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Railway track leading up to the Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp

The greatest POW escapes from World War II

During the Second World War, service personnel captured in conflict became prisoners of war. Even when threatened with terrible punishment if caught trying to escape, many still took any opportunity they could.

Image: In April 1944, Rudolf Vrba and Frank Wetzer became the first Jews to successfully escape from Auschwitz |

During the Second World War, service personnel captured in conflict became prisoners of war. Even when threatened with terrible punishment if caught trying to escape, many still took any opportunity they could.

This article covers some of the most extraordinary attempts by prisoners of war who risked it all to find freedom.

1. George Paterson

Canadian George Paterson was a demolition expert who, against all the odds, carried out Operation Colossus. The assignment was to blow up Italy’s Aqueduct Pugliese, the nation’s life-giving watercourse at the heart of Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. Even after losing most of the explosives, he successfully demolished half the structure. However, having found himself split from his team, he tried to make a solo escape through the frozen high peaks of the Apennines, where he was eventually captured.

Patterson found he was held in terrible conditions and treated so brutally by Italian guards that he consistently tried to escape. Finally, he was sent to the notorious Gestapo-run San Vittone prison in Milan, built in the form of a star with six cell blocks and believed to be escape-proof.

Patterson made his first escape by bribing one of the wardens who created a duplicate key to unlock a door onto the streets. Successfully on his way to the Swiss border, Patterson tried to assist partisans who needed help to escape from Italy. He was caught again and tried to escape a second time, even though he was threatened with execution. On this occasion he created a riot in San Vittone, resulting in hundreds of prisoners overpowering the guards.

2. The Great Épinal Escape

On 11th May 1944, American B-24 bombers accidentally bombed a camp at Épinal in eastern France which was a temporary home to over 3,000 Indian men. Some died from the bombing, but many took advantage of the confusion and ran away into the woods.

The next few weeks saw hundreds of Sikhs, Muslims, Gurkhas, Hindus and Indian Christians trudging through the forests, crossing rivers and dodging Germans as they made their way towards neutral Switzerland. French civilians helped them and within a week they crossed the frontier. Others – like Jai Lall of the Service Corps and Sergeant Harkabahadur Rai of the Gurkhas – stayed in France and joined the Resistance. 

By the end of that summer, 500 of these men had crossed the border to safety. This was the largest successful escape of World War II but remains largely unknown.

3. 'The Great Escape’

One of the most famous breakouts from a POW camp was at the Stalag Luft III camp for Allied aircrew near the town of Sagan, Lower Silesia in Nazi Germany. Plans for a mass escape began in April 1943, headed by Roger Bushell, where men worked tirelessly as they secretly dug three tunnels. Named ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’, these tunnels were 10 metres deep and over 102 metres long, making them large enough to carry 200 men to freedom. The audacious plan was immortalised in the 1963 movie The Great Escape.

During the months-long operation, thousands of items were customised into digging tools and over 100 tons of sand was stuffed into concealed socks. Work on the tunnels stopped for a brief period when one of them was discovered by guards. However, when work later resumed, ‘Harry’ was the tunnel that was chosen to escape from.

On the evening of 25th March 1944, the first men began their dangerous escape, not realising that the tunnel was short of the camp’s perimeter fence to the outer forest. Evading the sentries’ searchlights which delayed the operation, 76 men eventually made it out of the tunnel before it was discovered at 5am by a guard who nearly fell down the exit shaft.

The incredible prison break was the largest of its kind in WWII. After two weeks, all but three of the escapees were caught and returned to the camp. 50 men were mercilessly executed by the Gestapo on the orders of a furious Adolf Hitler, in what was designated a war crime.

4. The Desert of Death Odyssey

At 3am on the morning of 21st March 1942, Corporal Jacky Byrne and his team of raiders were dropped into Berka Satellite Airfield in the suburb of Benghazi, Libya. Their assignment was to destroy the military airfield used by the Axis powers of the Italian Airforce and the German Luftwaffe. After silently planting explosives around the airfield, the first dugout of munitions unexpectedly ignited with ferocity sending off a domino effect of explosions.

Having lost his team in the chaos, Byrne headed 30 miles east where the Long Range Desert Group vehicles were to regroup. After waiting for two days, he continued by foot over 200 miles, hoping to reach a friendly outpost. With only a two-pint bottle of water, a tin of chocolate and half a pint of brandy, Byrne knew he wouldn’t last in the desert heat unless he travelled at night and only took sips.

By the fourth day, death was near, until he came across a Bedouin settlement who offered what food they had. Reinvigorated by Bedouin hospitality, Byrne set out on the last leg of his journey. Believing he had seen a British truck, he found himself surrounded by a patrol of German Afrika Korps soldiers and was shot in the face by accident. Byrne’s nightmare involved interrogation at a German military camp, solitary confinement for two days before he was transported along Libyan roads to a new destination. He was then tortured by sadistic Italian soldiers before he was transferred via Crete to Athens and by train to the infamous Stalag Luft III camp.

But Byrne’s tenacity saw him escape twice from the camp, only to be returned and put in solitary confinement. Possessed with a will of steel he escaped a third time, knowing that if caught, he faced certain death by the Gestapo. Incredibly, this escape saw his treacherous journey through Nazi-occupied Poland assisted by a bicycle and a stray dog that gave him a look of normality. Eventually making it to Danzig docks disguised as a worker, he hid in the boiler room of a Swedish merchant ship and travelled to Gothenburg where he was handed over to the Swedish police.

5. Auschwitz

In April 1944, 19-year-old Rudolf Vrba (Walter) and 25-year-old Frank Wetzer became the first Jews to successfully escape from Auschwitz.

Few people outside of Auschwitz were aware the vast complex, run by the sadistic SS Officer Rudolf Höss, was a barbaric factory instigating a selection process about who should live and who would be sent directly to the gas chambers.

Walter was determined to escape and inform the Allies about the camp’s evil secret. After he fell on wooden planks by the rail track as cattle trucks brought thousands of prisoners every day to their deaths, he noticed a space between the gaps that could hide a person. Hiding in the hole with Fred for three days they listened to the morning roll call of prisoners as the daily convoy of trucks took the condemned to their deaths. When it became known they were missing, Walter knew they had to escape after dark. Once out of the hole they fled on their stomachs to woodland where corpses were buried. Sticking to the path of the Sola River, Walter was determined to reach his birthplace in occupied Slovakia.

Walter and Fred reached the Polish village of Pisarzowice where a woman living in a peasant cottage cautiously took them in and gave them food before helping them cross the border. Reaching Zilma in Slovakia after a treacherous journey, Walter and Fred were interrogated for 48 hours in a safe house by a secret Jewish council. They compiled a report of Walter’s experiences and heard for the first time the fates of deported Slovakian Jews and the horrors of Auschwitz.