A unique journal penned by a man who played his part in the true story that sparked blockbuster movie The Great Escape has been uncovered – just before the world marks the 75th anniversary of the dramatic wartime adventure.
As well as anecdotes, sketches, cartoons and poems, the journal contains several black and white photos of men held in the Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp, near Sagan, Poland – characters who played their part in one of the greatest prison escapes of all time.
The journal belonged to RAF Flight Lieutenant Vivian Phillips, a Welshman who was captured by the Germans after his plane was shot down during the Second World War in 1943.
His ‘Wartime Log’ is packed with vivid tales and compelling poems handwritten in pencil, 50 sketches and cartoons and photographs of prisoners in Stalag Luft III, never before shared publicly.
Such was the impact of the dramatic escape from a site selected because its sandy soil made it difficult for POWs to tunnel out, the story was immortalised in 1963 Hollywood film The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough.
The journal will go under the hammer at Derbyshire’s Hansons Auctioneers on March 22 – just prior to the 75th anniversary of the mass escape, which took place on March 24, 1944. It will be sold together with the late Mr Phillips’ war medals, including a Distinguished Service Order. The entire collection has an estimate of £15,000-£18,000.
Adrian Stevenson, militaria expert at Hansons, said: “It’s an incredible find and absolute gold dust for any militaria collector. This journal, which is being sold by the family to honour Mr Phillips’ memory and ‘do him proud’, beautifully captures camp life and the gritty resilience of the prisoners.
“It’s so compelling, I read the journal cover to cover in one night. Everything in it reminds me of the film – the sketches of the camp, the humour and the stories of how the inmates joined forces to build a tunnel to escape Stalag Luft III.
“Mr Phillips, who died in 1997, tells how the POWS used Red Cross tins to make everything from shower roses to jugs, cups and stoves. They even saved Red Cross sugar, raisin and prune rations to make alcohol for the occasional ‘hooch night’. Ultimately, the journal underlines a deep camaraderie among men caught up in a terrible situation.”
Mr Phillips was not one of the mass escapees, chosen by names drawn out of a hat, but he played a major part in building the tunnel.
Mr Stevenson said: “He was in the camp from 1943 to 1945 and describes how prisoners smuggled sand from the tunnel in their trousers. The inmates had to dispose of tons of sandy soil as they dug out the tunnel. He was in charge of men dispersing the sand and later became a tunnel carpenter.
Mr Phillips wrote: “It was our job to make the frames which shored up the tunnel. All this work was done underground and after long hours in cramped conditions we really did feel done in. But at the same time, we felt it well worth while doing.”
The book tells of several escape attempts – and tunnels. “During the summer we were working on a tunnel… but unfortunately it was discovered… Anyway, it provided one laugh … When the German engineers laid an explosive charge in the tunnel to blow it up there was a bit of a backfire … How we cheered. Unfortunately for the Germans, we had two more tunnels going at the same time.
“The code for the tunnels was Tom, Dick and Harry and the whole thing was most efficiently run … From now on we concentrated on the one tunnel … The most number of prisoners ever to escape by tunnel got out through it – 73 officers. Everyone has now heard the tragic story of how 50 of those officers were shot by the Gestapo – in fact were murdered by the Gestapo.
“My role in the tunnel was varied. I began as a member of a group of fellows who played for hours and hours with a medicine ball. We formed a circle and threw the darned thing around until I hated the sight of it.
“At odd times we were joined by fellows who played for a little while and then departed. These fellows were dispersers and in place of pockets they carried two small bags – one either side inside their trousers – supported by a string around their necks. By putting their hands in their support pockets they were able to pull a string which acted as a quick release … It was our job to ‘work in’ the light-coloured sand from underground to the drab coloured sand of the surface. All this was done under the very noses of the guards.
“From this I graduated to a kind of foreman. I had charge of a gang of eight fellows whose job it was to pretend to be lolling about lying on great coats. In reality they were digging holes in preparation for their disperser.
“The method of selection for escape was to put all the names of the workers in a hat and draw out the winning names. Unfortunately, yours truly had no luck.
“It is funny how at first one is obsessed by thoughts of escape … later, when one is more settled and able to reflect in a clearer manner, it became obvious how utterly futile these plans would have been. Also, one developed a mania of saving and hiding bits and pieces. A piece of string, a rusty bit of wire, a bent nail – anything that one thinks might come in handy for that great event – escape. Everyone had their one secret little hiding place – and not all of them were found by the Germans on their frequent searches either.”
The journal also describes Mr Phillips’ escape from death after his plane was blown up by enemy fire. Working as a navigator, he set off on May 3, 1943 with 11 Ventura bombers to attack Amsterdam Power Station.
A newspaper cutting being sold with the journal tells how Flight Lieut Phillips, from Hook, Pembrokeshire, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order after the ‘gallant part he played in the operation’.
The report states: “He had a remarkable escape for, when the plane was hit his parachute release clip was blown off. The last he remembers was when the plane went into a spin and disintegrated about 18,000 feet above Amsterdam. When he landed, he was pulled across the ground by his damaged parachute over barbed wire until his clothes were in ribbons. He was being cut out of his harness by a Dutch patriot when a German sailor came up brandishing a revolver and he was taken prisoner.”
Towards the end of the journal, Mr Phillips, who was educated at Bridgend and Port Talbot Intermediate Schools, penned several touching poems about his wartime experiences. There is also an In Memoriam page listing those who lost their lives after the mass escape.
Charles Hanson, owner of Hansons Auctioneers, said: “This is a wonderful journal and a remarkable chance to bid for victory.”
The Great Escape wartime journal and medals will be sold at Hansons Auctioneers, Heage Lane, Etwall, Derbyshire, on March 22. To find out more, email [email protected].