Club members David Jordan and Robin Stafford take a late summer trip to Poland to visit the scene of one of WW II’s most courageous and ultimately tragic POW escapes.
Most of us know the Hollywood version of the mass break-out from Stalag Luft III, after all we’ve watched The Great Escape almost every Christmas for most of our lives. But although the 1963 film made compulsive viewing, the real story was a little different. For a start, no Americans took part in the escape and there were certainly no Triumph motorcycles around for Steve McQueen to jump the barbed-wire fence on. What is true however is that of the 76 men who escaped on that freezing night of 24 March 1944, only three made it back to England and on Hitler’s orders 50 of those recaptured were shot in the head by the Gestapo and their ashes returned to the camp to deter others. A sobering thought.
It’s 550 miles from the Hook of Holland to the Polish border and another 50 or so to the town of Zagan where the remains of Stalag Luft III are located. We decided to take it easy on the outward leg, taking three days to allow time to visit the Mohne dam (of Dambusters fame) and Colditz Castle. My F700GS and Robin’s ’93 R100R had run perfectly during our journey from Northamptonshire, despite two days of heavy rain and walls of spray thrown up by speeding cars and trucks on the German autobhans.
Before leaving we’d been warned that the Polish roads were terrible and that the police delighted in frog-marching motorcyclists to the nearest ATM for the most trivial traffic offence. First rule of motorcycle travel: never believe what people tell you! As we approached the border at Gorlitz I checked GS’s mirror to make sure Robin’s headlight was still behind me, mentally preparing to be interrogated by the fearsome border police. What a surprise. We passed the blue EU Polska sign on the autobhan and crossed into Poland at 75 miles an hour without so much as a glance from the two cops busy drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes outside the now abandoned border post. How things have changed.
It took less than an hour to reach Zagan on the super-smooth empty motorway and we headed for the nearest bank to get some Zlotys to pay for a traditional Polish lunch (Pizza) and fill up with petrol for around £1.00 a litre.
The old camp is about half a mile south of the town centre. Take the road past the big Tesco store (yes there really is one) and look out for the Stalag Luft III signs on the left. There are three main sites to visit, the first is the cemetery where the remains of the 50 officers shot by the Gestapo were buried. The second is the camp itself and the third the museum where you can see artefacts from the camp and explore a full-size replica of Hut 104 where ‘Harry’, the escape tunnel, began.
The unmade road to the camp is unchanged since the war and the loose uneven surface needs care to negotiate. After about half a mile on the right there’s a reconstructed wooden lookout tower and on the left a memorial marking the exit to Harry, which to the dismay of the escapees emerged a few meters short of the tree-line in full view of the Goons.* The route of the tunnel has been marked on the surface and can be seen stretching 102 meters to the foundations of Hut 104. Unlike most historic sites there are no restrictions for visitors and we were able to wonder around freely, trying to imagine how the camp would have looked back in 1944. The concrete floors of the punishment cells (coolers) where prisoners were put in solitary for misdemeanours are clearly visible. Men would often spend weeks in there on reduced rations, probably dreaming of home and wondering when the war would end.
Opposite the cells are the remains of the hospital building with slimy overgrown steps leading down to the open door of the cellar. We couldn’t resist the temptation to look inside. At first there was nothing to see, only blackness and the smell of decay. As our eyes adjusted a long corridor emerged from the gloom and we ventured further inside. Dark rooms, probably used for storing medicines and equipment and now dripping with water, lined the passageway … spooky! We’d seen enough, and with a shiver rippling down our spines we scampered back up the steps into the warm summer sunshine.
It was time to head for home. We’d already covered over 800 miles and needed to be back at the Hook to board the Stena Hollandica in a little over two days’ time. It had been a great trip and a great escape (sorry) from the routine of everyday life. However, seeing Stalag Lufft III and the other sites we visited at first hand brings home the reality of war and the evil it breeds in otherwise civilised people. Sadly, it seems we never learn.
*The POWs mockingly called the German guards ‘Goons’ who apparently willingly accepted the nickname after being told it stood for "German Officer Or Non-Com".
Harry was one of three tunnels dug by the escapees. The others, Tom and Dick were discovered by the Germans and destroyed. It is thought that around 200 tunnels were dug by POWs during the life of the camp.
The Triumph TR6 Trophy ridden by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape is now on display at the Triumph visitor centre in Hinkley Leicestershire.