Flight Lieutenant Tony Bethell.

In 2005, Tony Bethell’s widow Lorna presented to Sherborne School a copy of Tony’s account of the escape from Stalag Luft III, which he wrote in 1995 as a personal tribute to ‘The 50’ POWs who were shot when they were re-captured.  This is Tony’s story of the tunnel ‘Harry’ and of subsequent events:

My story starts when three of us from one room in the Block 122 of Stalag Luft III were selected among the first 80 for the escape – Mike Casey [Flight Lieutenant M.J. Casey, RAF], Cookie Long [Flight Lieutenant J.L.R. Long, RAF] and I.  Mike went down the tunnel ahead of me, I went down #45 and out #65; Cookie went down #46 and out #66.

The Escape Committee had given me two jobs to do – the first was to go down the tunnel to Leicester Square (the 2nd ‘halfway’ house), take over from the person there [Flight Lieutenant Hank Birkland, Royal Canadian Air Force] and pull twenty people through my section of the tunnel; and, being relieved by the twentieth (#65 down the tunnel) go on down the tunnel and out.  Once out, my second job was to lie behind ‘the tree’ in the woods near the tunnel exit and wait for the nine following escapees to crawl out and join me.  Once my party of ten was complete, the next man (Larry Reveall-Carter – #75 out of the tunnel) was to relieve me, and I was to lead my party into the woods and out to open country, where we would split up into parties of two, each pair going its own way.

The briefing for travelling to and lying in Leicester Square was pretty simple – when  ordered, get on the trolley, lying down, at the foot of the entrance shaft and signal ‘ready’ by giving a tug on the rope attached to the front of the trolley.  On arrival at Piccadilly Circus (the first half way house) crawl around the hauler and get on the trolley ahead, tug on the rope, and be hauled up to Leicester Square and relieve the man on duty there (Hank Birkland).  Facing the rear, in a coffin, about 7 feet long and open at the either end, and to be lit electrically – the job was to turn and pull back the trolley that had gone down the tunnel to the escape shaft, keeping a feel on the rope attached to the trolley that had returned to Piccadilly Circus; and, on feeling a tug, to pull that trolley with its human cargo up to Leicester Square.

The twentieth man I pulled up (Ken Rees) would relieve me.  In the event, I suppose I had pulled through about a dozen people when the rope went dead – no pulls to signal another human being to haul down the line – the continuing reminder that one was connected to the outside world and one was only temporarily isolated from it.

With one’s ‘lifeline’ gone dead, the realization bore in quickly that anything might have happened, and that one’s little airspace, 30 feet below ground, could indeed be a permanent coffin.  Claustrophobia took over and I sweated with fear – for about 45 minutes, I believe – though it seemed like an eternity.  Since that night, I think I can truly say that I have understood the condition and feelings of trapped miners – and the heroic (I use the word advisably) efforts of their fellow miners to reach them.

At first I tried shouting – in both directions until I realized that sound didn’t travel too far in a confined space and fear that resonance might cause a collapse in the tunnel. A desire to get on the trolley to freedom was indeed strong. Eventually, a tug did come on the rope and I hauled the next man up to Leicester Square – he told me as he crawled past me that an escapee had stuck in the tunnel and with difficulty had been pulled out backwards by his legs – the operation causing a collapse in the tunnel that had to be repaired.  Who it was that got stuck I do not know – I had always understood that it was Sandy Gunn [Flight Lieutenant A.D.M. Gunn, RAF], a broad Scot who was one of ‘The 50’ and was shot at Breslau, on April 6th.

Sketch of Harry tunnel at Stalag Luft III by Ley Kenyon, one of the camp’s star counterfeiters (RA Bethell, A Glimpse of Stalag Luft III, 1995)

I hauled through my relief and I got on to a trolley to the escape shaft – up the ladder – a tug on the rope signalling ‘okay to proceed’ from a controller watching the sentries – crawl quickly to ‘the tree’ through the snow – watch ten men disappear in the trees behind me.

