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10 April 1997 Edition

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The H7 tunnel

Below we carry an account from one of the POWs involved in the operation of how the tunnel was dug.

Cell 18 in A wing H7 was picked as the starting point of the tunnel. This location was far enough away from the entrance to the wing to allow us to monitor anyone approaching. This would allow enough time to signal to those working on the tunnel.

While the security of the operation, in terms of shielding it from the enemy, was paramount, it was also decided that knowledge of the operation should be known to only a small group of prisoners. Even unintentional changes in behaviour and routines by a large group of men would alert the enemy. By confining it to a small group, this danger was avoided.

We realised that the major difficulty was going to be penetrating the reinforced concrete floor. We had a fairly good estimate of how deep we would have to go to penetrate the concrete. For some time we had been gathering knowledge; from anyone who had ever dug a ditch to guys who had built skyscrapers. We had also comrades outside who were able to give us expert knowledge and assistance on this and other aspects of the operation.

The operation was months in the planning. When satisfied on the security, equipment and location, it was put into effect. We had decided to use some of our enemy's experience and lessons. Two books in particular were of assistance: ``Tunnelling into Colditz'' and ``The Great Escape'', on which the famous film was based.

The concrete floor was just over 14 inches thick. It was reinforced with steel rods. This part of the operation was probably the most risky, given that it involved noise and was going to be painstakingly slow.

When the first small hole appeared in the concrete and we knew we had broken through into a new level there was a tremendous sense of confidence.

Once the hole was widened enough we began to work on the next level. Initially this work had to be carried out by a man lying with his head down the hole, picking away at large rocks. As it became clear that there were several feet of large rock, it was decided to dig inwards to create a chamber from which to work.

At times a man was literally held upside down by the ankles as he worked. Eventually a chamber was carved out and this allowed work to commence on a shaft. The shaft was sunk to a depth of about seven feet. At this stage the tunnel proper began. But when the tunnel was about six feet long it became clear that the water level was rising and going to be a serious problem. It proved almost impossible to progress in the circumstances so a decision was taken to collapse the section already dug and move up a short distance.

We next encountered a wall of rocks which proved very dangerous. It required shoring every few inches, but even this was highly risky. On a number of occasions there were serious rock falls which almost badly injured the man working at the time. Each and every development was examined and discussed by a small number of people who had responsiblity for the operation. It was decided that the only way to progress was to literally collapse the barrier of rocks and let the concrete floor of the cell above act as a solid roof. This was done and as a result a large chamber about 15 feet long and 6 feet wide was created below the cell and cat-walk.

Electric lighting was rigged up and the situation was almost comical as we took in the scale of what we had achieved. Having literally shed light on the situation and seeing what had been overcome the confidence and morale rose. The large chamber allowed a number of people to stand dup in it and was an excellent working area and staging post for the work on the tunnel proper which was about to begin.

Water was to be a permanant problem. The fact that we were experiencing the wettest February for almost 200 years was unbelievable. As rain poured down from above, the water level rose. At times up to 30 gallons were being bailed out while a man was lying in up to 6 inches of water, working at the face. Electric shocks became commonplace and rapid splashing sounds accompanied by a string of expletives were good indications that the wiring needed checked.

There were a number of cave-ins, but always only at the tunnel face where no shoring had been placed and usually only no more than in areas of 1 to 1 and a half feet. These were serious enough, particularly for the man who was at the face. But what gave us great confidence was the fact that every bit of shoring put up remained intact and solid. As the tunnel grew in length this gave greater reassurance.

To travel from the face back to the entrance had to be done backwards and became tiring and awkward. Two ``alcoves'' were dug into the side which allowed a man to turn around and come back right way round. These alcoves also served as storage bays for trays and implements.

The water never ceased to be a problem, but it never stopped work. The conditions can only be described as atrocious; freezing cold, constantly wet and muddy. Air became stale and headaches were sharp and painful. An efficient mechanism was established to pump fresher air into the tunnel. During all this one thing became clear - Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn were full of shit.

During the really bad storms a section of razor wire became dislodged on the yard face. We knew they would bring in a forklift to help repair this. This gave cause for serious concern. The forklift duly arrived and there were anxious moments as several hundredweight of machine made two journeys over the top of the tunnel. It held. Not one bit of shoring or section of tunnel gave way. When we knew that we had passed beyond the perimeter fence of the block, we had smashed a major barrier and were out of the block. At this stage we estimated that the distance travelled was over 100ft. This put us within 30 yards of the perimeter wall. Still the security of the operation was intact and those involved were confident about the work being done.

An almost fatal cave-in, however, shook everyone and only quick thinking and action saved a man from serious injury or worse. From that point it was necessary to proceed very cautiously. On Sunday 23 March another cave-in occurred. Straight away it was clear that this one had gone the whole way to the surface. The smell of grass and fresh air flooded the tunnel face where the cave-in had happened.

It was not known how big a hole was on the surface. After some discussion attempts were made to shore up the area affected. But any work in the area was leading to more material moving at the face. Because it was daylight and screws had to move in that area to gain access to an observation tower it was decided to abort the operation until darkness allowed for a full assessment of the extent of the damage and its implications. The hole had occurred in an area monitored by both screws and armed British soldiers. The hole remained undetected for several hours. Eventually, at approximately 9.30pm it was discovered.

Talk of light shining from the tunnel are rubbish. We had overcome major obstacles and forged ahead in almost impossible conditions. For example, the night before the last cave-in almost 50 gallons of water were bailed out. Circumstances outside of our control had thwarted us.

As POWs we have a duty to escape captivity and return to the struggle. We were fulfilling that duty from the moment this operation was put together and put into effect. The role and contributions of all involved in this operation remain to be acknowledged at another time. For now they have our thanks and gratitude.
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An Phoblacht
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