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Monday, March 24, 2014

70 Years Later: A Look Back at the Escape from Stalag Luft III

Barracks at Stalag Luft III

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the escape attempt by 76 Allied airmen from the Stalag Luft III.  Many of you have undoubtedly seen the 1963 Steve McQueen film The Great Escape, which brought this story to the forefront.   I am sure that there are many people out there who, like me, find this a fascinating portion of WWII history.  In honor of this anniversary, I thought we would take a moment and look at the 76 men who attempted escape and the three who actually made it back to Allied territory. 

Located in Zagan, Poland, construction on the first compound (East Compound) was completed and opened on March 21, 1942.   This camp, run by the German Luftwaffe, was designed to be a prisoner-of-war camp for Allied airmen.  In April 1942, the first prisoners to arrive at the camp were British Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm officers.  Stalag Luft III had a number of features that made escape extremely difficult and nearly impossible.  First, the barracks which housed the prisoners were raised off the ground in order to help guards detect any tunneling activity.  Secondly, the camp was constructed in an area with very sandy subsoil – which happened to be bright yellow in color, making it easily detectable if placed on surface soil and visible on clothing.  This subsoil was very loose and susceptible to collapse meaning structural integrity of any tunnel would be very poor. 

Roger Bushell
Construction was continuous at the camp and by the end of March 1943 the North Compound for British airmen was opened.  North Compound is the site of this great escape plan.  Each of these compounds consisted of 15 single story huts.  Each bunk room could sleep 15 men in five triple deck bunks.  At the height of occupation, the camp held about 2,500 RAF officers, 7,500 U.S. Army Air Forces, and about 900 officers from other Allied air forces. 

In the spring of 1943, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell of the RAF conceived a plan for a major escape from the camp.  Bushell was in command of the Escape Committee and channeled his effort to finding weak points in the camp and procuring the necessary supplies for the escapees.  Bushell’s original plan was to dig three tunnels at the same time and attempt to break 200 men out at once.  Codenamed “Tom,” “Dick,” and “Harry” the three tunnels were a ploy of deception – Bushell believed that if one tunnel was discovered, the German guards wouldn’t think that two additional tunnels were in the work.  One key component of Bushell’s plan was that each of the escapees a full complement of paperwork and have civilian clothing made for them.

Tunnel "Harry" showing escape route
Tunneling was difficult work, mostly because the prisoners had to evade growing German suspicion that something was a foot.  When “Tom” was discovered, the 98th tunnel in this camp to be, construction on “Harry” ceased for a while as well.  Using the wooden slats from their beds, tunneling around 336 feet, and ingenious methods of funneling air in the tunnel and over 200 tons of sand out, a date for escape was finally selected.  The first group of 100 guaranteed a spot in the tunnel were those who spoke good German, had the most complete set of papers, and were considered those how had worked the hardest on the construction of the tunnel.  
30 ft drop into entrance of tunnel

As night fell on March 24, 1944, all those who had been selected to be a part of the escape made their way to Hut 104.  Slowly, men made their way down the tunnel.  “Harry” exited about 45 feet from one of the camp watchtowers.  The 77th man to emerge from the tunnel at 4:55 am was spotted by one of the guards.  Of the 76 men to attempt escape, only three made it all the way to an allied country.  The remaining 73 men were recaptured over the course of the following days—of those men, 50 were executed on Hitler’s order, including the mastermind of the escape Roger Bushell.

Fellow prisoners created a memorial to their fallen compatriots in the prison camp ceremony. 

To learn more about the Great Escape and those involved, visit the following sites: 

Memorial to those executed after the escape

Until next time,

Friday, March 21, 2014

Women's History Month: 6888th Army Battalion

Hello D-Day Patrons!

Corporal Alyce Dixon (right), of the 6888th, talks with her superior, 1945.
In honor of Women’s History Month, I would like to take some time to talk about the 6888th Army battalion, an African-American all women’s unit dedicated to processing the backlog of mail from the troops and civil-support in Europe.

During World War II, the best way, and essentially the only way, to contact someone overseas was to send them a letter in the mail. This was the only way for soldiers to communicate back home and vise versa, so the importance of keeping soldier morale high rested on the ability of the mail services to complete their jobs in a timely fashion. That task was given to the women of the 6888th battalion.

6888th Army Battalion
Women began taking important roles in the Armed Forces as far back as the Revolutionary War and began performing military support during the Civil War and on. However, World War II was the first war in which so many women were called to serve, but it did not come without its challenges. Even though women were active in every branch, the only branch to officially recognize women as viable support was the Navy. World War II was also unique because so many men, mostly young and middle aged, were called to serve in combat roles, leaving behind multitudes of jobs that needed to be filled by women. Congress authorized the recruitment of female officers and enlisted to do more military duties than just nursing because of the desperate need for support.

