The history of “Oakington” airbase which we must never forget. By Ben van Drogenbroek

Ben van Drogenbroek

Ben van Drogenbroek has carried out extensive research into Stalag Luft 3 and also the role of Oakington Airfield.

Ben has also written the book “The Camera Became My Passport Home”, details of which can be found here.

A piece of history of “Oakington” airbase we must never allow to erode…

By Ben van Drogenbroek

Aircrew returning from a reconnaissance and leaflet dropping mission. Berkeley Denis Cayford is on the far left. Second from the right, with the full-length coat, is Thomas Gilbert Mahaddie (“Hamish” Mahaddie). He was born in Scotland in 1911 and joined the Royal Air Force in 1928. Tension and fatigue of returning from an operational mission - but also the relief to be back home safely - is visible on the crewmembers’ faces.

Aircrew returning from a reconnaissance and leaflet dropping mission. Berkeley Denis Cayford is on the far left. Second from the right, with the full-length coat, is Thomas Gilbert Mahaddie (“Hamish” Mahaddie). He was born in Scotland in 1911 and joined the Royal Air Force in 1928. Tension and fatigue of returning from an operational mission – but also the relief to be back home safely – is visible on the crewmembers’ faces.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Squadron Leader Charles J. Lofthouse

Squadron Leader Charles J. Lofthouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a cold night, the night of Friday/Saturday, March 23/24, 1944. Snow was still covering the ground about 100 miles east of Berlin, the capital of Nazi Germany.

This night has become the moment many men, imprisoned at the North Compound of a German prisoner of war camp for Allied Air Force Officers, had waited for many long months. It was the night of their escape through a 365 foot tunnel.

Although Germany was on the loosing hand, the European mainland was still firmly in Germany’s hands. Rumours about a major landing operation on the west coast of Hitler’s so-called “Fortress Europe” by the Western Allies had been long around, but nobody knew when or where…

Back at the p.o.w. camp, nobody could ever considered that cold night of March 1944, that the escape would make the camp worldfamous after the war. The camp was Stalag Luft 3.

Denis Cayford, a navigator on an Avro “Lancaster”, was one of the 200 men selected to escape, although he and his comrades knew their chances to reach England were slim indeed. As an airman, Denis could hardly imagine on that dreadful night, seven months ago now, when his plane was shot down, thousands of feet in the air on a combat mission, he would do now his bit in the war effort, lying outstretched in a tunnel 30 feet below the surface. The narrow tunnel called up the worst claustrofobic feelings, but for Denis, just as it was for most of the men, this was overcome by the fact that shorty after, he would be outside the wire and on the run.

Denis’s way to Stalag Luft 3 was a story on its own. Born in England on March 16, 1918, Berkeley Denis Cayford had a remarkable service career. Denis’s sister, Audrey, was a keen swimmer and taught him to swim in the rivers of Shropshire, where they got into serious swimming training. At the local grammar school he excelled academically and in sports. He was a county swimmer and travelled in 1936 with the British swimming team to the Olympic games, which where held in Berlin, Germany.

The Berlin Olympics of 1936 were used by Adolf Hitler to show the world a resurgent Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, Nazi propaganda promoted concepts of the superiority of the “Aryan” race and depicted other races, like ethnic Africans, as inferior.

Denis’s experience of the Berlin Olympics convinced him that war was inevitable, and he signed up with the Royal Air Force in 1938, neither wishing to spend a war in the trenches, nor at sea. He was trained to fly at Yatesbury and posted to R.A.F. Bomber Command’s 77 Squadron. By the outbreak of the war, he had gained his wings and became a navigator. His Armstrong Whitworth “Whitley” twin-engine bomber brought him over Poland, Czechoslovakia and Germany on leaflet dropping missions.

Following his first full tour of duty, “Cay” was posted to Scotland to train new pilots and navigators. Thereafter he was sent to Canada for a six months course of astral navigation before returning to Scotland. In December 1941, the Avro “Anson” which he was navigating, iced up and ditched into the Moray Firth, injuring Denis. The crew spent nine hours in a dinghy in freezing fog.

