My Conversation with Ben van Drogenbroek, Author of the Best History of The Great Escape and Stalag Luft III

The Interview With Ben van Drogenbroek

Posted by On Nov 02, 2019 In Uncategorized

Who are you and where do you live?
My name is Ben van Drogenbroek. Born in 1966, I have been living in the small town of Montfoort, The Netherlands. I have been interested in history from a very early age. My interest in Stalag Luft 3 started when I was about 15 years old when I got hold of the Dutch version of the book “War pilot of Orange, written by Bob van der Stok, one of the three successfull escapers from “The Great Escape”.
I was absolutely caught by his story and it was a little step to the next book I read about the escape, “The Great Escape”, the epic book written by Paul Brickhill, also a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft 3.

How many Dutch WW2 p.o.w.’s of Stalag Luft 3 have you met over your lifetime? Did you ever meet Bob van der Stok or any members of his family?
Bob van der Stok was one of the very few Dutchman at Stalag Luft 3. Just 12 Dutchmen were
imprisoned at Stalag Luft 3 in the time span between the opening of the camp in April 1942 to its closure in January 1945. This is a considerably low percentage compared to the 10,000 odd prisoners who occupied the East, Center, North, South and West Compounds of Stalag Luft 3 when the camp was evacuated on January 27, 1945.
Unfortunately, I never have met Bob van der Stok or any of his family. All Dutch prisoners have
passed away now and I have tried to track down their families, but without avail. Hope this will still happen.

Do you have any training as a writer?
Actually, I have not any training as a writer, but it grew during the writing of my book, together with Steve Martin of “The p.o.w. Archives of Canada”.
When I began writing about Stalag Luft 3 my English was, to say, very limited, but I thought, “What the heck, I learn it on the way.”
My first contact with ex.-prisoners of war of Stalag Luft 3 began in 2001 with writing letters to them. By sheer luck I got hold of a folder about the American Ex.-Prisoners of War of Stalag Luft 3
Association in 2003. The folder also had the address of Bob Weinberg, the chairman of the association.
I wrote him a letter and soon I received a letter from him and his wife Nina. They wrote something like, “We have a reunion next month in New Orleans, Louisiana. Grab your stuff together and come over.” I did, and in retrospect it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. The most
moving part of the trip was, that although I didn’t knew any of the prisoners or their families, to be far from home and to be treated like family.
At some point at the reunion, touring cars picked the attendees up for a trip. I boarded one of them. An ex-prisoner of war sat a window seat with a free seat next to him. I asked if I could take the seat; he answered, “Yes, of course.” We introduced ourselves – his name was Charles Woehrle – and a
conversation started. I said my interest in Stalag Luft 3 started because of The Great Escape and my admiration to the men involved, like Henri Picard … Charles immediately responded with, “What? Do you know him? Henri Picard was one of my roommates!” We didn’t stop talking, it was
chemistry right from the start.
During his time as a prisoner, Charles was always aware to document valuable information. His sharp mind, ears and eyes catched everything that could be of historical value. This fact would be ultimately proved just after the liberation of Stalag VIIA “Moosburg” on April 29, 1945. (Note: Stalag VIIA “Moosburg” was the camp where the American prisoners of Stalag Luft 3 ended up after its evacuation in January.) As the men waited for transportation, Charles’s group ran out of bread. Charles volunteered to go into the town of Moosburg. While there, he met an American G.I. with a camera hanging around his neck. Charles asked him about the camera, and the G.I. wondered if he wanted to buy it – along with five rolls of black and white film. Charles told the G.I. that he had no money
whereupon the G.I. pulled a little spiral notebook out of his shirt pocket and tore out a page,
suggesting that Charles write a check on his home bank.
Charles purchased the camera, went back to the camp and started shooting pictures to document what the conditions were in the camp and how the prisoners of war lived. He was fully aware of the historical value of making a documentary furnishing indisputable evidence. The camera turned out to be Charles’s express ticket home. After the liberated prisoners were transported to a processing camp in France, the debriefers were very interested in his films, which hadn’t been developed yet. They thought his films contained useful information. Charles didn’t had to wait for transport by boat back to the United States but went back by plane instead. Charles carryied his films to the Criminal Investigation Command in Washington D.C. which was gathering evidence for the Nuremberg Trials. So this explains the rather strange title for abook about Stalag Luft 3, “The Camera Became My
Passport Home”.
Back home in Holland I received and envelop from Charles with prints of the photographs with loose captions typewritten on pieces of paper with the explanation, “I don’t have a computer, you see.”
I said to Charles, this is what we do, I will scan all photos and sort out all captions for you and
process it through my computer. So I did and sent Charles the result, made into a thin book.
Sometime later I thought that it would be a good idea to add extra information about Stalag Luft 3 and the Second World War… However, that went “a little bit out of hand”, because it ended up as a large-size hardcover book of 640 pages… Because the events took place 70 odd years ago – with
society seeing many changes – it wás necessary to piece out the story of Stalag Luft 3 with general information of that period, so the book also contains much other information about that era – for example how daily life looked like in Nazi Germany and the course of the war from the beginning to the end – to provide the reader with a better view about the time in which the experiences of the prisoners of war took place. Also original German terminology, with the English translation between brackets, is used throughout.
The wartime experiences of Charles form the red line of the book, popping in and out at various chapters. By knitting Charles’s story throughout the book he connects the individual chapters.
After a few attempts to find a commercial publisher I decided to self-publish the book. This was possible because I had been working in the printing trade for 25 years and could do the typesetting and design myself. I really wanted the book to be designed as a tribute to the prisoners of war. All images are reproduced on a size which do them justice and to reveal as much details as possible, so not the much too often seen books with some centralized photo sections containing postage stamp size images crammed in on a few pages. However, readers have to keep in mind that some photographs don’t meet nowadays standards. Often only the small contact prints – many of them mounted in prisoners of war diaries – have survived. All images are accompanied by comprehensive captions, so the book can also be enjoyed just by only targeting at the pictures without having to go through all the main text, making the book also suitable for young readers and students. The photographs and drawings in the main body of the book are all period pictures to achive the feeling that you, as the reader, actually are taken back in time. However, maps and some other supporting images had to be fabricated. At the end of the book the reader returns to the present time through “then and now” pictures.
Another reason for self publishing was that Steve Martin and I wanted to write about the real history of the Second World war. A commercial publisher often demands changes in the story to make it more attractive for commercial reasons. We wanted to avoid what can be witnessed on many commercial TV channels and in many publications nowadays; bits and pieces of information and weird speculations scraped together and put in such a matter to make it as dramatic as possible and by this surrendering the truth.

