The Great Escape

October 11, 2009

Alan was transferred to Stalagluft 3 at the end of 1942, and spent three years as prisoner of war in the camp. This camp had been set up to specifically receive Officers and was run and managed by the Luftwaffe, who had a degree of “respect” for the officers it held.

Alan Birley BatemanUnlike many other POW camps, Stalagluft 3 was run with a degree of civility, with the prisoners allowed to amuse themselves with the organisation of sports teams,gardening, ¬†reading clubs, debating societies, and theatrical clubs, and many productions were put on in the “theatre” to keep the prisoners busy and amused. A “University behind bars” was created, with prisoners allowed to study, as Alan did, for his legal exams, with books and papers sent to him through the Red Cross. Whilst prisoner, Alan took his Law Intermediate exams, and subsequently qualified as a solicitor on his return to England. As can be read in Alan’s letters, films were sometimes shown, and a close and communal life and comradeship was forged among the detained prisoners.

I understand that all the above were encouraged to keep the prisoners engaged during their captivity, and their minds away from the task of escaping. However, Margaret informs me, that it was bred into every RAF officer from the start of their training, that it was their DUTY to try to escape from captivity, which explains the lengths the prisoners went to, to fulfill this end.

Alan was interred in hut 104, sharing the same hut as Roger Bushell (the mastermind of the Great Escape) and was a founder member of the North Compound. As well as creating tunnels, the prisoners were involved in many ingenious activities including the forging of official documents, the making of civilian clothes, the acquisition and storage of rations for those due to make the escape, and the research and creation of maps, essential for those who made it through the tunnels. Sharing hut 104, the nerve centre of these operations, Alan was involved in all aspects of the planning of the Great Escape.

In particular, I remember him telling me that on one occasion the plans for escape had been discovered by the “Goons” ( an affectionate term for the German guards) and that all rations that had been carefully acquired and stored by prisoners, for those due to escape to take with them, had to be eaten immediately! He told me of many occasions where “goons” had been offered chocolate or cigarettes as a friendly gesture by the prisoners, which had then “bought” the guard whom they could bribe for items they needed, as accepting gifts from prisoners could land the guard in deep trouble with his superiors.

Alan also took on the role of “penguin” in the construction of the tunnels, a role which involved him inserting a bag with drawstrings attached into each trouser leg, filled up with the excavations from the tunnels. He would then casually walk around the compound, gently releasing the drawstring and therefore allowing the contents of the bags to be scuffed into the dirt as he walked. This was important, as the soil colour from the tunnels was different from that in the compound, and would have drawn attention if it had been found.

I am proud of Alan and the activities he undertook whilst in Stalagluft 3. Many might have found the strain of finding themselves a captive POW enough on its own to cope with, but to study and pass legal exams, to be part of the Great Escape team and to live successfully in reduced circumstances as prisoner in a war that was far from its conclusion, with the many hardships that brings, and still appear in good spirits, is a tribute to Alan’s character and fortitude.

On the 24th March 1944, the “Great Escape” took place. Alan was not one of the first to enter the tunnel, as the agreement about who was to go first was made on the likelihood each individual had about his ability to reach England. As Alan had had a toe amputated, he was not given priority. However, after many, many men had entered the tunnel, Alan’s turn came, but as he was descending into the tunnel, the other end of it was discovered, and so he was quickly pulled out, and the entrance hidden again.

Maybe it was just as well, as the prisoners later found out that of their comrades that had escaped, 50 were captured, rounded up and shot on the orders of Hitler, as a deterrent to other would-be escapers.

I remember Alan telling me, that as a direct result of that action, a further tunnel was started in defiance of the killings, but that the camp was disbanded and the prisoners sent on the “Long March” before it could be completed.

True bravery and determination in the face of cruel adversary.

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