Prelude: On the night of August 31/September 1st, VR-K is part of an operation on Berlin. When an enemy night fighter attacks the Halifax. A cannon shell crashes into the rear turret where F/O Larlee is sitting behind his guns. The shell while not injuring Larlee knocks out the intercom, subsequent enemy fire puts both port engines out of commission. The port wing begins to catch fire fed by the fuel going to the two damaged engines and gives the pilot has no choice but to order the bail out. Four of the crew manage to escape; the Pilot, Air Bomber and Flight Engineer were lost.

Remembering Sagan:
The Story of Flight Lieutenant Darrell Larlee By David Larlee

Nestled deep in the dark pine forest of Silesia, just south of Berlin, near the town of Sagan the Germans built a POW camp specifically to hold captured allied airmen. Named Stalag Luft III the camp was supposed to be escape proof. Unlike all the other POW camps, the officials in charge believed that if the prisoners were given all the comforts of life they would not feel the need to escape. The prisoners were allowed many privileges but the one comfort that was not allowed was in fact the most haunting. They were denied their freedom. Unable to cope with the loss of freedom many of the airmen set their minds to the task of reclaiming it by planning their escape. The large-scale escape that they planned is today known as the "Great Escape"
One such airman was Darrell "Slim" Larlee. Born in Bath, Carleton County, New Brunswick on May 19, 1912, Darrell Larlee, a former Mount Allison University student, he spent the majority of his life working for Fraser Company Ltd. in the woodlands of Northern New Brunswick and Cabano Quebec. Prior to the war, Larlee was a clerk for Fraser Company and spent most of his time traveling between the Company's camps out in the woods. Because of a lack of permanent roads, Larlee made his trips in the winter aided by his cross-country skis and his snowshoes. Little did he know that his work for Fraser Company Ltd. would prepare him for the hardships of POW life.
Like most recruits Darrell Larlee joined the R.C.A.F. because he wanted to fight. At 28 he was older than most of the recruits but he was single. He enlisted in Edmunston, NB in the spring of 1940. Upon admission he expressed his desire to be a pilot. He was 6'1 and weighed a mere 149 lbs. Unfortunately the medical officer found that he was in good condition but underweight for his height so he told Larlee to wait six months and once he had gained some weight he could then re-muster as a pilot. He was then sent to Manning Pool in Quebec City where he worked as a guard and washed dishes. Following his training in Quebec City he was asked to re-muster as a wireless air gunner but he declined because of a lack of interest. He was then transferred to Headquarters in Ottawa where he served as an AC2, aircraftman 2nd class assigned to General Duties. The frustrated young officer spent most of his time in Ottawa cleaning desks and sweeping floors. In 1941 a bulletin came out which read: "Air Gunners Required at Once. Overseas in 6 months." Darrell left the next day headed for the training camp. After passing all the examinations, the officer said: "Larlee you are overqualified to be a straight air gunner." To this he replied "I left my job to fight a war, not sweep floors." He was re-mustered and sent to No 1 Gunnery School in Jarvis Ontario where he excelled and was the 1st straight air gunner named as a commissioned officer.
Following a short leave at home in late 1941 Larlee eagerly went overseas. He was immediately posted to Bournemouth and from there went to gunnery training school for a refresher course in Stormy Downs, Wales. There his unit was trained by the famous Buzz Berling who taught them the art of deflection in shooting at a target. At Stormy Downs they flew Whitleys, an old aircraft in the RAF that is known for its turret that hung out two feet in the open air. As Larlee said in retrospect, "it was quite a hairy do!" He got through that and was posted to a squadron flying Wellington's, the 419 Moose squadron. Shortly after his arrival the planes were converted to four-engine Halifaxes. Following the change of aircraft the crew members had to spend a short period of time at conversion school. Once finished they then headed back to the squadron to operate over Germany on Halifaxes "They were a wonderful aircraft because you couldn't blow them apart, they would always stay together."