Your involvement with the American Ex.-Prisoners of War of Stalag Luft 3 Association?
The meetings with ex.-prisoners of war of Stalag Luft 3 has been a life-changing experience, as mentioned in the question above. My first American reunion was, as already stated, in New Orleans in 2003. The next reunion was in Tucson in 2005 (no reunion was organized in 2004). At this reunion I held my first exhibit. The exhibit were black and white prints on letterhead size. The following reunion was in 2007 in Kansas City (no reunion was organized in 2006). For this reunion I made about 18 large posters in color with the size of about 30 by 23 inches. Each poster dealt with a certain part of prisoner of war life – in text and pictures. By pinning them on the walls of the large hospitality room of the hotel, the exhibit had a length of about 65 feet. The attendees very much liked it and many discussions were started from the various subjects covered. Bob Weinberg, the chairman, was very impressed with the whole thing so at the “business conference” at the end of the reunion Bob proposed to make me a honorary member of the Association. Bob asked the audience, “any objections?” None came, so the proposal was granted.

What is your favorite passage of the book?
My favorite passage is the story about the identical twin brothers Dick and Eddie.
In September 1920, Louisa Rossignol gave birth to two boys. The parents christened their sons Dick and Eddie. Being an identical twin meant lots of confusion, and fun, in many situations during their childhood. However, Dick, Eddie ánd their parents couldn’t imagine then that the biggest confusion still lay ahead…
Sharing the same thoughts, they both volunteered for the air force. Dick was shot down in May1942. A year later Eddie was shot down and captured.
Eventually, Eddie arrived at Stalag Luft 3 and was herded sadly through the gate. Of course Eddie knew that his brother was a prisoner of war but didn’t had the slightest idea that Dick was in the same compound he was now brought in.
As with any new group, each individual was questioned because the Germans had been trying to slip own men into the camp as spies. However, the experienced prisoners had their own ways of authenticating their people from a possible German “mole”. A new prisoner’s identity could often be proved quickly by an old prisoner who knew him personally. The “old” prisoners were always
curious if someone came in they knew, but Dick wasn’t there to witness to see this group, so Eddie had to be questioned. The compound’s adjutant, Bill, looked up when Eddie marched in and,
naturally, thought Eddie was Dick, whom he knew. Being of burly appearance, Bill responded, “What do you want, we’re busy right now”. Needless to say, Eddie was puzzled and replied that he was told to report here. Bill responded with, “Well, see me later then. I’m now occupied with the new group”. The only answer Eddie could give was, “But I am in the new group”. In turn Bill said, “Oh, I thought you were another chap in this camp”. Immediately filled with exitement, Eddie said in a hopefull voice, “Maybe he is my twin brother. Is his name Rossignol?” Bill responded, “His name is
Rossignol”. Within a short amount of time the twins were reunited. They went to live in the same room and wrote home to their parents of the meeting.
However, mail took months to arrive, so in the meantime the parents had received the news through the official channels that Eddie had become a prisoner of war too and wrote to Dick to pass this fact on to him … only to discover later that these lines had been read with both brothers present!

