Author and historian Steve Darlow today joined air force veterans at Stalag Luft III, Zagan, Poland to mark the 70th Anniversary of the Great Escape. In this guest blog, Steve tells us more about this poignant gathering.
We couldn't complain really; the rain was persistent and the dampness spread, but 70 years ago conditions were worse, with snow blanketing the ground.
Today the miserable conditions failed to prevent an international gathering of Allied veterans, government and Air Force representatives, relatives of Great Escapers, historians, serving airmen to commemorate the anniversary of the extraordinary mass breakout of Allied PoWs from Stalag Luft III on the night of 24/25 March 1944.
Clearly marked out on the ground in front of us was the tunnel Harry, leading from where Hut 104 had been to a stone plinth that today indicated the exit through which 76 men escaped into the night. On this day we were here to commemorate the murder of 50 of these men, their lives cut short under the direct orders of Adolf Hitler – a war crime that caused outrage among the Allied free nations at the time, and indeed still does.
Seven decades ago it had been an enforced international gathering of young men who had planned the audacious breakout. Stalag Luft III had been host to numerous airmen who had been shot from the sky as they fought in defiance of Nazism.
They had become prisoners of the enemy they sought to defeat. But as Air Vice Marshal Stuart Atha DSO stated in his speech today, they were 'not just prisoners of war but prisoners at war … the men who escaped were not just any Tom, Dick, or Harry.'
These men had masterminded and engineered an escape plan and tunnel that had given them hope of freedom. Three of the 76 managed to make a ‘home run’, 23 were returned to the prison camp and 50 ended up making the ultimate sacrifice.
A representative from each of the respective Allied air forces reads out the names of the 50 and speeches followed commemorating the 'remarkable, ingenious men', and their 'character and courage'.
Dignitaries recalled this 'extraordinary chapter in the history of our air forces' and asked us to remember 'these 76 young kids'.
Air Commodore Charles Clarke OBE, a former PoW at Stalag Luft III, addressed those present and symbolically cut the wire on a recently reconstructed goon tower. The act of commemoration closed with the last post, a minute silence, reveille and a volley fire salute at which point wreaths were laid at the memorialised exit to tunnel Harry.
We will remember them.
By Steve Darlow