In March 1942, during thick fog, his “Whitley” caught fire and crash landed in remote countryside. Finding a farmhouse he shouted, “British airman” three times at the front door, whereupon he felt a prod, and looking down, noticed a shotgun poking into his stomach. In a broad Scottish accent the farmer asked, “Did you say you were a German?”

When in 1942, the “Pathfinder Force” was set-up by Bomber Command to increase the accuracy of night bombing raids, Denis was among the first navigators to be invited to join. The “Pathfinders” dropped flares and coloured indicators over the targets as aiming points for the bomber stream that followed. He joined the, by then Short “Stirling” equipped, 7 Squadron at Oakington. In 1943, Denis was one of the navigators to be trained on the new H2S radar navigation and bombing aid. This equipment “painted” a picture of the ground below the aircraft, highlighting towns, coastlines and major inland water features. By using offsets from a prominent feature it was possible to mark and bomb the target.

In the early months of 1943, Denis and his crew attacked industrial targets in the Ruhr area. Denis’s expertise was recognized by the award of the D.F.C. in May 1943. His commanding officer commenting, “He is one of the Squadron’s most experienced and capable navigators. Such men are the backbone of the Squadron”.

On the night of Tuesday/Wednesday, August 17/18, 1943, Denis and his crew were ordered on a “shift” attack of the “Peenemünde” research establishment on the Baltic Coast; where the “V2” rocket was under development. Flying a “Lancaster”, their task was to check the earlier marking and “shift” the aiming point, if necessary, by dropping new markers. When the bomber arrived at the target, Denis, using the H2S device, was convinced that earlier markers were too far south. After an altercation with the bomb aimer, Denis’s view prevailed and the markers were placed precisely over two production buildings, allowing the Master Bomber to give new instructions to the following bombers. For this achievement, Denis was recommended for further decoration.

On the night of Monday/Tuesday, August 23/24, 1943, Denis took off for a bombing mission to Berlin. The pilot was Denis’s flight commander, Squadron Leader Charles J. Lofthouse, a highly decorated officer holding the D.F.C. and the Military O.B.E. Charles’s first squadron service was in a Vickers “Wellington” at Lossiemouth. He converted to the Short “Stirling” in October 1941. A move to Lakenheath saw him operational in July 1942, and a successful tour ensued, culminating in the award of the D.F.C. Later while at 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit, Waterbeach, he led desperate attempt to rescue the crew of a crashed bomber. Charles and two Aircraftsmen repeatedly braved burning aviation fuel, exploding ammunition and fought for over an hour to bring out five crewmen. For this sustained act of gallantry he was awarded the Military O.B.E. The Aircraftsmen received The Medal of the Order of the British Empire for Meritorious Service, better known as the B.E.M. (British Empire Medal). Charles’s next posting was to 7 Squadron of the “Pathfinder Force” where he converted to the “Lancaster”.

Above Berlin that night, searchlights coned the Lancaster and a German night fighter attacked the bomber, setting an engine on fire. “Cay” asked Charles Lofthouse for permission to crawl on the wing with a fire-extinguisher to try to put out the fire but “Lofty”, realizing that “Cay” had no chance, refused and ordered the crew to bail out. Charles was the last to leave the plane and, by a miracle, all crewmembers landed safely, although Charles broke his arm in the landing. Denis parachuted onto a church roof and was hurriedly cut down by a German civil guard before dragged into an air raid shelter.

The Germans had a good catch with this crew, Group Captain A.H. Willetts, the station commander at Oakington was on the plane as well. The three officers of the crew, A.H. Willetts, Denis and Charles; ended up in Stalag Luft 3. The other four crewmembers were brought to other prisoner of war camps. Denis and Charles were confined to barrack 101 at the North Compound. Denis became one of the many “Penguins”, the nickname given to the men transporting and distributing the tons of sand dug out of the tunnels over the compound.

