The Great Escape

During my adolescence I spent many a happy Saturday afternoon in the Regent Cinema in Stanford-le-Hop, watching 1960’s ‘Classic’ war films (It’s probably a boy thing). This movie diet created an (admittedly less than perfect) cinematic understanding of what had happened during the war still fresh in the memories of our parents.

And there were some great titles around in the 60’s. My favourite was Zulu (I saw it 7 times!). But amongst the other 2nd World War classics were – The Dam Busters, 633 Squadron, The Great Escape and A Bridge Too Far.

The Rakotz Bridge in Kromlauer Park. near Bad Muskau

Leaving Berlin we headed south west to see a bridge close by the spa town Bad Muskau, well known for its Kromlauer park, which sits astride the Neisse River, and is half in Germany and half in Poland. The park is the largest and one of the most famous ‘English’ garden parks in Central Europe. The park’s eye catcher is the Rakotz Bridge, a folly built between 1863 and 1882. In the mirror of the water surface, it forms a full circle and is thus probably the most famous photo from the park.

Cycling through the park with nature’s dazzling display of autumn colours was just delightful.

The 750 hectare park was created in the first half of the 19th century by the garden-mad Prince Hermann of Pückler-Muskau. The prince had studied gardening in England and spent his entire inheritance and that of his soon to be ex-wife developing his own garden dreamland.

Given the limited photo editing capabilities of the iPhone, It would have been going ‘too far’ to expect to get an image of the Devil’s (Rakotz) Bridge as good as this one below I assume taken at a similar the time of year.

So we weren’t expecting this…

The Rakotz Bridge undergoing essential maintenance – Didn’t they know we were coming!

The park is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so it seems dear Hermann has been vindicated not only for what he left behind, but what he contributed to the field of landscape architecture while he was alive. In any case, he and his ex-wife remained friends. The park has also lakes, an English cottage, a chapel, a Medieval fortress and several elegant bridges and can be explored on foot, by bike, or by boat.

On route we stopped in the attractive town of Lübbenau to pick up bakery supplies and to check out these sculptures in the cobbled town square.
A distinctive former East German ‘barber pole’ border marker. The spike on the top is to deter birds from perching on it.

Charlie II’s parking space in Bad Muskau last night was shared with 3 other motorhomes. The reasonable €10.50 (including tourist tax) overnight payment was collected by Mike the helpful park keeper cum part-time DJ…? who gave us maps and encouraged us to go and explore the Geopark just over the border in Poland.

Lesley crossing the wooden boarded old railway bridge

So before we set off the next day it was out with the bikes again for a quick whizz into Poland. With aid of Mike’s map, the route was easy to follow initially crossing the old railway bridge over the river Neisse (no monsters here) and via the (Boris take note) borderless, border into Poland.

A more humane Polish border marker pole – lacking the bird skewering spike!

Moving away from the river the path skirted the small border town of Łęknica. As we rode through we both simultaneously commented how ‘Scruffy’ it felt especially compared with its well-groomed German neighbour.

We’d passed a busy, large tobacco kiosk selling (TAX Free?) cigarettes by the case. Many of the rear gardens were unkempt, small grubby vegetable plots or just neglected overgrown and unloved yards. We cycled by doggy compounds guarded by mad barking dogs and young men in hoodies fixing up old cars amongst crumbling brick-built ruins overrun with weeds.

Eventually the scruffiness melted as we entered the Geopark. Even though us humans have exploited every last inch of this place (leaving the damage for everyone to see (eg collapsed mines). The numerous lakes created by this activity painted an appealing natural picture. Cycling along the well-maintained route you saw a variety of mini-lakes in full rainbow colours of greens, reds, browns and yellows. Some quite different from their neighbour.

The variety of these colours is as a result of the natural occurring materials exposed and exploited by man. Brown coal (lignite) was extracted both in deep mines and open pits.  In the 19th century, there were about 60 mines, each having several extraction pits. The open pits left about 400 lakes spread all over the region over a surface of some 280 square kilometres.

The commercial use of these geological features, coal, chemicals and other useful products from the earth, has resulted in this post-mining landscape mix, of nature and man’s footprint. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

There’re some breathtaking (literally) views from the top of this viewing platform

Compared with the surrounding villages there appears to have been considerable effort to make the most of the Geopark which I assume attracts many visitors at other times of the year. So we were pleased to have it virtually to ourselves.

