Former Flight Lieutenant Jack Lyon explains how the PoWs at Stalag Luft III were split into three groups as they carefully planned their escape.
The first men to escape through the tunnel were handpicked by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell because they had either had the most input in preparing for the escape or they spoke good or fluent German.
As night fell on March 24 1944, those allocated a place in the tunnel moved to Hut 104. However, the escape plan was not without its hitches. Flight Lieutenant Johnny Bull discovered that the tunnel mouth was some 15 feet short of the tree line and within 30 yards of the nearest watch tower – this was potentially disastrous but delaying the escape was not an option. The first escapee went onto the trolley railway at 22:30.
Jack says: "The plan was for 200 men to get out. They were in three groups. The first group, those who by their linguistic ability and other experiences were most likely to succeed in escaping. Then followed a group whose contributions to the project had been so vital that they merited a place in the escape if they wished. The remainder, well over 100, were drawn by lots. I was in the third group.
"We felt that we had to contribute something to the war effort and this was our opportunity. I was under no illusions - I never thought I had a chance of getting home and Roger was only too aware of the risk but he was determined to escape. He was dedicated. He knew that if he was captured he’d be shot because he'd escaped before. 'I think the Germans were pretty certain there was a tunnel, but they thought there wouldn’t be an attempt to break out until warmer weather arrived.
"The plan was to get everyone into Hut 104 and those people who were usually in 104 had to be dispersed into other huts so they used the football match and various other tactics to distract the guards as people moved about.
'When the word came it’s on, the first thing I had to do was shave off my beard. I was in Hut 106 so I didn’t have to go very far. I had a rucksack, and all my little pieces were in there and I just carried it in. I was going out as a French worker and was given an identity card, which would have passed only cursory inspection and a map or two - not particularly good ones. And a small amount of German currency.
"My plan – if I had one – was to walk by day and rest by night, although some people had said to do it the other way round. I was going to try and make it on my own rather than join up with somebody – I've always been a bit of a loner and I'd take my chance on my own. It was a foregone conclusion really that you weren't going to make it. I was just going to try and stay alive, that’s about all I could do."