During his time with the 419th squadron, Larlee successfully completed eighteen bombing missions over Germany. He shared a common feeling that most airmen did during those treacherous missions: "After you got past the new arrival stage you were still scared up there or at least I was still scared." Having completed a hair raising set of bombing missions over Hamburg the 419 began their nightly runs over Berlin.
"After the Hamburg raids we were shifted to Berlin and fortunately I made two to Berlin and on the 3rd raid over Berlin we were hit by two ME110s. One came from underneath and the other came from the back and I had very little chance to do much against these fellows. One of their canon shells went through the turret and missed me but shattered all the mechanisms so I had to turn the turret manually and the fellow underneath managed to set the plane on fire, so we were done for. I tried to turn the turret and swing the turret and finally with the manual control I managed to get it out and open large enough so I could just barely squeeze out. Our [sic] breast-shoots were held (on our chests) there by riser strings and I managed to get the shoot out but the air current tore the shoot pack from the riser strings. So the minute that pack shot out, it went out with such force that it pulled me out of this little hole and I lost my shoe and tore by leg. I was out in the open air and everything was so quiet after the flames and the roar. I thought, what am I going to do? I swung twice and hit the ground. Fortunately I struck the ground in a garden in between a house and a barn. The aircraft that I had been riding in crashed into a house just half a mile down the road and exploded on impact. The local people were all up in arms and they came running around looking for me. When I hit the ground I busted up my leg a bit but I had sense enough to hide my shoot and try and crawl into a hedge. They came around with shot guns and sticks looking for me but there was a Luftwaffe station not far from where we crashed, probably the fellows that shot us down. They could see the crash so they sent a whole squad of guards to pick up any prisoners that had been found and luckily they got to me before the civilians had a chance to do me in."
Once captured the German officers rushed Larlee back to the local mobile Luftwaffe station. After they had stripped him of all his valuable items they took him to a hospital in the small town of Detmold. Catholic nuns ran the hospital and they took him up into the operating room and attended to his injured leg. While he was waiting to see the doctor, Larlee remembers hearing a loud roaring coming from down the hall. As the roaring intensified the doctor burst into the room. He grabbed Larlee by the throat and bashed him in the face. He then threw Larlee into the corner and kicked him in the groin. Larlee learned afterward that his plane crash had resulted in the death of the doctor's son. The sisters helped him up and aided him back to the truck.
From the hospital, the German officers took him to the local jail and tossed him into a cell. He was confined to the cell until the middle part of the next afternoon. The guards came back the next afternoon and took him to what appeared to be a German training school. He was quickly taken inside and put in a room with a group of other airmen who had been shot down the night before. Larlee was reunited with his pilot and navigator and was very happy to see that they had survived the crash. Unfortunately his other crew members were not as lucky.
They spent the night at the training school and were taken to the train station early the next morning to be loaded onto cattle cars and transported to Frankfurt. Once in Frankfurt they were transferred to an interrogation camp known as Dulag Luft. All of the prisoners were interrogated except for Larlee, who must have seemed weak or feeble because he was put into solitary confinement. His pilot and the rest of the prisoners were interrogated and then let out into the camp to meet the Red Cross officials. Larlee was placed in a cell that was approximately 8 feet by 5 feet and the roof was completely covered with steam pipes. He recalled that the weather that September was best compared to a warm June or July day in New Brunswick. Despite the outside temperature the Germans had the heat on in the cell. It must have been almost unbearable. The cell had but one window that did little to help with the situation. Each day a supposed Canadian Red Cross official interrogated him but it was only a German ruse. Larlee, having been forewarned about such tactics recognized the ruse and refused to answer any of his questions. Despite this however, the supposed Canadian Red Cross official came to interview him every morning and continued to ask him questions concerning his squadron and about his various activities. During his afternoons at Dulag Luft Larlee was invited into the Commanding Officer's office and given a cup of coffee and a cigarette and was formally interviewed. After a week of this he was released to the outer compound where he was able to contact the true Red Cross and was able to send a card home notifying his parents and family that he was alive and well. After an additional 4 days had gone by, the prisoners were put in trucks and hauled off to the railway station and loaded back onto cattle cars and shipped out across Germany.
