Friday, 15 February 2013

What Went Wrong in the Tunnel

Exit Tunnel 'Harry' -

'Harry' -

The set of Sagan 111 as portrayed in 'The Great Escape' - United Artists

‘Big X’ Roger Bushell planned to get 220 men out of Sagan 111 via the escape tunnel during the night of 24/25 March 1944. With the exit calculated to come up just inside the wood and out of sight of camp sentries, men needed to climb out and leave at no longer than two and a half minute intervals. With prisoner appell at 9.00 am the following morning, it was essential to minimise risk of discovery until then, giving the escapers maximum time to get clear before searches began.

Despite a meticulously planned operation, unexpected delays occurred. 76 men managed to escape before the tunnel was discovered. This was an amazing achievement, but more could have got out. So what went wrong?

1) Final preparations to the tunnel were made during the day and after the five o’clock appell. It was ready at 20.45, 15 minutes later than scheduled.

2) Getting the first 17 men into position along the tunnel took longer than anticipated. Once down the entry shaft, travel involved lying on the stomach on a trolley positioned on wooden rails and being pulled along the tunnel by rope. There were two ‘half way’ houses (Piccadilly and Leicester Square ) where changing to another trolley was necessary to negotiate another stretch.

3) It was 21.30 when Bushell, positioned near the exit shaft gave the order for Johnny Bull to remove the roof boards that had been put in to shore up the last foot of soil. They were wet from the build-up of early winter rain and melting snow and had expanded. Valuable time was spent trying to loosen them. The tunnel should have opened at 21.00 hours and it was 22.00 when they began to loosen.

4) At around 22.10 Bull poked his head out of the hole he had made and looked around. The exit should have been a few yards into the woods near the camp – it was out in the open, at least ten feet short of the line of trees and only fifteen feet from a sentry tower. Fortunately the guard had his back turned, sweeping his searchlight beam across the camp. The surveyors had underestimated the distance to the trees, which now invalidated the planned method of departure.

Bull was supposed to lie outside the hole in the trees to control the first people out. They were to climb up the ladder and stop just below the top so he could feel their head in the darkness. He would give them a gentle tap when it was all clear and they would be up and running.  This would lead to certain discovery.          

5) A decision was made to continue with the escape. Over 600 men had worked for a year towards it, the Germans were close to discovering the tunnel and the escaper’s travel papers were dated for the day. More time slipped past. An alternative system for departure had to be worked out, as despite the darkness, anyone lying on the snow outside the hole would be spotted by the sentries patrolling the perimeter fence. A decision was made to attach a rope on the top rung of the ladder in the exit shaft and then the first man to climb out would trail the rope across the snow to a ‘ferret hide’ that had been set up by the Germans so they could spy on the POWs from outside the camp. This ‘hide’ was a few feet outside of the trees.

The second man would then take the other end of the rope and tie it to a tree trunk about sixty feet inside the woods. This would act as the rendezvous tree for escapers to be led out of the woods in a party before splitting up. The first man would act as controller from behind the hide, and when it was all clear, he would give two tugs on the rope and the next escaper would exit and crawl through the snow, following the rope past the controller into the woods. Each controller would get twenty men out before being relieved to make his own escape. This process would be infinitely slower and also spasmodic because of sentries patrolling the perimeter fence. The controller (first one was Johnny Bull) had to wait for both sentries to be out of sight before pulling on the rope.

6) Only six people were called in the first hour and further delays occurred in the tunnel with escapers having difficulties with carrying their attaché/ suitcases on the trolleys.  Most of the train travellers carried these made from cardboard or plywood and rubbed with boot polish. Some dropped them in transit down the tunnel or they became wedged against shoring frames. Trying to hold the cases out in front as they were pulled down the tunnel caused a few men to overbalance and derail the trolley. Because of the lack of space, it was impossible for the traveller to put the trolley back on the rails again. The man hauling them up with the rope had to crawl back, get the man on the trolley to take the weight on his hands and toes, while he put the trolley back on the rails. He then returned to the original hauling point before the journey could recommence.