The women of the 6888th not only had to handle being women in the Armed Forces, but they also had to withstand racial discrimination. Despite President Roosevelt’s efforts to fight intolerance in civilian defense industries, prejudice and segregation remained in the military. Through the efforts of Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, African-American women were allowed to serve in the Women’s Army Corp.

Women of the 6888th sorting out the backlog of mail, 1945.
Those young ladies had to begin working straight away after boot camp training was completed. Once American soldiers landed in Europe on June 6, 1944, the amount of logistical problems were quickly becoming a nightmare. Sorting and mailing the troops post was low on the totem pole. Since the soldiers were moving around rapidly and were sending out letters whenever they had the chance, the amount of mail piled up so quickly they were almost immediately behind schedule. While waiting for the women in the 6888th to arrive, seven million undelivered letters had quickly piled up; many had even been sent over a year before.

To get the job done quickly and effectively, the women used a system of information cards on all recently deployed soldiers, Army and Navy. They had six months to clear the buildup, working nearly twenty-four/seven. Not only did they have to locate the soldiers, they also had to decipher whom the letter even belonged to because many people did not address their letters properly. Through hard work and determination, they were able to process nearly 65,000 letters per workday and completed the task in just three months time, cutting the projected time in half. The Army was so impressed by them that they were then deployed to Paris, France to keep the mail moving on the front lines.
Women of the 6888th overseas, World War II, 1945.

Despite the segregation and discrimination these women were subjected to, they still completed their job flawlessly. In 2009, they were finally recognized for their hard work, sixty-four years later. Surviving members and their families came out to Arlington for the ceremony to honor those brave women in hopes to correct the past and set things right.

Take care,

Monday, March 17, 2014

Irish Traditions

Top o’ the mornin’ to ya!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone! I thought it would be festive to talk about the history and fun facts about the holiday since about 44.6 million Americans can trace their ancestry back to Ireland (including those of Scot-Irish descent). Even during World War II, a number of the soldiers were either born in Ireland or of Irish lineage.

Saint Patrick's Day parade in New York City, circa 1940s
As most of you probably know, the Day of the Festival of Patrick is not only a cultural holiday, but a religious one as well. The day is celebrated annually on March 17th, the death date of Patrick (461 AD), the patron saint of Ireland. Saint Paddy’s Day was made an official Christian feast day in the seventeenth century and was not only celebrated by the Catholic Church, but the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutheran Churches as well.

Most of us celebrate by partaking in public parades and festivities, wearing mostly green clothing or shamrocks, and attending church services. Except for attending church service, basically all the traditions we partake in originated
Stained glass depiction of Saint Patrick
in America, but that doesn’t stop the fun! Also, St. Patrick’s Day usually falls during the Lenten season, a time of fasting and reflection. As of about forty years ago, eating and drinking restrictions were lifted for the day to encourage celebrations.

Fun facts:
-Saint Patrick was not actually Irish. He was born into a wealthy Romano-British family in Roman Britain. At about 16 years old, he was captured by Irish raiders and taken to Gaelic Ireland. He found God during his time of captivity and fled to the coast where he was able to escape back home. He became a priest, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.
-Patrick returned to Ireland to preach to the pagan Irish.  According to folklore, he used the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity and spent the remainder of his life in Northern Ireland, converting thousands of people to the Christian faith.
- It is a common mistake to say St. Patty’s day instead of Paddy. According to the Irish, Patty is short for Patricia and not Patrick.
"The Emerald Isle"- Ireland
-Ironically, the official color for St. Paddy’s day is actually blue. Patrick is frequently depicted wearing blue and the color is on many Irish coats of arms.
-Why we wear green on this day: Green has been connected with Ireland since very early on, most likely because of the overwhelmingly green “Emerald Isles”. The color green is also used to signify Catholics, while the color orange is used to show someone of Protestant heritage. Historically, the Catholics and Protestants of Ireland have had a less than harmonious relationship. However, today the Irish flag we know and love (green, white, and orange) signifies the unity between the two religious sects.
-Believe it or not, tales of the leprechauns (Irish for ‘small-bodied fellow’) have been around since the 8th century and believed to come from old Celtic fairy-tales. The tiny men and women have magical powers and spend most of their time making shoes and hide their fortunes of gold in pots!
Displaying photo.JPG
Corned beef and cabbage with Irish Soda bread and boiled potatoes
-If you ever find a four-leaf clover you are truly blessed! There is only a one in 10,000 chance you will ever find it. This fun fact would have saved me countless hours as a child.
-Corned beef and cabbage is more of an American tradition than Irish. But it is still a delicious one and was quite popular in the 1940s!

I hope you enjoyed the little bit of Irish trivia today! Stay safe and warm!

Take care,

Friday, March 14, 2014

Women Spies of WWII: Nancy Wake

On March 25 at Noon in the Bedford Area we will have the last lecture of the winter season.  For women history’s month, we will be looking at a topic that is one of my personal favorites – women spies of World War II.  The lecture will be led by D-Day Memorial President, April Cheek-Messier.  Please feel free to join us for lunch at Noon for a wonderful discussion about several spies who were instrumental to the Allied efforts over the course of the war.  We look forward to seeing you there! 

