November 10 1997


November 10 1997


A book on Canada's war heroes features a famous, dramatic tale


Maclean’s was the first publication anywhere to report in detail about what later became known as The Great Escape. As told by Flight Lieut. Tony Pengelly to Scott Young in the Nov. 1,1945, issue of the magazine, ‘X for Escape,” excerpted below, is also one of several articles comprising Canada at War, published by Viking. The Canada at War pieces recount tales of Canadian heroism from the battlefields of the First World War to peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia. The collection was selected and edited from the Maclean’s archives by Michael Benedict, the magazine’s editorial director of new ventures, and features an introduction by Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie.

During much of my time in prison camp I was part of what I believe must have been one of the war’s most efficient escape organizations. That our biggest job ended in tragedy—the barbarous murder of 50 of my friends—I never will forget, and I can only console myself with the knowledge that the escape was planned perfectly and that nothing we left undone cost those lives.

Active participation in the work, and planning for that escape, was the most important thing in my prison camp life. We knew we would have to organize to be successful. We were just beginning to realize that when we were moved, early in 1942, to a new camp in Silesia, between Breslau and Leipzig, Stalag Luft III. Within a few days X (for escape) Organization was born.

At the top was Big X, an RAF squadron leader called Roger Bushell. He had been shot down in June 1940. He was about 33, I’d suppose, and had been a lawyer. Under him directly was the X committee, which was made up of heads of the various departments in the organization. One of the most important of these was Big S, head of the security group, under whom I worked as head of forgers and cartographers. Regardless of rank or seniority every one of the 2,000 men in our compound had an X job. They could be cartographers, forgers, tailors, compass makers, engineers, cooks, toolmakers, contact men or guards. It took about a year to build our organization up to the point we desired. In that year our tailors became skillful in making civilian clothes from odds and ends; our contact men, by a combination of psychology and bribery, got several Germans in the camp working for us; and we assembled a typewriter, radios

and other miscellaneous equipment we needed to forge identification papers for our escapers.

We normally were allowed sewing equipment to repair our own clothing, and with it our tailors could make literally any outfit needed. A good job might take weeks, but time was our cheapest commodity. Given the time, our tailors could turn out an authentic outfit for anyone from a businessman (plain suit) to a chimney sweep (top hat, black coveralls).

Their papers, turned out under my supervision, matched their clothing. Most had temporary identification cards forged from a type the Germans used for people moving from one area to another. Part of the work could be done on a typewriter, the rest on an improvised mimeograph we had made, using for a roller a piece of broom handle wrapped with fine rubber from the handle of a cricket bat. A man dressed as a factory worker would carry travel authority on an authentic German letterhead stating he was going to take a job elsewhere.

The preliminary work started in the spring of 1943, and where before we had hope, now we had confidence. Big X and his committee had decided the best place for our main tunnel

to start was Block 104, my home. It was only about 30 feet from the wire, halfway between the top guard post and the gate. But we didn’t pin all our hopes on one project. In March 1943, we started

work on three major tunnels, code-named Tom, Dick and Harry. From the beginning, the Block 104 tunnel, Harry, was the one we hoped to use.

It started in a fireplace in the corner of the second room from the northwest corner of the block. When the fireplace and a section of flooring were removed there was a drop of about 10 feet, with steps down. Then came a level space of a few feet, and another drop to the bottom of the first well, 27 feet below the surface. From there, digging on a plan drawn by our engineers, the tunnel moved out under the wire toward freedom.

The soil was pure sand, making heavy shoring necessary. Boards to line the tunnel came from our bunks, which had 14 37inch bedboards each. Of these Big X took eight and left six for each man to sleep on.

I cannot explain why the Germans in our power did for us what they did, but if I tell you how we came to influence them origi-

nally perhaps you can understand. It was a psychological approach—simple, because our subjects were not on a high intellectual level. It could begin, as it did with one of our involuntary helpers, with me

giving a German a cigarette. A few weeks and several cigarettes later I asked him into my room for tea. I looked at his snapshots with enthusiasm. Two or three months later he told me he was going on leave. I asked him to my room again for tea.

We talked about his leave: how long he was going to get, where he was going, how long it had been since he’d seen his family. Then I asked: “How would you like to take a little coffee home?” The average German hadn’t had real coffee since 1936. He jumped at the chance. Then I said: “And a little chocolate for your little boy.” Some German children had never had chocolate, so he went for that too.

You know how it is when someone gives you something. The guard wanted to know if there was anything he could bring me from outside. I said: ‘Yes, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like 100 toothpicks.” Anything inconsequential like that would do for the first time. You might never have used a toothpick in your life,

T thought of home, the food, the people, the freedom to open a door and walk down the street'

and never intend to, but it was oil for the machine.

From then on, each trip I asked for something. In perhaps nine months we had him. His wife had grown to expect the coffee, his child was looking forward to chocolate every time he went home. He believed he had to take this little booty with him on every leave. Also, he had broken the rules so often that he would hesitate to deny any request for fear we told on him. They never foresaw where it led until it was too late. And we paid them well in wartime Europe’s best currency—food that Big X commandeered from our Red Cross parcels in any quantity he believed necessary.

