In England, there exists a strange Christmas tradition. One or other of the nation’s TV networks will invariably air a screening of the classic 1963 movie, The Great Escape. Families sit around stuffed with turkey dinners, humming Elmer Bernstein’s catchy score and booing each appearance on screen of the German authorities. Every family has its military buff who sits there less impressed, and in time delivers the familiar phrase, “Of course, the Americans had nothing to do with The Great Escape.”
Well, actually, yes they did. A number of Americans played a significant role in the preparations for the event. And indeed, many were on the list to escape through whichever of the three tunnels was first completed. It tends to be forgotten, but US airmen originally shared the historic North Compound with the British, the architects of the scheme. The Great Escape, in reality, began in the spring of 1943 when RAF S/L Roger Bushell announced his bold plans and work began. It was only a few months before the actual completion of one of the tunnels and subsequent escape that the American contingent was moved to a new compound and forced to abandon their participation. One man, in particular, stands out for his contribution. That man is then Lt. Col. Albert Clark.
Albert Patton Clark was born at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, on 27 August 1913. After a formal education at Main Avenue High School in San Antonio, TX, Clark enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1932. During his time there, Clark decided that his future lay in the air. After subsequently graduating from flight school at Randolph Field, TX, as a rated pilot in 1937, he joined the Air Corp. That same year he married the daughter of a former West Point cadet, Carolyn Pierpont Wilbourn. Somewhere in these early years, he had picked up the nickname ‘Bub’ which stuck with him the rest of his life.
After an initial posting at Selfridge Field, Michigan, Clark went to England in June 1942 to take up the post of second in command of the 31st Fighter Group. They were one of the first American fighter units to enter the War in Europe. However, the twenty-eight year old’s combat career was cut short when only a month later his Spitfire Vb was shot down over Cape Griz Nez in France.
Falling into enemy hands, he was sent to the newly opened German POW camp Stalag Luft III in Silesia, a camp that been specially designed to be escape-proof. As the senior American Officer (SAO), POW 594 Clark was made responsible for the security and intelligence activities surrounding what would later come to be known as The Great Escape.
Clark had with him a secret camera with which he captured some of the only known images of life inside Stalag Luft III and events surrounding the escape.
Lt. Col. Albert Clark in Stalag Luft III
Typical POW quarters in Stalag Luft III
Ice Hockey in South Compound
Appell (Roll Call) in Stalag luft III
German Guard with trolley from ‘Harry’
The Long March
Clark had a strong sense of honor and remembrance, and over the years amassed a wide assortment of material from his military career, much relating to Stalag Luft III. Over time this was drawn together to form The Albert P. Clark Collection, which was eventually donated to the USAF. The above photos provide a preview of some of the outstanding artifacts contained.
In later years, as part of his collection, Clark committed his military memoirs to audio. Below is a transcribed section from the recordings which deals with his time in Stalag Luft III, and in particular, The Great Escape.
INTERVIEWER: How well did the movie follow the Great Escape?
LT. GEN. CLARK: Quite well. It was filmed in an actual German POW camp of the type we were in. The technical expert was the actual tunnel engineer of the great escape tunnel, so everything was authentic with one or two obvious exceptions. We were tunneling in white sand as deep as we went, which was about 30 feet. It was just pure sand. But you recall, it was black stuff they were digging. They had a cutaway of the tunnel. Their problem was, the sand kept drying out and falling through the cracks so they had to mix it with something that would give it a consistency that would stay put, and it ended up black, which was too bad because we were digging in white sand. I think that was very significant because white sand is very dangerous to tunnel in. We had to shore all the way.
INTERVIEWER: The whole thing?
LT. GEN. CLARK: Everything. And we still had a number of risky cave-ins. When you are 30 feet down in a tunnel in sand, and they are driving trucks around the camp to try to cave in your tunnels, it can be pretty hairy. We never lost a guy, but we almost did. We pulled a few people out who were in pretty bad shape from cave-ins.
INTERVIEWER: How did you cover up to keep the Germans from finding out?
LT. GEN. CLARK: Well, most of the entrances or traps to the tunnels were in a position which enabled us to work all night, and we could seal the workers in, often even without air. I worked all night a number of times where towards morning our oil lamps went out because of lack of oxygen. You would come out with a splitting headache, but after a few days, you would be all right.
LT. GEN. CLARK: On the big tunnel, the great escape tunnel, they had a built-in air pump system, so they had good air down there. Unless you had a tunnel that had a trap you could protect from view, you couldn’t get guys in and out. If you had & security system in the camp, you would wait till the guards or the strollers or the ferrets were not in the immediate vicinity, and you would pop them in and out/ seal them in for the night perhaps, get them out before roll call in the morning, or cover for them at roll call. We had all kinds of hanky-panky to make the count come out right at roll call.
The Germans used to go mad counting 2,000 guys and maybe 6 of them had escaped the night before, and we were covering for them. They couldn’t find it out. It would drive them up the wall. When they finally popped that tunnel – and something like 76 guys got out before the Germans finally found that hole in the woods–they had to come in and count everybody to find out how many were missing. That was the big $64 question, ‘Had they caught the first guy out of the tunnel or the last?’ The Poor old commandant knew when he pulled the chain for a massive tunnel break it caused things to happen all over Germany. A lot of effort was
INTERVIEWER: Were you going?
LT. GEN. CLARK: Yes. I was on two lists for tunnels, but unfortunately, the first tunnel was caught just as it was ready to pop. That was Tom, I think, of the “Toms Dick, and Harry” series. Harry, we were all deeply involved in completing. We worked on it for about a year. When it was started, the Americans were in the same camp with the British. We started these three tunnels as soon as we moved into this new camp. There was a great advantage to that because the German ferrets, who were the guys whose job it was to prevent this kind of business, would get, eventually, to where they would memorize the camp, and whenever any fresh dirt showed up anywhere, they would know we were tunneling. But in a new camp, we got started before they had memorize simultaneously started three tunnels, three different places, three different types of traps, in the hope that at least one of them would survives and if one was caught,they would assume we only had one tunnel and would ease off in their pressure when they found one.
