March 24th 2019 was the 75th Anniversary of the Great Escape, seventy-five years ago to the date the RAF had orchestrated a mass escape from the prisoner of war camp known as Stalag Luft III. You may, or may not, have seen the famous 1963 film adaptation starring Steve McQueen ‘The Great Escape’ which made this momentous WW2 story truly come to life and show what the Prisoners of War behind the wire went through to try and escape.
On the night of 24th March, 1944 at 10:30pm two-hundred airmen from various allied nations were planned to escape but only seventy-six broke free through the famous tunnel ‘Harry'. The tunnel was 350ft long and dug in secret under and out the camp, Stalag Luft III. The escape was jeopardised and only 76 managed to escape, 73 were later recaptured and of those 50 were executed after on Hitler’s orders.
To commemorate this profound story, members of the RAF planned to cycle all the way from the camp Stalag Luft III, Poland through Germany, Holland, Belgium, France and back into the U.K covering 1600km in 8 days.
The epic undertaking was the brainchild of the Director of RAF Rugby 7s Squadron Leader Tim Barlow who, having been heavily involved in reconstruction projects at the camp over the past 12 years, had always dreamt of leading a team back across Europe for a home run, albeit in far more favourable circumstances!
Sgt David ‘Bongo’ Thow from the Defence SERE Training Organisation, spent a few days with the team in the woodland that now shrouds Stalag Luft III filming some escape, evasion and survival technique tutorials. Downed aircrew during the war could certainly have done with the expert instruction and equipment we benefit from today.
The 75th Anniversary commemoration ceremony, held at the site of the escape itself and attended by CAS and many other dignitaries from numerous nations, was very special for all present. RAF personnel each carried a photo of one of the 50 murdered escapees, in tribute to their bravery and sacrifice. It was especially poignant for members of the cycle team such as Squadron Leader Chris Pearson, whose uncle had been held in the camp, to carry the image of Flight Lieutenant James ‘Cookie’ Long – both of IX(B) Squadron. Flight Lieutenant Nathan Jones carried Flying Officer Dennis Cochran, also of 10 Squadron, and Wing Commander Nicholas Monahan carried Flight Lieutenant Reginald Kierath, formerly of 33 Squadron, like him.
The indomitable late Air Commodore (Retired) Charles Clarke, President of the RAF Ex-POW Association, was the unofficial guest of honour. Charles arrived at the camp shortly before that famous night and therefore wasn’t one of the 200 queuing for the tunnel. Still incarcerated in Jan’ 1945, he and his fellow prisoners were force-marched further into Germany as the Soviets advanced from the east. The prisoners subjected to this ‘Long March’, which included Chris Pearson’s uncle, suffered terribly in one of the worst winters of the 20th century, near-starving in temperatures as low as -27°C. He was there with the team, at the commemoration and filming with Sgt Thow, he was also a good friend of Squadron Leader Barlow.
On the morning of 25th March, 2019 the team honoured their endeavour by commencing their 1600km cycle back across Europe from the camp, near Zagan in Poland, making a ‘home run’ of their own, spanning various historical sites which have connections with the Royal Air Force.
This commemorative feat was documented over the following 8 days and made into YouTube documentary on the Royal Air Force’s Youtube channel. To follow their incredible journey, see the video below!