Up until this last great escape plan was under way none of us knew how many were to go out in it, or who. When the time became close we drew lots, intensely, in small groups. Mere slips of paper they were, holding the yes or no of freedom—and, for the lucky ones, how long he would be after the first to leave.

I drew No. 93. Then I was faced with a major decision. Someone in my branch had to stay behind to check identification cards at the tunnel head as the escapers left. There was to be nothing left to chance, no man would leave with papers which didn’t match his clothing or general escape plan. If I took my priority, someone else in my branch would have to stay behind. The few who could handle the job were all anxious to go. Because of my seniority as a prisoner and my major part in the escape organization, I could go if I wished.

I weighed the arguments. I hadn’t seen my fiancée, in England, for more than three years. I hadn’t seen Canada since 1938. I thought of home, the lights, the food, the shows, the people, the freedom to open a door and walk down a street. Against all that was the knowledge that because I had directed production of our escape documents I knew them better than anyone. Perhaps, if I left the job to another, there would be one vital detail only I would know, and I would be gone.

It was the greatest decision of my life as a prisoner of war. There could be only one way. I gave myself the appointment, thereby forfeiting my escape number—93— on the list of 375 prisoners we planned to release.

When I made my decision it was early in January of 1944—just a few days away from my 24th birthday, and a couple of months past the third anniversary of the black night I parachuted into enemy hands from a crashing Whitley bomber after the fifth Berlin raid of the war.

Big X was to be Number One on the escape roll, so we would have to reorganize. That was another reason for staying behind— we would need a nucleus of old hands to build up the organization again. But that was for the future. For the present Big X was still running the show.

There were many extreme difficulties in digging the tunnel— engineering without proper instruments, the necessity of stealing or improvising every tool used—but dispersing dirt from Harry was the most difficult physical problem in the entire 12 months of effort. I estimate it took 12 men on dirt dispersal for every man digging at the face of the tunnel. When the dirt reached the tunnel’s main well (closest to the tunnel entrance) it was dumped in an auxiliary dispersal well. From there the dispersers—about 300 men working almost 100 to a shift—took over. One system was to strap long sausagelike bags (made from greatcoat linings) to their

legs, go for a walk, pull the rip cord and let dirt dribble out as they scuffed along. Another method was to wear dirt-filled pouches under their greatcoats, find a blind spot in the

camp—there were a few where you couldn’t be seen by any of the guards—and dump them there. In both cases the dirt could be kicked around until it mingled with the other soil—fortunately loose and sandy. I cannot estimate how much dirt we moved from Harry during that year, but the tunnel was 437 feet long at its completion, a couple of feet high, and perhaps three feet wide. That is a lot of dirt.

When we started work on documents, letters and identification cards for the big escape, there were four people in my outfit. I finally had eight working full time on forging and ten on maps, with a total staff of 137.1 worked them only an hour or two every day at first, because it was absolutely essential they maintain high interest and accuracy. Intricate detail was necessary. Using the wrong color of ink on one of our forged rubber stamps could have undone a year’s work. Rubber stamps can be made quite handily from rubber heels.

On March 1,1944, tunnel Harry was finished to the point where our engineers figured open air was only about three feet away, an hour’s digging. But we had to wait. There was a full moon then— bad escape weather. We wanted a night with no moon, a wind (to

create noise in the woods to cover any we might make) and no snow.

The morning of March 24 was beautiful and sunny. The ground was reasonably clear of snow, and there was an east wind—which we knew from experience usually held pretty well. I was pounding the circuit (walking around the wire) when one of X’s runners came haring up and told me I was wanted. I had a feeling this was it. Big X had a meeting with the X committee (heads of branches) every morning, and about this time each day it ended. I figured Big X had decided this was the day.

It was. I got my lads together and we started stamping “passes.” Nobody was told except people who had work to do. We couldn’t take the chance that someone would show excitement. Late that afternoon the word went out. Everyone with an escape number was to be in Block 104 by eight o’clock, lockup time. That was a hazard in itself, because the block ordinarily would have only about 140 people in it. This night there would be 375 as well as those of us who were to direct the show. Although guards never entered the blocks at lockup, they always looked in the shutters. That meant we had to do a pretty good job of hiding the extra bodies. Nobody could be wandering around the corridors either, because that was unusual and therefore suspicious.

People going into the block did not carry their escape packs with them. Orders had been given to leave the packs in their rooms. Other prisoners had been designated to bring them over after dark. In addition to clothing, these packs included iron ration kits which had been made up by our cooks. These were Kration fruit bars from American Red Cross parcels, chocolate, raisins, Ovaltine tablets and a fudgelike business we made from oatmeal, sugar, cocoa, raisins and dried milk. Also there was some bread and meat—the latter mainly garlic sausage, of which very little came into the camp, all of it saved for the escapers. There were Americans in our camp during the last couple of years of the war, and their Red Cross parcels were made up mainly from service rations. That was handy, because K-rations in particular were built to give the maximum food in the minimum space—just the job for an escape.

