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The true story of The Great Escape

75 years ago this month, on the night of the 24 March 1944, one of the most audacious projects carried out during WW2 occurred. It was the mass escape of Allied soldiers from the German prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III, the story of which was forever immortalised in the 1963 film The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen. 

Although the mass escape, which was the largest attempted during WW2, had nothing to do with daring motorcycle jumps over barbed wire fences, the true story is just as dramatic, as hundreds of men put their lives on the line to not only enjoy the taste of freedom once again but to also demonstrate their will to resist Hitler’s tyranny. 

Stalag Luft III was a German POW camp situated deep within Nazi-occupied Poland, some 100 miles southeast of Berlin. The camp held thousands of captured Allied airmen during WW2 and was considered one of the hardest to escape from. Three design features made tunnelling almost impossible – the loose collapsible sandy soil upon which the camp was built, elevated prisoner housing to expose tunnels and the placement of seismograph microphones around the perimeter of the camp. None of that was to deter RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, who conceived the plan for the mass escape in the spring of 1943.

'Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick and Harry. One will succeed!'

Bushell had been shot down during the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940 and by the time he was transferred to Stalag Luft III in October 1942 he’d already made two escape attempts from previous camps. His next attempt, however, would be his most ambitious yet. 

Codenamed Big X, Bushell headed up an Escape Committee and planned to get an unprecedented number of over 200 men out from the camp in one attempt. In his own words, ‘Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick and Harry. One will succeed!’ And indeed one did. 

Whilst the movie makes out that it was a small group of mainly American airmen who were part of the breakout, in fact over 600 prisoners were involved in the construction of the tunnels and whilst U.S. airmen did act as lookouts, they were all transferred to another camp months before the escape actually took place. 

Given the sheer numerical scale of involvement in the plan, the importance of secrecy was imperative, with Bushell threatening to court-martial anyone who uttered the word ‘tunnel’. 

Tom was dug next to a stove chimney in hut 123 but it was discovered by the guards before completion and was subsequently dynamited. Dick was dug in the shower room of hut 122, however, the area where it was meant to pop up was cleared for camp expansion and so digging was halted and the tunnel was used instead for soil and supplies storage. 

Hidden under a stove in hut 104 was the entrance to Harry and after a whole year of construction, the tunnel was completed in March 1944. Dug to a depth of 30ft to stay out of range of the microphones, the narrow tunnel stretched 336ft towards the woods on the northern edge of the camp and was shored up by some 4,000 wooden boards taken from the prisoner’s beds. Electric lighting lit the way and an underground rope-operated trolley system was built to move the prisoners along the 2ft wide tunnel, which also included chambers housing an air pump, a workshop and two junctions, known as ‘Piccadilly Circus’ and ‘Leicester Square’.

During the construction of the tunnel, it was estimated that around 100 tons of soil were painstakingly excavated with homemade tools and then disposed of around the camp. The prisoner’s attached special pouches inside their trousers, which allowed them to scatter the sand as they walked around camp. Another method was to stuff their socks with sand and then tip it out into the small gardens they were allowed to tend, raking the excavated sand into the soil.   

The resourcefulness of the would-be escapees was remarkable. The Germans made an inventory of the camp after the escape and along with the 4,000 bed boards it was also discovered that 52 twenty-man tables, 34 chairs and 76 benches had all gone missing and been used by the prisoners for the tunnel walls and to build ladders. Also found missing were 635 mattresses, 192 bed covers, and 161 pillow cases which had been placed against the walls of the tunnel to muffle sounds. 1,219 knives, 478 spoons, 582 forks and 1,400 powdered milk cans had been pinched and used as digging tools whilst a 1,000ft of electrical wire had been nabbed and hooked up to the camp’s main power supply. Unbelievably, these are just some examples of the materials that went missing, the full list was even more extensive. 

Once construction was complete, the Committee waited for the first cloudy and moonless night to make their escape. That night came on 24 March 1944. The escapees were placed into three groups based upon priority with Committee heads, foreign language speakers and those who’d contributed the most to the escape heading out first. 

The early leavers were dressed in the best civilian clothing or uniforms, acquired through bribery and the blackmailing of German guards. They also had the best maps and the most convincing ID papers, which had been ingeniously replicated by the prisoners after they managed to get their hands on a camera. The rest of the escapees were given rudimentary maps, passable travel and work permits, less convincing clothing, a few hoarded rations and some homemade compasses.

