The Great Escape Remembered

Ye Olde Sausage Machine, Going Postal

The 24th March 2019 was the 75th anniversary of The Great Escape, a reminder of a different age when men made terrible sacrifices and displayed incredible bravery to gift us seventy years of relative freedom and prosperity. In our age of deceit and betrayal, we all have a duty to guarantee that their sacrifice was not in vain. We must never forget them, or the principles they fought for.

Like many others, I grew up in the 1970s watching Jeremy Issac’s seminal television series, World at War. I was awestruck at Nazi Germany’s plans to dominate Europe. Back in those days as a 10 year old kid, such carnage seemed an age away, a distant apocalypse that cost the lives of millions and plunged the world into mechanised slaughter. These events had occurred a mere 30 years previously. By comparison, a similar difference in timeline today would take us back to 1989, the era of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the collapse of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe.

Millions of us had also grown up watching The Great Escape, John Sturges’ interpretation of the escape by British and Commonwealth prisoners from the infamous Stalag Luft III prison camp in Sagan, now Zagan in Poland. The movie depicted the escape of 76 airmen through a 336ft long tunnel, 50 of whom were subsequently murdered by the Gestapo on the orders of Hitler himself. The Führer had originally demanded that all the escapees should be executed, only for this figure to be commuted to 50 by the intervention of Hermann Göring and several senior Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht generals concerned about the possible consequences of such barbarity. German military staff were almost unanimously appalled by the slaughter.

My first real taste of the harsh realities of war came later as a teenager when I read The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill, who was himself a prisoner at Sagan. It transpired that the movie was a gross misrepresentation of the actual events. There was no Steve McQueen character jumping over border wire on a stolen motorcycle! Even Brickhill’s book contained some inaccuracies, written as it was in 1950 just a few years after the end of hostilities. Many of the protagonists directly involved in the escape remained silent and it was decades later that a full history of the fateful event was documented by some of the people directly involved. Many readers will already be familiar with the story and the aftermath. I will not detail the actual escape because it has already been written about exhaustively by several authors.

The basic precis of The Great Escape is that 76 men escaped from Tunnel ‘Harry’, constructed beneath the wood stove in Hut 104 in the North Compound of Stalag Luft III on the evening of 24th March 1944. Contrary to the events depicted in the movie, all but one of the escapees were serving RAF or Commonwealth pilots since the American prisoners had been moved to a newly constructed compound within the camp some months before the escape. The single exception was Major Johnny Dodge. More about this intriguing character later.

All of the names below are hyperlinked to webpages, mostly Wikipedia, where you can read more about these men individually. Information on some of the men is very vague and difficult to find.

It was a multinational effort including men from across the commonwealth and many more who had escaped occupied Europe to fight with the British; Poles. Czechs, even a Greek and a Lithuanian. Of the 76 escapees, only 3 men made a successful ‘home run.’

They were:

F/L Bram ‘Bob’ van der stock (Dutch)
Sgt Per Bergsland (Norwegian)
F/L Jens Müller (Norwegian)

