Britain commemorates WWII “Great Escape” heroes

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London, March 26 (IANS) Members of Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) on Sunday marked 75 years since the so-called “Great Escape” at two remembrance ceremonies in Poland, where the legendary event took place.

Details of the moving ceremony were released in London on Monday by the British Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Xinhua news agency reported.

The Great Escape saw 76 prisoners of war from the RAF and its allies break out of Stalag Luft III on the night of March 24, 1944 through a tunnel they dug underground.

More than 600 prisoners had taken part in the tunnel-building operation which lasted over 15 months and was led by RAF officer Squadron Leader Roger Bushell.

Incarcerated in the heavily guarded camp, the prisoners were determined to prove to their German captors that they could escape.

At the ceremony on Sunday, one of the participants was Corporal Paddy Flint, a RAF police officer and a relative of Bushell.

Flint, who held a photo of Bushell as he marched in the guard of honor, said, “I am related to one of the escapers, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell. It means a lot to me to be here today as it’s the first time I’ve ever seen his grave. Seeing the names of all the escapers on the gravestones, especially Roger’s, was very emotional and really hit home.”

Standing alongside Polish armed forces personnel, RAF personnel formed the guard of honor first at Poznan Cemetery, where 48 of the Great Escapers are buried, and later at the site of Stalag Luft III, the German-run prisoner of war camp where the escape took place during World War II.

An RAF C-130 Hercules from RAF Brize Norton performed a flypast with four Polish Air Force F-16s over the ceremony at the Stalag Luft III camp.

“All but three of the escapers were re-captured and 50 of them were executed under (Adolf) Hitler’s orders, which subsequently launched the largest British military police investigation in the history. This was conducted by the RAF Police which identified that 72 Nazis participated in the executions. Of these, 38 were tried and sentenced while the fate of the rest varied,” the MoD said.

The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, lay a wreath alongside the grave of Air Commodore (Retd) Charles Clarke, a prisoner of war at the camp when the Great Escape took place.

“Today we honor the courage and sacrifice of those who were imprisoned here and lost their lives trying to escape. But today is also a celebration of the intrepid adventurers who sought to regain their freedom from here: their ingenuity, their daring and their spirit. We continue to celebrate that spirit in today’s Royal Air Force,” Hillier said.

–IANS

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