"We were being sent to the high security camp of Stalag Luft III for captured air force officers. This was at Sagan, 90 mile south of Berlin and 90 miles from the Polish border."
Upon arrival the prisoners were subjected to another complete interrogation. The Germans unsuccessfully attempted to get a rundown on all of the activities in which these allied prisoners had taken part.
"The minute we went through the gates of the compound we were immediately taken by an air force officer into hut 104, where we were thoroughly interrogated by a senior British Officer and other officers to make sure we were authentic POWs. The Germans had obviously tried to sneak spies into the camp. After we had settled in and been assigned our hut, we were given a meal and I had been very fortunate to share a room with a New Zealander and two other Canadians. But eventually it ended up that there were 14 of us sharing this room. After a couple of days we were called back to the British officer's hut and were asked if we wished to voluntarily join in a secret escape organization and of course I said yes. If there was any possibility of getting out, I wanted out. So I joined the organization called X."
Stalag Luft III represented the culmination of everything the Germans had learned about guarding POWs and preventing escapes. The Germans considered the camp to be escape proof. After all the camp was situated deep in the Silesian forest and miles from neutral territory. The camp was also built on soft sandy soil, which the Germans thought would make tunneling impossible. The Luftwaffe was under the direction of the egomaniac Reiss Marshall Geireig, the same man who had established the Gestapo and had designed the concentration camps. Luckily, Geireig had been an Ace air pilot during the First World War and respected airmen. So he designed the camp with the idea that if the camp was comfortable and luxuries were provided then the POWs would just sit back and wait for the War to end. Luftwaffe servicemen ran the camp so the POWs were generally treated quite well.
The men in the camp all had to adjust to their new surroundings. The men had to find ways to occupy their minds. Some continued their education; others played in a band. The Americans found comfort playing baseball while the Canadians did so playing hockey. Their guards were fellow airmen so the prisoners were able to befriend some of them. Throughout his time behind enemy lines the responsibility of dispensing the meager rations was bestowed upon Larlee. He was always very careful to make sure that he got the smallest portion so that he was never accused of trying to hoard the food. Because of this Larlee maintained his slim size and was given the appropriate nickname. The most difficult thing to accept for most of them was the feeling of isolation that crept into their minds. As a result some of the officers went crazy and tried to make a break for it by climbing over the fence. For the most part fence climbers were shot on sight. For a number of men the isolation made them obsessed with finding a way to escape and reclaim their freedom.
Escaping rapidly became a sport and they quickly realized that in order to be effective they had to be organized. In March of 1943 under the direction of Roger Bushel, who was known as "Big X", the "X Organization" was created. The organization controlled all escape activity inside the camp. In order to avoid all possible suspicion anyone who mentioned anything to do with the escape attempts outside the organizational meetings was beaten. The X organization was the work of 500 men for fifteen months. On April 11th 1943 construction began on the tunnels. Bushel's idea was to help the war effort by engineering the escape of two hundred POWs. With such a massive escape the German Military Machine would be disrupted, as they would have to call troops away from the front in order to help search for the escaped POWs. The original plan called for three tunnels named Tom, Dick and Harry. Work on the tunnels took place simultaneously so that if one was discovered the other two would remain. Although the Germans thought escape would be impossible they had guards the allies called "ferrets" who were trained to unearth the escape plots. They had electronic listening devices in the ground so that the tunnels had to be dug thirty feet deep to avoid detection. The loose sand also provided them with another challenge. The POWs quickly found that the comfortable beds the Germans had provided them could be disassembled and used as braces for the tunnel walls. By the time the tunnel was completed the majority of beds were being held together by strings. The loose sand meant that every foot of the tunnel had to be braced.
Another problem was that the underground sand was of a different colour than that of the surface. Once again the organization was lucky that the Germans provided them with comforts. Many of the POWs had been provided with full sets of towels. So they fashioned towels into sandbags that resembled sausages. These "sausages" were fashioned with stringed trap doors. So that while organization members walked around the compound with the "sausages" tied to their legs they could pull the strings in their pants, shuffle their feet and dispersed the sand across the compound. As winter approached it became evident that the method of dispersing sand would not work with snow on the ground. The organization's luck held and the Germans allowed them to build a theatre, which was completed in the spring of 1943. The construction of the theatre provided them with the perfect opportunity to disperse the sand. They built trapdoors under certain seats to disperse the sand. In total 130 tons of sand was removed in 25,000 trips.