The briefing on job #2 – leading my group of ten to open country from ‘the tree’ was roughly as follows – in the woods a couple of hundred yards to the northwest of the tunnel exit was an electrical transformer station, said to be guarded by dogs.  To the west of us was the American compound and beyond it a French and a Russian compound.  To the north lay the railway line with the station and, beyond it, the town of Sagan.  The route to open country lay between the Russian compound and the railway line running southwest out of the station.  Anticipated congestion around the railway station (to be avoided by the hard-arsers) and the location of the transformer station required that the hard-arser group (of ten) go north for 200/300 yards – and then west – then slightly south to get to open country – about a mile away.

Again, what was proposed and what happened were at variance.  I had led my group about a hundred yards north into the woods when a shot rang out behind us – the tunnel had been discovered – with that, I and my group bolted – north and then west (I thought). I never saw the transformer station, but suddenly we were kicking cans (garbage?) and looking at the perimeter wire of, I think, the Russian camp – we scampered back into the woods in a north-westerly and then westerly direction and fortunately soon came to open country, where we dispersed.  Cookie Long and I were alone.  My discharge of Job #2 was hardly a model of navigation or of execution.

It was getting light quickly and, knowing that the tunnel had been discovered, Cookie and I agreed that the hunt would now be on and that we must find hiding for the first day.  No barns were visible but we came to a fir tree plantation – young trees about 6 to 8 feet tall with their foliage growing down to the ground – ideal  for hiding though, with 6 inches of snow on the ground, not the best shelter.  We pushed our way into the young trees for about 50 yards and then made ourselves as comfortable as we could with branches from the trees underneath and around us.  With good boots on and warm clothing we were in reasonable shape for a daylight wait.  My most vivid memory of day one was the inevitable call of nature.  Clearing some snow, I dropped my trousers and opened the rear panel of the woolly one piece combination I was wearing underneath.  It was then that I realized my too casual dressing for the event – I had put on my underpants first, followed by the combination and then the trousers.  Short of undressing, there was no way that I could pull down my pants!  It was a long and cold exercise!

Cookie and I had originally intended to make for Czechoslovakia – only some 65 kilometres to the south, but the snow and flooding rivers caused us to opt for a walk up the railway line towards Frankfurt-on-Oder and Berlin, with the purpose of catching a lift on a freight train – and an end objective of Stettin and Sweden.

Cookie Long was a nice man, quiet and gentle.  I have often since that time reflected on how little I knew about his background, his family and what he did before the war.  I suppose the main reasons that we teamed up for the escape was that we lived in the same room in Block #122 and that we got along well in an environment where, for example, someone who sucked at his teeth to dislodge food could engender hostile feelings – neither Cookie nor I sucked at our teeth!  Cookie was sallow-skinned, fleshy, hooked nosed, with brown eyes – I have wondered these many years whether the bastards that killed him thought that he “looked like a Jew” – and I, fair skinned and blue eyed, conformed with the master race concept – was it that or was it that he was the “reserve victim” to complete the even 50 murders decided upon – or a combination of the two –or what?

As dusk fell we pushed out of the young trees and headed along a path that ran beside the plantation to the north-northwest. It was not too long before we hit the railway line – and we walked along it – no snow on the sleepers and rail bed – to the northwest (towards Frankfurt).

As the sky began to lighten we saw a barn with no other buildings near it, and made for it, let ourselves in, noting a loft full of hay.  We climbed up and took off our outer clothing, boots and socks to dry them out, covered ourselves with hay and we were soon asleep.  During the day someone came into the barn, seemingly to look for something below – otherwise we were not disturbed.  We ate some dry porridge, some D-bar (chocolate) and some raisins – much the same as the previous day.

Fifty years on, memory is an unreliable thing and for the life of me I cannot remember all that we carried with us or how we carried it.  I know that we each had a map and a compass and some money.  Some spare socks are all I can remember as to clothing beyond what I wore – I am sure I had more.  Our food was comprised of dry porridge and raisins, chocolate, instant coffee mixed with sugar and dried milk – and some escape bars – these latter were concocted and made up by Bob Herrick (i/c kitchen) and were said to provide us with energy and sustenance – they were rather stodgy and rich and needed water to wash them down.

Since leaving the tunnel area, the temperature had gone up and much of the snow had melted – the ground outside looked and was very soggy.  However, warm and dry, we decided to return to the railway track and move on up it, hoping to pick up a slow freight train – we had seen three or four freight trains from the barn during the day, though none of them slow enough to jump aboard.  Walking along the track after dark we had to crouch down in bushes (wet) beside the track, a couple of times, to watch trains go by us in the right direction but too fast.

