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."Reuse content