The Great Escape
22 Mar 2019
Posted by: Anna Stone
Subjects: Second World War
This Sunday marks the 75th anniversary of a mass escape of prisoners of war from Stalag Luft III. The story of the escape was the basis for the 1963 film The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough, which was at one time staple family viewing at Christmas.
Although the real Great Escape was not entirely as portrayed in the film, it is certainly a story worth re-telling, and one of the central characters worked for a company which is now part of Aviva.
The first evidence I found of our link to the Great Escape was a paragraph in the General Accident Staff Magazine for November 1944:
“P/O J.L Long RAFVR was reported in our July 1942 issue as having been a prisoner of war since March 1941. We now regret to record that he was one of the Allied Officers so brutally shot by the Germans at Stalag Luft III last March.”
Here is his story.
James Leslie Robert Long was born on 19 February 1915 in Taunton Somerset, where his father, Cecil, owned a large grocery store. He attended Huish's Grammar School in Taunton and played football in the first XI. He also played cricket for the local YMCA and was a keen swimmer who won a swimming life-saving medal.
In 1934, after leaving school, he joined General Accident in the Taunton sub branch located at Bridge House and run by Mr Crocker. At work he was known by his middle name, Leslie. In 1937 he added his signature, along with his colleagues at the branch, to a book which was presented to General Accident’s General Manager Francis Norie-Miller to mark his 50th anniversary with the company.
JLR Long's signature in Norie-Miller anniversary book, 1937
Leslie passed his exams to be an Associate of the Chartered Insurance Institute in 1938 and in 1939 passed Part 1 of his Fellowship Examination. By the outbreak of war he was working as an inspector for the branch and was also a member of the Civil Air Guard. In April 1940 he joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and by October that year, according to a newsletter produced by Bristol branch, which controlled Taunton, he had completed his training at Torquay and had moved to the Midlands for an advanced course.
Leslie Long, c1940 courtesy of his family
On 03 March 1941 Leslie joined No. 9 Squadron RAF flying Vickers Wellington bombers. According to research provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, on 27 March 1941 Leslie set off from RAF Honington to attack a target at Cologne, Germany. During the raid, the bomber was hit by a Luftwaffe night fighter and they were forced to crash land in the Netherlands. The entire bomber crew survived and they were interned as prisoners of war. After interrogation, Leslie was sent to Stalag Luft I where he and his pilot, John Shore, became involved in attempts to tunnel out of the camp. Following one escape attempt Shore actually succeeded in making it back to England via Sweden.
Our next mention of Leslie in the company records comes from October 1941 and states that Pilot Officer 89375 JLR Long is now British Prisoner of War No. 522 at Stalag Luft II Germany. It was because of his persistent attempts to escape that Leslie was subsequently moved to Stalag Luft III in the Spring of 1942. He reportedly even tried to escape during the transfer between camps but was recaptured.
According to the website The Real Great Escape, Stalg Luft III, at what is now Zagan in Poland, had been specifically designed to prevent prisoners tunnelling out. The huts were positioned up off the ground so that any tunnels could be more easily spotted and the soil was very pale and sandy so that it was harder to tunnel through and more visible on prisoners’ clothes. Despite this, in 1943, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell made plans for a mass escape from the camp.
Bushell decided to build three tunnels simultaneously to increase the chance that at least one would go undetected. The tunnels were code-named ‘Tom’, ’Dick’ and ‘Harry’ and the ingenuity that went into their construction is impressive. Not only were they dug very deep, nearly 30 feet below the surface, but they had ventilation, lighting, and even a small rail car system so that the soil could be moved out more quickly.
Alfie Fripp, who was one of those held at Stalag Luft III, later recalled that lighting in the tunnels was initially supplied by candles which the prisoners made from the fat skimmed off the top of their soup. Eventually, a length of electric cable was stolen from contractors working at the camp and was hooked up to the camp’s electricity system so electric light was supplied to the tunnels.
