Petra Tonder, pt. 1: My RAF pilot father, the Great Escapee

Petra Tonder, photo: Ian Willoughby

RAF officer Ivo Tonder played an important part in what became known as the Great Escape, a mass breakout by Allied airmen from a German prisoner of war camp in March 1944. But this was only one of many escapes by the Czech pilot, who evidently had nerves of steel – and a lot of luck. I recently spoke with his daughter, Petra Tonder, who came to our studios with a copy of In the Heavens and in Hell, a book by Tonder and the famous photographer Ladislav Sitenský. In the first half of a two-part interview, Petra Tonder describes her father’s remarkable adventures during the war.

Petra Tonder, photo: Ian Willoughby
“He had done his pilot training here, as his military service, but he hadn’t stayed in the air force, so it wasn’t as available for him to get out as it was for many pilots.

“But a man called Karel Sláma, who had done training with him and had become a good friend, met up with him and they decided to escape.”

How did they escape?

“The long route through Slovakia, Hungary, Turkey, Beirut. That route. Quite a few people did it.”

He joined the RAF in 1940 and, if I have it right, two years later he was shot down over occupied France?

“No, over the Channel, on his way to Cherbourg.”

What became of him then?

“He ended up at Stalag Luft III. He terribly, terribly wanted to escape.

“I was just looking at the book in preparation, and what struck me was how unbelievably they all worked together. How unselfish they were. They really worked together.

“For example, he just wanted terribly to escape and one of the British officers said, OK, there’s a little chance of jumping off a train – and here is a handful of raisins, a bar of chocolate and a compass, just in case you manage it.

“Well he didn’t. The window was nailed down and it didn’t work.

“So when he got to the camp he gave it in. I think I would have eaten it [laughs]. They were hungry, you know.

“There were many, many occasions where I thought, Gosh they really all pulled together in such a nice way.”

This jail Stalag Luft III was known as a POW camp that couldn’t be escaped from. But he was one of about 75 British officers who got out in what later became known as the Great Escape.

“Sixty-one got out. I think 75 actually got out but they caught 15 straight away.

“Sixty-one actually got away from the camp. And they shot 50. Three got to England: two Norwegians and a Dutchman.”

“A tunnel once caved in on my father for quite a long time and he took a week off digging after that.”

Many people will know the movie The Great Escape. What was your father’s view of the film?

“He thought it was awful [laughs].

“I just wanted to boast a little bit. This is quite interesting perhaps for Czechs.

“There were about 20 Czechs in the camp. Three of them were on the escape.

“Twenty people didn’t have to draw lots. Hundreds of people took part in the escape and 20 people had done so much, mainly digging, that they didn’t have to draw lots. And all three Czechs that escaped were in the 20: Valenta, Dvořák and my father.”

For people who don’t know the story, how did they get out of this notorious camp?

“They dug three tunnels. When a tunnel was planned there was kind of excitement that the Germans sensed and they kind of knew that something was going on.

“So they thought they would dig three. They called them Tom, Dick and Harry.

“My father was almost from the very beginning digging Harry, which was the one that they did escape from.

“The digging was extraordinarily hard work. It would sometimes cave in. It once caved in on my father for quite a long time and he took a week off digging after that [laughs].”

Your father was recaptured…

“Very shortly afterwards.”

'In the Heavens and in Hell', photo: Mustang publishing
How did that happen?

“OK. He was a kind of prominent escaper, inasmuch as they thought they had a really good chance.

“They had train tickets. He went with someone called Johnny Stower and they were supposed to get on a train.

“Well, as you perhaps know from the film, that was correct, there was an air raid during the escape.

“They had electricity down there and it went out. Some of these men had never been down there and they got claustrophobia.

“They had two stations that were a little bit bigger, two metres by 60, where they changed. They had rails and lay down on a little thing on rails and were pulled to the next station.

“They couldn’t be too long, because the rope might break. And in fact the rope did break.

“Johnny Stower was already out and patiently waiting while my father had to… somebody panicked and kicked and broke the rope and he had to crawl down on his belly and tie up the rope again.

“Altogether they came up very late, as you perhaps know from the film; there were a lot of things that were correct. The tunnel was short. It wasn’t in the woods.

“So again, how unselfish they were, after years for some of them, for daddy a year and a half.

“You’d been in this awful muddy hole with 4,000 other men and suddenly you’re out, but no, hang on a minute, you’ve got to wait and pull up a rope so the next man knows he can come.

“They were really only metres away from a watchtower.

“The train had gone by that time, so they decided to walk. But they were kitted out to go by train, with little shoes and everything.

“And there were a couple of metres of snow. It was March, but there was a lot of snow.

“But nevertheless they walked at night and made a hole in the snow in the day and slept.

“They got to the Czech border and there were just piles and piles of people. Hitler had brought in an enormous amount of soldiers, all the Hitlerjugend – the place was just swarming with people.”

“My father survived only because the Gestapo in Prague asked to interview him.”

There was a huge manhunt?

“A huge manhunt. They then did get on a train. They had coupons for food and had lots of food.

“There was quite a famous little story at the train station. They had something to eat and then there was a Gestapo check.

“And my father thought, I’m not going to sit here waiting for them to come and ask me for my papers.

“So he got up and went over to the Gestapo and showed them those papers and said, Look, I think they’ve made a mistake with our tickets.

