Seventy-five years ago to the day, a group of POWs were preparing to crawl to freedom through a 300-foot long tunnel in what would become known as the Great Escape. One of the inmates at Stalag Luft III was Bram Vanderstok, a Dutch Spitfire pilot, and one of only three men to make a 'home run'. In this excerpt from his memoir, he describes the moment he escaped.
I arrived at 'Leicester Square' [a junction in the tunnel] to change for the next stretch. My God, that tunnel was long! And thank heaven for the electric light! Fortunately, the air-conditioning wasn't necessary any more. A cold stream of fresh air had flowed through Harry ever since they opened the exit.
At the end, I passed through the double curtains to enter the pitch dark room under the opening. Somebody grabbed my hand and said: "Here, put your hand on the ladder. At the top, you'll find the signal rope on your left. Wait till you feel the signal and follow the rope until you are in the woods. Then go. Good luck!"
"Thanks, and good luck to you," I whispered to whoever it was 25 feet below the hole of freedom. Quickly, I climbed up to the surface and immediately found the rope, which was attached to the top rung of the ladder. I felt no signal, so it was not safe yet.
Then I felt the three distinct tugs and slowly popped my head up and looked in the direction of the camp. There I saw the barbed wire fence brightly lit by the lights along the periphery. The nearest 'Goonbox' was at least 200 feet away; but, indeed, I was 20 feet from the edge of the woods.
The ground was covered with heather and there still was a little snow left. A black path already was made, by the footsteps of those who had preceded me. Again I felt the tugs on the rope, as if saying, "Come on, Van, come on!"
But, dammit, I saw the silhouette of a German guard standing exactly between me and the fence, his feet apart, looking straight at me. He just stood there and never said a word. Then I noticed the thin stream of urine and I realised that he was standing with his back toward me ...urinating.
Again the three tugs – as if to say, "Hurry, hurry!" – but then I saw the German move and decided to let him go a little farther before I surfaced. When he was far enough, I climbed out and silently followed the rope to the woods. There I found Scruffy, one of our boys controlling the traffic of the next five escapees. Again, a touch on the shoulder and a whispered "good luck", and I disappeared into the woods. My direction – the railway station.
To read Vanderstok's memoir in full, and make a donation to the RAF Benevolent Fund at the same, you can buy a copy of his book.