Portrait of Al Wallace in uniform.Albert R. Wallace
Letters of Al Wallace to his family, 1944. The German authorities allowed prisoners to send four letters and three postcards home each month.Albert R. Wallace
Air Gunner Class at Jarvis no 1, Bombing and Gunnery Station, Ontario, June 1943. Al Wallace is in back row, 3rd from the right.Albert R. Wallace
Notice issued by German authorities to all prison camps after the Great Escape on March 28, 1944.Albert R. Wallace
Photocopy of Telegram to Al Wallace's Mother, which notified her that her son had gone missing after an air operation, May 13, 1943.
Photocopy of Telegram to Al Wallace's Mother which notified her that he had become a prisoner of war, June 4, 1943.
"He would pull the cord and one or two men in the tunnel would jump out and into the woods. Well that way, they were able to get 76 out."
They took me out into an office to be interrogated by an officer and he knew more about the war than I did. He knew more about our bombing squadron. I didn’t have to tell him anything. He could tell me everything that they needed to know about our bombing. He told them who our commanding officer was and how many aircraft we could put up on a maximum effort and oh, he knew far more about the air base than I did.
So anyway, I was only there a few days and then I was taken out, put into a compound with other prisoners and then a few days later, we went on a train trip and I ended up at Stalag Luft III [a Luftwaffe POW camp near Zagan, Poland], where the great escape took place. It was just a great barbed wire enclosure. There was two, the camp was at least 15 acres in size. It was a brand new camp. It had only opened in April of 1943 and I was arriving in May of 1943. So I was only there six weeks after it had opened. And it had about 700 or 800 men in it when I arrived, but it would eventually have about 1800 or 1900.
It was a big camp, double barbed wire fences around it, about ten feet apart, two fences. And then in between the two fences, there was great coils of barbed wire all around it to make it very difficult, literally impossible to get through. There was guard towers at different points all around the camp and they had machine guns in the towers and they had searchlights, which at night were on all night in the camp.
I made arrangements with the guy that was in charge of the block that I was in, or the room that I was in, to move to another room. So I moved to another room in block 104, and block 104 was the barrack block where the big tunnel broke, was in. And the room I moved to in that hut was the room where the tunnel started. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, because I was quite a newcomer. And everything about the escaping was very secretive in the camp and really wasn’t talked about a great deal. I mean, even some of the chaps in the room had really nothing to do with the tunnel.
There was one chap named Pat Langford. He was in that particular room and he was what was called the tunnel ‘fuhrer’, like he opened it, when they were going to open the tunnel to send men down or bring men out or take sand out, he was the one that opened and closed the tunnel. And it wasn’t a very, in my view, it wasn’t a very good room really to live in because when the tunnel was opened, there was blankets all over the floor to catch any sand and the room was in effect off limits, you couldn’t go back and forth into it. So I only was in that room for I think two to three months and then I made arrangements to move out of there.
I did do a little bit of work on the tunnel on the sand disposal. I was a penguin a few times where I had the bags of sand down my legs and disposing it out in our garden in the room where I now lived or around the circuit that we walked around, around the perimeter of the camp. But that wasn’t, that was the only thing I did on the tunnel was a bit of sand disposal.
Everybody in the camp knew what was going to happen. That particular day they were going to break out or that night. Throughout the day, everybody in hut 104 moved out of that hut except any of the men that were going to be going out and all of the men that had been picked and selected to go out moved into that hut through the day, took whatever they were taking with them to go on the escape and that night, when they opened the tunnel to the surface, they went up and they had some delays. They had a few hang-ups through the night. They had a hard time breaking through the ground to break to the surface and then when the tunnel opened, they found out that they had thought they were going to be within the pine trees around the camp. Well, they were short. They were about 20 feet short. But fortunately, they were about 30 feet behind one of the guardhouses. And the guardhouse was up there with a guard in it, of course, with a searchlight, but he was shining it into the camp. So he really wasn’t a problem.
But the Germans also had guards on foot that guarded all the outside wire around the, around the main wire around the camp. And they walked around with their guns back and forth and so on. So they arranged a timing and a rope, they had a rope in the camp that one of the men held and then one of them went out the tunnel and into the woods and when the guards had turned and they were walking away so they couldn’t see, he would pull the cord and one or two men in the tunnel would jump out and into the woods. Well that way, they were able to get 76 out.
But through the night, there was an air raid took place, an air raid on Berlin. And whenever there was an air raid, all the lights went out. So the lights in the tunnel went out and things of course were stopped for an hour or maybe an hour and a half while the time during this air raid, and they didn’t get anybody out there. And then they had a couple of cave-ins in the tunnel when people going through had knocked the supporting boards in the tunnel and they had cave-ins. So they had to be repaired. So these different little hang-ups occurred which slowed things down.
Well, I remember that night. I was laying in my bunk and I don’t think I slept much because I knew the tunnel break was taking place and I just wondered when things were going to happen. Well, sure enough, I think around 5:00 in the morning, I heard a rifle shot, one single shot. And I said, oh, that’s probably it. Well, that was it. One of the guards had, I think he was on his guard duty around the camp and then he veered off towards the tunnel, he was going to have a leak, you see. And he nearly fell in the hole, he was so close to it. And just at that moment, the boys got their signals mixed up and one had pulled the cord in the woods and the one inside thought that was the clearance to pop out and he jumped out of the tunnel right in front of this guard and the guard, of course, I guess he must have been quite shocked, and so he whipped his rifle up and fired a shot. But he missed the man and so that was, from there, the tunnel was over.
There was 50 of the 76 that were shot and they were just murdered. I mean, they were taken out in small groups and just shot in the back of the head. That was how they went. The Germans didn’t admit that, they just said that they were shot while trying to escape. And of course, our commanding officer, when he was told this said, “Well, how many were wounded?” “Well,” the Germans said, “well, none, they were all killed.” Well, I mean, that told them right away that they had been murdered. The camp all knew immediately that they had all been murdered and we all wore black bands there for several weeks afterwards to signify to the Germans that we knew what had happened.
So it was a tough time around the camp because so many people had lost friends that went out in these 50 guys, a lot of them had been prisoners for three or four years and here they were, all of sudden, their lives blotted out, boom, like that. It was a tough time in the camp.