An hour or so after we had arrived at the track we got to what was obviously, from its lights, a small town (we discovered its name was Benau) with a signal box and lighted railway yard immediately ahead of us.  The town seemed to lie mostly to the north of the railway but other buildings (including a railway station) lay ahead of us.  South of the track appeared to be farm land – so we decided to strike out across this land to walk around the town area and get back to the tracks on the other side of the town.  Almost immediately we found ourselves in ploughed fields – all heavy, soggy mud.  Each foot step required effort and we were getting nowhere fast.  We were also getting very, very wet and dirty.

Some while later we recognised that we were achieving nothing accept the prospect of a soaked fatigue by daylight with shelter possibilities unknown.  Retracing, muddy step by muddy step, our way back down the railway track as dawn broke we saw ‘our barn’ again.  It was not long before we were back in the loft drying out.  Throughout the day we observed little movement near the barn but thought we could see enough unploughed field in the general direction we wished to go that should allow us to get around Benau and back to the railway line.  So, at dusk, we left the barn.

That night turned into a virtual repetition of the night before – and dawn saw us back where we started – wet and miserable and now convinced that we must break our rule and walk, for this occasion at any rate, by daylight.

At midday (lunch time for the goons, was our rationale) on 28th March, therefore, we left our shelter and struck out into some woods to the west of us.  These woods on a ridge running north took us safely around Benau leaving us half a mile or so of cart path down across fields back to the railway line.  There was no sign of life so we set off down the path for a couple of hundred yards when a shout rang out behind us from the edge of the woods we’d just left – “halt!”  We looked round to see two Feldpolizei pointing rifles and advancing towards us.  Apart from keeping their rifles pointed at us they were not particularly hostile, but firmly steered us on down the path across the railway line and into Benau.  At that moment, a freight train steamed slowly past us.  It was not our day.

We were put in the one cell of the local jail – white-washed stone and wattle walls, bars on the window and on the small grille in the heavy wooden door, and dry straw on a wooden pallet.  There we were left (looked at through the grille on a couple of times – as curiosities) until about 2.30 pm when the door was thrown open and in came three armed policemen.  They searched us and bundled us out (“Aus! Aus! Aus”) into a car and off to the Kriminal Polizei headquarters in Sorau (Zary).  After a brief rather unfriendly interrogation we were put into the Civil Prison, in a large cage, amongst many, in a big hall; and there we lay wondering what we were doing in such a place.

That evening another armed police guard took us by car to the Civil Jail in Sagan, where we were stripped and searched again and, again, interrogated briefly – then put into a large cell with about a dozen fellow escapees – who had arrived there anywhere from a day or so to a few hours before us.  Our assumption was that our next move would be to the solitary confinement cells of Stalag Luft III (only a mile away).  On the 29th March, in the evening, more armed guards appeared in force and we were all put into two trucks escorted by two (or three) more trucks containing most of the armed guards and driven through the darkness some 50 kilometres south to Gorlitz – into a large courtyard of what turned out to be the Gestapo jail – and marched down into a semi-basement, along a cell-lined corridor, and into cells (four or six of us to a cell).  Greetings and questions shouted from other cells made us aware that many other escapers were already here.  The cells had walls about 4 feet thick with small barred windows set up at the outside top of a sloping embrasure.  Across the floor was a wooden pallet on which we slept in a row.  Our boots  had been removed on arrival.

The next morning a couple of my cell mates were taken out at separate times for interrogation, to be replaced by two other escapees.  Later on that day, three cars arrived in the courtyard – I had pulled myself up to the window and saw this – cell doors opened and closed and out in the courtyard six escapees were bundled into the cars with a mixture of armed men and civilians – and the vehicles left – driving Casey [Flight Lieutenant M.J. Casey, RAF], Cross [Squadron Leader I.K.P. Cross, DFC, RAF], Hake [Flight Lieutenant A.H. Hake, Royal Australian Air Force], Leigh [Flight Lieutenant T.B. Leigh, RAF], Pohe [Flight Officer P.P.J. Pohe, Royal New Zealand Air Force] and Wiley [Flight Lieutenant G.W. Wiley, Royal Canadian Air Force] out to be shot down near Halbau on the Sagan road.

