There were five compounds in this POW camp, and these blogs are about one of them, that which mainly housed the British Air Force Officers shot down, and called the NORTH Compound. Some of the tough measures taken by the Germans in this compound to prevent escaping came about as a result of Germany's experiences throughout the country, and even in some of the adjoining compounds, where there alone, 98 tunnels were discovered in the years past. However most resulted in no escapes, or captures soon after escape.
But the Allies were getting smarter and with considerable background experiences in underground tunnelling they soon came to the basic understanding that individual attempts were not likely to be rewarded with freedom. The old way gave the POW's something to break the boredom, some hope and even tied up enemy manpower as it tried to detect their activities. But the ultimate goal of escape and the rejoining with friendly forces to continue with the war was far from their reach.
But Stalag Luft 111 was to be different. To begin with, it brought together about 15,000 officers, men who were often highly educated and very successful in a host of different ventures in the civilian world. Men with smarts that could pool together their imaginations and talents and address the old problems with new creativity and more positive results. And about 1,500 of these men were in the North Compound.
These officers soon realized that no mater how hard... and smart... they worked underground... that was only half the problem. There were as many if not more problems above ground that also had to be tackled. And one without the other would only see yet more failed attempts at freedom.
One of the first problems they had was what the heck to do with all the sand they would produce. They were digging three tunnels, TOM, DICK and HARRY to begin with. A fourth, GEORGE, came later. In the first three alone they would dig underground for about 550 feet parallel to ground level. In addition there would be 3 shafts down at the 3 entry points, another 3 at the exit points amounting to another 180 feet and workspaces dug out underground too boot. Advances on each tunnel of 3 to 4 feet a day produced TONNES of sand DAILY. Three feet produced over a ton, and with 3 tunnels that was almost ten tonnes alone.
From the above, you can see a yellowish or gold coloured soil. Now look at the top layer in the picture of the right. See how dark the soil was. Clearly any distribution above ground, of subsurface soil of another colour would be a dead giveaway that tunnelling was ongoing. So they needed a solution.
Not long ago an excavation of DICK was undertaken. In both above images the dark spot is the beginning of the tunnel... and that is after the shaft was dug 30 feet down from the surface. It was dug by hand with utensils perhaps about 1/10th the size of the bucket at the foot of Flight Officer Gordon King shown at above left, and one of the POWs back in 1943-45. Note also the edges of the pit in both images. They are not straight down but slanted. This is because of the instability of the sand. One of the very problems the tunnelers had to face daily, and also a fear of some of the very men recently excavating. But more on this in another blog.
He would in turn appoint a Squadron leader who would command the day to day escape details. And Floody would answer to him.
This officer would actually design the three tunnels and have many sub-groups that would each play a major role in the overall success or failure of the escape plan they hatched. It called for the escape of some 200 men on day one and as many in the days following. It would involve over 600 men playing a variety of roles out of the 1,500 at the compound.
As the herculean task of bringing tonnes of sand to the surface was on going each day and night, the next job was getting rid of the sand. Many dozens of men like Flying Officer Hank Birkland, Flt Lt. George Harsh, Officer Art Hobten, Flt.t. Pat Langford, Flt. Lt. George Summers, Flt. Lt. Albert Wallace, and Flt. Lt. John Weir would work at one specialty or another and also as PENGUINS. So named because they waddled like a penguin.
From the images above you can readily see why. One of the men designed these secret carrying bags for the movement of the sand. Often it was nothing more than a leg from long johns. The bottom end was slit, and fitted with some sort of a clip fastened to a string that travelled up the leg under the trousers and into the pocket of the penguin. After he waddled into position he would pull on the string, the clip came lose and opened up the leg and the 2 foot pile of sand, 3 inches across, would flow out and onto the ground.
The above left picture has a German Guard later finding and having his picture taken with one form of the device that was simply slung around the neck of the carrier. The image on the right is of actor David McCallum in his younger days, and imitating one of the penguins in the famous movie The Great Escape of the early 1960's. His fame from that movie pushed him on to greater recognition in the TV series, The Man Form Uncle, and much later in a most successful career, now with the crew of NCIS as the ever inquisitive doctor with a zillion stories of past cases to bore his fellow investigators, but not the audience.
When the above mentioned men and many dozens of others were sent off to drop their loads of sand, they would be dispatched to areas were other events were often taking places. Events like a boxing match or cricket or ice hockey were large crowds could not only hide the penguins within, but also do much to stir up the soil dropped in the hopes that it would be well mixed with the surface soil and thus not detectable. During one of the boxing matches arranged by Flt. Lt George McGill several men were trying to get over the wire at the very moment the impromptu match took place... obviously as a diversion.
The golf match above would have been a great place to drop soil as so many could help in mixing it up. So too whenever there was a crowd gathering. The officers had plenty of time on their hands as it was not lawful under the Geneva Convention to force them to be on work parties. Thus many took to gardening... where soil is always turned up and over and over. Note that a couple of fellows standing have a hand in their pocket. Are they holding onto a string?
Much more of Friday.