The last remaining survivor of the ‘ Great Escape’ prisoner of war camp is making a remarkable pilgrimage back to the site 75 years on.
Air Commodore Charles Clarke, who is now 95 years old, was one of a handful of men who survived the notorious Stalag Left III camp in the now Polish town of Zagan – and is the only man still alive today.
By the time he arrived at the camp in February 1944, the grand escape plan – which inspired the 1963 film starring Steve McQueen , James Garner and Richard Attenborough – was already well underway.
The legendary prison-break has become one of the most famous chapters of World War Two, causing large-scale disruption to the German war effort as tens of thousands of Nazi forces were re-assigned to hunt for the men who escaped.
The PoWs used spoons and scoops made from tin cans to dig the 30ft-deep tunnels they nicknamed Tom, Dick and Harry, fashioning pouches from old socks in their trousers to scatter the dug-out soil.
But the incredible mission ended in tragedy, as a furious Adolf Hitler ordered 50 of the 76 escapees to be rounded up and shot as a lesson to the other PoWs.
Charles, who lives in London, says the massacre was “cold-blooded murder”.
He wasn’t recruited to help mastermind the plot, as he was considered a “boy amongst men” due to being just 19 years old.
Although he wasn’t directly involved in the famous escape, Charles still thinks about the camp every day.
And while the film depicts a Poland in Spring sunshine, the reality was very different.
With temperatures plummeting to –30C, it was one of the coldest winters on record.
Speaking from Poland, Charles says: “I can’t help but think about it all the time.
“It was 75 years ago, but it’s still very, very clear in my mind.
“It’s always nostalgic to return here and I always find it so moving.
“I never really expected I would be able to return here, I didn’t think I would survive.”
Charles endured the 36-hour so-called ‘Long March’ which killed many of the surviving PoWs, as news of Russian forces advancing into Poland reached Hitler.
The allied airmen still held in the camp were marched into Germany in freezing temperatures, without food or shelter, possibly to be used as pawns.
“We marched in blizzard conditions before we had any shelter, a barn,” Charles tells me.
“Amazingly, that barn is still there – it’s the only thing I remember from the route.
“But I think it’s now been turned into a hotel, which is a bit of a shame.”
Charles first entered the RAF in 1941, when he was just 17.
He trained to become a bomb aimer on Lancasters and completed 17 successful missions before being shot down by a Nazi fighter plane.
Charles jumped from the plane, landing in deep snow and walking for miles towards Switzerland.
But he was captured by German soldiers and transferred to the Stalag Luft III, deemed inescapable by the Germans.
Charles says he will continue to return to the site every year to mark the most “remarkable human feat” of the breakout.
The RAF Benevolent Fund will present a special anniversary event, The Great Escape with Dan Snow, on Sunday to mark 75 years since the overnight escape plot.
The TV historian says: “It’s a story about dreaming big against all obstacles with innovation and courage and determination.
“And that’s why it is so fascinating – and why it made such a great Hollywood film.”
• On March 24, The Great Escape with Dan Snow will be presented at the Hammersmith Apollo. Tickets: thegreatescape75.co.uk
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