Of the 76 who escaped from Stalag Luft III, 50 were handed over to the Gestapo and shot dead. In this blog, former PoW Charles Clarke tells us how The Great Escape film has helped ensure that these men are never forgotten.
The escapees made their way to Sagan railway station but in the darkness they could not find the entrance and precious hours were wasted with many missing their trains.
Eventually, in the early hours, they caught the first trains out of Sagan, or continued their journey on foot, but due to the delays, nearly all were eventually caught in the Sagan area.
The escape enraged the Germans and a directive was issued by Hitler to shoot all of the recaptured men. In the end 50 were killed, an act that horrified the Luftwaffe.
Charles says: "The following day [after The Great Escape] we were kept most of the day on the parade ground. We were counted and recounted with little help from us because the Germans were trying to establish how many had escaped. It was either drizzling or snowing.
"It was a very cold day. Indicative of the mood at the time was that you rarely saw a vehicle and there was one in the distance. And someone said, "That’s a gas chamber or a gas wagon." And the number of people that looked around. It was a joke, but it showed that it was somewhere in the back of our minds.
"After The Great Escape, escaping was forbidden by our own senior British officers. Life was tougher after the escape.
"People often ask me about what I think of The Great Escape film. I say looking at it now is a bit like a Boy Scout camp. There were too many Oxford accents, too many people wearing uniforms, too many hats and a lot of saluting. I mean that went on but not to the same extent because people didn't fly in uniform. And obviously Steve McQueen wasn't there! But without the film, who'd remember the 50 who were murdered?
"I think it's often forgotten that The Great Escape was probably one of the most audacious operations that the RAF carried out. When you see what was achieved with limited resources. When you think that all the equipment they had had to be made. The air pump was made of a kit bag and a few other bits. The air pipes were made of powdered milk tins, and even the little fat lamps were made of boiled margarine."