Green fields. A road. Then, a convoy of motorcycles with sidecars, automobiles and large trucks break onto the scene. Dozens of vehicles driving towards a sprawling, fenced-in compound, the ultimate wartime elementary-school summer camp.
Or that’s how Hollywood portrayed it, anyway.
The Great Escape is one of the most famous stories of the Second World War. It was a daring and ballsy attempt by nearly a thousand Allied POWs to smuggle nearly three hundred prisoners out of Stalag Luft III in Poland, and get them to Allied countries or in touch with resistance-movements and to disrupt the German war-effort. Most people who are familiar with this story will probably only know the Hollywood version with Steve McQueen and his famous motorcycle border-jump and that catchy, militaristic theme-tune. But what was the truth behind it? What was the Great Escape really like and what was it about? What happened and how was it done?
This article explores and details the history of one of the greatest events and greatest escapes of the Second World War.
Stalag Luft III, Sagan, Poland
Stammlager Luft III. Prisoner of War Camp for Allied Airmen #3. This is where it all took place. This is where it happened. And this was the event that would make this prison-camp the most famous German prison-camp outside of Auschwitz. But what was it and where was it located? And what did it hold?
“Stalag Luft III” as it was more commonly known, was a POW camp specifically constructed for the internment of Allied airmen. It was a massive complex, with dozens of huts, miles of barbed wire, watchtowers, delousing chambers, officers’ quarters, a ‘cooler’, a theatre and of course…thousands of prisoners. It was watched over by hundreds of German guards, all of whom had been specially selected for the task. Stalag Luft III was meant to be the most comfortable, relaxing and peaceful POW camp in German-occupied Europe. It was also meant to be the most escape-proof. The Germans had designed the camp so that the Allied enemies could just sit back, relax and wait for the war to end, and thereby keep their mind off of escaping.
Stalag Luft III held the most escape-hungry of all the Allied POW airmen. As it was said in the film, “We have put all our rotten eggs in one basket. And we intend to watch this basket carefully“. The only problem with putting all your rotten eggs in one basket is that soon, the stink becomes intolerable. With all the brightest and brainiest of POW airmen in one place, it was probably rather obvious that soon, instead of being the ultimate escape-proof camp, the Germans had done nothing but created the world’s biggest challenge to the world’s smartest group of escape-artists. And with nothing but time on their hands, these escape-artists were going to make the Germans look like total idiots.
To try and dissuade the Allies from escaping from Stalag Luft III, their German captors had put in a number of anti-escape measures to make their camp as ‘escape-proof’ as possible. These included…
– Several barbed wire fences.
– Microphones buried underground to detect tunnelling.
– Huts raised on stilts to prevent access to the ground for tunnelling.
– A clear zone between the camp and the forest that surrounded the camp.
– A clear zone between the huts and the perimeter fences.
– Watchtowers with searchlights and armed guards.
– A “trip-wire” that ran around the inner perimeter of the camp. Stepping over the warning-wire resulted in a warning-shot by one of the guards.
– Locating the camp on an area of land with very sandy subsoil. Any tunnelling would be immediately obvious due to the yellow sand contrasting with the grey, dusty topsoil. Furthermore, the crumbly, dry sand would cave in if the prisoners tried to dig tunnels.
Plans of Escape
During the Second World War, there were hundreds of escape-attempts from German prison-camps by Allied POWs, but very few of these were ever successful. In 1943, Roger Bushell, a South-African born Englishman who was a fighter-pilot with the RAF, decided to hatch a plan. It would be the most amazing and daring escape-plan in the history of the Second World War. And it was all his idea.
Bushell knew that escapees had a very small chance of ever actually getting home. The German anti-escape network was extensive, and any escaped prisoners would more than likely be recaptured. His plan therefore was not to actually get people home (although it would be awesome if that happened), but rather to disrupt the German war-effort. With hundreds of German troops searching for escaped POWs, it would cause a massive lag in the German war-effort and thereby give the Allies some small chance in winning the war that little bit sooner.
To pull off this ‘master plan’, Bushell and his fellow POWs decided that they would wait until they were taken to this new “Stalag Luft III” (which started taking in prisoners in 1942) before digging to victory. The new camp was so “escape-proof” that the Germans would never expect the Allies to try and break out of it, which is exactly what Bushell wanted them to think.
