The Great Escape Legacy of Liberation

By 1944, much of Europe was occupied by the forces of Nazi Germany. Tens of thousands of Commonwealth service personnel had become prisoners of war (POWs). But captivity did not always mean an end to resistance.

Commonwealth soldiers surrender, Crete 1942. © ABC

Some risked their lives in attempts to escape and return to the fight. On the night of 24 March 1944, there was a mass break out from a German prisoner of war camp in Poland. Seventy-six men escaped captivity, it became known as the ‘Great Escape’.

‘Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time. By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun…’

Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, mastermind of the Great Escape, 1943.

Canadian soldiers captured at Dieppe, 1942. © CO14171


Being taken prisoner was often a humiliating experience. Servicemen went from being warriors to captives. There were many circumstances which might lead to capture: soldiers could be wounded and left behind, or their units overrun and surrounded; airmen might be shot down over occupied territory; sailors were sometimes rescued from the sea by German vessels.

Prisoners of war were protected by the 1929 Geneva Convention, and breaking its terms was a war crime. If POWs gave their true name and rank, their captors had a duty of care over their safety and wellbeing. Killing a lawful combatant who had surrendered was murder.

Most Commonwealth POWs held by German forces were treated well. But the Geneva Convention was not always followed.

Commonwealth soldiers are led away, North Africa 1941-1942. © Alamy

Prisoner Killings

In May 1940, the British Army was retreating through France to Dunkirk and the Channel Ports. At the village of Le Paradis, a force of 100 soldiers of the 2nd Royal Norfolk Regiment fought off German troops from the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf. After running out of ammunition, and with many wounded, the Norfolks decided to surrender.

Their captors marched them a short distance, lined them up against a barn wall, and machine-gunned them. Ninety-seven men were murdered. Two survived to tell the tale by hiding under the bodies of their comrades. After the war the German commander, Fritz Knöchlein, was tried and executed for war crimes.

Today, you can find the graves of many of the 2nd Norfolks in CWGC Le Paradis War Cemetery.

CWGC Le Paradis War Cemetery © CWGC

POW Camps

Surrender was often the beginning of a long journey that eventually led to a prison camp. These varied greatly: from medieval castles like Colditz in Saxony, to sprawling temporary towns of wooden huts ringed by barbed wire. POWs in German camps were separated by rank.

Stalag 383 POW Camp, Bavaria. © AWM

Officers were often held in an Offizierslager or 'Oflag', while enlisted personnel were housed in a Kriegsgefangenen-Mannschafts-Stammlager, or 'Stalag' for short. POWs were also divided between navy, air force, or army personnel, and civilians.

Life as a POW

Daily life was rarely dangerous, but often boring. In some camps, POWs were permitted to organise social activities and sports, with men competing in rugby, football and cricket matches using equipment supplied by the British Red Cross.

Enlisted men were expected to work. Some were assigned to farms, living with German families in relative safety and comfort, while others toiled in mines or struggled alongside forced labourers from concentration camps.

Officers were not expected to work, but many volunteered to do so.

Boredom was regarded as a significant problem by the Germans. POWs with little to do would spend their time plotting to escape.

Over the course of the war, only a few successfully made it back to Britain or neutral territory: a feat called a ‘Home Run’ by the prisoners.


Stalag Luft III

Stalag Luft III was a German POW camp for Allied airmen in Sagan, in modern day Poland. Established in March 1942, at its peak it held almost 11,000 Commonwealth and American enlisted men and officers in several compounds across a 60-acre site, overseen by 800 guards. The compounds consisted of fifteen single-story huts, each housing 15 POWs who slept in bunk beds.

Stalag Luft III POW huts, © IWM & POW bunks by John Watton, © John Watton

The camp was known for being more comfortable than many, with genial relations between the guards and the POWs. Each compound was allowed a sports field, and the camp had a well-stocked library and even a POW orchestra.

Particularly unusually, POWs in the camp could bury their comrades who had died, with the Germans providing an honour guard.

Burial service in Pozen, 1941. © CWGC

The Germans went to great lengths to make escape as difficult as possible. Huts were raised off the ground and the entire camp had been constructed on sandy soil to make tunnelling extremely hazardous. Many POWs who had already attempted to escape from other camps were sent to Stalag Luft III due to these extra security precautions.

It was from Stalag Luft III that 200 men would attempt to escape on the night of 24 March 1944, in what became known as the ‘Great Escape’

A German guard in the "Harry" escape tunnel at Stalag Luft III © IWM

The Great Escape

Meticulously planned for many months, the escape from Stalag Luft III was the single largest break out from a German POW camp during the war.

