Veterans of the Great Escape visit old stalag

Sad memories of 50 comrades shot dead on Hitler's orders as a deterrent

He was the camp forger. In hot weather, the guards at the infamous Nazi prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft III used to take off their belts and leave them lying in the sun. Reg Cleaver's job was to sneak up and quickly take an impression of the buckles with a chunk of prison soap. This helped him make the mock uniforms that enabled British airmen to pose as German soldiers after escaping.

Yesterday, Mr Cleaver, a former Royal Air Force flight sergeant, now white-haired and aged 87, joined a small group of surviving inmates of the camp immortalised in the 1963 film The Great Escape to mark the 65th anniversary of one of the most famous sagas of the Second World War.

Mr Cleaver and six veterans, all in their 80s and 90s, gathered at the site of the former camp near the town of Sagan in Poland. They stood in silence for a moment near the exit of "Harry", the 348ft tunnel dug by Allied prisoners which enabled 76 airmen to escape on 24 March 1944. Then they drank a toast to their fallen comrades.

Some fought back tears as they remembered the 50 men who were captured after their escape and shot dead on Adolf Hitler's orders as a deterrent. Only three of the escapers made "home runs" to safety and 23 were returned to captivity. Now all of the escapers are dead, but these men yesterday were among the cast of hundreds who enabled them to perform their heroic feat. "At the time, you didn't think you were doing anything particularly special," said Mr Cleaver, who lives in Brinklow, near Rugby. "It was simply considered your duty to help organising a break-out."

Mr Cleaver vividly remembers his Halifax bomber crash-landing between trees with its two starboard engines ablaze after it was hit by a German fighter over Nazi-occupied Holland. He survived with concussion and was hidden by the Dutch resistance, but he was caught by the Gestapo and dispatched to Stalag Luft III.

Living on a "horrible diet" composed mostly of cabbage soup and bread made from flour and sawdust, he used to make fake German uniforms from cloth dyed with ink, and army belt-buckles from soldering iron softened in a makeshift heater constructed out of tin cans.

When the Germans announced they had shot 50 of the escapers, he was in another camp. "I remember all of us shouting, 'Bastards' at the Germans for what they had done," he said. He weighed only six-and-a-half stone when he was finally freed by British troops in 1945.

Frank Stone, a former tail-gunner now aged 86, was also among the veterans yesterday. He was on the list of escapers due to make the run for freedom, but did not make the tunnel before the camp guards discovered it, that moonless night. "Nobody could sleep that night," he said. "The atmosphere was electric."

Mr Stone's chief task had been to get rid of the tons of bright yellow sand that were dug out to build the three escape tunnels "Tom", "Dick" and "Harry". To avoid detection, the prisoners had to resort to tricks such as hanging pouches from old socks inside their trousers and sprinkling the sand on the ground as they walked about the camp.

But life at Stalag Luft III did not only mean bad food, boredom and plotting to escape. Some of the inmates cracked under the strain of being locked up by the Germans for so long or being incarcerated alone in the camp's "cooler" for weeks on end. One of them was airman Jimmy Kiddel who committed suicide by trying to scale the perimeter fence in full view of a watch-tower manned by an armed guard. He was machine-gunned to death. The scene is acted out in the 1963 film.

Mr Stone, who is from Hathersage in Derbyshire, saw it happen. "It was something I will never forget," he said yesterday. "He went berserk and it was dreadful." Mr Stone was force-marched nearly 100 miles to the west during the closing stages of the war before he was liberated.

But the airman who had the misfortune to spend most of the war in PoW camps was Bill Fripp, a navigator on an RAF reconnaissance aircraft shot down over Germany in October 1939. He was held in a dozen camps before being freed. At Stalag Luft III, he was ordered to stay on rather than escape, because he had built up contacts with the Germans which were useful for planning future break-outs.

Mr Fripp, a former squadron leader from Bournemouth, was returning to Stalag Luft III for the first time yesterday. Aged 95, he had come to pay his respects to his former pilot, among the 50 men shot on Hitler's orders. Three years after the war, Mr Fripp was back in Germany aboard flying-boats on the Berlin air lift. His aircraft used to land on the city's Wannsee lake.

"It has been an emotional and thought-provoking return," he said yesterday. "I have forgiven the Germans, but I won't forget what they did."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own