In his book The Hero Maker award-winning historical author and biographer Stephen Dando-Collins exposes the stories and contradictions of Paul Brickhill, author of The Dam Busters, The Great Escape and Reach for the Sky. On the centenary of his birth, Brickhill's extraordinary story – from the youth with a debilitating stutter to Sydney Sun journalist to Spitfire pilot and POW to feted author – is brought vividly to life.
One particular chapter of Brickhill’s life, detailed in his famed memoir The Great Escape (later adapted into the hit 1963 film of the same name, starring Steve McQueen), would live on in World War 2 folklore. As the final preparations for the mass breakout from German POW camp Stalag Luft 3 were made, due to a previous moment of panic while underground, for the sake of the mission Brickhill’s name was cut from the escapee list. Perhaps only because Brickhill was not granted passage to join his fellow prisoners-of-war in their daring bid for freedom was this story ever to be told. Straight from the pages of The Hero Maker, here Dando-Collins illuminates the culmination of months of planning, as the prisoners finally made their break.
At Sagan on the morning of 24 March the sun shone weakly, but snow lay fifteen centimetres thick on the ground. This was not ideal for an escape. Snow would make walking cross-country extremely difficult, and tracking of escapees extremely easy. There was the danger of frostbite. And, if driven to find overnight shelter, escapees risked being captured in outbuildings. At 11.30 that morning, [Squadron Leader Roger] Bushell hosted a meeting of [the camp’s secret escape committee] X Organisation’s executive. It was only a short meeting. After sounding out his colleagues about making the break now or waiting for April and better weather, Bushell, impatient to get on with it, made a decision, and a decree.
‘Tonight’s the night.’
Feverish preparations proceeded through the afternoon. Men on the escape list gathered up escape kit from hiding places. Fake travel documents were stamped with the current date using a date stamp fashioned from a rubber boot heel by [Australian prisoner] Al Hake. And men began slipping in and out of 104 by circuitous routes. Those coming in were escapers. These going out were 104 occupants remaining behind. Giving up their rooms to kriegies [English-speaking prisoners of the Germans] down for escape, they would spend the night in the blocks and bunks of escapees. Among those moving out of 104 was code user Henry Stockings. His eyesight had become so bad he was rated unfit for an escape bid.
In 103, Brickhill tried to be upbeat as he shook the hands of Al Hake, [Wing Commander] Wings Day and others on the escape list as they moved next door to 104 in preparation for going out. In 104, escapers reported to escape ‘controller’ Dave Torrens, who marked their names off a list. By sundown, 104 Block was packed with 220 nervous men. Anxiously they waited their turn to climb down the block’s narrow shaft then propel themselves along [the tunnel they’d codenamed] Harry’s rail lines full-length on the little trolleys that had been used to bring out soil. The first fifty men were considered to have the best chance of success. Most of this first batch had foreign-language skills and were given a share of the small cache of German money collected by X Organisation, to enable them to buy railway tickets. The remainder would have to make their way overland – Bushell called them the ‘hard-arsers’ and he frankly gave them almost zero chance of getting home.
Come early evening, in 104’s room 23, the hot stove covering the entrance to Harry was lifted aside and tunnel king [Scotsman Robert ‘Crump’] Ker-Ramsey went down to check that everything was in order after weeks of neglect. He seemed to be gone forever, but eventually he reported back and gave the OK after making minor repairs. At 8.45, Leslie ‘Johnny’ Bull and Cuthbert ‘Johnny’ Marshall descended into the gloom. Along with [Wally] Floody and Ker-Ramsey, the two Johnnies had made up X Organisation’s tunnelling subcommittee, and they’d been at the forefront of digging over the past year. It was their job to open up the tunnel at the woods. For their efforts, they would have the privilege of being first men out. They were followed into Harry by fifteen others including Big X [aka Roger Bushell].
It took quite a while to trolley one at a time along the tunnel. Finally, at 9.30, Bull, standing on a ladder built up one side of the exit shaft, dug the last 30 centimetres of earth away from above him, and stuck his head out into the cool night air. He was horrified to discover that the tunnel’s surveyors had blundered – the exit shaft had come up in the open, three metres short of the trees and just fifteen metres from the legs of a goon tower. Fortunately, the guard up in the tower routinely looked into the compound, not out to the surrounding woods. Meanwhile, close to the tunnel’s exit, two patrolling guards were walking by in opposite directions, crossing midway on their beat. Withdrawing back down into the tunnel, Bull had a whispered consultation with Bushell and Marshall at the base of the exit shaft.
They considered closing up the entrance and digging further until Harry reached the woods, postponing the break until the next month. Then Bushell remembered that their travel documents, which had taken many months to forge, were date-stamped for this weekend. They had to go now, he declared. The trio quickly agreed a system to get escapees across the snow-covered open ground beyond the exit hole. The first man out would trail a rope to the woods. When all was clear, he would jiggle the rope for the next man to exit. Succeeding men would briefly take over his role, then make their escape into the woods. A request was passed back along Harry to 104 for a twenty-metre length of rope.
More time ticked by as the rope was acquired. Johnny Bull then went back up the exit ladder and looked out. When the patrolling guards were out of sight, he clambered up into the snow and scurried to the trees, trailing the rope. Using this, he signalled the all clear. Marshall appeared, and scuttled to join him. After wishing Bull good luck, Marshall played the rope out into the trees, then hunched down as he waited to be joined by the next few men out. Like a nervous mole, another man popped his head up and looked anxiously all around. The rope quivered. The mole sprang from his hole.
The Great Escape was underway.