Eric Kennington 1888-1960
The Great Escape: Squadron Leader Ian Pembroke Cross DFC 1942
Pastel 22 1/2 x 17 inches (57 x 43 cm)
Signed 'EHK' and dated b.l.
Purchased by the sitter's brother, Air Chief Marshal Sir Kenneth 'Bing' Cross; by descent.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Kenneth 'Bing' Cross, Straight and Level, London 1993, repr. between pp.190-1.
Squadron Leader Ian Cross DFC was an exceptionally brave officer who was one of the leaders of the mass break out from Stalag Luft III known as The Great Escape.
Cross was stationed at RAF Elsham Wolds in Lincolnshire with 103 Squadron flying Wellington bombers. He was shot down on 12 February 1943 off the Dutch coast on a mission to attack the German pocket battleships 'Scharnhorst' and 'Gneisenau'. He and his surviving crew spent sixty hours in their dingy before being captured by a German naval vessel.
Cross was first held as a prisoner at Oflag XXI-B in Schubin where he became acquainted with seasoned escapers such as Roger Bushell ('Big X') and became an accomplished tunneller. He was one of the ‘troublesome’ prisoners moved by the Germans to the reputedly escape-proof Stalag Luft III where he continued his activities. In one attempt he jumped aboard a German truck leaving the compound with a load of pine trunks and branches which had been cut by Russian forced labourers but was caught before the truck was outside of the wire fences.
For The Great Escape Cross was responsible for the hiding and dispersal of six hundred tons of earth dug from the three tunnels code named Tom, Dick and Harry. Much of it was hidden in the void beneath the seats of the camp theatre, necessitating the maintenance of repeated rehearsals and a deliberately noisy audience to distract the guards. Every aspect of the operation - the concealment of the entrances to the tunnels, the construction, ventilation, the lighting and the actual tunnelling - was a miracle of ingenuity, determination and courage, all of it conducted in complete secrecy in the face of an enemy whose suspicions were thoroughly aroused. A major problem was the disposal of the spoil from the tunnel digging. It was mostly a bright yellow sand, the slightest trace of which would alert the ever-vigilant guards. Ian Cross with Fl Lt Jimmy James were the leaders of this part of the operation, supervising the transport of spoil in long, stocking-like bags carried under greatcoats at night to the theatre.
The break out took place on the night of 24th March 1944. Cross escaped with eighty others sometime between 1.00 and 4.55 am. He was apparently recaptured quite quickly, to the east of the camp. Held in a civil prison by the Gestapo, Cross was among fifty of the Great Escapers who paid the ultimate price for their bravery. One of Cross’s close friends in the camp recalled seeing him shortly before the Escape: ‘He was in great spirits and naturally very excited about his coming escape. I have never met a man who did his duty so magnificently and managed to enjoy doing it so much at the same time.’
Kennington made his portrait in December 1941, most likely as was his custom while Cross was waiting in the dispersal area before a mission.The picture is in its original Kennington frame and has the War Artists Advisory Committee label on the back. It comes from Cross's family.