It was the duty of every Allied prisoner of war to attempt to escape from their captors.
Stalag Luft III
For many, it was impossible; for others, escape planning became almost their sole preoccupation. Of all the extraordinary stories, none is more compelling than The Great Escape, an audacious plan by Allied airmen behind the wire of Stalag Luft III. Complex tunnel structures -Tom, Dick and Harry- were dug through sand and shored up with bed planks.
Starting beneath three hut stoves, the tunnels were lit with electricity and fed with pumped air. They dropped 30 feet before heading for the woods more than 300 feet away. In the end, 76 POWs escaped through Harry in March 1944, equipped with false ID papers and civilian clothes. Almost all were caught and Hitler ordered that 50 be shot.
Thousands of Canadian soldiers, airmen, navy and merchant seamen spent time during the Second World War as captured prisoners, some for only a few weeks, many for almost the entire war.
Almost 1,900 Canadians alone were captured during the Dieppe raid, including Lieutenant Colonel Cecil Merritt of the South Saskatchewan Regiment and Padre John Foote of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, both of whom were awarded the Victoria Cross for their gallantry during the failed raid.
These prisoners would spend almost a year and one half in shackles at the German prisoner of war camp at Eichstatt in Bavaria. Escape under these conditions would be difficult if not impossible.
In the final hours during the fall of Hong Kong, Japanese soldiers were brutal, bayoneting wounded soldiers, raping nurses and killing, or maiming prisoners at random. Canadian prisoners taken at Hong Kong were treated very badly. Of almost 1,700 Canadians captured at Hong Kong, 128 died of conditions imposed by the Japanese on the island. Four were shot immediately when recaptured after escaping.
Later, 1,184 Canadians were taken to Japan and forced to work as miners and conditions were so bad in the Japanese camps that another 136 men died. .
Regardless of the difficulties associated with escape, every prisoner understood that his primary responsibility to his country and to the war effort was to escape whenever possible.
The Great Escape
Every prisoner of war camp had its own escape committee to make plans, prepare false documents, secure or fabricate clothing, gather food, or obtain cigarettes or money with which to bribe guards or civilians for assistance.
One such camp was Stalag Luft III, a prison for Commonwealth and American air force officers located half way between Breslau and Berlin. The prisoners established their committee and adopted a plan of escape that was made famous in the book and subsequent movie; “The Great Escape.”
The plan called for a tunnel through which 200 men could escape in one night. On 24 March 1944, 76 prisoners managed to escape through the tunnel before a guard spotted the mouth of the tunnel’s exit and the alarm was raised. Only three men made good their escape.
Fifty of the escaped prisoners were ordered shot by the Gestapo and Hitler himself gave the order. Six of those shot were Canadians; James Wernham, Gordon Kidder, Henry Birkland, George McGill, Patrick Langford and George Wiley. The remaining twenty three prisoners were returned to the camp and the dreadful ache of capture resumed.
There are many stories of the bravery of prisoners who, despite severe punishment if caught, were able to take photographs, or maintain diaries describing camp life. One enterprising Canadian was Flight Sergeant Kenneth Hyde of Calgary, who documented prison camp life with photos of escape tunnels, German guards and manacled POWs. He was the camp photographer for the escape committee, but had to wait almost a year before he would obtain a smuggled camera.
Another record of POW life is a diary written by Flight Lieutenant Robert Buckham of Montreal. F/L Buckham’s diary is so detailed it lists times, dates and specific daily events, including sketches showing prisoners on forced marches when German guards were forced to move prisoners in early 1945 when the Russian Army was closing in on the prison camps east of Berlin.
One last noteworthy entry in F/L Buckham’s diary; "On 2 May, the British came. From a parapet around our barracks prison we watched aircraft attacking, heard gun fire... In late afternoon, a tank stopped outside the prison gate. The turret opened and a soldier waved…Thousands of men cheered in a state of hysterical, bewildered blessed release. We were free."
Air Force Officers Killed By The Gestapo
The names of the fifty Air Force Officers who were killed by the Gestapo after the Great Escape:
|F/O||P. Tobolinski||RAF Poland|
|F/LT||A. Kiewnarski||RAF Poland|
|F/O||W. Kolanowski||RAF Poland|
|F/O||S.Z. Krol||RAF Poland|
|F/O||J. Mondschein||RAF Poland|
|F/O||K. Pawluk||RAF Poland|
|F/O||Haldo Espelid||RAF Norway|
|F/O||Nils Fugelsang||RAF Norway|
|F/Lt||R. Marcinkus||RAF Lithuan|
|F/Lt||Henri Picard||RAF Belgium|
|F/O||S. Skanziklas||RAF Greece|
|F/Lt||Earnest Velenta||RAF Czech|
|F/Lt||Henry Birkland||RCAF Canada|
|F/Lt||Gordon Kidder||RCAF Canada|
|F/Lt||Pat Langford||RCAF Canada|
|F/Lt||George McGill||RCAF Canada|
|F/Lt||James Wernham||RCAF Canada|
|F/Lt||George Wiley||RCAF Canada|