Before the lecture, I would like to the introduce you Nancy Wake.  Wake was born in New Zealand on August 30, 1912 to Charles and Ella Wake.  Growing up she was the youngest of six children and fiercely independent.  When she was 16 years old, Wake ran away from home to work as a nurse.  After an aunt gave her some money, she set out to see the world starting with Europe.  Working as a journalist, Wake witnessed the rise of Hitler, Nazism, and anti-Semitism.  While in Vienna, she witnessed Nazi gangs randomly beating Jewish men and women in the streets.  These attacks fed her determination to work against the Nazis. 

Her time would come up soon as part of the French Resistance.  In 1939, Wake married Henri Fiocca, a wealthy French industrialist.  Their charmed life would be short lived; six months after the marriage Germany invaded France.  Shortly after the German occupation, Wake had moved from observing what was going on around her to actively participating in the Resistance.  At first, she was a courier, smuggling messages and food to the underground groups in Southern France.  Her husband helped her secure an ambulance which she used to transport refugees out of German occupied areas.  She obtained papers that allowed her to work in Vichy France and became deeply involved in moving prisoners of war and downed Allied pilots out of France to Spain. 
Wake's fake passport

Her missions put her life in constant danger.  By 1943, Wake was number 1 on the Gestapo’s most wanted list – they referred to her as the “White Mouse” because she was so good at evading capture.  The Resistance determined that Wake should leave France and go to Britain.  Escape was easier said than done.  It took six times to get across the Pyrenees, even being captured and interrogated for four days during one of the attempts.  In her escape, she had to leave behind her beloved husband.

Once in Britain, Wake became one of 39 women and 430 men in the French Section of the SOE.  She was trained in survival skills, silent killing, codes, radio operations, night parachuting, plastic explosives, rifles, pistols, and grenades.  In April 1944, Wake parachuted into central France with orders to locate and organize the bands of Maquis, establish ammunition and arms caches, and organize the Resistance in preparation for the D-Day invasion.  Wake led more than 7,000 men in guerrilla warfare against the German troops and facilities. 
When Paris was liberated on August 25, 2014, Wake walked her troops into Vichy to celebrate.  Once there she learned that her husband Henri had been captured, tortured, and executed when he refused to give them any information about the whereabouts of his wife.  After the war, she continued to work with the SOE. 

To learn more about her extraordinary life, be sure to join us on March 25!  

Until next time, 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

D-Day Through the Decades: 1974 Commemoration

With the snowfall earlier this week, it is hard to think that summer and the 70th Anniversary of D-Day is just 3 months away!  We are busy, busy with the preparations and everyone is getting more excited every day.  Don’t forget to check out the 70thAnniversary Events tab on our website and we look forward to seeing you in just a few short months!

In honor of the three month mark, I bring you a news article out of the Gettysburg Times' evening edition from 6 June 1974 for the 30th Anniversary.  By the 30th Anniversary, General Omar Bradley was the only commander living of the seven SHAEF commanders.  Once again, he attended the ceremonies instead of President Nixon.  I hope you enjoy this article and we will see you soon! 

"This is the 30th Anniversary of D-Day"
By: Elias Antar

St. Laurent, France

War veterans and officials from seven countries mark the 30 anniversary of D-Day today with a ceremony at the vast U.S. military cemetery near this Normandy village.  Almost 10,000 servicemen are buried in the cemetery on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of five beaches the Allies stormed on June 6, 1944.  General Omar Bradley, who commanded the American at Omaha and adjoining Utah Beach, heads the American delegation to the two-day celebration.  About 1,500 Allied veterans of the landing are attending the observance, the biggest ever, of the invasion.

General Bradley, Normandy, 30th Anniversary

Bradley, at 81 the only living five-star general in the U.S. Army, attended a dinner Wednesday night at the dedication of a museum at Ranville but missed other events.  Aides said he found the pace tiring and had to rest.  Ceremonies were held Wednesday at the eastern end of the 40-mile invasion front, where the British, Canadians and French until landed at 7:30 a.m. on D-Day.  Two other events were scheduled today to commemorate American feats of arms on D-Day.


A unit of U.S. Rangers stationed in Germany was to reenact the climb 225 Rangers made under withering fire up a 100-foot cliff to capture a German strong point at Pointe du Hoc.  The men of the 2nd ranger Battalion used ropes and wooden ladders borrowed from the London Fire Brigade to scale the crags. Some surviving Rangers were on hand to watch the re-enactment.  Some 120 civilian and military parachutists were to jump into the village of Ste. Mere l’Eglise, where the first American paratroopers, from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Division, landed in France.  They met with devastating fire in the square at St. Mere l’Eglise but regrouped and pushed on.  Astronaut Alan Shepard was to be a guest for the jump and later was to show a film of his moon landing.

Until next time,