Norfolk man Len Trent's good fortune during The Great Escape
PUBLISHED: 18:39 22 March 2019 | UPDATED: 18:39 22 March 2019
It was a wartime escape immortalised by Hollywood. But for one Norfolk-based airman turned 'great escaper' misfortune turned out to be the most astonishing stroke of good fortune in a wartime career crammed with incident. Seventy-five years on from the most remarkable mass prisoner of war breakout of the Second World War, Steve Snelling charts a saga of survival that all but beggars belief
The agony of waiting was almost over for Len Trent. Nearly five hours had elapsed since a shower of grass-tufted soil and a sprinkling of snow had signalled the start of the most extraordinary escape operation of the Second World War.
In that time more than 70 captured Allied airmen had made their way along the deepest, longest and most sophisticated tunnel ever dug by prisoners of war to emerge some 30 yards beyond the nearest watchtower of Stalag Luft III.
On a night fraught with tension, the breakout had been interrupted three times, once by an air raid and twice by hazardous sand-falls which had to be painstakingly cleared by hand, leaving the queue of would-be escapers on tenterhooks.
At last, it was Trent’s turn. Number 79 out of a planned 200-strong escape party, the 28-year-old Norfolk-based bomber pilot dangled his legs over the edge of the two-foot square shaft entrance in Block 104 before starting his descent into the tunnel called Harry.
Thirty feet beneath the frozen ground, he dropped down onto a wooden trolley originally used to carry excavated spoil and now operating as a man-hauled escape line that hurried him under the barbed wire fences bristling with machine-gun posts and searchlights to the foot of the exit shaft.
There, he paused, waiting for the double-tug on a rope that would send him on his way. It was a little before 3.30am on March 25, 1944 and he could almost taste the sweet smell of freedom.
Fast forward to a bungalow in the small village of Hempnall, a little over 10 miles south of Norwich, where a scattering of photographs point the way to a remarkable legacy of remembrance.
Seventy-five years on from a saga of triumph and tragedy glamorised by Hollywood’s famous if heavily fictionalised re-working, Christine Stone, nee Trent, still finds herself marvelling at the breathtaking audacity of the real-life captives such as her late father whose exploits inspired the make-believe feats of Steve McQueen, James Garner et al.
“The film is what it is,” she says even-handedly. “It’s a Hollywood version of what must have been a desperately grisly struggle for survival, but even with all its fantasy elements you can’t help but admire the ingenuity, the courage and the determination to escape and to get back home.
“The lengths to which they were prepared to go and the skills they displayed were absolutely incredible.”
Christine was just three years old when her father, a New Zealander who had volunteered for the Royal Air Force before the outbreak of war, took his place among the prisoners prepared to risk all in a mass escape deliberately designed to disrupt the Nazi war effort.
Not that she knew much about it as a child. “He never really talked about it,” recalls Christine. “In fact, for years I had absolutely no idea he’d ever been involved in the Great Escape. I don’t remember him speaking about it even when the film came out.
“I think when you’ve had a bad experience like that you don’t really want to discuss it. A lot of prisoners didn’t want their families to know what a rotten time they’d had and many of them just wanted to forget about it and get on with their lives.”
Only slowly, as she grew older, did she realise the full story of her father’s astonishing war record and his breathtaking brushes with disaster that were far more dramatic than even the most outlandish big screen fantasy.
Len Trent, it gradually became clear, was no stranger to struggles against the odds.
A veteran of the disastrous battle for France in 1940, he had survived a succession of hazardous, hair-raising low-level bombing sorties which had claimed the lives of so many of his pals and decimated his squadron.
But the culminating miracle in a charmed life crammed with narrow escapes came three years later during a wretched raid on Amsterdam flown out of RAF Methwold.
The daylight mission targeting a power station on the fringes of the Dutch city was a disaster redeemed only by the cold-blooded courage of the crews who pressed-on regardless of attacks by enemy fighters as they blasted them, one by one, out of the sky.
Of the 12 Ventura bombers, one aborted, another limped home, badly damaged, to a crash-landing with two wounded crewmen and the remainder were all shot down.
The last to fall was the leading aircraft flown by Len Trent. With the rest of his force all but wiped out, he had battled on to release his bombs close to the target. As he did so, and shortly after shooting down one of the pursuing fighters, his controls were shot away and the bomber plunged earthwards.
Spinning down, his efforts to escape were thwarted by the speed of the dive until an explosion catapulted him into space, with his parachute, mercifully intact.
Even then his survival was not certain. A shower of debris from his aircraft cascaded past him, “like large autumn leaves”, but his “luck held” and, as he later wrote, “nothing hit my canopy”.
Christine slowly shakes her head as she recalls the story of that most forlorn of missions made well nigh suicidal by a string of misfortunes.
“It must have taken such guts to do that,” she says. “But, on the other hand, I can imagine him thinking, well, I’m going to get shot down whether I go on or try to go back so I might as well have a crack at the target.”
In the fullness of time that “dogged determination” would result in Len Trent being awarded a Victoria Cross, the nation’s highest martial honour. More immediately, it led him eastwards by rail towards the Polish border and an altogether new drama within the barbed wire fences of Stalag Luft III in what was then German Silesia and is now part of Poland.