Flight Lieutenant Paul Brickhill, a journalist before the war recorded the drama. The following is an excerpt.
"We began planning the big break around Christmas of 1942. Six months later the boys had Tom, our first tunnel, about 30 feet long and were about to dig up, out and away, when Herman, one of the 'ferrets,' accidentally dug his probe-iron spike in the edge of Tom's trap door, and that was the end of Tom. After that blow we found that Dick was unsuitable because the Germans suddenly cut down the wood where it was to come up, and built another compound there, so early in January, 1944, work went full steam ahead on Harry."
The trap door to Harry was cleverly concealed underneath the stove in a corner of the hut. The ventilation in the tunnel was quite poor so they ingeniously fashioned a subterranean air pump out of a knapsack and from old tins they made an air pipe line that led up to a secret intake in the chimney. To facilitate the whole digging process they dug an underground workshop where they could assemble the wooden frames for the tunnel and they also built wooden railway lines and trolleys for tunnel transport.
The digging process was slow. They were able to extend the tunnel by four feet a day. As Brickhill describes it:
"One lad, lying full length, hacked away at the sand, while his No. 2, lying just behind, passed it back on the railway. Nearly every day, owing to the loose sand, there were dangerous falls at the face, which held up work badly. The only warning would be a slight rustle and then No. 1 digger would be buried under feet of suffocating sand, fallen from the roof. Our home made lamps and air line would be smothered and No. 2, working fast, would have to find his pal's feet in inky blackness and haul him back out of danger."
The organization members knew that the dirty clothing of the diggers would rouse suspicion so the men who did the digging either did so naked or wearing long-johns.
While the digging was taking place other men were busy preparing the various things that would be needed once they were on the other side of the fence. The stooges were the members of the organization whose purpose was to keep an eye on the ferrets and alert the others when they approached. With the stooges in place, the artists in the camp began producing forged documents that would be necessary later. When they were not forging documents they were busy drawing maps. They carved Government seals out of the heels of their boots and were able to produce false government documents better than the government was able to produce its own authentic documents.
Amateur cooks also got underway preparing the iron rations that would hopefully sustain the men until they reached neutral soil. Tailors produced disguises out of clothing and blankets. They were even able to produce German uniforms. They were able to combine pieces of gramophone records with magnetized razor blades to produce compasses. In an interview with Ann Medina, Flight Lieutenant Tony Pengelly recalls that "a great help came from the personal packages that arrived for the men. The Canadian Tobacco Co. allowed for a carton of 300 cigarettes to be sent to POWs by their families in exchange for $1.00. There was little pilfering done by the Nazis and since they were short on cigarettes we were able to barter cigarettes for items that we needed."
The activities of Organization X progressed without detection until the accidental discovery of Tom threw the Ferrets into high alert. Everything was halted for 4 months. After work on Dick ended the organization members used it to rid themselves of some of the sand.
In January 1944 they restarted production on Harry and intended to have everything ready to go by early Spring. Excitement built amongst the men. To make matters worse, their vow of silence concerning the organization's activities meant they had to be extra cautious not to allow the excitement to show. By March it was clear that the organization's security would eventually be compromised and they could not afford to wait until April. So the date was set for March 24, 1944.
The Germans were sure an escape was being planned but they could not find any signs of one. A week before the breakout the Germans circulated the statement that escape attempts were no longer going to be seen as a "sport."
Roger Bushel had hand picked the first thirty men. They were the ones thought to have the best chance of success because of their ability in French and German. Larlee having grown up in North Western New Brunswick and having lived in Quebec was fluent in French and had picked up German because of a natural ability with languages but his leg was still giving him trouble so he opted out of being amongst the first thirty. The remaining of the two hundred were decided by drawing lots.