The escape tunnel was the brainchild of Roger Bushell, head of the “Escape Committee” at the North Compound. The ultimate goal for Roger was to get 200 men out at one time; the biggest escape ever. Actually, three major tunnels were started at the same time for the planned mass escape; a major undertaking, never done before in the history of prisones of war. The idea was not to use the tunnels simultaneously, but with the knowledge if one or even two were discovered, the prisoners still had one left. The tunnels were called “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry” and by doing this the dangerous word “tunnel” was banned in all conversation to prevent to be accidently heard by a German. Later, “Tom” was discovered by the Germans and destroyed, and “Dick” was abandoned by the prisoners, so the only one left which could be succesful was “Harry”.

The Germans had done everything to keep Stalag Luft 3 as “escape-proof” as possible. First, the camp lay in a very remote area, far from neutral territory. Second, the barracks were situated very far from the barbed wire fence and third, the camp was built on sandy soil, very tricky to dig tunnels in. Because of the sandy soil, the tunnels had to be shored all the way to prevent cave inns. The only type of material available in large quantities were the wooden bed boards, the loosely laid transverse slats in the bunks; so actually the size of the boards dictated the size of the tunnels … very small. However, the tunnels hád to be small to make the amount of dug out sand as low as possible but it was still unimaginable of how much sand came out of the tunnels.

Captured airmen were considered as a dangerous group by the Germans. Generally, airmen had received a better civilian education and a better military training than the average foot soldier. After the Germans realized that the war lasted longer than expected they began to segregrate prisoners of war to the fighting force they belonged to with the responsibility for guarding them falling on the corresponding German one. The “Stalag Luft’s” were the camps for captured Allied Air Force officers and non-commissioned officers. The “Stalag Luft’s” were administered and guarded by personnel of the “Luftwaffe”. Most were non-flying personnel, some were injured aircrew.

Indeed, one of the main difficulties the tunnelers at Stalag Luft 3 came accross was to get rid of the sand, given the fact that every three and a half foot length of tunnel produced a ton of sand. The sand had to be disposed of in such a way as not to bring attention to the fact that a tunnel was in progress and, as the sand from the tunnels was of a different colour – yellow instead of the grey surface sand – this required much care. Even the slightest trace of yellow sand found by the Germans was evidence of a tunnel under construction. The Germans knew that to get rid of or camouflage, the dug out sand, was one of the most challenging problems for the tunnelers.

This serious problem was solved by Peter Fanshawe who invented the “trouser-bag” method. He suggested that the men involved in sand disposal make long thin bags, two for each person. The upper part of each bag was attached to one end of a suspender. The suspender was slung around one’s neck and each bag hung inside a trouser leg above the knee. The bottom of each bag was held shut by a long pin of which a string was attached, ending in the trouser-pocket. The pockets of the trousers had to be slit for this purpose. They could then walk around the camp, releasing the sand from each bag by pulling the string. The sand would then stream along the lower legs, the ankles and feet. Although the sand streaming along the ankles and feet was not noticeable from a distance, safety was still number one. After emptying his bags, a “Penguin” shuffled his feet for an even spread and to blend the freshly dug out yellow sand with the dark surface sand. The men in charge of this method of sand disposal were nicknamed “Penguins” by their fellow prisoners because of their distinctive penguin waddle caused by the heavy sandbag in each trouser leg.

One of the other tricks the Germans had on their sleeves was that they had buried seismograph microphones beneath the barbed wire fences, which were expected to detect any sounds of digging, so in order to keep Tom, Dick and Harry from being detected, they had to be very deep. The first step in each case was to build a shaft straight down from the entrance to the required depth before starting on the horizontal tunnel heading for the woods surrounding the camp.

