News last week told of the 50 RAF men and women, all commissioned officers, who marched over 100 miles to honour those murdered. They started their memorial at the start place of the story, that being at the location of the old POW camp in Zagan and ended it at the final resting place of 49 of these heroes. That being the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's cemetery located at Poznan Poland.
The march started at Zagan, bottom center of map. This is located about 210 kms. south east of Berlin. The march ended at the cemetery to the north east some 170 kms., at Poznan. But more on that later.
First the camp!
In 1942 the Germans had become quite concerned about the amount of POW's escaping via tunnels. Vowing to resolve this issue they went on the hunt for a special location to build a camp that could incorporate a lot of problems for those bent on tunnelling their way out.
First they chose a spot that was somewhat remote, and thus not easy to hide out or get transportation to spirit them off. Next they wanted a wooded area that they could clear and leave a baron space all around that would require very, very long tunnels to overcome. They felt if too long, a tunnel would never be attempted. Then they wanted somewhere that had surface dirt that was very noticeably different in colour than that a few feet below grade. And finally they wanted somewhere with soil that was very sandy and difficult to dig in because of the edges just flowing into the hole made.
Zagan proved to be the spot, land was cleared and a camp built. But with more and more successes in the air, the Germans found the camp getting overcrowded with POW's and had to make several new clearings for more buildings. Each of these was built up off the ground a few feet so that the guards would hopefully discover any escaper efforts by tunnelling, or by piles of earth appearing under any of the buildings.
Outside the cleared space around the camp they erected not one but two 9 ft. high fences topped with barbed fire. And between each was a 7 ft space also filled with barbed wired entanglements. As if this was not enough they also had a warning line. One string of wire about two feet off the ground that was the no go line. Cross it and you would immediately be shot.
And to deter digging they had sensitive microphones placed in holes dug 9 ft down and strung the exterior of the camp with these. Each would hopefully pick up any vibrations and thus alert the enemy that something was going on underground. And topping all of this off they had several guard towers mounted along the edge of the camp with guards equipped with machine funs and powerful search lights These would be used all night and aided by roaming guard patrols complete with trained search dogs.
The officials would constantly brag that the camp was escape proof. But then came along a South African RAF officer named Roger Bushel who had repeatedly tunnelled out of earlier camps, (almost 50 under his belt), and had a major grudge with the enemy...especially the Gestapo. They had murdered all of those who helped hide him for a while after his latest escape.
He was so incensed that he decide that he would not only tunnel out again, he would make plans to make the escape a massive one with 200 getting out in the first phase and more to follow.
On arrival at Stalag Luft 111 he was assigned to one of the 15 huts in the north compound were most of the British officers were housed. The population of this area was about 1,500 and there were 5 more compounds in the camp.
Not long after arrival Bushell met up with a former colleague who happened to be the senior British Officer in the compound. That fellow preferred that no tunnels be made due to past negative experiences and the Germans in constant search for more escape efforts. But the officer pressed upon his new boss that co-ordinated efforts between hundreds, instead of hundreds of individual tunnel efforts, was part of the key to a success. He also stressed his experience, and very strong grudge and that his idea did not involve a few but upwards of 200 men escaping, and that was just a start.
He was then given the OK to move on it. Soon a team was brought together under the code name Operation X with Bushel being the head... or X man. Soon others with very special talents were brought into the plan. One of these was an officer named Floody, an ex mining man who immediately came up with plans for not one... but 3 tunnels. Three because, if one was found they might not expect another and yet a third also being dug. To avoid detection it was ordered that the word tunnel no longer be used. From now on is was simply Tom, Dick and Harry, the names of each new venture. Soon many other talented men would join up to work the many tasks both above and below ground.
This air photo shows the several compounds at the POW camp. The RAF Officers were housed in the North Compound in the 3 identical rows of five huts. The hut that concealing the entrance to the HARRY tunnel, the one in which all 76 escapes were made, was in hut #104 which is the one in the middle of the five in that first row at top of page. The tunnel ran northbound...up the page and under the cooler, a hut where troubled POW's were held in solitary confinement. The tunnel would then hopeful travel further north until well into the woods shown as the dark area at the top of the page and exit the underground within those woods.
The first two huts on the left of the third row of five, looking at the above image, are where a 2nd and third tunnel were being built that headed off to the left... or westbound. This area was covered with pine woods like the top and right in the picture, but when the image was taken the woods on the left had been cut down to build the newer west compound.
A fourth tunnel was started as an emergency tunnel and ran under the theatre the POW's built. This building is the one, shaped like the others but much darker in the above image and below the third row of huts, It is the southern most building in the compound. It was to run eastbound into the woods outside the compound. This fourth tunnel is rarely mentioned when Stalag Luft 111 is spoken about.
This sketch is a little easier to understand. At the bottom center you can see HARRY travelling north and beside, (should be under) the cooler and then off to the woods. A second and shorter tunnel called TOM exited from hut #123 and travelled some 98 ft to the woods off to the west. And tunnel DICK, started at hut #122, went westbound travelling under hut #105 and would have exited within the woods to the west.
On Friday I bring you some of the fascinating tidbits pulled together to dig these tunnels, the ultimate results, and then we will join up with the marching 50.