Three tunnels codenamed ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’ were dug under the wire from within the prison huts. Over 600 POWs worked in shifts to excavate the tunnels, while others surreptitiously disposed of the soil and collected materials to assist the work.

At the same time civilian clothes were fashioned, while official papers were forged or acquired from guards.

The Germans were aware that work was taking place. ‘Tom’ was soon discovered and destroyed, and ‘Dick’ had to be abandoned when the Germans began building on the expected exit location.

Work on ‘Harry’ continued however, and after a year was completed. The 2ft wide tunnel was nearly 30ft deep and extended more than 330ft out of the camp.

200 men were selected to take part, and on the moonless night of 24 March 1944, the escape began. Seventy-six men escaped, but the seventy-seventh man was spotted and the alarm was raised.

After the escape, the Germans were horrified to discover that 4,000 bed boards were missing and had been used to shore up the tunnels.

Many other items had been used, including 90 complete bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 52 twenty-man tables, 10 single tables, 34 chairs, 76 benches, 69 lamps, 246 water cans, 30 shovels, 1,000ft of electric wire, 600ft of rope, and 3424 towels.

Although they had managed to escape the camp, liberation did not last long for most of those involved. All but three of the escapees were recaptured over the following weeks and held in prisons across Poland and Germany.

Adolf Hitler ordered that they should all be shot, along with the camp commandant of Stalag Luft III, the camp architect, and all the guards on duty at the time of the escape.

A number of senior Nazi officials argued against this, but ultimately fifty Great Escapers were executed to deter others from future escape attempts.

Over the next few weeks the selected POWs were murdered individually or in small groups. Their bodies were then cremated.


Remembering the Dead

The cremated remains of the Great Escapers were returned to Stalag Luft III. The newly-appointed camp commandant was appalled by the killings and allowed the prisoners to build a memorial to house the ashes.

The memorial built at Stalag Luft III by POWs to commemorate the executed Great Escapees. It was designed by Australian-born architect Wylton Todd. © IWM

In 1948, a Royal Air Force search team travelled to the camp to collect the ashes. They found that the memorial had been broken into, and a large number of the urns were smashed. Apparently, passing soldiers believed that gold had been hidden in the urns. The ashes of all but two of the fifty who had been executed were buried in CWGC Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery.

Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery. © CWGC

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains graves in five cemeteries across Poland. Far from the fighting front, these men died when their aircraft were shot down or as Prisoners of War.

Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery Plan. © CWGC

The cemetery was begun after the First World War, when more than 170 POWs were laid to rest. It was very badly damaged during the Second World War when German and Soviet forces clashed nearby. Headstones were broken and the Cross of Sacrifice was scarred by bullet and shrapnel hits.

Poznan Old Garrison cemetery, c.1950. © CWGC

The cemetery was expanded after the Second World War when graves from nearby Prisoner of War camps and other temporary burial grounds in the region where brought for burial. Today, this is the final resting place of almost 450 First and Second World War service personnel, including forty-eight of the fifty executed servicemen of the Great Escape.

Second World War servicemen laid to rest beside First World War comrades in Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery, c. 1950. © CWGC

Squadron Leader Roger Joyce Bushell – UK

The Great Escape was masterminded by RAF Squadron Leader Roger Joyce Bushell. Born in South Africa, Roger was the son of a wealthy mining engineer. He was educated in Britain and studied law at Cambridge. He joined the RAF in 1932, and worked as a RAF lawyer. In 1940 he was given command of a fighter squadron, but was shot down on his first sortie over Calais during the Dunkirk evacuation.

Roger made several attempts to escape captivity. His first try was in May 1940, and he succeeded in getting to the Swiss border, only to be stopped by a border guard. His second attempt in October 1941 saw him jump from a moving train. He made it all the way to Prague before being captured

again. He arrived in Stalag Luft III in October 1942 and began planning the escape attempt that would became known as the Great Escape. His code name on the camp escape committee was Big X.

Roger was one of the seventy-six men who escaped on 24 March 1944. He was arrested the next day and murdered on 29 March 1944. He was 33 years old. He today commemorated in CWGC Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery, Collective grave 9. A

Flight Lieutenant Leslie George Bull – UK

Born in Highbury, London, Leslie trained as an Architect at the London County Council School of Building. In 1936 he joined the RAF and flew heavy bombers in action during the first years of the Second World War. In June 1940, he was assigned to the RAF testing and development unit at Boscombe Down, where he worked extensively on radio-counter measures and wireless intelligence, technology that would later provide a vital advantage for RAF bomber crews.