7) Just after midnight, the air raid sirens sounded and the tunnel was plunged into darkness as power to the camp was switched off. The RAF were bombing Berlin. Fat lamps which had been used before the escapers had managed to tap into the camp’s power supply had to be utilised. These were taken up the tunnel and positioned at strategic intervals. The escape operation began again. Another thirty five minutes had been lost, but there was a positive. Without any lights in the camp, and with all attention being focused on the huts and the wire, departures speeded up.

8) A tunnel fall occurred between Piccadily and Leicester Square when Tom Kirby-Green tried to lever himself up from a derailed trolley and caught a damaged box frame bringing three feet of sand down on him. He was pulled out, but the tunnel had to be cleared and repaired before anyone else could pass through. The surplus sand was spread gradually along towards Leicester Square. Another hour disappeared. The road was ready to go just as the all clear sounded outside and power was restored.   

9) At about two forty five the last of the suitcase carriers went through and the exits began to speed up with escapers carrying only a single blanket. It was rolled and tied tightly and slung on a string around their necks. Unfortunately some of the men had tied their blankets incorrectly and not how they had been shown, which meant the roll was too wide and kept jamming on the sides of the tunnel. Others had the string tied too loose resulting in the blankets dangling under the trolley and getting caught in the wheels.

10) Some escapers were too bulky as they had packed excessive spare kit and provisions around them, resulting in removal of some items before they would be admitted to the tunnel.  

11) Another roof fall occurred causing a further half hours delay and a rope used to haul one of the trolleys broke losing further time whilst a replacement was fitted. In the end a decision was made for those travelling on foot to go without their blankets in order to speed up the operation. Their chances were slim in the snow, even though a slow thaw had started.

12) Twenty more minutes were lost with another cave in, but by four o’clock sixty men had got out. At this time the camp guards started to change shifts causing a further twenty minute delay before the departures began again. Two sentries came very close to the hole and failed to spot the trail of slush towards the trees. These close calls meant no exits were possible during that time.

13) Around 04.55 hours, the first hints of daylight were showing. A decision was made in the tunnel to get three more men out then shut down. In the ‘ferret hide’ outside the woods Roy Langlois had pulled on the rope again and signalled out number 79 Len Trent.  Lawrence Reavell Carter had already passed the controller and reached the woods. He was to lead the party of ten out from the rendezvous tree deep in the woods.

Canadian Keith Ogilvie had just crawled past Lang ready to make the last few yards towards the trees, with New Zealand Spitfire pilot Mick Shand a few feet behind, when the sentry who had been patrolling the east side along the wire came into view again. This time he was walking on the near side of the road along the edge of the wood straight for the hole. It was amazing that he failed to see the rising steam hitting the cold air and the trail of slush across the snow where the escapers had crawled to the wood. Langois had already tugged sharply on the rope making Trent and Shand freeze on the ground where they lay. The sentry got to a foot from the hole before he spotted the tunnel exit. He was about to shoot at Shand lying on the ground when Reavell Carter jumped into sight by the trees waving his arms ‘ Nicht schiessen Posten. Nicht schiessen.’ (Don’t shoot sentry. Don’t shoot). The bullet fired into the air. In the confusion, Shand and Ogilvie made a run for it into the woods. The sentry blew his whistle and the game was up at shortly after 05.00 hours.

THe Great Escape - Paul Brickhill
The National Archives

©Keith Morley
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  1. The months of work that went into this operation are unbelievable. As you say amazing how many got away.

  2. Another gripping post by Keith. So many things went wrong but still many men escaped-so tragic that the majority were machine gunned down to 'make an example' of them to other potential escapees. The major mistake I feel was the fact that the distance to the woods was miscalculated and came up short. This caused the ultimate catastrophic discovery and subsequent manhunt. But as we know three did get away. Look forward to the next installment......
    What ingenious men however, 'by their fruits ye shall know them.....'