As the tunnelers formed one group of the escape organization, other escape departments were responsible for making maps, compasses, tailoring civilian suits and forging indentity papers, this all under the utmost secrecy. Because of this, a heavy burden lay on the shoulders of the “Stooges”, the look-outs. Working in a network covering the whole compound they used harmless looking actions to warn the various escape departments in time of oncoming danger.

The chances for many escapees of reaching neutral territory were slim indeed, and many realized that, but at least, once outside the wire, they would get a taste of freedom and the feeling they contributed to the war effort. At the time of the escape it was already clear that Germany was losing the war. The escape was therefore not intended to bring home as many prisoners of war as possible to be put in active service again, but to cause as much disruption as viable in Hitler’s Europe. In German police terms a “mass escape” was more than five men at a time. The numerous mobilized Germans needed in the search for the escapers could not be committed elsewhere in the war industry. The already heavily crushed war industry of Germany would have an extra burden to bear.

Because of several delays and setbacks during the escape, the intended number of 200 escapees didn’t work out. The escape, still in progress, was discovered when a guard patrolling outside the wire went off his beaten track and approached towards the exit. He hadn’t noticed the exit or one of the emerging escapers, but it was purely by chance that he walked in that direction. It is not known if the guard first spotted the dark track from the exit to the woods left in the snow by the escapers, or had actually seen one of the escapers. The next thing to happen was that he unshouldered his rifle and fired a shot without hitting anyone. Luckily, the guard restrained himself quickly and no other shot was fired. The men still in the tunnel, having heard the sound of the shot, realized the plan was over. However, no less than 76 men had escaped.

Many prisoners processing through the tunnel had been stranded on their way to the exit shaft when the tunnel was discovered. They had to turn around in the small tunnel and make their way back with difficulty to the entrance. Denis Cayford, well down at the tunnel at that moment, chances to be outside the wire were smashed to smithereens. However, as it turned out later, for the men who couldn’t escape it was hard to endure what happened to 50 of the men who did escape.

All but three of the 76 escapers had been recaptured in the biggest manhunt known in history. To set an example to end future escape attempts, the German High Command took a terrible reprisal – totally against the rules laid down by the Geneva Convention – to shoot 50 of the recaptured men. Responsible for this crime was the “Gestapo”.

The reason given was that the men were shot while resisting arrest or in their endeavours to escape again after having been rearrested. It was completely untrue, they were all murdered in cold blood…

The “Luftwaffe” hadn’t been involved in this war crime and the German camp staff at Stalag Luft 3 quietly allowed the prisoners to build a local memorial for The Fifty outside the camp at the small Allied War Cemetery. The vault was completed with three granite scrolls rising from the granite slabs on which the names of The Fifty were engraved.

By January 1945, the deep boom of Russian guns could be heard at Stalag Luft 3.  The threat of the Russian advance coming from the east became very critical.  To prevent the prisoners of war from being liberated; and in order to use them as leverage for concession from the Allies of the west at the end, the Germans decided to move the prisoners to other camps beyond the reach of the advancing Red Army.

The prisoners couldn’t know that one of the worst hardships of their prisoner of war time was waiting for them. The prisoners were marched out to an unknown destination. The forced marches would become one of the Second World War’s most extraordinary feats of endurance amid extreme privation and suffering. Driven from concentration camps and prisoner of war camps, a quarter of a million prisoners stumbled and shuffled their way to the west, without adequate food, shelter or clothing in the bitterest winter Germany had experienced in 50 years.

It was not until the very last stages of the war that the prisoners were liberated by the Allied fighting forces and could taste freedom again.

Due to the fact that airmen of Oakington, ánd their station commander were imprisoned at Stalag Luft 3, this airbase and prisoner of war camp are linked forever. This bond is made even stronger because one of these airmen, Denis Cayford, had been part of “The Great Escape” from Stalag Luft 3; the most famous escape ever made from a prisoner of war camp. These facts prove that the former “Oakington” airbase is part of British history of World War 2 which we never must allow to erode.

Ben van Drogenbroek

Stadhouderslaan 32

3417 TW  Montfoort

The Netherlands