WW2 Great Escape hero's swagger stick found in Derbyshire cupboard after boiler repair

Prisoners at Stalag Luft III and the swagger stick
Prisoners at Stalag Luft III and the swagger stick Credit: Hansons/Mark Laban

A swagger stick that belonged to a World War 2 hero has been found at the back of an airing cupboard in Derbyshire after twenty years.

The long-forgotten item was discovered after a plumber was called to the property in Ticknall, to carry out boiler repairs.

The stick, carried by a uniformed person as a symbol of authority, belonged to Marcel Zillessen, who was born in Northampton in 1917.

Marcel Zillessen’s name etched on the swagger stick Credit: Hansons/Mark Laban

He was among the many soldiers who participated in what has been coined the "Great Escape" during the Second World War.

76 prisoners of war (POW) tunnelled out of a German labour camp, Stalag Luft III, in Nazi-occupied Poland, into a snowy forest.

2024 marks the 80th anniversary of the "Great Escape", described as the most famous prison break of all time.

“What a find to make"

Matt Crowson, the Head of Militaria at Hansons Auctioneers, said: “Incredibly it was discovered at the back of an airing cupboard in the South Derbyshire village of Ticknall - but only because a plumber had been called to fix the boiler !

"It had lain there for at least 20 years, long forgotten.

“What a find to make. Though unconnected to Zillesson’s WW2 service as an RAF pilot officer, it belonged to him when he attended Gresham School OTC (Officer Training Corps) as a teenager from 1930-33.

“His swagger stick, a short crop usually carried by a uniformed person as a symbol of authority, is a memento of a man who will never be forgotten thanks to his role in the Great Escape from Nazi prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III.

"His part, an important one as he could speak fluent German, was portrayed by James Garner in the 1963 film of the same name.

Sketch from a Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp journal Credit: Credit Hansons/Mark Laban

“Zillessen was due to be the last man out of an escape tunnel called Harry.

"He never actually made it, though that ultimately saved his life.

"He passed away just one week short of his 82nd birthday. Of the 76 who did escape, most were captured within three days and 50 were executed on Hitler’s orders. Only three got away.”

"I'm surprised it survived at all"

The seller said: “The swagger stick came from my mother-in-law’s friend in the 1990s. It was her late husband's.

"Whilst visiting her with my eldest son, then a tot, she gave it to him to play with. I guess she had no use for it.

“I really can't remember how long my children played with it. On reflection I'm surprised it survived at all.

"At some point it would have been put away somewhere in the house and forgotten. It recently turned up at the back of the airing cupboard.

"I had to empty some contents so the plumber could fix the boiler and it was standing in the back corner. I'd say it had been there for at least 20 years".

The Zillessen swagger stick. Credit: Mark Laban

Matt from Hansons said: “We speculate the man who originally acquired the swagger stick knew Zillessen at Gresham School Officer Training Corps in Norfolk.

"We also think he may have worked with WW2 Allied code-breakers at Bletchley Park. Perhaps Zillessen gave it to him as a memento of their friendship.

“Whatever the circumstances it is amazing the swagger stick turned up as the world marked the 80th anniversary of the Great Escape".

The swagger stick measures 70.3cm long, and has a lacquered malacca cane body, brass ferrule and nickel pommel.

The words ‘Gresham’ and ‘Holt’, are also visible, the latter being the location of the school in Norfolk.

It will be auctioned on the 15th May, and has a guide price of £100-£150. Matt said:

“The estimate may appear modest but the memories it’s likely to unleash will be monumental.

"Had the piece have been connected to Zillessen’s wartime service and the Great Escape it would be worth much more, but this is a pre-war piece from his teenage years in a school officer training corps.

"Nevertheless, thanks to the impact of the Great Escape, the find may surprise us all under the hammer.”

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