A photograph of George McKiel taken in September 2011.
An Avro Lancaster bomber from 405 Squadron, similar to the one that George McKiel served in until shot down over Germany.
"The fighter came in for a second or third attack and really pranged us that time. My pilot said, ‘Bailout, get going quickly’. "
A Night-time Raid Over Germany and His Capture After Being Shot Down
We set out and we were supposed to be over the target roughly about midnight, and when we were almost over the target we began to realize that it was pretty hot stuff because there was anti-aircraft [fire] all around, and they were seemingly very effective because we saw some of our own planes go down. We got over the target, just got rid of our bombs and a night fighter was able to find our blind spot, which was the undersurface of the [Avro] Lancaster. There was a rear turret and there was also a turret halfway along the body of the aircraft.
The fighter apparently was directed; they had some kind of radar ability, and so we couldn’t seem to shake this fellow who was trying to come in for another attack. He succeeded after some 20 minutes of flying because he was able to get under us, come on and when he fired his cannons he wiped out one of the port engines, and also a big chunk out of the fuselage where the bomb aimer, the mid ship bomb aimer, he was killed with the firing of the bombs.
It was really very confusing all around but we knew that we had no way of getting back to England so I quickly gave the pilot a change of course. We were going to head for as close to Switzerland as we could get and maybe we’ll be able to walk across to the Swiss instead of staying in Germany or France. So we all had a fairly good idea where we were in terms of geography. Very soon he came... the fighter came in for a second or third attack and really pranged us that time. My pilot said, ‘Bailout, get going quickly’.
Evading Capture and Being Taken Prisoner
Quite quickly I found a bicycle that was lying idle leaning a barn, so I thought that’s a good thing; maybe I could get some mileage out of this, and so off I went. I didn't contact any of the rest of my crew because there had been high winds at the altitude we were flying and as a result I was able to push on, and I even had a few, ‘Gute Nacht’s’ as I cycled past people and they either grunted or said greetings in German.
So I thought, ‘Well, this is not going to be that difficult I think’. And then I came to a farmhouse and I thought, ‘Oh, this is a prosperous farm here, I’m going to bury myself in the hay and wait for daylight to return’. Well, I woke up with a sudden start and there were two German soldiers, equivalent to the Home Guard, and they had long rifles, bayonets on the end of it, and the bayonets were going straight for my throat.
Being Interned as a Prisoner of War in Stalag Luft III
The train slowed, it came to a halt, and it was run off onto a siding. They held us there for a while but a few hours later we were taken off in groups of about 20 or 30 or 40. Once we got into the camp itself - we were in this huge enclosed, barbed wire encampment - and everything seemed relatively new. Apparently, Hermann Göring himself had said that they were not going to have any escapes at all, they were building a super camp, so all precautions - you behave yourself or you’ll be shot.
The “Great Escape” and the Various Roles Involved
Almost everybody in the camp, all 10,000 of us, or 11,000 by that time, really everybody had a job. Now, the job was not necessarily time consuming but, you know, we had to have forgers who could make special maps for the escapees who were going to be travelling cross country. They had to make a whole lot of very strong supplemental food that they could carry with them and so not be expecting to get in touch with the local population.
There were others who were on surveillance duties where they would have always a person on duty at the main gate and they would clock every person that came into the camp or left the camp. In that way they could also apply some of... giving jobs of looking after the disposal of sand because the major problem with the tunneling was that it was 30 feet down in a sandy belt, and so they had to get tons of sandy soil that smelt differently to the German dogs, and they could trigger them off that there is tunnelling going on. If there was a particular guard who was a little more diligent than the others they could tag him and follow him around and always have somebody keeping him in sight to see what he was up to in the camp.
Then the great escape happened and the Germans came down hard. They not only shot and killed 50 of our prisoners who had gone through the tunnel, but at Hitler’s command they were going to take away all the privileges. They would take away the... close down the theatre, close down the university basis and so on.
Forced Marches and Liberation at the End of the War
In January, 1945, the Russians had a big advance and swept westwards and we thought, ‘What are they going to do with us? Are they going to just desert us or are they going to turn us over, or are they going to execute everybody’, because there were rumours enough that the camp prisoners felt that if they formed a commando unit they could do some... have some kind of weapon hidden that they could use in an uprising. So we were sort of looking ahead on that.
Anyway, the long and short of it was that there was a big snow storm the day that the move was going to start, the hike, and they didn’t give us much information. They simply said, ‘No, we’re going to take you westward and you can see for yourself what it’s going to be like’. Well, most of us were just hiking, bitterly cold, sleeping in the snow overnight, until about the third or fourth day my particular group were able to be billeted in a glass factory.
The march the next day was done with higher hopes because some of the prisoners had made contact with civilians, even though they were closely guarded. We pushed on heading for a little village where there was a town railway where we could connect up with the railroad and get onto the trains. I think it was two days of marching, lots of casualties because by that time people were picking up diseases and so on, and it was very unhealthy kind of situation.
The Prisoners Begin to See the End of the War
Most of them realized that the war was coming to a close quickly and so they just enjoyed the walk through the spring sunshine with the apple blossoms, and the storks arriving back from Africa, seeing them perched up by the chimneys around the ridge pole of the house. It was a very different kind of an approach to the whole thing.