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Germany and Poland Trip. Part Six – The Great Escape 80th Anniversary Commemoration – Stalag Luft III, Żagań

Sunday 24th March 2024

I had been to the 70th and 75th commemorations and no doubt the number of people attending has grown. This time there are no veterans. Various military and political dignitaries mix with relatives of former POWs, and enthusiasts. Two covered areas, either side of tunnel Harry, afford some shelter from the occasional spell of rain. The RAF is very well represented along with Polish servicemen.

Marek, the organiser of the event, who runs the museum, introduces proceedings, which open with a thunderous flypast. Speeches give a brief outline of the escape attempt 80 years previous – the planning, the hope, the ingenuity, and the bravery. Then details of the tragic aftermath – when 50 of the 73 recaptured escapees, of varied nationality, are shot. Murdered.

There is a clear theme for this anniversary, focusing on the multi-national make up of the escapers. Allies. United. The symbolism of the coming together of this group of diverse airmen to oppose Nazism is emphasised. Deliberately poignant considering world events. We are in Poland and a Russian missile flew into Polish air space this morning. Throughout proceedings the RAF and Polish servicemen salute and drill with discipline and dignity. A Polish service band play national anthems and the Polish soldiers sing their Army song. The names of the fifty are read out and RAF servicemen pass by holding photos of each man.

The sharp cracks from the volleys of rifle fire bounce off the pine trees.

Having held my emotions in check, the Last Post and Reveille, break my composure.

We are invited to lay wreaths and I ask Gulf War POW Bob Ankerson if I may approach the exit to tunnel Harry with him. Bob lays his wreath on behalf of the RAF Ex-POW Association. I lay mine on behalf of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund.

The card with my wreath reads, ‘In memory of the 50. Not forgotten’. Clearly they are not. Many wreaths have been laid before ours and many more follow.

Official proceedings end, and everyone disperses. I make the short journey to the mausoleum, where the ashes of the cremated escapers were first brought and lay another wreath of behalf of the RAFBF.

Next – Mittelbau-Dora and Nordhausen

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