The great escape caused maximum disruption

Name: Lionel Jeffries
Date: 1943-1944
Unit: RAAF, POW Stalag Luft III
Location: Stalag Luft III prison camp near Sagan

In March 1944, a mass break out from Stalag Luft III prison camp near Sagan, in Silesia, by Allied air force officers, caused huge disruption to the German war effort.

The event, to become known as The Great Escape, ended with the execution of 50 officers who were recaptured by the Germans.

The escape took place through a tunnel dug under the perimeter wire. It was 110 meters long, over half a meter square and lay 7.6 meters under the ground.

The prisoners who remained at the camp were horrified to learn the news of the death of their comrades and demanded the right to build a memorial to them, approval being given by the camp commandant.

Fifty years later, in 1994, services were conducted at the site of the memorial and at the graves of the murdered officers who were buried in a cemetery at the Polish city of Posnan. The services were attended by former prisoners and their families, and were organised by the Polish Government.

Among those who travelled to Europe from Australia for the events, was former Fl Lt Lionel Jeffries RAAF, who had been an inmate at Stalag Luft III.

Later, he gave an address to the United Services Institute in which he described the ceremonies in moving detail and then spoke about the escape and the reasons for carrying it out.

"With feelings that must be somewhat akin to that of a criminal having the urge to return to the scene of the crime, I participated in a pilgrimage to Stalag Luft III, Sagan, Poland, in March 1994, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the break-out of the Great Escape tunnel," he told the meeting.

"The camp, Stalag Luft III of which our party had such vivid memories, is no more - no huts, no barbed wire and no guard towers. The area is now a young, sparse forest. But down on the forest floor remain important traces of the camp's existence. In particular, a depression in the well-remembered sandy loam, in which lies a slab of concrete lying at a drunken angle. It is a forlorn relic of the almost incredible saga of the tunnel. All that preceded and followed in its wake.

"The slab was the base of a stove which concealed the opening to the tunnel which went straight down 30 feet, then out 120 yards to hopeful freedom."

Mr Jeffries said that Stalag Luft III, while in Germany when he was incarcerated, was now in Polish territory following the post-war realignment of the Polish border.

"I was concerned at possible ill feeling from the locals to the return of the people who had bombed them in the 1940s," he said. "The Poles, on the other hand, have a deep and abiding interest in the area. Somewhere in excess of 200,000 prisoners, most of them Poles, have either died or been killed in this area, which, for some strange reason, has been the site of prisoner of war camps since the Napoleonic wars. The 50 murdered Allied air force officers are included in that number.

"For this reason, the Polish Government is seeking to create interest in the area and have tentative plans to develop it as a tourist site of interest; the term 'tourist attraction' would seem to be inappropriate. It was the Polish Government which canvassed strongly for a contingent of ex-Stalag Luft POWs to visit for this special occasion, the 50th anniversary."

Mr Jeffries said that a two-storey museum has been erected near the old Stalag Luft camp site and housed photos, memorabilia and models of POW activities and way of life. He said some thought was being given to refurbishing the tunnel as an added interest.

"In view of the restrictive internal dimensions of the original tunnel, the question was raised as to whether any daring tourist, game to traverse the tunnel, would pay for the privilege or be paid for his daring," he said.

"Also in the area is the site of the memorial which was erected by Stalag Luft II inmates in memory of the 50 murdered officers. A strict, but obviously compassionate, and possibly guilt-ridden German commandant had allowed this construction outside the camp," he added.

"The memorial is a substantial brick structure, some four feet high [1.2 meters] and 15 feet wide [4.6 meters], and is situated in a fenced-off area in the forest. It was where the impressive memorial services was conducted by the Polish Army, with our people participating in the laying of wreaths and orations. The cold wind blowing could not be entirely blamed for so many watery eyes. A large number of the local populace had gathered outside the perimeter to witness the proceedings.

"The second ceremony, at a cemetery near the city of Posnan, still in Poland, was similar to that in Sagan. It was an even more solemn occasion because it is here the ashes of the deceased officers are interred. Each grave marked with a headstone with the name of the officer inscribed. As others are buried there, the graves of our officers were marked with a red poppy for the occasion.

"It was a very emotional time for the brothers and sisters who had travelled with us to participate in the memorial for their siblings. The same sort of wind seemed to be blowing as at the previous ceremony at Sagan, to produce watery eyes.

"And so, the final chapter; the missing link of our memories of the Great Escape and our individual participation in it was complete. Now we could all go back to the beginning to revise and question it all," he said.

Mr Jeffries then discussed the reasons which lay behind the decision to proceed with the escape plans.

"Firstly, as officers, we were duty bound to escape if we could, and this is recognised by the Geneva Convention," he said. "But why try to escape at that time when it was obvious, apart from the Arnhem battle, that Germany was beaten? We would all be free in the not too distant future and there were many who argued strongly on those lines.

"But who wouldn't want to make some effort to get away from the soul destroying prison camp environment? Even if the escape attempt failed, at least there was hope in the meantime, and you were acting positively with an aim. If you did get out and were captured, it meant, until the Great Escape, a return to the cooler for a period, then back to camp to start all over again. But then, on the other hand you just might get back home.

"Why such an impossible tunnel of the dimension mentioned? The length was necessary in order to reach a concealed are on the other side of the wire (in fact the tunnel fell short of this objective with the outlet being in the open). The depth was necessary to circumvent the seismographs installed on the perimeter fence to detect underground movement.

"Why the target of 200 escapees instead of a dribble of two or three every now and again which would attract less attention? This was our war contribution, to create maximum disruption to Germany in its then failing condition. In this we were successful. The escape was such an embarrassment to German authorities as to involve Hitler himself. He gave the order to murder the 50 officers and it was estimated that some two million troops were involved in rounding up the escapees.

"Despite the ensuing abject depression following the horror of the massacre, and in full awareness of Hitler's attitude to escapees, the burning urge to escape was demonstrated by the construction of yet another tunnel. This one began under a seat in the theatre and work was continued until the final break out point. It was never used.

"Our Senior British Officer ruled that in view of prevailing circumstances and knowledge of the German attitude, the tunnel was to be kept in reserve for use, if necessary, to combat possible retaliatory action from retreating German soldiers from the eastern front."

Mr Jeffries said the film, The Great Escape, had depicted the life-style with a reasonable degree of accuracy with many memory riveting incidents.

"For a fleeting moment, one of my own contributions to the tunnel activity was shown," he recalled. "This was in the use of a knot hole in a blackout shutter, through which the entrance to the camp could be kept under surveillance. The entry of a German guard or 'ferret' was reported and the message relayed to cause a stoppage of work.

"I have no confirmation that the term 'to get knotted' originated from my duties in this area. And with equal conviction I can state that, unlike Steve McQueen, we were not issued with motor bikes."

The material for this article was supplied by Mr Lionel Jeffries from Queensland


Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), The great escape caused maximum disruption, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 2 October 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/great-escape-caused-maximum-disruption
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