As we were so close we thought we would pop into Poland to Żagań, and visit the site of Stalag Luft III, the prisoner of war camp that inspired the film The Great Escape. Made in 1963 it is based on the true story, of the POW’s who dug three tunnels in an audacious plan for 200 captured allied airmen to escape from this infamous camp.

The film was a classic and I‘ve lost count of number of times I’ve seen it, each time hoping Steve McQueen will, make it over that second barbed wire fence to Switzerland….

The Great Escape museum is a pleasant enough experience but makes little of the association with the film. Although it does explain some of the history of the place via a series of photos, copies of documents, models, personal items loaned by relatives and items excavated from the site of the camp 1 km away, I’m not sure it conveys what these men went through as powerfully as the (semi-factual) film manages to do.

3 tunnels were dug Tom, Dick and Harry. Harry was the tunnel where the bold escape plan was carried out.

Tom began in a darkened corner next to a stove chimney in hut 123 and extended west into the forest. It was found by the Germans and dynamited.

Dick’s entrance was hidden in a drain sump in the washroom of hut 122 and had the most secure trap door. It was to go in the same direction as Tom and the prisoners decided that the hut would not be a suspected tunnel site as it was further from the wire than the others. Dick was abandoned for escape purposes because the area where it would have surfaced was cleared for camp expansion. Dick was used to store soil and supplies and as a workshop.

James Garner & Steve McQueen played characters introduced for the US audiences

The entrance to Harry was in the sleeping part of hut 104 under an iron stove. The work started on 11th of April 1943 and it was planned that it would lead towards the north. It was Harry that was actually used for the escape on the night of the 24th/25th of March 1944.

The tunnel was 111 m long and about 10 m below the ground. At the bottom of the shaft there was a room with an air pump, excavated sand storage and a carpenter workshop.

Along the tunnel there were also two wider chambers, so called halfway stations named after London tube stations (Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square).

The tunnel had electric lighting and its walls were covered with 2,000 bed boards and 45 bunkbeds. A total of 132 tons of sand was dog out, the 12 tons of which were carried to the tunnel ‘Dick’. 80 tons were spread under the theatre seats and 40 tons with disposed of by ‘penguins’ a special group of prisoners carrying the sand in long sacks hidden in their trousers and spreading the sand all over the camp grounds.

The escape was set for Friday, March 24, a moonless evening. On the night, freezing temperatures had hardened the ground. It took more than an hour to open the exit shaft, only to reveal a near-catastrophe: Harry fell a good 20ft short of the forest. The first man in fact emerged just short of the tree line, close to a guard tower meaning escapees had to risk crawling across open, snow-covered ground to the trees.

Plans for one man to leave every minute was reduced to 10 per hour. By four in the morning, it was decided the 87th man in the tunnel would be the last to go. Above ground, meanwhile, a sentry patrolling the perimeter approached the edge of the woods to relieve himself, only to notice steam rising from the ground.

As he approached, three escapees broke cover with their arms raised high. Startled, the guard fired a single shot into the air. Armed guards swarmed the compound and eventually a roll call was taken. The numbers tallied were startling. Seventy-six men had escaped.

Of the escapees, 3 made it to safety, 73 were captured, tragically Hitler personally ordered 50 of the officers to be murdered, the other 23 were sent to various other POW camps including Colditz.

The Stalag Luff III camp was massive holding more than 10,000 POW’s. In the film it tells how 600 men were involved in the escape planning, tunnelling and creating clothing, false papers and creating all the supporting equipment and deceptions etc.

In the final months of the war ending the remaining POWs of Stalag Luff III were faced with a winter force-march from the camp, ahead of the advancing Soviet troops and eventual liberation.

http://www.214squadron.org.uk/Graphics/The_March_British_POWs_1945.jpg

Just before midnight on 27 January 1945, with Soviet troops only 16 miles away, the remaining 11,000 prisoners were force marched out of camp. In freezing temperatures and 6 inches of snow and marched 34 miles to Bad Muskau where they rested for 30 hours, before marching the remaining 16 miles to their eventual destination of Spremberg…..

Toodle Pip

Dave & Lesley

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