Bushell’s plan was to get out as many prisoners as possible. He set a total escapee-number of 250 men. To get this number of men out of the camp, he would require an escape-committee (a group of POWs whose job it was to handle proposed escape-ideas) unlike any other. It consisted of hundreds of men doing almost anything you could imagine to aid prisoners in their escapes. They manufactured civilian clothes, they forged travel-documents, they created maps, passports, knives, wirecutters, compasses and countless other things! But…they also dug the escape-tunnels.
Preparing the Tunnels
If the Great Escape was famous for anything at all, it was its sheer scale of operation. Most tunnels were just a few feet below the surface and a few hundred yards long. The tunnels of the Great Escape would be massive! And there wouldn’t be just one of them, either.
There would be three tunnels in the Great Escape, codenamed “Tom”, “Dick”, and “Harry”. Bushell said he would court-martial anyone who dared say the name ‘Tunnel’. The tunnels were Tom, Dick and Harry, and they would only ever be referred to as Tom, Dick and Harry.
Of course, wanting to dig three escape tunnels is ambitious enough. But trying to hide three escape-tunnels is even harder. The Germans had a group of guards called “Ferrets”, whose job it was to ‘ferret’ out tunnels and escape-attempts. That was what they were there for, and that was the only thing that they were there to do. To hide the tunnels from the ferrets, their entrances had to be exceptionally well-hidden.
The tunnels were dug from three different huts in the North Compound of Stalag Luft III. There were fifteen huts in North Compound, they numbered 101-112 (ommitting #111) and 119-123. The tunnels were dug from huts 123 (Tom), 122 (Dick) and 104 (Harry). 123 was selected because it was an outside hut, and it was as close to the barbed wire as any other hut in the camp. 122 was selected because it was an inside hut, further away from the wire. Its distance from the wire meant that it was unlikely to be an escape-hut, and therefore the Germans wouldn’t suspect it as much. Both Tom and Dick would be dug in a westerly direction. Hut 104, at the northern end of the camp, would be dug in a northerly direction, going under two barbed wire fences and the camp “Cooler”, which was a slang-term for “Prison”, the camp prison where misbehaving POWs were sent to “cool off” (hence the name) after causing a disruption.
Having selected the huts that would house the tunnel-entrances, the prisoners then had to create the entrances themselves! This was far from easy. The huts were raised off the ground on stilts, to discourage tunnelling, and there were only a few places in the huts where there was contact with the ground. Each dormitory room inside each of the huts had a concrete foundation for the woodburning stove on which the prisoners could cook their food and warm their rooms in winter. There were also concrete foundations for each of the bathroom-blocks at the end of each hut, housing drains and showers. Only in these places could tunnels be dug, by breaking through the concrete into the soil and sand below. But, having broken the surface, the tunnel-entrances then had to be disguised so that German ferrets, who conducted regular hut-searches to find escape-tunnels, would never find them.
The disguised entrances to the tunnels were as ingenious as the tunnels themselves. The entrance to ‘Tom’ was in a dark corner of a room in 123 with concrete foundations. Only with bright and powerful lights would the Germans ever manage to find the outline of the trapdoor entrance to the tunnel.
‘Dick’s entrance was in the bathroom of hut 122. This one was really something. In the middle of the hut’s bathroom was a large, square drain, about two feet square. Beneath the grille was a drainage-pipe in the wall of the drainshaft, but the pipe wasn’t right at the bottom of this shaft, which meant that there was always two feet of stagnant water inside the drainshaft which the pipe couldn’t remove. The prisoners pulled off the square grille, bailed out the water and cut away the concrete bottom of the shaft and started digging the tunnel through there. If the ferrets started tunnel-hunting, the prisoners tossed the concrete bottom of the drainshaft back in, sealed it to make it watertight, put the drainage grille back on and tipped a bucket of water down the drain and the Germans would never suspect a thing.
‘Harry’s entrance was underneath the stove in one of the rooms in hut 104. The stove was set on top of a square, tiled platform which itself was above the concrete foundation. The prisoners moved the stove and hoisted up the platform and put hinges in it, to make the trapdoor. They broke away the concrete foundation underneath to gain entrance to their tunnel and then put the tiled platform back on top and put the stove on top of that. To prevent the ferrets from tampering with the stove, the prisoners kept a fire burning in it all day long.
