NWORA Remembrance Vol.4 - NE99

NE99

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S talag Luft 111 was a Luftwaffe prisoner-of-war camp in Sagan, Silesia, Poland during the Second World War that housed captured Allied aircrews. The 800 guards were either civilians too old for combat or young men convalescing after long tours of duty or being wounded. Several things in the camp made escape difficult. The barracks were raised several inches off the ground so that the guards could detect digging. The place was built on land that had sandy subsoil. The sand was bright yellow, so it could be easily detected if dumped on the surface, which consisted of grey dust, or even on someone's clothing. The loose sand meant support for a tunnel would be poor. And the seismographic microphones on the perimeter of the camp were a major hindrance, for these could detect any sounds of dig- ging just below the surface. But work soon began anyway. The entrances to the three tunnels, Tom, Dick and Harry, were masterpieces of deception. Every hut had a stove set on a brick and concrete base. The shafts to Tom, in Hut 105, and Harry in Hut 104, began in the centre of these. (The entrance to Dick is to this day still hidden in a drain in the floor of the shower room in Hut 122. When closed and sealed it lay under several feet of water. The Germans never found it.) To keep the tunnels safe from the microphones, they started 30 feet below the surface. They were small - only 2 feet square - though larger chambers were dug here and there to house an air pump, a workshop and staging posts. The sandy walls were shored up with wood scavenged from all over the camp, especially from the prisoners' beds. (By the time of the escape, only about eight out of 20 boards were left supporting the mattress on each bed.) Making sure that each digger had enough oxygen to breathe and keep his lamps lit was a problem. So a pump was built to push fresh air along ducting in the tunnels. The pumps were built from major bed pieces, hockey sticks, kit-bags and Klim (meat) tins. Later, electric lighting was installed and hooked into the camp's grid. And a small rail car was built for moving sand, the rails eventually carrying some 140 cubic meters (200 tons) of sand in a year. Alas, as Tom neared completion in the of summer 1943, a German "ferret" (sapper) discovered the entrance and the tunnel was destroyed. The main effort was then switched to Harry, which in March 1944 reached 336 feet. Of the 600 prisoners who worked on the tunnels, it was planned to break out 200. They were separated into two groups. The first 100, called "serial offenders," were guaranteed a place and included those who spoke German well or had a history of escapes, plus an additional 70 considered to have put in the most work on the tunnels. These were given priority with forged papers, civilian clothes and a higher place in the exit order. They were expected to travel by train as foreign workers. For Germany at the time was flooded with foreign workers who often spoke broken German and whose papers were frequently out of order. The rest of the prisoners drew lots. Two hundred and twenty men prepared to go on the night of 24 March 1944. Then 76 men crawled through the tunnel to freedom. But at 0455 hrs, 25 March, the next man emerging was spotted by a guard. Those already in the trees ran like hell, while Squadron Leader Leonard Trent, VC, who'd just reached the tree line, stood up and surren- dered. The guards had no idea where the tunnel entrance was so they began searching the huts, thus giving the men time to burn their fake papers. Hut 104 was one of the last huts searched, and despite using dogs the guards were unable to find the entrance. Finally, German guard Karl Pilz crawled the length of the tunnel from the end only to find himself trapped at the hut end. Desperate, Pilz began calling for help. The prisoners generously opened the entrance and let him out, thus revealing the location. All of them 76 escapees, 73 were captured. Hitler wanted to have all them shot along with Commandant von Lindeiner, the architect who designed the camp, the camp security officer and the guards on duty at the time. Field Marshal Keitel, Major-General Westhoff and Major-General von Graeventiz, the head of the department in charge of prisoners of war, all argued against the execution of prisoners as a violation of the Geneva Conventions. In the end Hermann Goering decided to murder fifty of them - and this he did.... they were shot. Forget-me-not Remembrance Vol.4 15 THE GREAT ESCAPE Submitted by Col (RCAF Ret) Bob Ford CD

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