Were there any African-American fliers imprisoned at Stalag Luft 3?

Yes, and their story is in my book which is reproduced below.
Back in those days in the U.S.A., black people didn’t share the same rights as white people. However, at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, training black men to become fighter pilots had begun. Many whites believed that black people were inferior and not suitable for this task. One of the Tuskegee Airmen was Alex Jefferson of the 301st Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group “Red Tails”, 15th Air Force.
The Tuskegee Airmen fought like lions, proved their capabilities and showed that the prejudices were absolutely wrong. Alexander, a pilot of a P-51, was shot down and taken prisoner on August 12, 1944. It had been his 19th mission.
Two weeks later, on August 26, Alex arrived at Stalag Luft 3 and was assigned to the South
Compound. Many who had been prisoners for more than two years had no idea that blacks were now pilots and officers in the Army Air Corps. But then one day a B-17 crewmember arrived. When he spotted Alex he ran over, grabbed and hugged him; and exclaimed, “You’re a Red Tail! You
goddamn Red Tails are the best damned unit! If the Red Tails had been with us, we’d have made it back home! You guys saved our asses so many times!” After that encounter, the reputation of the Red Tails spread quickly throughout the compound.
Alex’s most emotional mission had been as flying cover for the bombers over the Ploesti oil
refineries in Romania. They encountered only sporadic anti-aircraft fire on the way to the target. Then, about 15 miles ahead, Alex saw a huge black cloud. He could see a series of fires and lots of smoke rising from the ground, which appeared to be an oil refinery complex. The B-17s flew out on a sixty-degree angle and then aimed directly for that black cloud. The P-51s pulled off to the left and orbited while the bombers disappeared into the black cloud. Then the fighter pilots saw four of five B-17s falling out of the bottom of the cloud, spinning down lazily, trailing smoke and flames.
Unconsciously, Alex yelled, “Bail out, damn it! Get out of there!” Out of one of the B-17s, Alex
counted one, two, three parachutes opening. Then there was a big woosh. The B-17 had exploded in a huge red ball of flames. Realism set-in, the B-17 had a crew of ten; three parachutes had opened which meant seven men had died, right there in front of his eyes.
The next moment, Alex became violently ill and threw-up into his oxygen mask. Due to the thin air at 31,000 feet an oxygen mask was necessary, but because he threw-up, he had to release it to continue breathing. This experience was burned in his mind forever, including his crew chief’s refusing to clean his oxygen mask after he had safely returned to base from this dangerous mission.
Later, just before Alex’s P-51 was hit by anti-aircraft fire, he saw in the corner of his eye that Bob
Daniels’s fighter took two direct hits. Bob’s P-51 began trailing black smoke and he headed out to sea. Bob elected to set down on the water, which was not advised because the air scoop could pull the
plane under water. Nevertheless, Bob got out and floated on the water until the Germans picked him up. Alex bailed out and landed right in the middle of a gun crew. Accompanied by two guards, Alex and Bob were reunited again and brought by bus to Marseille where they boarded a train.
They stayed overnight in a barn. While they were groping around the barn in the dark, Alex and Bob came across Dick Macon, also a fighter pilot in 332nd Fighter Group. Dick was in bad shape and appeared to have cracked neck-bones sustained from his crash landing because every time he moved abruptly, he passed out. Alex and Bob braced his neck and head to make them immovable. When they got him up the next morning, Dick had to walk very slowly, trying not to move his head.
They were transferred to Stalag Luft 3 in a three-day train ride. Alex and Bob both took care of Dick and during the transport they took turns sitting behind him placing their hands around his neck to secure the cracked bones. When arriving at Stalag Luft 3, Dick was immediately sent to the camp hospital. Alex and Bob were sent to the South Compound.
The way they were assigned to a room was quite a surprise. Approximately 200 new arrivals were lined-up; and a representative from each room walked down the line and picked-up a new
roommate. Alex was chosen by a guy who he thought was a “redneck” and that he would simply be a subject of discrimination and humiliation. Alex soon discovered the reason why he was chosen for room eight in barrack 128. This room happened to house escape materials, and they wanted to be sure they didn’t get a German plant or American turncoat in their midst. They knew, they could trust the new black prisoner. Back in the United States black soldiers caught hell from guys just as the one who had selected him; and here, thousands of miles from home, they just trusted a black man
because they were suspicious towards a strange white face!
After liberation, the ex-prisoners were shipped home. Going down the gangplank, a short, smug, white buck Private shouted, “Whites to the right, niggers to the left”. Alex knew then, he was back on American soil.