Darrell Larlee remembers that fateful night when the lots were chosen and the escape was made:
"The night that the organization planned for us to break open the tunnel we all had drawn lots and unfortunately or fortunately which ever way you want to look at it, my number was 189. The lucky 200 of us were all given our necessary goods and we were all very excited. We were then given a short briefing of what to expect on the other side of the wire. They told us not to worry about getting shot because the Geneva Convention encouraged escape attempts and we were reminded that the punishment was only ten days in solitary confinement. We never ever ever imagined that they would shoot any of us."
Despite their careful planning the members of Organization X ran into two major delays. Firstly they had not foreseen snow and ice being over the exit. So they lost valuable time trying to quickly break through the layers of ice and snow that lay on top of the exit. Secondly the men were horrified when they realized that their three hundred and fifty-foot tunnel came up thirty yards short of the woods. The tunnel opened up in a clearing with a German sentry box fifteen yards away. To overcome this difficulty they stationed a stooge at the mouth of the tunnel to control the evacuation by rope signals.
The complications did not end there. Several people got stuck in the tunnel because of their bulging paraphernalia. This caused minor sand slides, which delayed things even further. Other escapees had not taken part in the tunneling and were in the tunnel for the first time. The men not used to the tight quarters clumsily brushed up against the ceiling and caused more sand slides. The diggers had established lighting in the tunnel with some stolen wire and light bulbs. Halfway through the escape, the R.A.F. carried out a bombing raid over Berlin. The bombing caused a power outage and the lights in the tunnel went out. The whole business of getting the men out took much longer than predicted.
At 4:55 am as the first signs of dawn began to appear the last man was getting ready to go and the controllers were busy packing up. Meanwhile a German patrolling sentry almost fell into the mouth of the tunnel. In fact he almost walked on one "quaking escapee lying doggo in the snow just out of the hole." Another was in the tunnel itself. The sentry had not seen the men next to him but he had spotted one thirty yards away. The guard shouted and fired at the escapee but missed. The guard was startled as the two men next to him revealed themselves and gave up. Everyone in hut 104 was busy eating any paper evidence and destroying any other type of evidence they could find while the men in the tunnel rushed back up to the hut as quickly as possible.
In total eighty men managed to get out of the tunnel. Of the eighty, four were captured immediately, and eventually the majority of the others were recaptured hungry and frostbitten. Only three men managed to make it to freedom.
The escape had also caused a large commotion in the camp. All of the prisoners were made to stand in the playing field in their underwear or pajamas while the Germans counted them. Pengelly recalled that "the Kommandant was a lovely sight, his face a sort of mottled puce". The Germans were furious. With Tommy guns and revolvers drawn the Ferrets threatened to shoot at the slightest provocation.
In a few hours all of Germany was in a state of national alert. Thousands of Germans were rousted from their beds and sent in to help search for the 76 escapees. When Hitler received the news he was outraged and ordered every one of them shot. Geireig desperately tried to persuade him to reduce the sentence but Hitler cried out for blood. With that order the Geneva Convention was abrogated. As the Gestapo brought the men back to the camp they would stop the truck, choose men at random and execute them. Two weeks later the Kommandant of the camp delivered the news to his prisoners. Larlee recalls that it was one of the saddest days of his life. They were horrified that the Germans had dared commit such dastardly acts. Soon after the slaying of the escaped POWs the men in the camp were allowed to erect a memorial in honour of their lost comrades. The memorial still stands today.
Following the escape attempt the Gestapo were sent in to take over the camp. The Luftwaffe men were thought to be too gentle with the POWs. The Escape did have the intended effect because the number of guards at the camp tripled and these guards were all members of the Gestapo who could have otherwise been used elsewhere. In retrospect Pengelly remembers that a great deal of men were caught because of the papers they were carrying, not because the papers were faulty but because they were too close to perfection. The Gestapo thought it strange that many of the escapees were wearing the clothing in which their identification picture had been taken and as Pengelly stated, that never happens.
