Today's wraps up the current subject by telling a little about how Britain has recently carried the flag. In doing so we are again reminded of this most significant historical event with current celebrations at two locations.
In March, some 70 years ago, in the late hours on the 24th and early hours of the 25th, the escape from the HARRY tunnel took place at Zagan Poland. (It was then occupied by Germany and called Sagan.)
Ironically, 25 March also is the anniversary of the first presentation of a Medal of Honor to a US soldier, back in 1863. Now the US celebrates National Medal of Honor Day each year on that date, as regular readers of these blogs will hopefully recall.
There have been a number of events to honour those lost and those who also played roles in the escape of 1944. In fact they started back in December of 1944. The camp commander allowed 30 POW's from the camp to hold a ceremony at the camp memorial containing urns of the 49 victims. The very monument was not only permitted to be built by the Germans at the camp, but they went much farther by even played a role in the ceremony. The guards provided an honour guard that actually fired a volley in salute to the murdered victims.
There were 21 British Airmen honoured. Another 6 being came from Canada and 6 from Poland, 5 from Australia, 3 from South Africa, 2 from New Zealand and 2 from Norway, and 1 from Lithuania, Belgium, France, Greece and Czechoslovakia.
When the Hollywood made movie had it's premier showing at Toronto, many were piped into the theatre by the bagpipes of my old regiment... the Toronto Scottish. Some of the Canadian POW's from Stalag Luft lll actually attended, as did the Lt Governor of the province and other dignitaries. Some would later say that they were upset due to the complete lack of "Canadian content" in the movie. They also objected to the McQeen "made up" scenes of the motorcycle escape attempt and the breakout in spring weather when it was clearly the middle of the winter with fresh snow on the ground. Some were very upset with the scene were most of the POW's were shot by machine guns in one event. When truth be told, they were shot down in ones and two's in what was perhaps a couple of dozen or more separate events of murder. Not just one!
The Toronto showing resulted in a donation of $10,000 to the RCAF's Ex POW Benevolent Fund.
In 2003, 40 years after the release of the movie, the American Film Institute placed the movie on a list of the 50 most thrilling movies in history. Today it is listed as # 19 out of the top 100. Millions saw it and came away from the movie thinking of the tenacity and bravery of the Americans, when not one was amongst the murdered, possibly only three Americans (one was in RCAF) were amongst those 80 who did initially escape and when many of the key roles depicted in the movie were performed by Canadians and other British Empire officers.
Talk about identity theft!
Over the years there have been a number of re-enactments at the Stalag Loft lll POW camp site, but this year things changed.
This year the Royal Air Force put into action an exercise it called "Exercise Great Escape Eagle." This was an exercise in leadership and hardship endurance and involved a march of over 100 miles spread over several days by 50 serving RAF Officers.
They would hold a formal memorial service at Stalag Luft lll, lay wreaths, and then march the 100 miles to the current site of the graves of most of these murdered officers. They would also hold a formal service at this cemetery as well.
The event would again bring forth in a most powerful way, the stories of all who played a role in the escape and of course bring further honor to those who perished. And they would do it in a way the whole world would learn about the events for the first time, or be reminded of tragedy of 70 years ago last month.
This year was the first year a formal memorial was performed at either the Luft lll location or at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's Old Garrison Cemetery at Poznan Poland, and being actually attended by former POW's involved in the escape. Other dignitaries attending at one, the other or both, included The Poznan Province Governor, members of the Diplomatic Corps from Poland, the UK, Canada, Russia, France and New Zealand. One of the POW's who escaped and attended this ceremony was an officer by the name of Charles Clarke. After he escaped and later got back to Britain he continued to serve with the RAF rose in rank to Air Commodore. The Vice Marshall of the RAF also attended and participated in the memorial services.
Each of the 50 RAF officers, both men and women, carried a picture of one of the men murdered, as shown at above left. This and the centre image appear to show the officers arriving at Loft lll. During the ceremony each officer passed by the crowds of dignitaries, military, former POW's family and friends and general public numbering to several hundred, and in so doing also displayed one after another... the images of the men shot by the Gestapo.
Again at the left, the officers march past the audience and display the images of those being honoured that day. During the service many presented and layed wreaths at the very exit point where the 80 men came up to ground level from 30 feet below in their quest for freedom. The officers also gave a volley of shot in salute on the 50 heroes, as seen at above right.
Many years later the urns were moved to the Old Garrison Cemetery at Poznan, just over 100 miles North East of the POW Camp. (See top of map.)
This may have been the exact route the 50 RAF officers marched during this memorial march.
Here you can see the officers starting their march, leaving Stalag Loft lll behind and heading off on their 4 day, 100 plus mile march northbound. They were required to put on the highly visible vests to help oncoming traffic avoid colliding with them.
There are almost 300 British Commonwealth graves at the Old Garrison Cemetery. Above the ashes of the 50 victims there is a Commonwealth War Graves Commissioned marker. The centre image again shows the honour guard after their 100 mile march. Each proudly holds the image of one of the Allied victims. Each then placed the image in front of the marker for the man he was honouring. They also placed candles in front of each marker.
A moment of pause to think about what the heroes went through! Then the public were invited to view the markers and finally the candles were lit to give a stunning end to a most wonderful gesture of the part of the British Air Force and all those who played roles in ensuring this memorial service was performed.
Their work to preserve yesterday's history, is today's history.
On a closing note, here are the images of the six Canadians who were a part of the 50 who gave their lives so that we all can enjoy the freedoms we have today.
Henry Birkland (misspelled above) was from Spear Hill Manitoba, Gordon Kidder from St. Catharines Ontario, Patrick Langford from Alberta, George McGill from Toronto Ontario, James Wernham from Ontario and George Wiley was from Windsor Ontario.
Lest we forget!