the only ones to reach Allied territory and safety were the 2 Norwegians, Per Bergsland and Jens Müller, and one of the Dutchmen, Bram van der Stok.

It is said that Hitler initially ordered all of the 73 men who were found shot, but relented under pressure from Goering. As it was, 50 were still murdered, selected by General Artur Nebe.

17 of the survivors were sent back to Stalag Luft III, 2 to another PoW camp, whilst 4 were sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp to be worked to death. However, they managed to escape again, tunneling past double electric-fences, razor wire and specially trained guards, although they were recaptured.

They included Sydney Dowse, who died in April 2008 and 'Jimmy' James, who died in January 2008.

A small ceremony took place earlier at the site of the camp, in memory of the brave men who died.

These men and thousands like them encapsulate the spirit of this country, its history and our civilisation. They refused to give up their status as free men and submit to tyranny, no matter what the personal cost.

May they rest in peace.

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