Les recalls his Stalag Luft III escape

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Les recalls his Stalag Luft III escape' page

Article By Shelly Lawrie

By Janet Penn

We have just found out that a Canvey Hero has died aged 91 in South Africa. His name Leslie Brodrick you may remember him. He was one of the survivors from Stalag Luft III immortalised in the film 'The Great Escape'.

He came to Canvey to teach at Leigh Beck School after the war until sometime after the floods of 1953. We are looking into his life on Canvey and hope to add to his story later. If you remember him and can add anything to his time living on Canvey please comment below.

We have been given permission to publish this article by Shelly Lawrie a South African journalist who interviewed Les a few years ago.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sixty-six years ago, in one of the most daring and bold escapes from a Prisoner of War camp, Scottburgh's Leslie Brodrick, (now 88), one of 15 survivors, recalls the event and consequences. A Royal Air Force, Flight Lieutenant for 106 squadron, Brodrick, 22-years-old, was shot down. He crash landed near Amiens on his Stuttgart raid return flight. He was taken to Dulag Luft for interrogation, then to Stalag Luft III in Sagan, an airforce Prisoner of War camp run by the Luftwaffe.

South African born Squadron Leader, Roger Bushell was the master-mind behind the audacious escape plan at the camp, and Brodrick was recruited immediately. Numerous tunnels had been dug but were found by the Germans. Bushell’s plan consisted of three tunnels, ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’ being dug simultaneously. His aim was to have 250 men escape and spread chaos in Germany. Of all three tunnels, ‘Dick’ had the most ingenious trapdoor. Situated in block 122, the washroom, the tunnel entry was concealed in the sump. Water had to be removed, and the modified concrete slab put in place and sealed with a mixture of clay, soap and cement. Broderick was appointed ’trapfuhrer’, meaning he was responsible for the entrance to ‘Dick’. He had to unseal the slab for the ‘diggers’ then seal them in again and keep watch. After ‘Tom’ was discovered and ‘Dick’ abandoned after a prison compound was constructed in its path, all efforts were concentrated on ‘Harry’. ‘Dick’ was used as storage for all contraband.

On the evening of March 24, 1944, 200 men hoped to escape through ‘Harry’. The tunnel, 8.5m down, to hide any tunnelling sounds that buried microphones might pick up, and about 102m long, had electrical light, a ventilation system and a railway track with three haulage points and carts. Things did not go according to plan. Firstly, the exit trapdoor was frozen shut. After opening it, it was discovered the tunnel was well short of the pine-forest tree line. Due to an air-raid on Berlin, all camp electricity was turned off. With the tunnel exit only 27m from the nearest guard tower, a plan was hatched. A length of rope was strung from inside the tunnel to a person just behind the tree line. A series of tugs were used to signal “the coast is clear”.

Experienced escapees, German speakers and those that contributed the most to the operation, were first on the list. The rest of the men drew lots, Brodrick was drawn at number 52. In complete darkness, Brodrick made his way to the tunnel exit, he hit a snag at the exit ladder as his legs could not bend to climb up. He got out by hauling himself, hand-over-hand for the last 8.5m. Once free of the camp, Brodrick and two others, Henry Birkland and Denys Street, did not progress very far. For three days, travelling at night only, soaked and freezing, Brodrick and Street decided to find shelter as Birkland was 'in a bad way'. Spotting a cottage, the three, street-fluent in German, decided to try their luck by “spinning a yarn” to the occupants of the cottage. Unfortunately, the occupants were German soldiers. The three were arrested, taken to a local police station and then to Gestapo head quarters at Gorlitz for interrogation. Brodrick said he recognised the Gestapo as they “dress in leather coats just like in the movies”.

He was then returned to Stalag Luft III. On arrival he discovered Hitler had ordered 50 of the escaped 76 to been shot, Street was one of them. The men under pretence, individually or in pairs, were told they were being moved to another location. On the “trip”, German soldiers would stop the vehicle, either for the men to relieve themselves or ‘stretch their legs’, and when their backs were turned they were shot. The excuse given for their ’execution’ was that they had been trying to escape. Of the 76 escapees, three evaded recapture.