THE FIFTY

F/L Henry J. Birkland (Canadian)
F/L Edward Gordon Brettell (British)
F/L Leslie George Bull (Britsh)
S/L Roger Joyce Bushell (South African)
F/L Michael James Casey (British)
S/L James Catanach (Australian)
F/L Arnold G Christensen (New Zealand)
F/O Dennis Herbert Cochran (British)
S/L Ian Kingston Pembroke Cross (British)
Lt Halldor Espelid (Norwegian)
F/L Brian Herbert Evans (British)
2/Lt Nils Jørgen Fuglesang (Norwegian)
Lt Johannes Gouws (South African)
F/L William Jack Grisman (British)
F/L Alastair D. Mackintosh Gunn (British)
F/L Albert H Hake (Australian)
F/L Charles Piers Egerton Hall (British)
F/L Anthony Ross Henzell Haytor (British)
F/L Edgar Spottiswoode Humphreys (British)
F/L Gordon Arthur Kidder (Canadian)
F/L Reginald ‘Rusty’ Kierath (Australian)
Maj Antoni Wladyslaw Kiewnarski (Polish)
S/L Thomas Gresham Kirby-Green (British)
F/O Wlodzimierz Adam Kolanowski (Polish)
F/O Stanisław Zygmunt ‘Danny’ Król (Polish)
F/L Patrick Wilson ‘Pat’ Langford (Canadian)
F/L Thomas Barker “Tom” Leigh (Australian)
F/L James Leslie Robert Long (British)
F/L Romualdas Marcinkus (Lithuanian)
2/Lt Clement A. N.  McGarr (South African)
F/L George Edward McGill (Canadian)
F/L Harold John Milford (British)
F/O Jerzy Tomasc Mondschein (Polish)
F/O Kazimierz Pawluk (Polish)
F/L Henri A. Picard (Belgian)
F/O John Pohe (New Zealand)
2/Lt Scheidhauer, Bernard W. M (French)
P/O Sotiris Skanzikas (Greek)
Lt Rupert J Stevens (South African)
F/O Robert C Stewart (British)
F/L John Gifford Stower (British)
F/L Denys O Street (British)
F/L Cyril Douglas Swain (British)
F/O Pavel Whilem Tobolski (Polish)
F/L Arnošt Valenta (Czech)
F/L Gilbert ‘Tim’ William Walenn (British)
F/L James Chrystall Wernham (Canadian)
F/L George William Wiley (Canadian)
S/L John Edwin Ashley Williams (Australian)
F/L John Francis Williams (British)

* * *

2 Czechs, persistent troublemakers for the Nazi regime were recaptured and eventually incarcerated at the infamous Colditz Castle in Saxony:

F/L Bedrich ‘Freddie’ Dvorak (Czech)
F/L Ivor B Tonder (Czech)

17 men were returned to Stalag Luft III and were not liberated until the end of hostilities. Three men were caught at the mouth of the tunnel and are not included in the recognised figure of 76 escapees (denoted by an Asterisk):

F/L Albert Armstrong (British)
F/L Anthony Bethall (British)
F/L Leslie C. J. Broderick (British)
F/O William J, Cameron (Canadian)
F/L Richard S. A. Churchill (British)
F/L Bernard “Pop” Green (British)
F/L Roy Brouard Langlois (British)*
F/L Henry Cuthbert “Johnny” Marshall (British)
F/L Alistair Thompson McDonald (British)
Lt Alexander D. Neely (British)
F/L Thomas Robert Nelson (British)
F/L Desmond Lancelot Plunkett (British)
F/L Alfred Keith Ogilvie (Canadian)
Lt Douglas Arthur Poynter (British)
F/L Laurence Reavell-Carter (British)*
F/L Paul Gordon Royle (Australian)
F/L Michael Moray Shand (New Zealand)
F/L Alfred Burke Thompson (Canadian)
S/L Leonard Henry Trent (New Zealand)*
F/L Raymond Van Wymeersch (French)

The remaining 4 men were recaptured and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp:

W/C Harry Melville Arbuthnot ‘Wings’ Day
F/L Sydney Hastings Dowse
F/L Bertram Arthur ‘Jimmy’ James
Maj ‘Johnny’ Bigelow Dodge ‘The Artful Dodger’

The Sachsenhausen Four

The above men had all been caught separately after their escape. Wings Day was travelling disguised as a captured British Colonel under the escort of a German soldier, Pavel Tobolski dressed in a German military uniform made by the camp’s ‘Dean & Dawson’ tailoring department! It was hoped that Tobolski’s fluent German would keep them out of trouble but they were arrested after being shopped by French dock workers whilst planning to stowaway on a ship in the Baltic port of Stettin. Sydney Dowse travelled with Danny Krol, both disguised as a Slav labourers. They were caught by a Hitler Youth scout in a barn near the Polish border. Jimmy James and Sotoris Skanzikas travelled together disguised as Yugoslavian labourers. After trekking for days on foot through deep snow, they were arrested at Hirschberg railway station attempting to buy rail tickets. Major Johnny Dodge was also caught at Hirschberg railway station with his escape partner James Wernham. The four men were separated from their partners during their subsequent interrogations by the Kripo (Criminal Police) and the Gestapo. All four of their escape partners were executed by the Gestapo.