The next day, the 31st March the same thing happened – cars and trucks with armed men and civilians took away to their deaths on the same Sagan road, Birkland [Flight Lieutenant H. Birkland, Royal Canadian Air Force], Evans [Flight Lieutenant B.H. Evans, RAF], Hall [Flight Lieutenant C.P. Hall, RAF], Humphreys [Flight Lieutenant E.S. Humphreys, RAF], Kolanowski [Flight Officer W. Kolanowski, Polish Air Force], Langford [Flight Officer P.W. Langford, Royal Canadian Air Force], McGill [Flight Lieutenant G.E. McGill, Royal Canadian Air Force], Stewart [Flight Officer R.C. Stewart, RAF], Swain [Flight Lieutenant C.D. Swain, RAF], Valenta [Flight Lieutenant A. Valenta, Czech Air Force, RAF].  At the time I thought how lucky these sixteen were going back assumedly to Stalag Luft III.  Early the next day, Ogilvie, McDonald, Thompson and Royle were taken away – as it transpired, to be escorted, by train back to Sagan and Stalag Luft III.

During this period, interrogation had been taking place and escapees were being changed around in their cells – changing inmates with reports of their interrogation – some worried, some frightened by the threats made, but nothing known.  At this point, I had seen or heard the voices of all the thirty-four other Gorlitz prisoners – many by shouted exchanges from cell to corridor or in the corridor itself.  Our food had been watery soups and black bread and not much of either.  We had been allowed no exercise save that of visiting the bucket or our interrogators.  Our jailers were a uniformed man and a boy – a young Polish Jew (he might have suffered more than any of us).

It was on the 2nd April (or maybe the 3rd) that I was given my boots and marched across town to the Kriminal Polizei headquarters – up two floors to a room containing two men (one uniformed, I think) and a woman.  Here I was interrogated – asked why had I escaped, what sabotage had I been instructed to engage in, what was the escape organization and, details of the tunnel, where was I going, etc.  The harsh penalties associated with being a civilian engaged in sabotage were threatened.  My responses were “name, rank and number” and appealing to them to understand as officers the code of behaviour of an officer.  They started shouting more threats until I told them there was a lady in the room and one should not shout – and, funnily enough they stopped shouting.  I have always retained the feeling that the woman was more than a stenographer taking notes – though that was all she seemed to do.  I was taken back to the Gestapo jail – my interrogation must have lasted about 45 minutes – for another three days of waiting and speculating in the cells.

Early in the morning of 6th April, Gunn [Flight Lieutenant A.D.M. Gunn, RAF], Grisman [Flight Lieutenant W.J. Grisman, RAF], McGarr [2nd Lieutenant F.C.A.N. McGarr, South African Air Force], Milford [Flight Lieutenant H.J. Milford, RAF], Street [Flight Lieutenant D.O. Street, RAF] and Williams [Squadron Leader J.E. Williams, Australian Air Force, RAF] were taken away – I heard but did not see them go – to their deaths, at a place and date unknown.

Later that day, eight of us – Armstrong, Broderick, Cameron, Churchill, Marshall, Neilson, Shand and I were put in the back of a covered truck with three or four armed uniformed guards and driven back to Stalag Luft III and three weeks of solitary confinement (with included my 22nd birthday).  Cookie Long and I had been in the same cell until I went to interrogation. I heard but never saw him again and he was the only one of 35 ‘Great Escapees’ in Gorlitz to be kept behind – until 13th April – last seen by a Flight Lieutenant Ellis escaper, on the same day, from a near-by prison camp and sent to Gorlitz and eventually returned to his camp.  Cookie Long having been taken away presumably earlier that morning to his lonely death.

We, the 76 escapers, ranged in age from 21 to 50 plus and represented the following countries: the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Poland, France, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Belgium, Holland, Lithuania, Greece and Argentina.  Today, in an age when the mere fact of being in a theatre of hostility generates the media’s definition of ‘hero’, I can still only think of the Great Escape as an event in which men did their duty.  That, I think, is sufficient, and if others will think of all of us, those who were murdered and those who survived, in such a manner, I believe we would all be content.

Tony Bethell wrote this account for inclusion in ‘A Glimpse at Stalag Luft III (north compound)’, 1995.

See also:
Sherborne School and the Second World War 1938-1945

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