At 8:45pm the first man entered the tunnel and it’s at this point again that real life and Hollywood take different paths. The movie depicts the breakout happening in beautiful spring conditions when in fact it all transpired during the coldest winter that part of Poland had endured in 30 years. The temperature was below freezing and the ground was covered in a thick layer of snow. As such the exit hatch at the other end of Harry had frozen shut and it took over an hour and a half to get it open. This was the first in a series of unfortunate events that hampered the escape efforts that night. 

The second problem came as soon as the hatch was opened. The tunnel had not been dug long enough and instead of coming up in the nearby forest, it in fact popped up just a few yards away from a sentry tower in open ground. Bushell and others debated whether to hold off until the tunnel had been dug far enough but it was soon realised that their fake ID papers had been date stamped. A delay was not on the cards. 

The massive manhunt that the Nazi’s subsequently mobilised proved successful and within two weeks all but 73 of the 76 had been recaptured... 

A rope was run from the exit hatch to behind a small fence nearby. The first man out lay behind the fence and tugged on the rope to give the all-clear signal. Although effective, the speed at which the men could now escape had been drastically reduced. Tunnel collapses, men getting stuck and a blackout caused by a nearby air raid all contributed to further delays. In the end, the rate at which the men were escaping was around one every six minutes, that’s ten per hour, which was a lot slower than the planned one every minute or two. 

At around 5am the 76th man crawled to freedom. He would be the last. The 77th man was spotted exiting the hatch by a German sentry who then set off the alarm, causing panic and confusion in the tunnel below and in hut 104. The prisoners, who were yet to escape, changed back into their prison clothing, burnt their fake ID papers and madly consumed their smuggled rations.

The camp Kommandant, Freidrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau, rounded up every man in the camp and forced him to stand out in the freezing cold, whilst the German guards painstakingly went through the process of working out who was missing. At the same time searches began of the nearby woods and local points of interest were put on high alert including railway and police stations, aerodromes and tank units. The Gestapo descended on the camp and assumed command. 

The massive manhunt that the Nazi’s subsequently mobilised proved successful and within two weeks all but 73 of the 76 had been recaptured - two Norwegians and a Dutchman managed to evade capture. The Norwegian pair made it by train to the port at Stettin. There they were smuggled onto a Swedish ship and taken back to the safety of Gothenburg. The Dutchman made it across most of occupied Europe via rail, foot and bike, aided along the way by various resistance movements. He’d eventually end up in Gibraltar and was flown from there to England, where he would rejoin the RAF and go on to fight during Operation Overload. 

As for the recaptured 73 men, 23 of them were sent to other various Nazi prison camps. The other 50 were not so lucky. An enraged Hitler personally ordered their execution, a direct violation of the Geneva Conventions. Whilst the movie depicts the men being killed in a single massacre, the Gestapo actually carried out the Fuhrer’s orders by killing the men singly or in pairs along quiet country lanes and in secluded locations. 

Roger Bushell, the mastermind behind the escape, was one of them. Bushell had managed to travel some 400 miles in under 10 hours but was caught the next day as he waited for a train at Saarbrücken, a town just 20 miles away from the French border. The relative safety of the French Resistance was a stone’s throw away. 

Lindeiner-Wildau was relieved of command and the new camp Kommandant, Oberst Werner Braune, was so appalled with the mass murder of the escapees that he allowed the remaining prisoners to build them a memorial, which still stands today. 

Stalag Luft III was eventually liberated in early 1945 and 17 months later the police branch of the RAF launched a special investigation into the murders, a task made difficult due to the Gestapo’s attempts to cover up the incident. After a three-year investigation, 18 Nazi soldiers were found guilty of war crimes for the murder of the recaptured POW’s and 13 of them were executed.

Although only three of the planned two hundred made it out on that fateful night 75 years ago, the importance of their attempt was undeniable. Jack Lyon, an RAF pilot who was imprisoned at Stalag Luft III at the time of the escape said, ‘It did do a lot for morale, particularly for those prisoners who’d been there for a long time. They felt they were able to contribute something, even if they weren’t able to get out. They felt they could help in some way and trust me, in prison camps, morale is very important.’