Digging the Tunnels
On the 11th of April, 1943, all the tunnel entrances had been picked and in the days and weeks afterwards, tunnelling began.
Digging the tunnels was an ambitious task for many reasons. One of the main reasons was their sheer length! Every tunnel had to have a shaft that went down thirty feet (nine meters). The shaft would be two feet square, shored up by scraps of wood all the way down, with a ladder nailed to one side. The tunnels were excavated using makeshift trowels made from “Klim” tins. “Klim” was the powdered milk that the International Red Cross sent to the camp. The name is actually just “Milk” written backwards. Tins of ‘Klim’ weighed exactly a pound when full, so the prisoners would have been shovelling about half a pound to a pound of soil with every scoop of their Klim trowels.
‘Harry’s entrance-shaft. Thirty feet all the way to the bottom
Disposing of the yellow subsoil was tricky. The prisoners couldn’t just tip it out the window, because it would clash so obviously with the grey topsoil that it would be visible from a mile away. The prisoners came up with all kinds of ingenous ways to dispose of it as discreetly as possible. They dug gardens outside each of their huts. The mixed up soil from the gardens would easily conceal the yellow subsoil and the ferrets would never notice anything. To get the tunnel sand to the gardens, the prisoners created their own sand-dispersement system. Using a pair of long johns underwear, the prisoners created the ultimate in discreet sand-dispodal devices. They filled the long-johns with sand as it came out of the tunnel and then the “Penguins” as the sand-dispersers were known, would head out to find a garden or an already-disturbed area of land and deposit their little loads there.
The bottoms of the long-johns were held shut by pins which had strings tied to them. When the ‘Penguins’ wanted to empty their sand, they pulled on the strings (which were accessed by holes in the pockets of their trousers), releasing the pins, which let the sand pour out of their long-johns (worn inside their trousers), down over their shoes onto the ground. Using mainly this method, the ‘Penguins’ managed to disperse over 200 tons of sand.
Shoring (supporting and bracing) the tunnel walls and rooves, as well as the shafts, was essential. The soft, dry, shifting sand and the great depths at which the prisoners worked meant that it would have been impossible to dig the tunnels without them caving in constantly, a great hazard so many feet below the surface. The prisoners shored up the tunnels with whatever scrapwood they could find. Most of the shoring came from their beds and tables. Bed-slats, table-legs, chair-legs, planks, skirting boards and whatever other scrap wood they could find was sacrificed for the sake of the tunnels. The wood-shortage became so bad that one of the prisoners started weaving hammocks for the men to sleep in because their beds had run out of bedboards to rest their mattresses on!
Diagram of the completed escape-tunnel, ‘Harry’, from Hut 104
Digging the tunnels was a major challenge, filled with innumerable dangers, which were resolved with increasingly ingenious devices. To keep the air fresh in the tunnels, the prisoners constructed manual air-pumps using wooden boxes, kit-bags (for the bellows), table-tennis paddles and Klim tins, sealed end-to-end to make the long, metal air-pipes. Chambers were dug underground to store important documents, money and clothing, as well as to provide space for the air-pump and the prisoner in charge of operating it. To speed up the removal of sand, a railroad was installed, with wooden tracks nailed to the floorboards of the tunnel. Little flat cars ran along the rails, carrying containers of sand and the rail-cars were pulled back and forth by long lengths of string by men at the tunnel-shaft and the men at the face.
The underground railroad. The tunnel is two feet wide by two feet high. Blankets were nailed over the wooden railroad lines to muffle the sounds of the railcars running along them
Illumination in the tunnels was essential. Prisoners made simple oil-lamps out of fat, pyjama-cords (for wicks) and of course…Klim tins to form the bodies of the lamps. Eventually, up to a thousand feet of electrical wiring was smuggled down the tunnels and hooked up to the camp’s electrical grid, giving the tunnels full electric lighting.