So Harry turned out to be an extremely successful tunnel even though it had to go 100 yards. The trap was so secure and so easy to open and close in a matter of seconds that it never was seriously threatened. Even after the tunnel had been found, because the Germans found the hole in the woods that the guys were corning out of, it took them 24 hours to find where the tunnel started. They eventually had to send a very brave ferret down to crawl back through the tunnel and to keep pounding on the floor until somebody heard him. They didn’t know what building it was in or where. Eventually, they found it. By that time, there hadn’t been any air in the tunnel, and he was almost done in. He should have been decorated for it. He was the ferret we called Charlie. We had favorite names for all of of them, like ‘Rubberneck,’ ‘Blue Boy,’ ‘Charlie,’ ‘Popeye,’ and so on. But unfortunately, the Germans moved the Americans out of the British camp before this tunnel was finished.
The heat was on us. The Germans knew we were tunneling, and at the time the Americans were moved out of the camp, the British officer in charge of all this escape work, I think, very subtlety let it leak to the Germans that the Americans were the hotshots in the tunnel business, and now that they were moving, the poor old British wouldn’t be able to continue with any tunneling activity. So as soon as we got into our new camp, the Germans descended on us in great numbers, and we had an awful time getting any tunnels started at all.
The British left their tunnel packed up for a few months and then recommenced work and managed to finish it without it being caught. The Germans knew something was cooking. You can’t conceal the fact that you have got 120 guys all equipped with the necessary plans and escape equipment and getting ready to go on on the next moonless night. The tension in the camp was obviously being transmitted to the Germans, but they couldn’t find it. They had search after search after search and couldn’t find where the tunnel was started from.
So one night, I. guess it was 23 March 1944, Roger Bushell, who was in charge of this massive escape attempt in this north camp, called me out to the wire. Our camp was adjacent to theirs and just separated by a double wire and Postern boxes or towers, and we were able to get a quick message to each other through the wire before the Germans stopped us.
He simply called me out to the wire and said, ‘We go tonight, so don’t do anything tonight that would mess it up.’ We always coordinated our escape attempts between the camps.
Just before daylight, there was an awful hullabaloo over in the north camp, shots fired, shouting, and so on, and we knew the jig was up. Seventy-six of them got out. A lot of them were captured before they ever cleared the camp area, but some of them got a long ways, and four of them, I think, eventually got home. Two or three of them were recaptured and put in the concentration camps and were never seen until the end of the war. But it was what they call a ‘massenflug’, a mass breaks and they had to take all kinds of measures that were in the Plan, nationwide, and it brought down the wrath of Hitler (Adolf). He sent the Gestapo and the SS (Schutzstaffel) into the camp, and there was hell to pay for awhile. It was Pretty rough. The very fine old gentleman, who was the camp commander, was sacked, court-martialed, and sentenced to 18 months fortress confinement and reduction in grade.
When they started capturing them, the word is Hitler said, ‘Shoot them all!’ Himmler (Heinrich) interpreted the order to mean shoot some of them, so instead of shooting 70, he shot 50, picked at random out of the cards, their identity cards. They were taken out in trucks; ostensibly being moved from A to B at night and allowed to get out of the truck for one reason or the other, such as to relieve themselves, and were shot. Nobody was wounded; they were all shot and killed.
So everybody knew it was a planned affair, and the poor old Luftwaffe was mortified. They were as shook as we were when they had to come in and tell us that so of our comrades had been shot in cold blood by the Gestapo. They never ceased trying to make clear to us they had no hand in it, which I am sure they didn’t, and that it was in violation of all their principles in the Luftwaffe.
It is hard for a prisoner of war or an enemy to distinguish between the Gestapo or the Nazi party and the armed forces, but there was a very clear distinction. The traditional armed forces really tried to maintain standards, even a certain degree of chivalry which may have been a figment towards the end of that very brutal and bitter war, but still I feel very sorry for that old camp commander.
In January 1945, with advancing Russian forces about to seize the camp, Clark and the rest of the men in Stalag Luft III were evacuated by the Germans in what came to be known as The Long March. Following a grueling winter trek of 86 km and equally unpleasant rail journey in cattle-trucks, they arrived at their new home, Stalag VII-A (Moosburg) in Bavaria. Finally, on 29 April 1945, Clark and the other US airmen from Stalag Luft III were liberated by his namesake General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army.
Clark went on to have an illustrious military career, rising to the rank of Lieutenant General and holding such prominent positions as chief of staff of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe, commander of Air University and superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy. His marriage to Carolyn lasted 65 years until her death in 2002, with 3 children adding to the family. After retiring from the military, Clark found time to serve on the boards of the U.S. Olympic Committee, the Boy Scouts of America and Stalag Luft III Former POWs.
In 2005, he published an account of his experiences as a German prisoner of war, entitled 33 Months as a POW in Stalag Luft III. He also played a leading role in preserving the memory of all those held in Stalag Luft III through the previously mentioned military archive, The Albert P. Clark Collection.
’33 Months as a POW in Stalag Luft III’ – Clark’s excellent autobiographical account of POW life in the camp
Lt. Gen. Clark was a lifelong supporter of the Stalag Luft III veterans
Lieutenant General Albert ‘Bub’ Clark died on 8 March 2010 at his home in Colorado Springs. He was ninety-six years old, and one of the last surviving men who could proudly say, “I played a part in The Great Escape.”