“You could only buy tickets for short distances, for some reason, in Germany at the time.

“And the Gestapo man took them to where the young woman had sold them the tickets and started shouting at her, Can’t you see these are foreigners, you’ve sold them the wrong tickets [laughs].

“They had amazingly good papers.

“My father was supposed to be an engineer working for Focke-Wulf. And Johnny Stower, who came from Argentina and spoke perfect Spanish, was supposed to be a Spaniard, also working there.

“He was going with my father for a holiday in Prague – that was the story.

“There was a passport control on the train and they passed.

“But the people who had checked their documents were just leaving and the last one turned around and said, Do you know what, that man – Johnny Stower – has exactly the same trousers on as the man we captured earlier today.

“It was an Australian kind of plum-coloured uniform that they thought might pass as civilian.

“The inspectors came back and properly checked. Then they saw that their jackets weren’t lined, they had chocolate… he didn’t stand a chance.

“So they were taken to Liberec and put in jail. There were four men already in the jail, four from the Great Escape.”

Your father was then sentenced to death?

“My mother arrived in England with two pairs of skis and an evening dress.”

“There were six of them in the prison cell in Liberec and after a few days four of them were taken out. A little while later Johnny Stower was taken.

“My father was saying, This isn’t right, I’m a British officer.

“They were threatening to execute Czechs as traitors. He had assumed they’d be returned to the camp.

“In fact all five were taken out and shot.

“My father survived only because the Gestapo in Prague asked to interview him. So they drove him to Pankrác [prison].

“He first of all said that he hadn’t escaped from Czechoslovakia, that he had been in England anyway before the war.

“He said he hadn’t hung out with the Czechs at all. He’d hoped to get a British squadron, his English was quite good and he didn’t mix with these Czechs at all and never spoke to any of them.

“But he was in an all-Czech squadron [laughs].

“Also there was a Czech who had got himself into some kind of trouble and stolen a Spitfire and flown and joined the Nazis. He was later executed as a traitor.

“But my father knew this man quite well because they had left France together on the same ship, and my father was very friendly.

“Anyway, they brought this man in and my father thought, Oh my God, my story’s going to be blown here [laughs].

“And the man said, Never seen him before in my life.

“This same man gave in so many people and betrayed so many people. But my father he didn’t betray.

“That was lucky. Otherwise they would have tortured him I presume. They wanted names of Czechs in England in the RAF.”

Your father survived all of that miraculously. Tell us something please about your mum.

“My mother was half-Jewish. Her father was Jewish. And she was a very good skier.

“When she was 18 or 19, quite young, she happened when Hitler came into Czechoslovakia to be in Switzerland, skiing in an English-organised race.

“One of her brothers was also out of the country, on his honeymoon in Oslo. They somehow communicated and he said, Go to England.

“She arrived in England with two pairs of skis and an evening dress. You need to put on an evening dress for prize-giving [laughs].

“When my mother got my father’s obituary she joined the RAF.”

“She worked for The Czechoslovak, the magazine, for some time.”

And your parents met in the UK?

“This man Sitenský, who wrote the book, was the same age as my mother, a month apart, and they knew each other well.

“He also knew my father – he was on that same ship leaving France.

“He would sometimes say, I’m going to London and I’ll see Jiřina Ascherová. And my father would say, Give her my best regards [laughs].

“He knew Zika, mummy’s middle brother.

“One day he was walking with somebody else in London, on a little break, and they bumped into mummy. She said, You’re the man who keeps sending your best regards.

“She had always gone, I don’t know who the hell he is, but send him my best regards back.

“My father said, We have to fix this. He invited her to lunch, but she had already had lunch, so he went to have lunch with his friend.

“Then he went back to the magazine and asked if she’d have dinner but she said, I’m already having dinner with somebody.

“So my father joined them and they went out as a threesome [laughs].

“Then one more date as a threesome and he was shot down over the Channel.

“My mother had fallen in love with him the moment she saw him.

“She was working on the magazine and suddenly they put his obituary on her desk.”

Mistakenly, of course.

“Yes. But twice they didn’t hear from him for a long time and twice they thought he was dead.

“That would have been the first time. And after the Great Escape they didn’t hear from him.”

So basically she met your father, fell in love with him – and then didn’t see him for how many years? It must have been several years.

“Well, when she got his obituary she left the magazine and joined the RAF. My father always said she wanted to replace him [laughs].

“What would it have been? Two years, something like that. Not awfully long.”

I presume they got married here after the war?

“No. What happened was he got back… He was sentenced to death by the Germans and sent to Colditz to await execution, which was supposed to be in 99 days.

“Actually I worked it out and I think the 99 days must have been up. He was still at Colditz when the Americans did this sortie to rescue Colditz – on his birthday.

“On April 16, the Americans arrived [laughs].

“I’m not quite sure exactly what day he got back [to London], but he was rescued on April 16 and it must have taken a little while to get back.

“He heard that the friend he used to hang out with, who my mother had been good friends with, had got married – and he assumed it was to my mother.

“But he found out that it wasn’t and on May 3 they got married.

“My father said, Ještě nepadla pusa – we hadn’t actually kissed yet [laughs]. But they just got married.”

Next week in part two of this interview Petra Tonder recalls her parents’ tribulations in post-1948 Czechoslovakia, her family members’ dramatic escapes from the country and much more.