Great Escape survivor’s club, Rhosneigr

theme page link buttonLink to French translationGreat Escape survivor’s club, Rhosneigr

The Sandymount Club was once owned by Ken Rees, a survivor of the “Great Escape” from the German prison camp Stalag Luft III. The club is beside the Wales Coast Path and is open to non-members for drinks or food.

Ken Rees grew up on his parents’ farm outside Ruabon, near Wrexham. He lied about his age and occupation to join the RAF at the outbreak of the Second World War. He was posted to a Wellington bomber squadron. On one training flight, Sgt Rees won a bet by flying a bomber under the Menai Suspension Bridge.

He married in October 1942, the day after a “bachelor party” which began at his favourite pub, the Trevor Arms in Marford. Later that month he was on a mission to drop magnetic mines off the Norwegian coast when his plane was shot down and crashed into a fjord. He and two others of the crew escaped the wreckage but were soon captured by the occupying German forces. After interrogation by the Gestapo, Rees and his navigator, fellow Welshman Gwyn Martin, were moved by sea, land and air to Berlin and then to Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp.

Stalag Luft III was the camp where prisoners tunnelled underneath the perimeter fence in a bid for freedom. The story was later told in the film The Great Escape. Ken was one of the tunnellers and was about to escape when the tunnel was discovered by guards. All of the 87 Allied prisoners who escaped were caught, and 50 were murdered by the Gestapo. In May 1945, after being force marched around Germany in horrendous conditions, Ken was freed as the war in Europe ended.

Wing Commander Rees retired from the RAF in 1968. After running Bangor-on-Dee post office, near Wrexham, he bought the Sandymount Club in 1972. He ran the club for 10 years, after which his son Martin ran it for a while in partnership with Charlie Parson. Ken remained in Rhosneigr until his death, aged 93, in August 2014.

With thanks to Adrian Hughes, of the Home Front museum, Llandudno

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Postcode: LL64 5UX

Website of Sandymount Club (Facebook)

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FOOTNOTES: More about Ken Rees

Ken was born in 1921 and attended Ruabon Grammar School. He was not very academic but excelled at sports, especially rugby. He left school aged 15 and took a three-year apprenticeship in the drapery section of Gorringe’s Department Store, London, but left after two years due to its “overwhelming dullness”.

In 1938 he enrolled at Llysfasi Agricultural College, near Ruthin, to study farming. This enabled him to play rugby for Wrexham. When war broke out, Ken was rebuffed by the RAF recruitment office in Chester as he was too young and also because his occupation, as a farmer, was reserved. Undeterred, he went to Shrewsbury the following day, lied about his age and occupation, and joined the RAF.

Ken hoped to become a fighter pilot but was posted onto a course for bomber command. Ken and his crew flew sorties over Germany and occupied Europe until they were sent to Malta, from where where they bombed railways, docks and airfields in North Africa and southern Italy. Malta was constantly under attack from German and Italian air forces, and Ken’s life was always in danger even when he wasn’t on operations.

After his tour of duty in Malta he returned to the UK to train new pilots but after six months longed to return to action. He volunteered to re-join operations. While dropping magnetic mines off Norway, his plane was shot down and he crashed into a fjord. Ken was captured and interrogated by the Gestapo, and eventually imprisoned at Stalag Luft III, a camp for captured airmen.

Ken had married Mary Sinfield in October 1942. Her brother was machine-gunned by a German aircrew while floating under a parachute from his wrecked plane. This inhumanity motivated Ken to be as disruptive as possible to his captors, and he was often put in solitary confinement.

He helped to dig the secret tunnel under the perimeter fence. On the night of the “Great Escape”, he was about to climb the exit ladder when a shot rang out, denoting that the tunnel had been detected. He raced back into the camp and joined comrades in burning fake identity documents before the guards arrived.

His post-war rugby career included stints with London Welsh (he was captain in 1953), Birkenhead Park, Cheshire, the RAF and Combined Services. He trialled for Wales but had recently dislocated a thumb and wasn’t selected.