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 by Jennifer Tye.

Spitfire AA810 Restoration Ltd Registered in the U.K. company number 11538932

THe Great Escape

Alastair arrived over Trondheim circa 1200 local time on the 5th March flying at around 25,000ft. It appears from later reports given to his colleagues that his Merlin engine was giving him some trouble and his attention was fully in-cockpit to determine the cause. Sadly unbeknown to him, two ME109s had been scrambled from Lade airfield in Trondheim and were awaiting his arrival over the fjord. Heinz Knocke and Dieter Gerhardt, flying as a pair descended upon Alastair, with Knocke reporting hits knocking out the oil system of the Spitfire. Such was the nature of the one-sided battle that Heinz got close enough to have his windscreen obscured by oil from AA810 and therefore it was Dieter who closed in to make the kill as Alastair dived away to the South West. Dieter’s rounds found their mark and soon Alastair’s aircraft was on fire.

Leaving it as late as possible, Alastair bailed out suffering burns to his hands and his face in the process. He descended by parachute landing on the hills above Surnadal not far from where his Spitfire had impacted the snow covered mountain. Assisted by locals, Alastair attempted to make good an escape on skis but, with his descent being witnessed by the German garrison, the distance and elements against him, his chances were very limited indeed.

Alastair recalls in his letters that his German captors treated him well, and the next day he was on a lorry to Trondheim before being flown to Germany via Oslo. Interrogated at DulagLuft for almost a month he was sent to the new camp at StalagLuft III near Sagan, being the 5th prisoner to arrive.

Stalag Luft III

Alastair was not on his own for long, and soon found himself billeted with a number of men whose names were shortly to become most famous. Guy Griffiths, Arnošt (Wally) Valenta, John Boardman, Des Plunkett, Dudley Davis and Hubert Henderson all shared the hut with Alastair, and in particular Alastair and Hubert became great friends.

Everybody had their own jobs in the camp, Alastair’s popularity soared as he seemed to have a natural ability at making coffee percolators which were in great demand throughout the camp. However, more secretively he found a place as a Security Officer guarding Escape Committee conferences from the German sentries. Even more secretly both Alastair and Hubert were tunnellers, although their first tunnel was discovered they were soon put to work on a second longer tunnel, codenamed Harry, and Harry was to become known the world over.

The Escape Leader, Roger Bushell, realised that he stood to get only 200 men from the camp in his escape attempt, even though nearly 600 men had been involved with the whole escape planning. Roger decided he would hand pick the first 100 men who had contributed the most to the project, whilst the second 100 men would be decided by lottery from the remaining 500. The first 30 handpicked men were either fluent German speakers, or were paired with those who were, and were considered the ones most likely to have a successful ‘Home run’. Alastair was picked to be number 68 paired with Mike Casey, whilst his good friend Hubert was number 83 due to go out.

So it was on the night of the 24th March 1944 that the men gathered in hut 104 and prepared to leave. With the tunnel being too short, delays in the escape caused a backlog, and with the sheer number of men moving through the tunnel, it suffered several collapses, one of these occurring on Alastair who had to be pulled out. Soon however it was Alastair’s turn and together with Mike they disappeared into the night, just 7 men later, the tunnel was discovered.

 

German Reaction

As soon as the tunnel was discovered the Germans swung into action. Roll-calls were made and it was clear that 76 men had left the camp that night. Hubert had to double back in the tunnel and spent some considerable time in solitary confinement as a result.

Alastair and Mike however, were away, intent on making their way to the German port of Sassnitz to jump on a boat to neutral Sweden. Instead of riding in passenger trains, he and Mike decided to ride underneath the freight trains and they continued their journey away from the camp. Sadly about 25 miles from Stettin late on the 26th March they were both discovered and were arrested. With Hitler infuriated they were handed over to the Gestapo and were transported to Gorlitz for interrogation. Here the pair were held with a number of other escapees from the camp, including Roger Bethell to whom Alastair recounted his escape story.

The men were all called forward over the coming days, repeatedly questioned on their escape attempts or to give information about the processes within the camp, but all remained silent. Slowly the number of men at Gorlitz dwindled with Alastair’s name being called once more on the morning of the 6th April. He was seen to be taken away in a Gestapo car, and unbeknown to his colleagues he was executed later that day, his ashes being sent to the camp. He rests in peace alongside his fellow murdered prisoners in the Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery in Poznan, Poland.