Sunday, 25 August 2013

Stalag Luft 111 - Senior Officer & 'X'

Stalag Luft 111 had close to the perfect template for an escape organisation in an Allied POW camp in Europe during WW2. (See flowchart in previous post)

Situated in Sagan Silesia, 100 miles south-east of Berlin, it was deep in occupied territory and was considered an ideal location to become the main POW camp for British and American Air Force officers. Contrary to the compact self-contained portrayal in The Great Escape film, it was in reality a very large camp. As the air war over Europe intensified, larger numbers of aircraft were shot down and the count of aircrew being taken prisoner crept up. In the early stages, Germany had not fully envisaged a concentrated Allied bombing strategy nor its consequences; hence the building and subsequent expansion of Stalag Luft 111.
Initially the camp had two compounds holding 2,500 officers, which expanded to six with 10,000 officers and their orderlies. At its peak, the total distance around the outer perimeter fence was alleged to be five miles and NCO’s were transferred into their own camp because of the increasing numbers of officers arriving.
Despite the huge numbers of POWs in Stalag Luft 111, it was well run by the prisoners within the confines placed upon them by their German captors and the escape organisation reflected this. One advantage of the size of the camp was in concealing activities in progress, especially forgery, carpentry and tailoring. Guards and German personnel in smaller camps were at such close quarters with their prisoners, that any clandestine work was difficult to undertake without discovery.
The Senior British or American Officer in the camp was the head of the prisoners and direct liaison with the Camp Commandant. The Senior Officer (SO) also had the final say on all escape attempts, as once a plan had been discussed at Escape Committee level (headed by ‘X’) it was ultimately decided by the SO. The SO could sometimes merely be a figurehead regarding escape matters, with the main work being handled by ‘X’ and his organisation. This was the largely the case at with Group Captain Herbert Massey who became SO at Stalag Luft 111.
It is important to remember that whilst virtually all POWs would be willing to assist with escape attempts in varying degrees, only around one third were seriously interested in breaking out themselves. One third of men simply preferred to sit out the war and finish their education, whilst others were happy to do nothing except read, exercise and sit around.

Squadron Leader Roger Bushell

Just after Squadron Leader Roger Bushell arrived at Stalag Luft 111 in October 1942, he took over the role of ‘X’. Wing Commander Harry Day of RAF 57 Squadron (k/a ‘Wings’ Day) the main lead behind escape operations and Lieutenant Commander Jimmy Buckley of the Fleet Air Arm had been transferred with other prisoners to another camp at Schubin in Poland due to overcrowding soon after Bushell arrived.  It was no surprise Buckley and Day had been selected; both having previously escaped from secure locations on a number of occasions. They were also good proactive organisers and already had operations at Sagan 111 in full swing.  Buckley had the role of ‘X’ (the term was used to help security and provide anonymity from the Germans) and both men left a solid escape structure in place when they moved on.

Wing Commander Harry 'Wings' Day - IWM
Believed to be Group Captain Herbert Massey
 at Stalag Luft 111 in 1943 - pt of orig photo-
Graham Brett
Group Captain Herbert Massey, an injured veteran from both World Wars had already arrived and assumed the role of Camp SO before Day and the others departed. He was the highest ranking officer, but had taken a step back, allowing Day’s escape operation work to continue much as before. Massey became more of a figurehead on escape matters, whilst still retaining the final word as SO. Camp Intelligence Officer and ‘X’ were the two heads below the SO. The whole escape organisation branched off them.

Next week:
Camp Intelligence
The Great Escape – Paul Brickhill

National Archives

MI9 Escape and Evasion 1939-1945 – M.R.D. Foot & J.M.Langley
©Keith Morley
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