After 12 months of construction, Harry neared completion. Dick was no longer a practical proposition due to an extension of the camp being built over its planned exit. However it was sufficiently far advanced for the tunnel to be used as a storage room for construction equipment and the huge volume of civilian clothes and papers required to equip the planned breakout of 200 men.
Using cursory surveying equipment again fashioned from supplies in the camp, with a fair degree of accuracy it had been possible to estimate how long the tunnel now was and where the exit shaft should be dug. By February 1944 the tunnel was almost complete, requiring just the last few inches above the shaft to be removed. The escape date was set for 24th March as this would afford the darkest sky with minimum illumination from the moon.
When the last few inches were removed and the turf rolled back on the night of 24th, it was found that the tunnel was just short of the protective screen provided by the tree line. However it was decided to proceed. The tunnel ran the risk of discovery at any moment. 600 men had been involved in its construction, and the access trap door below the stove was becoming warped . All of the travel documents had been designed with the intention of being used in the days following 24th March. The escape had to proceed that night as planned.
78 men made it out before a sentry patrolling the perimeter spotted an escapee. Of those 78, 73 would be recaptured. Tragically, of those 73, 50 would be murdered by the Gestapo on the express orders of Hitler. Indeed Hitler originally ordered the deaths of the camp Commander, all of the guards on duty and even the designer of the camp. Eventually the Commandant was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was not carried out before the War finally concluded in May 1945.
Frank spoke very highly of the German camp Commander, who was an officer in the Luftwaffe. He and his guards were always very fair, and he would make a point of always saluting the senior POW officer, who was a Wing Commander in the RAF, whenever he passed. Many of the guards, most likely knowingly, assisted in the breakout, supplying originals of some of the travel papers that had to be forged, along with items like rail tickets and timetables and even some of the civilian clothing that would be used by the escapees.
So only a handful of the escapees reached safety. However the intention of the breakout was not for every man to reach freedom, nice as that result would have been. Rather, the intention was to die down German resources in central Germany in pursuing and capturing the escapees so that they were not otherwise engaged in fighting the allies. 2 German divisions were involved in the search operation, an exercise that they were in no way trained or prepared for. These resources were thus diverted from fighting the Russians in the East or strengthening the Atlantic Wall in the West when the Allied invasion followed two months later. However, as Frank recounted this, he paused when describing his fifty fallen comrades, admitting that their loss was a heavy price to pay.
It is impossible for current generations to imagine what people like Frank went through in fighting for the freedoms that we now take from granted, and I am indebted to the Sheffield Club for arranging this presentation to allow us to hear these experiences first hand. My purpose in recording them in these 3 Bog posts is in the hope that others may also hear about this incredible story. If just one person reads these words, it will have been entirely worthwhile.