In November 1941, Leslie’s Wellington bomber aircraft suffered engine failure over occupied France and he was forced to bail out with his crew. Captured by the Germans, he was sent to Stalag Luft I. Here he met Roger Bushell, and together they worked to plot and attempt escape, and generally made a nuisance of themselves to the Germans. Leslie was apparently particularly skilled at distilling contraband vodka from scavenged potato skins.

Leslie was transferred to Stalag Luft III with Roger in October 1942. He became a senior figure during the Great Escape, working extensively on the construction of the tunnels. On the night of the escape he was the first of the seventy-six men out of the tunnel.

Flight Lieutenant Leslie George Bull was arrested with a small group of other POWs on a train near the Czech border. He was murdered on 29 March 1944. He was 27 years old. He is today commemorated in CWGC Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery, Plot 7. Row C. Grave 1

Squadron Leader Ian Kingstone Pembroke Cross – UK

Ian Cross was born in Cosham, Hampshire. He joined the RAF in 1936. Following the outbreak of the Second World War he completed a full 34 mission tour of duty, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Ian was then sent to teach new pilots at RAF Bassingbourn but soon applied to return to combat. Ian flew a further sixteen missions before his aircraft was shot down during an attack on German shipping in the English Channel. Forced to ditch in the sea, Ian and his crew spent 24 hours in a life boat before being saved by German air-sea-recue.

Ian was sent to Oflag XXI-B POW camp, where he met Roger Bushell. Together they worked on several escape attempts before being transferred to Stalag Luft III. Ian was not deterred, and amongst other attempts, he jumped aboard a German truck leaving the compound with pine trunks and branches. He did not get far before being seen. Ian became a senior figure during the Great Escape, working extensively on the construction of the tunnels, and led the efforts to dispose of soil. Most famously he led the ‘penguin’ team, so named because they sprinkled soil out of their trouser legs as they walked.

Ian was one of the seventy-six men to escape on the night of 24 March 1944. He was recaptured very quickly. He was murdered on 31 March 1944. He was 25 years old. He is today commemorated in CWGC Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery, Plot7. Row C. Grave 2.

Squadron Leader John Edwin Ashley Williams – NZ

John Williams was born in Wellington, New Zealand. A champion surfer, he joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1938. He first saw combat in 1942 during the North Africa Campaign, where he flew P-40 Kittyhawk fighter planes. He was an excellent pilot, and in September 1942 was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In October, he was promoted to Squadron Leader and given command of No.450 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force. Three days later, on 31 October, he was shot down during Operation Supercharge, the Second Battle of El Alamein.

Discovered wandering through the desert by the Germans, he was sent to Stalag Luft III, arriving in early 1944. John was one of the seventy-six men to escape on the night of 24 March 1944, during the Great Escape. He and four others were recaptured by a German mountain patrol while attempting to cross the Riesengebirge Mountains into Czechoslovakia. He was murdered on 29 March 1944. He was 24 years old. He is today commemorated in CWGC Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery, Plot 8. Row D. Grave 1.

Squadron Leader James Catanach – AUS

James Catanach was born in Melbourne, Australia. He worked as a jewellery salesman in the family business until 1940, when he joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). After training in Canada, he was posted to the UK. He flew nine combat missions with the Royal Air Force before transferring to No.455 Squadron, RAAF.

In 1942, James was promoted to lead 455 Squadron, and at 20 years old, was one of the youngest squadron leaders in the history of the RAAF. By 1942, James and his squadron were based at RAF Sumburgh on the Shetland Islands, providing cover for Artic convoys bound for Russia. In early September, James was on route to Vaenja in Northern Russia, when his plane was shot down. He managed to crash land on the Norwegian coast. He had saved his crew from the freezing Artic sea but they were quickly captured by a German patrol.

James was sent to Stalag Luft III, where he took part in the Great Escape. He carefully learned to speak Norwegian and intended to make for Sweden with a group of other POWs. Having successfully changed trains in Berlin, James and his companions were arrested by local police near the Danish border. On 29 March, James was driven into the countryside and murdered, shot in the back by the German secret police. He was 22 years old. He is today commemorated in CWGC Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery, Collective grave 9. A.

Flight Lieutenant Henry Birkland – CAN

Henry was born in Cadwell, Manitoba, Canada. He never settled before the war, working as a meat packer, a truck driver, a dishwasher and a gold miner. In 1940, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and after training was sent to the UK in late spring 1941. He joined RAF Fighter Command and flew Spitfire fighter planes from RAF Turnhouse, today Edinburgh airport. After just a month of combat patrols over Scotland and the North Sea, he transferred to No.72 Squadron on the south coast of England.

