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The Great Escape

Heroes Remember

One of the things that happened was that, that day there was a horrendous snow storm. It seemed to be almost as bad as the one we've just had. And that looked bad because most of the escapees were going to travel hard-assed, as we called it. That is to say, they were going to walk and try and eventually get to France and contact the underground or some other way of getting back to Britain. Others had minute details of train schedules, and they had their forged papers to prove that they were foreign workers who were being moved to another factory, or whatever. And so, eventually, the tunnel didn't seem to be functioning too well, because there was an air-raid on Berlin that night and the power was cut off, so all that lighting system we had in the tunnel was no use. Instead, they had to use fat lamps. They had to have some illumination, and that fouled the air so much. Some of them who were travelling cross-country realized that it was going to be deathly cold, and so they wrapped blankets, an extra blanket around themselves and got stuck in the tunnel and it took in some cases, a couple of hours to try and extricate somebody. And, so, at the end of it, about 4:30 in the morning, suddenly we heard a, a rifle shot and we realized that the alarm had gone up. And what had happened was the 78th prisoner was up at the face of the tunnel, ready to climb out, when a German guard who was supposed to be walking the fence, apparently must have been a shy man because instead of taking a pee along beside the fence, he walked over towards the wood, and suddenly a head popped up between his legs. So, in consternation, he fired his rifle, and that was the end. And, so, immediately, the Germans rushed into the camp. The 78th person, who was still not out of the tunnel, realized that the alarm had gone up, and so he raced back through the tunnel as quickly as he could, trying to pull some of the bed boards down and get a, a fall-in, so the Germans wouldn't be able to crawl through. He wasn't successful, but he eventually came back into the Hut 104 to discover that all of the would-be escapees who were still there, were busy stuffing themselves with their carefully rationed foods, their rations for escaping and were also destroying their documents. And then the Germans came in quite quickly, and there was a very tense moment when it looked as though they would start shooting rather erratically. But then they moved in with machine guns, and we were all taken out onto the parade grounds and were held there under machine gun surveillance for, I think, it must have been six to eight hours in the bitter cold. And they tried to find out how many had got out, and they counted and they recounted and they recounted and, eventually, they decided that it was pretty close to 80. In fact, it was 76 that actually got out and of the 76, three actually got back to Britain within a very short period of time. Two of them managed to get a train direct to Stettin and then got aboard a Swedish vessel, and they were in London within a few days. So, that was a terrific boost to us. The sad part of it was that the Germans, the Luftwaffe, were replaced by the SS as our guards and that meant that things were really very tight. They took away all the privileges of the camp itself and several weeks later, the senior British officer was told that he had to have a meeting with the commandant. The commandant said, "I have some bad news. A number of your colleagues have tried to re-escape and were shot." And the senior officer said, "Were shot? How many were actually killed?" And they said, "They were all killed." And, so, they realized that it was not a shooting, it was an execution. And this was reinforced about another two weeks later, when the Germans shipped in the ashes of the fifty officers which the Gestapo had executed.

Mr. McKiel describes the Great Escape, discovery of the deception, and the fate of recaptured escapees.

George McKiel

Mr. McKiel was born in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, on May 15, 1924. His mother was a war bride, and his family moved to Devon, England, when he was quite young. Mr. McKiel joined 405 Squadron, Bomber Command in 1943, and was shot down and captured shortly thereafter. He spent 2 years in a Polish prisoner of war (POW) Camp, Stalag Luft 3, where he helped 76 officers escape in the Great Escape. After his liberation, Mr. McKiel returned to Canada and eventually earned a PhD in Cancer Research. These credentials have allowed him to consult on Nursing issues as far away as Australia. Having recently returned to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Mr. McKiel is already involved with seniors' health programs in his community.

Meta Data
Veterans Affairs Canada
Person Interviewed:
George McKiel
War, Conflict or Mission:
Second World War
Bomber Command
Air Force
405 Squadron
Flying Officer
Air Bomber

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