Friday - 19 September 2014

Stalag Luft III’s original scriptwriters

01 February 2010Written by ATG Reporter

A PENCIL and watercolour sketch showing men at work on a celebrated escape tunnel was a major attraction in a log or record compiled in 1943-45 by a Scottish P.O.W. sold by Lyon & Turnbull of Edinburgh for £3200 on January 13.

Private William MacDonald's illustrated log concerns the years he spent in Stalag Luft III, a German prisoner-of-war camp near what is now the town of Zagan in Poland.

The site, on a sandy subsoil, had been chosen as one that would deter would-be tunnellers, but it was to be the scene of two of the more famous escape attempts of the Second World War - escapes from the North Compound immortalised in print and in the cinema as The Wooden Horse and The Great Escape.

Assembled from a variety of materials, the log contains verses, lists of names and addresses of his fellow prisoners, and some 25 photographs, five of them showing life inside the camp, but the most appealing entries are the 28 pencil and watercolour drawings contributed by fellow prisoners.

These were mostly British and Commonwealth airmen but also included Polish, Czech and other displaced European airmen serving in or attached to the the RAF. Despite what the film-makers would have us believe, no Americans took part in the Great Escape of March, 1944, though there was a separate US compound at Stalag Luft III and one of the pictorial entries in MacDonald's log is indeed the work of a Lt. D.A. Woods of the USAAF.

The illustrations in MacDonald's log include a number of comic scenes of camp life, but the most historically appealing is the double-page sketch of tunnel 'Harry'. As many as 600 prisoners may have worked on Tom, Dick and Harry, the three tunnels originally planned, but 'Harry' was the only one to be completed. The verse that accompanies this drawing by Lindsay Greenaway of the Royal Australian Air Force, reads: Silently below the surface, Twenty five feet below the floor, Thus the Goons have cause to curse us, And remember 104.

The numerical reference is to Hut 104, in which the tunnel entrance was concealed under a stove, so one must assume that this drawing was made after the escape attempt. Greenaway has dated his drawing '44, but, somewhat confusingly, the verse is dated 23.3.43.

Another of the drawings, showing MacDonald wearing his tartan trews and working as a cobbler, was contributed by Flight Lt. Alexander Cassie, who worked on the huge numbers of forged documents needed for the escapers. In the film of The Great Escape, Massie was memorably portrayed by Donald Pleasance, desperately trying to conceal his failing eyesight in an attempt to retain his place among those scheduled to attempt the escape.

Research has subsequently revealed that another of those who provided illustrations, the man whose signature device is a number 4 and a dice, may actually have been one of the escapers - Flight Lt. Fordyce. Having drawn No. 86, he was one of the last to enter the tunnel and before he reached the exit, German guards had discovered the escape attempt. Only a 'kink' in the tunnel saved him from the rifle fire that the guards were directing along it.

Newspaper reports managed to confuse the Private MacDonald who compiled this log with an RAF navigator of the same name, William 'Mac' MacDonald (1920-2008) who was in the camp and worked on the escape plan. Although Stalag Luft III, as its name proclaims, was built to contain captured airmen, the William who put together this log or diary was a soldier who had somehow found himself in that camp.

By Ian McKay

Antiques Trade Gazette is the weekly bible of the fine art and antiques industry. Read articles like this every week in the Antiques Trade Gazette or ATG app. Click here to subscribe today.

Written by

ATG Reporter

Back to top