As F/Lt Brickhill wrote in retrospect, the tunneling did not end with Harry. "I suppose the Germans thought the shooting would stop our escaping attempts, though if they did think that, they would have got a pretty hefty shock if they had seen the next tunnel we built. Honestly, it was a beauty, and we were evacuated from the camp before we could finish it. And now I hope we are through with tunnels for good. I would much rather take a bus."
Other POWs do not share the same lighthearted thoughts about the Great Escape as Brickhill does. But they do all seem to agree with Larlee when he stated that: "The tunneling and everything that went along with Organization X was good for us, especially for me. I took part in just about every component of the escape, I dug, I dispersed sand, I was a look out, I did it all. It gave me something to do and think about. It gave us a reason to carry on and we did. Because we didn't stop with Harry!" Throughout the entire time that these men were in Stalag Luft III they had access to German News bulletins, which kept them informed on how well Germany was doing in the war. As one can imagine these reports only told the German side of things. In order to get the other side of the story the POWs managed to acquire their own radio. The news report was received once a day during the late afternoon. To avoid detection they kept the whole set cleverly hidden inside the cabin's toilet. Any other news was gained from new arrivals into the camp.
At the end of December 1944 the captured airmen were well aware of Russia's success. By early January of 1945 they could hear the guns on the Russian front and the bombing of Berlin. Rumours began to circulate that the camp was going to be evacuated and that there was going to be a forced march. As word of this spread, the men in the camp began to walk along the perimeter of the camp in an attempt to get their legs in shape for what would be a horrible ordeal. By this time the population of the camp had swollen from twenty thousand to one hundred thousand. Conditions were cramped to say the least and the food was becoming more and more scarce.
In a book entitled Forced March to Freedom, Robert Buckham depicts the two forced marches that the POWs of Stalag Luft III had to endure. He writes: "A breathless runner read the German order to us at 8:30 pm. We were to be ready to march in one hour. A moment of disbelief was immediately followed by a reaction verging on panic. Lockers were stripped. Duffle bags were stuffed to the overflow, unpacked, and repacked again. At 9:30 pm a runner announce a delay of half an hour." With the Russians less than forty-six miles away the POWs of Stalag Luft III set out in the dead of night for a location unknown to them. Undernourished and weak the men were motivated by another rumour.
Once again as Buckham writes:
"A near panic was caused tonight by an unconfirmed rumour that the Germans were actually pulling out and leaving us behind. There are an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Allied Air Force POWs in the several compounds in this area and some conjecture had arisen that the Russians plan on arming us and order a common advance against the Germans. NOT BLOODY LIKELY!"
According to one comrade of Darrel Larlee's the first march took 51 days and they covered 650 km. Here is how Rollie Carlson recalls the march: "One day in a severe snowstorm we had just left the town of Jena when we passed a convoy of German soldiers moving westward their personal equipment being hauled in large wooden wagons pulled by Hungarian and Russian women. We tried to share some of the food we had with them but one of their guards smashed his rifle into the face of a one woman who accepted a piece of bread. We found it was wiser not to do so, and were forced to step aside as the column passed. One woman wearing stockings on her feet and wrapped in a ragged blanket shouted to us as she passed "Courage Englander " After 51 days we had marched 650 kilometres, often with no food for days, sleeping in barns, and in open haystacks. The image of those women being used as draft animals was very haunting. How many of them survived and whether that brave woman who risked her life by being beaten to shout encouragement to us is alive and if she knows what her courage did for cold, hungry , sick Canadians when she shouted "Courage Englander"
Larlee's recollection of their first destination is as follows:
"We slept our nights in fields and when there was a barn around we slept in the barn. I distinctly remember that I slept in the doorway on the floor of the barn and as I would warm up the ice would melt and I could smell the smell of something that wasn't quite pleasant. Anyway we marched for several days and then we were loaded into cattle cars for another few days. Finally we arrived at Marlag M, which was a POW camp on the outskirts of Bremen. This camp had been set up for naval and merchant seamen personnel and our guards were relieved of their duties and were replaced by members of the German Navy. The compound that we were assigned to had been condemned and evacuated but we were put in there and conditions were quite difficult. Food was at a minimum. The few Red Cross parcels that we did get were badly handled by the Germans. In other words they made it difficult for us because they dumped the whole lot into a big box. Sugar, raisins, and jam were all mixed in together. But we scrounged what we could, peelings from turnips and so on. They tried to break our spirit, but we just laughed at them and ate more turnips." During the first days of March news of the allied success in their invasion across the Rhine and into Holland had reached the camp. They were further encouraged at the sight of the American Air Force, the R.C.A.F. and the R.A.F. flying overhead coming and going from their bombing missions. The men knew the end was at hand but what disturbed them the most was that they anticipated another forced march.