The ventilation duct system was fashioned from empty cans of Klim powdered milk, and air pumps to push the fresh air through the ducts were designed by Squadron Leader Bob Nelson and made from articles including knapsacks, bed pieces and hockey sticks. The walls of the tunnels in the soft sandy soil were held up with wood scavenged from all over the camp, primarily the boards supporting the mattresses on the prisoners’ beds.
According to the Real Great Escape website, when the Germans took a camp inventory after the escape they found that the following had been ‘liberated’ to assist in the tunnelling operation: 4,000 bed boards; 90 double bunk beds; 635 mattresses; 192 bed covers; 161 pillow cases; 52 large tables; 10 single tables; 34 chairs; 76 benches; 1,212 bed bolsters; 1,370 beading battens; 1219 knives; 478 spoons; 582 forks; 69 lamps; 246 water cans; 30 shovels; 1,000 feet of electric wire; 600 feet of rope; 3,424 towels; 1,700 blankets and more than 1,400 Klim cans.
The site also describes some of the ways in which the resourceful prisoners dispersed the soil removed from the tunnels. Around 200 men were recruited for this task which involved concealing socks filled with the sand in their trousers and slowly distributing it on the ground while mixing it in with the surface soil. The men who undertook this role were nicknamed penguins because they often wore large coats to disguise the bulges made by the sand-filled socks.
When it became too dangerous to use this method to hide the evidence of the tunnelling, a decision was taken to use the displaced soil to fill up the tunnel code-named ‘Dick’ which had to be abandoned when an extension to the camp was built over its planned exit point. The prisoners also hid the sand under the seating in the camp theatre.
Memoires of survivors from the camp record that Leslie, who was nicknamed Cookie, was very active in the tunnelling and did a great deal to improve and lengthen the tunnel code-named ‘Tom’ which was the first of the three tunnels to be started and had its entrance in a dark corner of a hall in one of the huts. He is believed to have suffered a concussion when part of the tunnel collapsed.
Sadly, the entrance to ‘Tom’ was discovered by the camp guards in the Summer of 1943, one of more than 80 tunnels to be discovered in the camp. This left only ‘Harry’, a tunnel with its entrance hidden behind a stove in Hut 104. By the time work on ‘Harry’ finished, in March 1944, the tunnel was 363 feet long, nearly 2 feet square and 28 feet underground.
Although 600 men had worked on the tunnels, the plan only allowed for 200 to make the escape. The first 100, which included Leslie Long, were guaranteed places either because they were serial escapers, spoke good German or were considered to have put in more work on the tunnels. A further 100 were selected by drawing lots.
In the end only 76 of the 200 chosen men made it out of the tunnel. A series of unfortunate events, including bad weather which froze the exit hatch closed, and the tunnel not coming up quite where it had been intended, slowed their progress so that the planned escape of one man a minute was revised to about ten men an hour. Further setbacks included an Allied air raid on the camp which knocked out the electricity and therefore the lights in the tunnel, and a partial tunnel collapse which, it is believed, Leslie was involved in repairing.
Leslie left the tunnel at around 04:00am with Anthony Bethell who was one of the few escapees to survive. Their plan was to make their way north with a group of other escapers, but, according to Bethell’s memoires, they heard a shot ringing out behind them causing the rest of the men to scatter. The shot was presumably that fired at 4.55am when the 77th man to emerge from the tunnel was spotted by one of the guards.
Bethell and Long stuck together, travelling 20 or so miles on foot and hiding out in a barn on the outskirts of Benau for a couple of nights. Although they had originally planned to travel to Czechoslovakia, they decided instead to try to reach Stettin, from where they could find a boat to take them to Sweden. Their plan was stow away on a slow-moving freight-train but when they headed down to the nearby marshalling yard there were no trains moving slowly enough for them to jump aboard. Heading off on foot again the following afternoon in search of alternative methods of escape, they were caught by two members of the German Home Guard on the outskirts of Benau. Bethell later recalled a slow-moving freight train trundling past them as they were frogmarched to the police station. The two men were then transferred to Gorlitz along with a large group of other recaptured Great Escapers.