The tunnel was to break about nine o’clock. Diggers were sent down to knock out the last few feet. Other men who were to be stationed in the tunnel during the escape went to their posts. In the block, small escape groups gathered. Each had a leader, who wasn’t going out. His job was to have the group ready on time. At the top of the tunnel was a timekeeper, to direct traffic.

There was a little more digging to do than we anticipated— about five feet instead of three. So it was after 10 o’clock when the tunnel broke. The diggers hared back, changed their clothes, and got ready to go. On a word from the timekeeper, at the tunnel head in Room 23, a runner was dispatched along the barracks hall to a group commander with the terse message: “Get ready!” The group proceeded to Room 23 to be searched and have equipment and papers checked. Then it began to move through the tunnel. Big X was first man. The escape was on. It was 10:30 p.m.

I had a million things to do. Some people didn’t understand their

papers, wanted things explained to them. There were signatures missing on some papers. They had to be fixed. Some had the wrong papers altogether, and had to change with others or get new ones.

The tunnel head search was necessary. Every last detail of equipment had to be German. It was almost funny, if things hadn’t been so tense, that we found an English nailbrush on Old Infallible, Big X. We found Gillette blades on others, and odd bits of stuff that a German wouldn’t carry. It was all removed, naturally.

The tunnel opened into pine woods on the far side of the road north of the compound. From the mouth of the tunnel a cord stretched through the frees for several hundred feet A man was stationed at the end of the tunnel. As each escaper reached that point his hand was placed on this cord. He felt his way along it to the end. There he

'They had been stacked up against a wall and shot out-of-hand. It was a lesson, Gestapo-style/

gave it a sharp tug, and the next escaper would begin to grope toward freedom.

The first 30 or 40 men went out without a hitch. The escape was running behind schedule, but everything

was going well. There were either 83 or 84 men out (I’m not sure which) when a guard, walking his beat up and down the road under which our tunnel ran, heard a noise. He stopped and looked at the tunnel mouth for a few seconds, then proceeded as if he were satisfied nothing was wrong. But when he came back he left the road and walked through the bushes. He was just in time to grab a man coming out of the tunnel.

Everyone else in the tunnel ran to the other end and scrambled back into the block. But the guard, for some reason, thought the tunnel had just broken. He took our chap to his guardhouse, and reported the escape. A guard was placed immediately on the tunnel mouth. But much to our surprise nobody came into the camp immediately. We were able to burn all our illegal documents.

About seven in the morning dozens of guards, carrying rifles, came into the camp and routed us out. The commandant arrived to call the roll. At first he didn’t seem very worried. He couldn’t quite understand why people were in the wrong blocks, but in the first block he took there were only three or four people missing. He thought things weren’t very bad. But he got more and more worried as he went on. At the end, when he totted up and found there were more than 80 people out, he almost went mad. In fact, he did go mad as a result of that escape. When he had to report to the Gestapo how many people were loose, they removed him and we later heard he had gone around the bend.

The Gestapo took over the camp for the next several weeks. They were tough, hard men—small, usually a little on the stocky side—real gangster types. They established a first-rate reign of terror among the camp personnel. Interpreters were tried and shot summarily, and camp officers relieved. The Gestapo, perfectly thorough, searched the home of every guard, even if it

was 300 miles away. If anything were found (food, soap, chocolate) to indicate the guard had been dealing with prisoners, it was worth his life. He either would be slated for the high jump immediate-

ly or would be sent to the Eastern Front. That was considered the same thing.

About a month later a notice went up on the camp board. It read: “The following officers were shot while trying to re-escape ...” and gave the names of about 20 chaps we had sent into the black woods toward what we hoped was freedom. Other lists came later, until we knew that 50—six Canadians and 44 from other parts of the Empire—had been executed in all violation of every rule of warfare. We knew the Germans lied, because those men of ours knew better than to attempt escapes with armed men standing over them. They had been stacked up against a wall and shot out-of-hand. It was a lesson, Gestapo-style. I believe three of those who got out eventually reached England. Big X was not among them. His name was on the first list.

That was our last escape. Immediately news of the executions reached England, the Air Ministry told us over the BBC—yes, we had radios, smuggled radios—to stop escaping. From then to the end of the war none of us spoke to a German. And from then until our liberation on May 2,1945, each of us wore on his sleeve a small diamond of mourning black, so that each time a German looked at one of us he would be reminded of what his people had done. □

After being liberated, Tony Pengelly returned to Canada where he worked in sales and later in advertising in the Maritimes and Toronto. He now lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., where he volunteers with the Shaw Festival, pursuing an interest in theatre kindled during his POW days.

Scott Young, an assistant editor of Maclean’s from 1945 to 1948, earlier served with the Royal Canadian Navy in Europe. A longtime columnist with the Toronto Globe and Mail, Young went on to write more than 40 books.