Ye Olde Sausage Machine, Going Postal
Sydney Dowse

The four remaining men were all inveterate escapers. Dowse and James had been involved in a multitude of escape attempts from a number of different POW camps during their internment. Both men were expert tunnel diggers and escape artists. Sydney Dowse was renowned for his easy going bonhomie and enthusiasm for all things in life even under the hardest circumstances. James later remarked, “His spirit was undimmed. Even in Sachsenhausen he was as ebullient as ever.” Jimmy James made a total of 13 escape attempts during internment at several camps during the war. It is believed that Göring was so impressed by his dogged determination that he personally intervened to ensure that James was not among the 50 escapees selected for execution.

Ye Olde Sausage Machine, Going Postal
Jimmy James photographed as a POW

Wing Commander Harry ‘Wings’ Day was already a veteran having served as a Royal Marine in World War I. He was decorated with the George Cross for saving the lives of two injured men after the battleship HMS Britannia had been torpedoed just two days before the Armistice. In the interwar years, he trained as a pilot and joined the Fleet Air Arm and later the RAF. He was shot down flying a Bristol Blenheim just weeks after the beginning of World War II. Wings was SBO (Senior British Officer) at a number of POW camps before his transfer to Stalag Luft III in 1942. Despite his senior rank, Wings was another inveterate troublemaker participating in several escape attempts from different POW camps. Incredibly, Wings was nearly 46 years old when he made his escape from Sagan. Day’s seniority and track record made him a ‘high value’ prisoner, probably the reason why his life was spared.

Ye Olde Sausage Machine, Going Postal
Harry ‘Wings’ Day

The fourth protagonist was one of the most enigmatic and interesting characters involved in the Great Escape. Major Johnny Bigelow Dodge was the cousin by marriage of Winston Churchill. Like Wings Day, he was a veteran of World War I. Dodge was America born, becoming a naturalised British citizen in 1915. He served in the Royal Navy Division in Belgium and was awarded the DSC for services in the Gallipoli campaign. In 1916, he transferred to the British Army and served on the Western Front and was further decorated with the DSO in 1918. He was demobbed in 1920 retaining the rank of Major.

In the interwar years, Dodge travelled the world extensively and attempted to set up an import/export business in post-revolutionary Russia. He was arrested by the Soviet secret police as a suspected spy and narrowly escaped execution. He spent a harrowing couple of months in prison held in appalling conditions before being expelled from Russia. He was instructed very explicitly never to return! It is suggested though not proven that Dodge, with his establishment connections, was in fact spying for the British in Russia. After his return to England, Dodge attempted to build a political career fighting for the Mile End constituency as a Unionist candidate. He narrowly lost the by-election and later political ambitions were scuppered by the advent of World War II. His experiences in Russia had completely changed his earlier enthusiasm for socialism and he remained staunchly conservative for the rest of his life.

Dodge re-enlisted into the British Army at the onset of World War II taking up service in the BEF with the rank of Major. He was captured at Saint-Valery-en-Caux after attempting to swim several miles out to sea trying to board allied shipping. Unfortunately, the ships moved away before he could reach them and he was forced to swim exhausted back to the coast. Nonetheless, it was an amazing effort for a man already in his mid-forties.

Dodge made his first escape during transfer to Germany on a barge with other captured British troops after the fall of France. By a quirk of fate, he was captured and surrendered to a Luftwaffe officer and spent the war in a number of Luftwaffe POW camps despite being an army officer. He became close friends with Wings Day and they participated in several escape attempts together before their transfer to Stalag Luft III. His escapades earned him the nickname ‘The Artful Dodger’. The stand out qualities of the Dodger were his gregarious nature and generosity of spirit which made him universally popular with everyone who had the good fortune to meet him. He was a larger than life character in every sense.

Ye Olde Sausage Machine, Going Postal
Major Johnny Bigelow Dodge, captured again after one of his many escapes

The Sachsenhausen Escape and Aftermath

Hopes that the four recaptured men might be returned to Sagan were dashed. Dodge, whose connections to the Churchill family were well known by the Germans, was the first to be incarcerated in Sonderlager A (Special Compound A) at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. This was a compound separated from the main camp and specifically allocated for important political prisoners. He was soon to be joined by Wings Day with Dowse and James following shortly thereafter. “The only way out of here is up the chimney,” intoned Wings to Jimmy James upon his arrival. They were soon notified of the terrible fate of their 50 fellow Sagan escapees.