Although in the film The Great Escape the escapees were shown being machine-gunned as a group in a field, the reality was very different. According to research provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, they were actually put into cars, individually or in pairs escorted by local Gestapo agents. They were told they were being driven back to the camp but along the route the cars stopped on the pretext of allowing them to get out and stretch their legs or relieve themselves. The men were then shot in the back of the head. Their bodies were cremated and the ashes returned to the camp.
There is no known account of Leslie Long’s killing but it is almost certain that he was one of the victims of Wilhelm Scharpwinkel, Chief of the State Police in Breslau, and that he was the last of the Great Escapers to be shot, probably between 12 and 13 April. According to research provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Great Escape survivors Bob Nelson and Dick Churchill are the last known to have seen Leslie alive, on 6 April, imprisoned at Gorlitz. The lack of information surrounding Leslie’s death added to the devastation of his family who were, according to his niece, haunted by the thought that he had been hanged in his cell, as no other prisoners reported the sound of shots.
Of the 76 men who escaped on the night of the 24 March 1944 73 were re-captured and 50 were shot, in violation of the Geneva Convention, as a warning to other prisoners. Among the dead were 25 Britons, six Canadians, three Australians, two New Zealanders, three South Africans, four Poles, two Norwegians, one Frenchman and one Greek.
The news of their deaths was announced to the House of Commons by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden on 19 May:
“On 17 April during a routine visit to the camp of the Protecting Power, the Germans reported that 76 officers had escaped, 15 had been recaptured, 47 shot and 14 were still missing,”
The story from the camp was that the 47 had been shot while resisting arrest or in the course of a second attempt to escape.
Leslie Long was not on the initial list of 47 officers which was handed to the authorities. His name, and those of Flying Officers Stanislaw Krol and Pwel Tobolski of the Polish Air Force, were reported by the Air Ministry on 23 June.
On the same day Eden reported to the House of Commons on the findings of an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the escapees. It had become increasingly clear, supported by the testimony of men repatriated from the camp who had heard only one shot on the night of the 24 March, that the report of events given by the camp commanders was untrue.
“HM Government feel obliged to declare at once that the explanation now put forward by the German Government is in fact a confession of an odious crime against the laws and conventions of war. They are firmly resolved that these foul criminals shall be tracked down to the last man wherever they make take refuge. When the war is over, they will be brought to exemplary Justice.”
Many of those guilty of the atrocity were indeed brought to justice. Simon Read’s book, Human Game: Hunting the Great Escape Murderers, tells the story of how details of the murders were pieced together and how those responsible were tracked down. Sadly, Scharpwinkel, who is believed to have killed Leslie Long, was reported to have died in a Soviet POW camp in October 1947 and never stood trial for his murder.
In July 1944 the prisoners of war at Stalag Luft III built a memorial at the camp in memory of the 50 men killed following the Great Escape, in which were placed the urns containing their ashes. The memorial was disturbed in 1945 and in 1948 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission arranged for the urns to be moved to the Old Garrison Cemetery in Poznan.
Leslie Long's headstone at Poznan, courtesy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
On Sunday, commemorations will take place at Zagan and Poznan to remember those who were killed following the Great Escape. Sir Adrian Montague, CBE, our Chairman, will be laying a wreath on Leslie Long’s grave in Poznan on behalf of everyone at Aviva.
There are very few records relating to Leslie Long in the archive collection. In writing this blog I have relied heavily on research provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and additional facts from Leslie Long’s family, who also kindly provided me with his photograph.
I have also gathered much of my information from:
and a talk given by Alan Bowgen on the 65th anniversary of the escape.