On January 27, 1945, Stalag Luft III was evacuated due to Russian forces approaching. Broderick and many others were marched in sub-zero temperatures, westwards to Spremberg. Once there they were loaded into cattle trains, destination Marlag Nord in Tarmstedt. The British corporal in charge of the prisoners refused to stay at the Marlag camp, condemned by the Red Cross as unfit and unsanitary.

Eventually Brodrick and the others ended up on a tobacco plantation near Lubeck. Here they were liberated on May 2, 1945, by British troops in open trucks shouting, “you’re free!”.

During the march they were shot at by a Royal Air Force spitfire, until the pilot realised they were not the enemy. Broderick also witnessed concentration camps with “skeletal Jews and the systematic slaughter of them”. At one location the prisoners were given a shower, and they thought they were to be gassed.

Brodrick was flown home to Canvey Island, England in a Lancaster, one from his old squadron. After tidal wave flooded Canvey Island in 1953, Brodrick and family came to South Africa in 1956, and moved to Scottburgh in 1963.

This page was added by Janet Penn on 13/04/2013.
Comments about this page

The Brodricks lived in the upstairs flat at my Auntie Blossom's house, The Settlement on the corner of Baardwyck Ave and the High St. I've searched our family's collective memory but we can't really come up with a definite time of their stay there. I remember playing with Duke, the son, in the garden there in the summertime, must have been1952 and my sister Jenny knows she was in Mr Brodrick's class at Leigh Beck in 1954, however although we stayed at the Settlement directly after the Flood in 53 we don't remember them being upstairs then. It's possible they came back and lived at a different address on Canvey. Their original connection to the Island was that Teresa's (Mrs Brodrick) mother Mrs Nash lived in a bungalow on the corner of Holbeck Rd and Temptin Ave (I believe it's still there in an adapted form). Mrs Nash was a dinner-lady at Leigh Beck school and stalwart of the Baptist Church and she eventually went to live with the Brodricks in South Africa. Also I don't remember Duke attending Leigh Beck. It wasn't until I read the article in the Daily Mail a couple of weeks ago that I knew that Mr Brodrick was one of the survivors of The Great Escape.

By Graham Stevens
On 01/05/2013

Graham, I've just realised that there were Brodricks who lived in a bungalow in Geylen Road as well. Their land went from Geylen through to Lime Road. I wonder if they were any relation? I think the son's name was Peter.

By Maureen Buckmaster
On 04/05/2013

Hello Graham I remember Ralph well. We lived at the Settlement in 1946 and bought a house on Matlock Road in 1948/49. After attaining a scholarship, Duke attended Westcliff High school, Roy went to Long Road Primary. T E Brodrick.

By Theresa Brodrick
On 30/06/2013

Hello Theresa, Thank you for getting in touch, it would appear that we were much younger children when Duke and I played in the garden at the Settlement, must have been just before you moved to Matlock Rd. Strangely enough I also went to Westcliff High in 1953 but our paths didn't cross there. My Uncle Ralph and Auntie Glad both passed away a couple of years ago but my Uncle Ray and Auntie Dot are both going strong, in fact I tried to contact them when this page was first published but they were on holiday. Best wishes from the Stevens family to your family. Regards, Graham.

By Graham Stevens
On 01/07/2013

I remember Mrs Nash, she was a short slightly stocky lady. I am sure she was a dinner lady, maybe the cook, not too sure. Mr Brodrick was my school teacher, such a lovely man and very handsome. It's strange that he lived in Matlock Road because Mrs Bindoff (another Leigh Beck teacher) also lived down there.

By Joan liddiard
On 18/09/2013

Hello Graham and Joan Liddard. I wrote my memories of Canvey, they are posted on this site under 'Your memories'. It is so good to hear that even my mother is rembered. Graham I do remember your uncle Ralf, he also went to the Baptist church.

By Theresa Brodrick
On 17/11/2013

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.