RAF doctor Tom Cullen's family did not know about his death-defying escapade until a few years ago
A British serviceman's daring escape from a Nazi PoW camp in which he tiptoed over a frozen lake and
RAF doctor Tom Cullen's family did not know about his death-defying escape until a few years ago when he finally revealed his war story.
He has now spoken publicly for the first time, just days after his 100th birthday, about his dramatic journey to freedom from Stalag XXA near Torun
Talking from his home near Colchester, Essex, the slightly built centenarian humbly states it was his duty to escape as he simply did not know when the savage fighting would end.
He said: 'Put it like this, no-one knew when the war would end so you always thought if they could get home they would.
'There were two things about this - if you escaped from your camp that's one thing, having got outside the camp how did you get to your country?
'My view was if you didn't know how to get out of the country, why would you escape?'
He added: 'It became known that if people could get out of the camp there would be Poles that would help them get out of the country.
'I was asked by another prisoner and I thought I'd give it a go and I did.
'I don't know if you feel nervous, we were a bit excited - there was just nothing we could do about it once we were out.
'It was likely the Germans would shoot us on sight, which they did sometimes.'
Mr Cullen miraculously fled the hellish nightmare that was his home since February 1944 after he had been captured during fierce fighting in Maleme
Tom has spoken publicly for the first time, just days after his 100th birthday, about his dramatic journey to freedom from Stalag XXA near Torun in northern Poland
Feeling the tide was changing in the war after the Battle Stalingrad he and army officer John Grieg
After weeks of planning the pair enlisted others in the non-combatant camp who help stitch mock-Polish clothes for them.
Whilst a set up riot distracted guards the two troops carefully walked across a frozen moat with a ladder in tow and scaled an 8ft barbed wire-topped metal fence.
Ingeniously they had attached ropes to the ladder which was meant to be carefully lowered back to the frozen ground but instead it crashed to the floor.
After the nerve-wracking climb the pair snuck into a bush and waited patiently for a truck to pull up.
Reliving the incredible escape he said: 'The moat was frozen over and took this ladder with us, it had rope on the ladder and they were able to pull it back.
'It made a crash but thankfully the guards were distracted.
'I just remember we got over it, then we had to go past the guard room into a field and we hid into a hedge and wait for a truck to come up the road.
'We were just waiting to see what would happen next.'
Thankfully it arrived quickly and a resistance driver took them to the coast 'much the same way these people get from Dover to Calais' - where a compartment was built for them out of boxes.
Feeling the tide was changing in the war after the Battle Stalingrad he and army officer John Grieg hatched a plan with Red Cross workers to escape in 1944 (Tom on his wedding day, right, to Catherine who died in 2006)
After a few days hopping to different safe houses they made it to Gdynia
'We stayed on a farm there and we waited for a suitable ship and they took us to the city,' he said
'A chap went with us and we had to get a bus into the city and we sat near the back and tried not to talk to anybody.
'We followed 50 yards behind him on the docks and gave us a shovel and said 'We are going to shift coal on the ship'.
They then hid in the hold for 36 hours hours in pitch darkness with no toilets until they revealed themselves.
After they thought they were in the clear they banged on the door, alerting the crew, who gave them much-needed sustenance but did not tell the captain about the stow aways.
He added: 'When we knocked on the hatch they gave us some food and clothes and said we won't tell the captain as he'll be upset.'
After three gruelling days the tramp arrived in Malmo in neutral Sweden, they were handed to the police and then passed to the British ambassador who got them back to Britain.
Amazingly Mr Cullen never met his fellow escapee again claiming 'we never had much in common apart from we escaped together'.
The modest great grandfather only opened up to his stunned family in recent years about his incredible escape.
He recalled how, having been captured by German paratroopers, he was forced to toil alone, attempting to care for more than 1,000 wounded men as enemy soldiers crept ever closer.
For this work he received the prestigious MBE military honour for 'devotion to duty and courage of the highest order'.
Recalling his original capture, he said: 'We all knew the invasion was coming, we didn't know what it would be like.
Amazingly Mr Cullen never met his fellow escapee again claiming 'we never had much in common apart from we escaped together'
'We all thought we probably get killed, the whole campaign in Crete was a complete mess up.
'When the Germans came and I had to put my hands up, you have to if they are pointing guns at you.
'I was taken to a barn and I had to try and do what I could for the wounded, I didn't have any equipment though.
'I just had to get on with it, there was no way out. Even if you hadn't done the operations before, you just had to deal with the war wounds as best you could.'
Although his memory is failing him Mr Cullen, who reached the rank of squadron leader with 33 Squadron, vividly recalled his very own 'Colditz', where he nearly three miserable years
'It just looked like an old fort surrounded by a moat, it was partly underground.
'The Germans just had us locked up and provided us some food as best they could and that was that.
'Time went slowly though, it was boring. There was nothing to do but play bridge with three others every day,' he added.
Whilst under lock and key he wrote home once a week and often asked about the pet dogs, how the family vegetable patch was looking and what was happening around his hometown of Kelvedon, Essex.
Back in Britain he was sent to RAF Hilton until demobilisation where he met his wife Catherine Mary Lockerbie.
Mr Cullen is a father of four children, 11 grand children and 11 great grandchildren and forged a career as a surgeon.
His beloved wife died in 2006.
His son Richard Cullen only became aware of his father's heroics in his later years but is glad he has passed on his amazing story to the public after his landmark birthday this month.
He said: 'We only found out in the last 20 years and it has just come more to the fore.
'You ask him about it and it is like he is talking about a long boring weekend in Poland rather than escaping from a POW camp.'