On 7 November 1941, he was flying over occupied France searching for enemy aircraft or ground targets to attack. German fighter pilot, Unteroffizier Heinz Richter of Jagdstaffel 26 found him first. Henry crash landed near the French town of Étaples and was taken prisoner.

After interrogation he was sent to Stalag Luft I in northern Germany. Here he planned and made several unsuccessful attempts to escape and so was transferred to the more secure Stalag Luft III. Here he met Roger Bushell and other serial escapers who were planning what would become known as the Great Escape. Having worked as a miner before the war, he worked extensively on digging the tunnels used for the escape, regarded as ‘the toughest tunneller of them all’.

On 24 March 1944, Henry was one of 76 men to escape. He and a group of others attempted to go across country on foot but were very quickly captured by local patrols from the prison. On 31 March he was murdered. He was 25 years old. He is today commemorated in CWGC Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery, Plot 7. Row C. Grave 3.

Lieutenant Neville McGarr – SA

Neville was born in Johannesburg, South Africa but grew up in Durban. At twelve years old polio left him paralyzed from the waist down. He was stubborn and worked daily to recover his mobility. Just a year later he was able to walk to Glenwood High School, where he won both academic and sporting awards. After graduation he worked for Lever Brothers and later for the South African Treasury department. He loved all things fast, and owned both a motorcycle and sports car.

In May 1940, Neville volunteered for the South African Air Force (SAAF). He arrived in Egypt in July 1941 and joined No.2 Squadron SAAF, flying Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighter planes. In October 1941 he was on patrol with his squadron over the desert when they intercepted by German fighters. Ambushed, the squadron suffered heavy losses in the short air battle. Neville’s Tomahawk was badly damaged and he bailed out. Alone in the desert, he walked for three days without food or water. On the fourth day he was saved up by passing German troops.

Neville was quickly sent to Europe, and was held at Stalag Luft I in northern Germany, before being transferred to Stalag Luft III. He volunteered to take part in the Great Escape but his physical size meant he could not work in the tunnels. Instead, he was given command of the security detail who kept watch over the German guards. Neville was one of 76 men who escaped on the night of 24 March 1944. He did not get far, being spotted and captured by a patrol from the prison. He was murdered on 6 April. He was 26 years old. He is today commemorated in CWGC Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery, Plot 7. Row D. Grave 6.

Major Antoni Wladyslaw Kiewnarski – Poland

Born in Moscow in 1899, Antoni Kiewnarski was a remarkable individual. He served in the Polish Army during the First World War, and then transferred to the Polish Air Force in the inter war years. He served with distinction during the German invasion of Poland in 1939, and after the surrender of Poland, he travelled to France to continue the fight. He saw action again during the Battle of France, before finally traveling to England. He joined No. 305 Polish Bomber Squadron of the Free Polish Air Forces, and flew multiple missions over enemy territory in 1941 and early 1942.

On the night of 27 August 1942, he was en-route to bomb targets near the German town of Kassel when his aircraft was intercepted by a German night fighter. Three of his crew were killed during the

attack, but Antoni managed to bail out of the stricken aircraft over Eindhoven in the Netherlands. He was captured by German forces and eventually sent to Stalag Luft III. He older than many other POWs, and was regarded as the elder statesman of the Polish prisoners -- a father figure.

On the night of 24 March 1944, he was one of 76 men who escaped Stalag Luft III during the Great Escape. Antoni and a fellow Polish POW managed to board a train to Boerrohrsdorf but upon their arrival they were arrested by local police. He was murdered on 30 March. He was 45 years old. He is today commemorated in CWGC Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery, 9. A. Coll Grave.

What happened to the ‘Great Escapers’ who were not buried in Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery?

Pilot Officer Nils Jørgen Fuglesang

Pilot Officer Nils Jørgen Fuglesang, was captured in May 1943 when his Spitfire fighter plane was shot down over Holland. Following the ‘Great Escape’ he was recaptured and murdered.

Like the others, he was cremated and his ashes were placed in the memorial at Stalag Luft III. In 1948 his ashes were returned to his home town of Rasvåg in Hidra, near Flekkefjord, Norway. He was laid to rest in Hidra Cemetery and today his family cares for his grave.

Flight Lieutenant Denys Oliver Street

Flight Lieutenant Denys Oliver Street was captured in March 1943 when his Lancaster bomber aircraft was shot down. Like Nils Fuglesang, he was murdered following the ‘Great Escape’, and his ashes were place in the memorial at Stalag Luft III. When the search team removed the ashes in 1948, it was decided that Denys would be taken to Berlin.

