Escape from Stalag Luft III.
Nostalgia WWII SPECIAL A FORMER Warwickshire headteacher this week returned to Poland to commemorate the 65th anniversary of one of the most remarkable prisoner escapes of WWII. Tom Wilson, now 88, was the RAF officer who played the violin in the legendary "Wooden Horse" break-out of Stalag Luft III. Tom, who later became head of Coleshill School, is just one of a handful of survivors. SALLY JONES tells his story
OCTOBER 1943: the strains of the violin drifted out into the compound where prisoners-of-war were performing their final vaults after a two-hour gymnastics session.
Four lifted the vaulting horse and, staggering under the weight, manhandled it back into the barber shop of the prison camp Stalag Luft III, leaving one British RAF officer outside near the perimeter fence.
He casually put on his cap; the violinist inside nodded briefly to the vaulters and within seconds they had lifted several floorboards and tipped up the horse.
A filthy naked man wriggled from beneath it, and through the gap, while the vaulters handed down sacks of sand to him from inside the horse.
The violinist, immediately launched into a medley of sea shanties, while the vaulters roared out the words.
What the German guards patrolling outside did not know was that the endless vaulting was merely a cover for the ingenious construction of a tunnel, dug out from beneath the horse and under the fence.
The choir practices in the barber shop were designed to conceal the sound of the tunneler dispersing the distinctive yellow sand unearthed from the tunnel, beneath the hut.
Within days, three men, including the tunneler Eric Williams had escaped along the narrow, airless passage and melted into the surrounding woodland, carrying civilian clothes and forged documents.
The Wooden Horse breakout was arguably the most successful escape of World War II.
This week the former RAF officer who played the violin and acted as "Dispersal Stooge", Tom Wilson returned with his son Peter, to Stalag Luft III.
He said: "We'll attend the unveiling of a memorial beside the entrance to the Great Escape tunnel, and visit the site of our own compound.
It's now under thick woodland and almost unrecognizable.
"There's nothing to show where the huts or the Wooden Horse tunnel were; the bed boards, used to shore up the sides and roof will have rotted away by now."
Tom, still spry and mentally sharp, though rather deaf, remains quietly proud of the dedication needed for the escape.
"I still remember the ingenuity everyone showed though; planning every aspect of the escape with great care, even making ink for the forged documents by condensing the black smoke from burning cooking fat," he said.
"We improvised tunnel lamps from can bases filled with cooking oil and used pyjama-cord as wicks while bed-boards and stolen planks were used to shore up the tunnel's sides and roof."
An evangelical Christian and former Sunday School teacher from Sutton Cold-field, Tom Wilson joined the RAF in 1941.
On May 26th 1943 his Wellington was shot down over the Hague and he was left unconscious and hanging over the side of a canal before being captured and taken to Stalag Luft III in Silesia, now part of Poland.
"The Entertainments Officer came to welcome us," he remembers "and said 'Gentlemen, my job is to keep 1500 officers here sane until the end of the war. If any of you can do anything at all in the enter tainments' field, it's your duty to help.' I signed up as a violinist in the prisoners' orchestra and bought a battered violin, which I then restored, crushing almonds to make oil to clean it."
Wilson also volunteered as a potential escaper and at first became a vaulter while Eric Williams and Mike Codner began tunneling operations from beneath the horse, excavating tons of sand over several months, which they stuffed into sacks sewn from cut-off trouser legs, before being lugged back into the barber's shop to unload it.
To give them enough time to complete the tunnel, the exhausted gymnasts often trained for up to four hours a day and Wilson only began playing his violin to cover the sound of the sand disposal after a bad fall following a headspring left him limping with a torn Achilles tendon.
"Although it was terrific that three men escaped successfully," admits Tom, "the main point was to keep the Germans on the look-out; the fact that the ferrets guards trained to detect tunnels were having to police us and scramble around under huts rather than fighting on the Eastern front meant that we were doing our job."
In April 29th 1945 the camp, by this time holding over 100,000 prisoners, was liberated by General Patten and
KICKER ... Tom Wilson, then and now, his Stalag Luft paper and the camp; CUNNING PLAN ... An artist's depiction of the escape