On the night of March 24, 1944, 80 Commonwealth airmen crawled through a 400-foot-long tunnel, code-named “Harry,” and slipped beyond the wire of Stalag Luft III, a German prisoner-of-war compound near Sagan, Poland. The iconic Second World War event became known as “The Great Escape.” The breakout involved about 2,000 POWs, (“Kriegsgefangenen” in German, kriegies for short). But most don’t realize that The Great Escape was in many ways “made-in-Canada.” In this edited excerpt from his new book, The Great Escape: A Canadian Story, author and Centennial College professor Ted Barris illustrates how Canadians contributed to this famous piece of history.
Mid-upper gunner Albert Wallace arrived at the North Compound of Stalag Luft III mid-way through 1943. At 22, Wallace had enlisted in the RCAF, graduated as a gunner, become a pilot officer and completed 15 bombing operations with 419 Squadron in Bomber Command when he was shot down over Duisberg, Germany. But if he thought it was lonely spending the night in the mid-upper gun turret of a Halifax bomber on operations, Wallace discovered his life in the very room that housed the trapdoor to “Harry” was even worse.
“I had no idea it was the tunnel room [for ‘Harry,’]” he said. “I didn’t know for weeks that goddamn tunnel was seven feet from my bunk bed.”
Eventually, Wallace was transferred from the tunnel room in Hut 104. As winter approached he and his new roommates tried to keep warm behind the thin, poorly insulated, and under-heated barracks walls. Taking a page from the larger tunnelling efforts, Wallace and several of his roommates began a nightly ritual – sneaking out of their hut, breaking into the German kitchen facility inside the compound and filling their kitbags with coal briquettes.
“We had so much coal in our room, but there was nowhere to hide it,” Wallace said. “We put it under our bunks. We put it in our Red Cross boxes to hide it. We’d be in our shirt sleeves, hotter than hell, and guys would come in muffed up to their necks with tuques on and we’d say, ‘Oh, it’s our new chimney.’”
The supply of extra briquettes dried up when the Germans noticed the depletion at the kitchen and padlocked the coal bin. Wallace would soon find himself busy at another wintertime activity, in the ranks of the “penguins,” the sand-dispersal team. The greatest barrier to any progress tunnelling was getting rid of the sand with snow all over the compound. Then the kriegies hit on an idea. They explored the space between the raked floor and the earthen foundation of the North Compound theatre. There they found enough space to handle as much sand as Tunnel “Harry” could deliver.
Under cover of darkness, a steady line of sand dispersal men began moving between “Harry” and the theatre. When a penguin arrived at the mouth of the trapdoor in Hut 104, the trap man laid a kitbag or trouser pouches full of sand over his shoulder and when the security boss told him the way was clear, the penguin carried his load out of Hut 104 to the theatre.
Since Canadian pilot Tony Pengelly was stage manager for the kriegie productions, the Germans weren’t suspicious of his late evening presence at the theatre. Pengelly worked with the stage carpenters to install a small trapdoor in the floor under a seat in the back row.
“I remember going into the theatre one night with my [concealed trouser] bags full of sand,” Al Wallace said. “I was told where to sit because that’s where the trapdoor was. I sat in seat number 13, pulled my little tickies [strings] and out went the sand.”
Then, beneath the floorboards of the theatre, six dispersal men worked feverishly moving the sand to the far reaches of the theatre’s crawl space. When each penguin unloaded his kitbag or trouser bag through the trapdoor, the theatre crew tamped the sand up tight to the floor between the joists and against the walls. No space was left empty.
“One day, we estimated we got rid of a total of 12 tons of sand,” Pengelly said.
1: This photo is of the seating inside the theatre. Seat 13 had a lift-up seat and a trapdoor beneath it through which the tunnellers disposed of tons of excavated sand.
2: Dust Jacket of Ted Barris’ book, The Great Escape: A Canadian Story
3: Cross-section of Tunnel Harry
4: On the right is a sketch of the North Compound theatre by RAF POW Ley Kenyon.
Left: Canadian RAF pilot Tony Pengelly
Right: Canadian RCAF air gunner Albert Wallace