On April 10th the POWs were forced to march out of the camp. The Germans intended to march the POWs to the coast and then transport them to Sweden. The British were quickly advancing and were only seven miles from Bremen. So the race was on. The POWs did their best to delay the march. Even the loss of mere hours could be vitally important.
The casualties were high as Larlee recalls:
"This was the really rough part because we were strafed by our own aircraft who mistook us for a column of Germans. The mistake resulted in many casualties. There were also casualties through German actions. If a fellow wouldn't move fast enough he would get shot and that was it."
The Germans guarding the POWs grew less and less tolerant with every step they took. Unlike previous guards, the men guarding the POWs were members of the SS and seemed to be searching for an excuse to fire their weapons. As the days of marching continued the Germans became increasingly agitated, as the sounds of battle became gradually closer.
Robert Buckham describes the incredibly tense moment before their liberation:
"The spasmodic firing continued all day as the city's silhouette gradually dimmed under a thickening pall of smoke. Grey ash began to fall on us, as the fires became more intense. A grey mist obscured the far reaches of the autobahn. At 5:20 am an armoured tank appeared on the road, clattering out of the smoke as it approached the camp. Others followed behind, all of them unidentifiable to our eyes. The lead tank stopped opposite the camp, the turret opened, and a khaki-clad figure popped out and waved in our direction. The tension broke. A roar of cheers; crudely-made flags waving; laughter and tears mingling; the guards running off weaponless; men climbing wire to run to the tanks; men embracing each other, shouting incoherently; men kneeling to pray; men staring vacantly, bewildered; thousands of men in a state of hysterical, blessed release. It continued for minutes."
The celebration was suddenly interrupted by the sounds of artillery up the road. The men in the tanks closed the turret and the tanks sped off up the road in search of prey.
As Larlee recalls it:
"This was a great moment in all our lives. We went out to the road and watched the army roll past. As they roared down the road they threw us the odd bottle of wine and it was terrific." The most difficult part of the liberation of these POWs was that due to the ongoing battle the men had to stay in the camp for an additional ten days. It must have been the most difficult period of their imprisonment. They had been liberated, but they were not yet free. Eventually Darrell Larlee was taken along with others to a nearby airfield and they were flown back to where his European campaign had started: Bournemouth England.
Darrell Larlee recorded his memoirs of Sagan while he was recuperating from a traumatic car accident. In his conclusion he stated that he would never have survived those forced marches had it not been for the winters spent in North-western New Brunswick. Throughout his memoirs he made little attempt to glorify the adventurous experience that he had behind enemy lines. For those people fortunate enough to have known Darrell Larlee, they would say that his last statement was very typical of his character.
"I was sitting around for a year and a half due to a horrible car accident. During this time I had time to think and collect my thoughts much more so than any ordinary veteran. I probably had more of a chance than any other would normally have, and I thought it would be something to put down. There is nothing special about what happened to me any more than any other veteran."
Few traces of Stalag Luft III remain today. The pine trees of Silesia have buried the marks left by the Germans where they incarcerated their POWs. The stories of these captured allied airmen remain largely untold, hidden in their lost or forgotten diaries and letters. As Darrell Larlee put it himself: "Everyone has a real story to tell and if they had the opportunity no doubt it would be just as or far more interesting than my little story." The pain, hardship and suffering that the POWs like Darrell Larlee endured should inspire us to be thankful for their sacrifices. Because the freedom that we enjoy is in part due to the sacrifices that they made.