A single brick wall and rolls of razor wire were all that separated the comparatively safe life in Sonderlarger A from the barbaric mass slaughter taking place in Sacheshausen’s main compound. It was not long before plans were being hatched to break out and escape. In such a dangerous environment, absolute secrecy was paramount and no non-British inmates were are aware of what was going on beneath their feet. Discovery would certainly be fatal for all concerned. A tunnel was dug from beneath Jimmy James’ bunk without any of the infrastructure and escape networks that made the Sagan tunnels possible. The soil was firm and didn’t need shoring up, a good job too since there was no material whatsoever to reinforce a tunnel. Soil was dispersed in the tight void above the ground and beneath the floor of the cell block. It took four months of struggle in absolute darkness and foul air to dig one hundred and fifteen feet into an empty partly constructed compound north of Sonderlager A. James and Dowse did all the digging. Wings handled security and watch. Dodge was simply too robustly built to take part in the tunnel construction even after months of living on the meagre camp rations.

The escape was made on 23rd September 1944. The four men were joined by a British Commando and trusted inmate, Lt. Col. Jack Churchill. Dodge managed to evade recapture for around a month. The others were all caught within days and returned to Sachsenhausen. However, they were not returned to Sonderlarger A. They were chained to the concrete floors in Sachsenhausen’s notorious ‘Death cells’ in appalling conditions for several months. By February 1945, the war was rapidly drawing to a close and perhaps sensing that the British prisoners might be valuable bargaining chips in future surrender negotiations, Day, Dowse, James and Churchill were moved from solitary confinement back to Sonderlager A to be greeted with great honour by their former fellow inmates. Their relief at having escaped almost certain death yet again was tempered by the disappearance of Johnny Dodge.

Clearly audible artillery fire, huge bombing raids on Berlin and Soviet forces rapidly advancing into Germany from the east signalled the beginning of the end for Sachsenhausen and the inmates from both Sonderlager blocks were transported south by train to Flossenberg Concentration Camp. If they were expecting better conditions, they were to be bitterly disappointed but by this time it was clear that their SS captors were more concerned for their own future safety and keeping their VIP prisoners alive would possibly save their own skins. The stay at Flossenberg lasted a mere two weeks before the Sonderlager prisoners were moved by truck, first to Dachau where they were locked in the now deserted camp brothel and thence to Niederdorf in Northern Italy. On 28th April, Day took advantage of the growing chaos and collapsing SS discipline to commandeer a car and drive at breakneck speed towards the American front line approaching from the south. It was his 9th and final escape after being a POW since 1939. It is thanks to Wings Day that the Allies were notified of the hostage situation in the Italian Tyrol and troops were quickly despatched to drive north and rescue them.

The irrepressible Johnny Dodge had not perished at Sachsenhausen. Due to his family connection with the Churchills, he was unwittingly recruited by senior German Foreign Ministry officials as an ‘ad hoc’ peace envoy. Their intention was for Dodge to return to England via Switzerland and to offer Churchill their terms for a conditional surrender. The bewildered Dodge was driven by car on a bizarre odyssey through the bomb shattered remains of the Third Reich, firstly to Berlin where he was kitted out in brand new clothes and shoes and taken with his escort, Dr Hans Thost, to meet Hitler’s personal interpreter, Paul Schmidt. Dodge was then was driven by Thost to Dresden where they narrowly escaped being killed in the first of three great bombing raids on the city. After finding their hotel in ruins, Dodge and Thost travelled by bus to Weimar where they escaped being bombed a second time. The following day they headed south towards the Swiss border only to be arrested by police as suspected spies after being overheard speaking English in a bar in Regensburg. Thost, a senior government official, was incandescent and it required the intervention of the local Gestapo to get them released. Dodge finally crossed the Swiss border on 25th April 1945 and after a debriefing by MI6 in Bern, he was swiftly repatriated to England. He met with Winston Churchill just a couple of days before the war in Europe ended. The surrender terms were never accepted.

Further reading:

The Dodger by Tim Carroll
The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III by Tim Carroll
Moonless Night by B A ‘Jimmy’ James
Wings Day by Sydney Smith
The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill
The Great Escape by Anton Gill
 

© Ye Olde Sausage Machine 2019
 

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