Veterans who escaped from The Great Escape PoW camp share their stories

Andrew Wiseman, left, and Air Commodore Charles Clarke at RAF Mildenhall Andrew Wiseman, left, and Air Commodore Charles Clarke at RAF Mildenhall

Friday, September 20, 2013
11:38 AM

Two World War II veterans who escaped from the prison camp featured in The Great Escape have shared their tales of derring do with serving US military men and women.

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Air Commodore Charles Clarke OBE, 89, and Andrew Wiseman, 90, were captured behind enemy lines and imprisoned at Stalag Luft III, in Poland, but both escaped via the maze of tunnels dug out by prisoners.

They told US airmen and women at RAF Mildenhall on Wednesday the experience taught them the importance of camaraderie - and the value of things.

“I learned money doesn’t matter, respecting rank doesn’t matter - individuals matter,” said Mr Wiseman.

“We were in a room with up to 16 people in there, all different nationalities. The doors were locked at around 5pm and the shutters wouldn’t open again until 7am.

“With that many people in the room, one person wanted to sing, others wanted to play bridge, someone wanted to play an instrument and you had to put up with it all.”

Both Mr Wiseman and Air Cdre Clarke were captured - in separate missions - after their planes were shot down by German anti-aircraft fire in 1944.

Duty bound to escape from any prison camp, the airmen set about joining in a camp-wide effort to tunnel out to freedom.

According to Air Cdre Clarke, nearly every serviceman in the camp knew about the escape attempt, but, despite their suspicions, the secret was never revealed to their captors.

“It was a remarkable achievement. We weren’t involved in digging the tunnels but it was an incredible undertaking.

“Hundreds and hundreds contributed but not one went to the Germans, even those who didn’t want to escape,” he said.

Unlike the majority of the airmen in The Great Escape, Mr Wiseman and Air Cdre Clarke were able to flee the camp successfully, before being picked up by American soldiers.

But the effects of incarceration and the long marches endured after their escape, in both the long and the short-term.

Air Cdre Clarke said their newfound appreciation for food posed the first problem.

“When we were picked, up the Americans were unbelievably good to us. They took us to a food hall and there were things there we hadn’t tasted in years.

“Our medical officers told us not to eat any of it as we’d get dysentery and diaorrhea.

“Of course, we ate it anyway and, of course, we all got ill,” he said.

Mr Wiseman said it was only on his return to England that he realised the magnitude of what they had been through.

“It’s only when you came back and spoke to relatives and friends that you realised you had done something unusual.

“The lessons were that if you try hard enough, most things are possible, never take no for an answer, always ask why and if you do that throughout life, you will be fine,” he said.

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