The real Great Escape diary tunnels its way to auction victory

Posted on 25/03/2019 in Press Coverage

A unique diary penned by a man who played his part in the true story that sparked blockbuster movie The Great Escape has sold for thousands of pounds at auction – just before the 75th anniversary of the dramatic wartime adventure on Sunday (March 24).

The 1963 Hollywood film, starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough, told the true story of a mass prison breakout through a tunnel dug by inmates.

RAF Flight Lieutenant Viv Phillips helped to build that tunnel and documented life in Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp, near Sagan, Poland, in his wartime log.

The journal, together with the late Mr Phillips’ war medals including a Distinguished Service Order, was sold at Derbyshire’s Hansons Auctioneers today (March 22) to a private UK buyer for a hammer price of £13,500.

Adrian Stevenson, militaria expert at Hansons, said: “I’m delighted this unique journal will stay in the UK. It’s so fascinating I read it in one night. It’s absolute gold dust for any militaria collector. It beautifully captures camp life and the gritty resilience of the prisoners.”

The journal was sold by Mark Phillips, 59, a retired telecoms project manager from Twickenham, London, the nephew of Viv Phillips.

He said: “The diary is believed to be the only one of its kind to survive the rigours of the POW camp. I put it up for auction as I had no-one in the family to pass it on to. I hope it’s gone to someone or an institution that will cherish it.

“Viv was my father's brother. They were born in the Neath Valley. After the war Viv remained in the RAF until the mid-1950s, when he moved to Salford, Greater Manchester, and owned a corner shop on Littleton Road. He retired to Boncath, Pembrokeshire, in the early 1970s, where he remained until his death in 1997.

“He never spoke of his time in the POW camp but had many fond memories of his time as an active officer. When he was stationed at RAF Brawdy, he would dream up an excuse to fly an aircraft and then do victory rolls along the River Cleddau above his father’s house. Strictly against regulations, but typical of his approach to life.”

As well as anecdotes, sketches, cartoons and poems, the diary contains black and white photos of men held captive – characters who played their part in one of the greatest prison escapes of all time.

Mr Stevenson said: “Everything in the journal 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 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.”

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 cuttingsold with the journal tells how Flt Lt 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.

The Great Escape wartime journal and medals was sold at Hansons Auctioneers, Heage Lane, Etwall, Derbyshire, on March 22. To find out more, email [email protected].