Evidence suggests that this was because his father, Sir Arthur William Street, was a senior British official in Berlin and they thought that he would appreciate being close to his son. Today, Denys is buried in Berlin 1939-1945 War Cemetery, Plot 3. Row A. Grave 24.

The Great Escapees buried in Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery

1. Flight Lieutenant Henry Birkland, 72 (R.A.F.) Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force

2. Flight Lieutenant Edward Gordon Brettell 133 (Eagle) Squadron, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve

3. Flight Lieutenant Leslie George Bull, 109 Squadron Royal Air Force

4. Squadron Leader Roger Joyce Bushell, 601 Squadron Royal Air Force (Auxiliary Air Force)

5. Flight Lieutenant Michael James Casey, 57 Squadron Royal Air Force

6. Squadron Leader James Catanach, 455 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force

7. Flight Lieutenant Arnold George Christensen 26 (R.A.F.) Squadron, Royal New Zealand Air Force

8. Flying Officer Dennis Herbert Cochran, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve

9. Squadron Leader Ian Kingston Pembroke Cross, 103 Squadron, Royal Air Force (RAFO)

10. Sergeant Halldor Espelid, 311 (Norwegian) Squadron, Norwegian Air Force

11. Flight Lieutenant Brian Herbert Evans, 49 Squadron, Royal Air Force

12. Lieutenant Johannes Gouws, 40 Squadron, South African Air Force

13. Flight Lieutenant William Jack Grisman, 109 Squadron, Royal Air Force

14. Flight Lieutenant Alastair Donald Mackintosh Gunn, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve

15. Warrant Officer Albert Horace Hake, 72 (R.A.F.) Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force

16. Flight Lieutenant Charles Piers Hall, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve

17. Flight Lieutenant Anthony Ross Henzell Hayter, 148 Squadron, Royal Air Force

18. Flight Lieutenant Edgar Spottiswoode Humphreys, 107 Squadron, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve

19. Flight Lieutenant Gordon Arthur Kidder, 156 (R.A.F.) Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force

20. Flight Lieutenant Reginald Victor Kierath, 450 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force

21. Major Antoni Wladyslaw Kiewnarski, 305 Squadron, Polish Air Force

22. Squadron Leader Thomas Gresham Kirby-Green, 40 Squadron, Royal Air Force (RAFO)

23. Porucznik Wlodzimierz Adam Kolanowski, 301 Squadron, Polish Air Force

24. Kapitan Stanislaw Zygmunt Krol, 74 (R.A.F.) Squadron, Polish Air Force

25. Flight Lieutenant Patrick Wilson Langford, Royal Canadian Air Force

26. Flight Lieutenant Thomas Barker Leigh, 76 Squadron, Royal Air Force

27. Flight Lieutenant James Leslie Robert Long, 76 Squadron, Royal Air Force

28. Flight Lieutenant Romas Marcinkus, 1 Squadron, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve

29. Lieutenant Clement Aldwyn Neville McGarr, 2 Squadron, South African Air Force

30. Flight Lieutenant George Edward McGill, 103 (R.A.F.) Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force

31. Flight Lieutenant Harold John Milford, 226 Squadron, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve

32. Porucznik Jerzy Tomasc Mondschein, 304 Squadron, Polish Air Force

33. Porucznik Kazimierz Pawluk, 305 Squadron, Polish Air Force

34. Flight Lieutenant Henri Albert Picard, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve

35. Flying Officer Porokoru Patapu Pohe, 51 (R.A.F.) Squadron, Royal New Zealand Air Force

36. Pilot Officer Bernard William Martial Scheidhauer, 131 Squadron, French Air Force

37. Pilot Officer Sotirios Skantzikas, Greek Air Force

38. Lieutenant Rupert John Stevens, 12 Squadron, South African Air Force

39. Flying Officer Robert Campbell Stewart, 77 Squadron, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve

40. Flight Lieutenant John Gifford Stower, 142 Squadron, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve

41. Flight Lieutenant Cyril Douglas Swain, 105 Squadron, Royal Air Force

42. Porucznik Pawel Wilhelm Tobolski, 301 Squadron, Polish Air Force

43. Flight Lieutenant Arnost William Valenta, 311 (Czech) Squadron, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve

44. Flight Lieutenant Gilbert William Walenn, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve

45. Flight Lieutenant James Chrystall Wernham, 405 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force

46. Flight Lieutenant George William Wiley, 112 (R.A.F.) Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force

47. Squadron Leader John Edwin Ashley Williams, 450 (R.A.A.F.) Squadron, Royal Air Force

48. Flight Lieutenant John Francis Williams, 107 Squadron, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve

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