The Great Escape (2): Poznan and Zagan, Legacy and Family
29 Mar 2019
Posted by: Sir Adrian Montague, Chairman Aviva Group
Anna Stone’s blog last week about the Great Escape mentioned that I would be attending the Commemoration on behalf of everyone at Aviva, and so I thought you would all like a report of the day’s proceedings.
Sunday morning in Poznan was a brilliant, sunny but chilly spring day. The cemetery is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and is in immaculate condition. The centrepiece is the monument to the collective grave of the majority of those killed by the Gestapo following the Great Escape.
Leslie Long is unusual in having an individual grave, which was a little apart from the monument. Adam Uszpolewicz and his wife had travelled from Warsaw to attend the Commemoration, on behalf of Aviva Poland and we all met Jean Palmer (Leslie Long’s niece) and her husband, John, who were particularly touched that we should have decided to honour Leslie’s memory in this way.
Sir Adrian Montague, Mr and Mrs Palmer, and Mr and Mrs Uszpolewicz at Poznan
The wreathes at the communal grave were magnificent, but the three wreathes decorating Leslie’s grave (from Jean and John, from Adam and from me) were very fine too. Leslie’s was the only individual grave to be recognised in this way.
Leslie Long's grave at Poznan
In a nice touch, local school children laid single roses on the individual gravestones of those, including Leslie, who were not buried in the communal grave. The ceremony itself was in both English and Polish, alternately: a quiet, dignified tribute to all those who died not just in the Great Escape, but more generally in the conflict as a whole.
Sir Adrian Montague with Leslie Long's niece, Jean Palmer
The Poznan ceremony was an intimate event with representatives of the allied armed forces and quite small numbers of families come to remember their forebears. The afternoon ceremony at Zagan (which is perhaps 150 kms from Poznan) was, by contrast, a much larger affair.
It took place in a pine forest on the site of Stalag Luft III itself, in the most evocative of surroundings, immediately adjacent to the tunnel. Here there was a much larger turnout, with many local residents from Zagan (perhaps 1,500 people in all).
Not only was the line of the tunnel clearly designated (Adam and I are standing, in the photograph, at the Tunnel exit), but there was also a reconstruction of the Watch Tower, very close by, from which the escape was detected.
Sir Adrian Montague and Adam Uszpolewicz at Zagan
We heard speeches from the UK Minister of War and the Chief of the Air Staff, and from their Polish counterparts, and also from a 97-year-old former prisoner at the camp who is, it must be said, wonderfully hale and hearty for his age.
It’s the sort of ceremony that the military do very well: some restrained pomp, a fly-past by the British and Polish Air Forces, speeches emphasising the historic connections between the UK and Poland, never more important than in the current troubled times, and a shared feeling of quiet determination that never again should we witness man’s inhumanity to man on the scale experienced during World War II.
After the ceremony concluded, the local Mayor hosted a reception for the main protagonists in the slightly austere surroundings of Zagan palace, which was so extensively damaged in local fighting in 1945 that it had to be extensively rebuilt.
Sir Adrian Montague at Zagan Palace
I was left with two dominant impressions of the day:
• Firstly, I was struck by how empty the countryside was both in eastern Germany and this part of Poland. Then I realised, of course, that the local population had suffered death, calamity and destruction beyond the scale of anything we can imagine in our comfortable 2019 surroundings. The actions of mankind can cast a long shadow; legacies can be terrible as well as positive. Taking the time to reflect in this way offered a sobering perspective, and a reminder of the importance of nurturing the ties that bind us all.
• Second, I was so pleased I had made the effort to attend. It’s not possible to recognise the contribution of every Aviva employee who fell in the two World Wars, but I felt that, in recognising Leslie Long, I was in a sense recognising the commitment, contribution and heroism of all those employees. And I felt it right and proper to do so.
We say, don’t we, that two of our values are “Care More” and “Create Legacy”. Leslie Long is part of our legacy: he was every bit as much a part of General Accident’s family in 1944 as you all are of Aviva’s today. Paying tribute to Leslie and his family on your behalf was not only the right thing to do. I felt I was at the same time acknowledging the enduring importance of family to Aviva now as well.
Programme for ceremony at Zagan
Information on the escape tunnel 'Harry'