What he later referred to as his “new board and lodgings” was Room 10, Block 104, in the camp’s north compound.
His arrival coincided with the beginning of the most ambitious escape operation in prisoner of war history. Three tunnels, dubbed Tom, Dick and Harry, were started simultaneously as part of an intended mass breakout more daring and more complex than ever before conceived.
In a compound of some 1,500 men, a small army of 600 volunteers were actively engaged in out-smarting their captors and it wasn’t long before they included a new recruit in the shape of Prisoner Number 1283, Leonard Henry Trent.
Initially employed as a ‘penguin’, responsible for helping disperse some of the 230 tons of tunnel spoil by way of specially designed trouser sacks, Trent was eventually promoted to the role of block commander in charge of security.
However, the prodigious effort was not without its setbacks. In September 1943, the main tunnel, Tom, was discovered by the Germans just days before its anticipated completion. A pause then followed during which it was decided to relegate Dick to the role of underground store and focus all energy on Harry.
The result was an escape tunnel like no other, complete with wooden trolleys on rails to ease movement, a ventilation system driven by bellows with an air-line made from klim tins and electric lighting powered from the German mains.
By the third week of March 1944, in defiance of all the random searches and the myriad listening devices dotted around the camp perimeter, Harry was finally ready and, as one of those most closely involved in the operation, Len Trent was given a place within the first 100 to escape through the tunnel.
It was a privilege not without its risks. The camp commandant had already issued dire warnings about the likely fate of any recaptured escapers delivered into the hands of the dreaded Gestapo. And Trent, whose disguise as a French workman without a rail pass, was among the prisoners most vulnerable.
One of a large number of men, dubbed ‘hard-arsers’, he faced the daunting challenge of making his getaway on foot in the full knowledge that anyone caught in civilian clothes or German uniform was liable to court martial with the real prospect of a death sentence at the end of it.
It was a threat he chose to ignore when he joined a small crowd of would-be escapers facing a perilous breakout in the depths of a snow-blanketed Silesia armed only with forged identity papers and fortified by their own raw courage.
Vague hopes of a long trek to freedom, however, proved hopelessly short-lived in Len Trent’s case. In fact his prison break ended almost before it began, as his son, Tim, recounted.
From his home in Australia, he related a story of escape in the early hours of a freezing March morning 75 years ago far removed from the motorcycle antics of Steve McQueen but hardly less dramatic.
“He was the last guy to clear the tunnel,” he says. “He’d just crawled out of the hole when he noticed a guard deviate from his normal round and head towards him. He immediately lay flat in the snow as the guard walked outside the wash of the main perimeter lighting and came to a stop just feet away from him before undoing his flies and taking a leak.
“According to dad, he virtually fell down the hole, but still didn’t noticed either it or him lying there. Nor, incredibly, had he noticed all the tracks of the 70-odd previous escapers leading through the snow to the cover of the pine plantation, or the fact that steam was rising from the tunnel where the air was considerably warmer than outside.
“It was only when the next man due out of the tunnel, not knowing what was going on, grew impatient waiting for the signal to make a run for it and poked his head out of the hole that the astonished guard realised what was going on.
“He nearly fainted seeing this bloke appear beneath him. Next thing, he fumbled for his rifle and as the guy in the tunnel ducked back he reached down, grabbed him by the hair and hauled him out. And at that moment he suddenly saw the old man lying at his feet…”
After a brief hiatus veering on farce, Trent and his hapless fellow escaper were led straight back into camp and a spell of solitary confinement.
But what felt like a crushing disappointment proved to be the greatest of all his many strokes of luck. For as he was soon to discover a far worse fate awaited the majority of his fellow escapers.
Of the 76 men who got clear of Stalag III only three, Norwegians Per Bergsland and Jens Muller and Dutchman Bram van der Stok, reached England, while 50 of the remaining 73 were executed on the direct order of an enraged Hitler.
As Tim, who was born shortly after the war, remarks: “It was lucky for dad and lucky for me that he didn’t get away, because the chances are I wouldn’t be here today if he had.”
Back in Norfolk his sister agrees. “Given everything we know,” she says, “I’m certain he’d have been caught and I reckon he’d have been shot for sure. Being recaptured before he had an opportunity to get away was the luckiest thing that ever happened to him. It just goes to show it wasn’t his time.”
He would have to wait a little over two years’ longer till the end of the war to be reunited with his wife and daughter in King’s Lynn and to resume a service career that had another 20 years to run.
In that time, he appears to have given little thought to one of the most incredible episodes in his life, although there were occasional reminders. “I remember,” says Christine, “when I was 17 or 18 we went on a skiing trip to the Harz mountains and my father and I were having a drink with the two German instructors.
“One of them turned to my father and said, ‘Have you been to Germany before?’ My father grinned and said, ‘Yes, as a guest of the Reich.’ He then asked which prison camp he was in and when my father told him Stalag Luft III, he looked astonished. ‘I was there, too, as a dog handler!’
“And there they were laughing and joking. War. It’s a nonsense, isn’t it.”