What is the most important part of your work?
This answer is two-fold, first Steve Martin and I tried to indentify as much individuals as possible appearing in photographs and the introduction of many prisoners who were more or less involved in the preparation to The Great Escape, but never mentioned before in other publications. However, sometimes our efforts were in vain; time is in command and much information is lost forever because of the mists of time. Time is an adversary which can’t be beaten. Hopefully we contributed in preserving the names of the prisoners documented in the book for history. Also we put in much new information about Stalag Luft 3 and The Great Escape, inclusive information about tunnel construction, revealing many new facts never published before.
Second, Stalag Luft 3 will be linked with The Great Escape forever and the escape is thorougly
documented in the book, so that readers are able to recognize and divide facts from fiction, especially concerning the movie The Great Escape and TV documentaries.
A practical decision which had to be done for the film The Great Escape – and was inevitable – was to reduce the number of prisoners involved to make the comprehensive story understandable. In reality there were hundreds of prisoners involved in (the preparation for) the escape. Also for the movie the individual barracks were situated much closer to each other and the barracks were closer to the fence, this for “background purposes”. If the compound lay-out/distances of the real camp had been reproduced/maintained for the set, then many of the film’s background of the camp scenes would be empty space!
The most inaccurate part of the movie, however, are the scenes after the escape. Ironically, the scene remembered by most, the motorcycle jump by Steve McQueen, is pure fiction. However, the film made The Great Escape known around the world, but it is a pity that so many who saw the
movie don’t realize its inaccuracy. Because knowledge about Stalag Luft 3 is not widespread – as is for example the attack on Pearl Harbor, people would not notice inaccuracies – which are plenty! – in TV documentaries about Stalag Luft 3. For example, if in a documentary about Pearl Harbor is told, “Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Chinese on March 5, 1942”, everyone will notice this nonsense, and rightfully would be upset and the result would be that the TV channel and documentary maker will loose their credibility.
I saw an American documentary about The Great Escape and it was stated that “The Great Escape was an American affair and when the Americans were transferred to another compound of Stalag Luft 3, the Americans left tunnel “Harry”, the tunnel of The Great Escape, for the English prisoners to finish.” Total rubbish of course, but how many viewers would notice? The only true fact is that the Americans were indeed transferred to another compound before the tunnel was completed. The Great Escape was a complete British Commonwealth affair and only a FEW Americans were involved. But the danger lying around the corner is that false information will be taken as the truth because – as stated above – knowledge about Stalag Luft 3 is not widespread.
But the same can be applied to me. If I watch for example a documentary about the American Civil War, you “can sell me anything”, because my knowledge about this part of history is very limited to say it politely and I won’t notice any mistakes or flaws, and will take all information for granted.
Finally, our work is not for me or Steve Martin’s glory, it is a tribute for the prisoners of war of Stalag Luft 3. We hope we have fulfilled in preserving their legacy.

What are you working on now?
I am now working on a lecture about Stalag Luft 3 and The Great Escape to be given in Holland and a few years ago I started a Stalag Luft 3 Facebook group.

Why does the story of Stalag Luft 3 endure?
The prisoners were exceptional men in exceptional circumstances. It was an unique situation that there were so many young talented, ingenious, inventive and brilliant men – without premeditated reasons of the enemy of course – were brought together at one place at one time in history. Also, in such a large camp as Stalag Luft 3 was, almost every civilian occupation was represented next to the men’s military skills. Tailors, artists, engineers, radio experts, mathematicians, chemists, or any other profession one could think of was represented in their midst. The intellectual level of the prisoners was far superior to the average German who guarded them.

Given The Great Escape, I think it is unlikely that such an achievement, as the escape was, organised with such a spirit and dedication and on such a massive scale – from digging the 110 metres long tunnel on a depth of 30 feet, sand disposal, paper forging, gathering information of the situation outside, map making, compass manufacturing, scrounging, tailoring, etc, to bribing and security – all worked-out to the finest detail, right under the nose of enemy guards, will never be repeated again.

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