Escape-Aids and How they were Made
Digging the tunnels was just one small part of the escape-operation. Once out of the camp, the escaped prisoners would need a whole heap of equipment to help them find their way to freedom. Secretive workshops were set up all over the camp, making almost anything and everything that the prisoners would need to help them in their escapes. POWs with a flair for clothing, or who had a background in the clothing industry set up a tailor-shop, using whatever cloth they could find (as well as spare uniforms) to create civilian suits. All POWs were imprisoned wearing their military uniforms, so escaping into the world outside the camp still wearing them was not an option. Templates for suits and other clothing were cut out of newspaper and the tailors measured up over two hundred suits and other articles of clothing.
Along with clothing, the prisoners also required paperwork. Crossing German-Occupied Europe was not so much about the right people to know, but also the right papers to carry. Mostly through pickpocketing the guards’ pockets, prisoners stole, forged and copied every single travel-document they could find, from simple passports to business-letters and travel-permits. All the forging was done by hand with dip-pens and bottles of ink. Paper was sourced from the flyleaves of books, dyes were sourced from book-covers soaked in water, or from boot-polish.
The book-cover dyes were used to dye cards and papers certain colours so that they would match the tint of paper on various travel documents. To test their skill, forgers would take two copies of the same document and present them to another prisoner and ask them to pick the fake…more often than not, both documents were forged.
Compasses, necessary for the men to find their way across the European countryside, were manufactured from gramophone-records. The records were melted down and poured and pressed into a mould. Glass for the compass-tops were sourced from windows and the compass-needles were ordinary sewing-needles which were magnetised.
Bribing the Guards
Surprisingly, a great deal of the stuff that the prisoners required was actually obtained through the very guards that were trying to stop them escaping. Either through trickery, thievery, blackmail or bribery, the POWs managed to get what they needed from the guards. Camp ‘currency’ was stuff like cigarettes, coffee, chocolate and anything else that the Allies could get their hands on through the Red Cross or special ‘escape-packages’ sent to them by Secret Service organisations such as MI-9, and which the Germans couldn’t get. These things were such a rarity that it was easy for the POWs to bribe their German captors to get them almost anything that they needed – Documents, money and even a camera, film and developing fluids, which the prisoners used to photograph and develop ID snapshots for their passports. Prisoners got guards to sign receipts for stuff that they had accepted as bribes from the prisoners, which were then used to blackmail them. The POWs would be setnt to the ‘Cooler’ for bad behaviour, but the German guard could risk execution for fraternising with the enemy.
The Great Escape
It took the better part of a year to complete everything that needed to be done. The clothing, documents, money, escape-tools, luggage, food and the tunnels themselves took around six hundred men a year or so to finish. But when it was finished, a date had to be set for the escape.
The prisoners selected the 24th of March, 1944 as their escape-date. Some key, incorruptable guards would be in parts of the camp that were away from the escape-hut and there would be no moon. That evening, prisoners, dressed in civilian clothes and carrying cardboard suitcases, boxes, rolled up blankets and kitbags all prepared themselves for escape.
Things went bad from the start.
To begin with, the weather was terrible. It was the coldest winter in Poland for thirty years. It was so cold that the ground was frozen solid and the prisoners were stuck, digging and hacking away at the last few inches of soil that covered the escape-shaft at the end of the tunnel for nearly an hour. When at last the topsoil was broken through and stars could be seen above, the prisoners discovered their next blunder.
The length of the tunnel and how long it would have to be to reach the safety of the trees was figured out through trigonometry, and it was the camp’s POW surveyors who did all the calculations. The surveyors had screwed up their calculations, and as a result, the mouth of the tunnel was not actually deep inside the woods, it was actually twenty feet short of it, right out in the open! Because of this, any careless prisoners getting out of the tunnel could potentially be spotted by the guards in the camp! The prisoners quickly rigged up an alternative escape-system whereby one prisoner, hiding in the woods, would pull on a rope attached to the ladder in the escape-shaft of the tunnel, to signal to the waiting prisoners when it was safe to come out.
In all, two hundred and fifty men were expecting to escape that night. They were all hidden inside the escape-hut and were told to keep quiet and to talk about nothing except the weather. They were all given numbers and were sent down the tunnel in batches of five or ten men at a time. They were sent along the tunnel lying on their stomachs on top of the flat railcars which were once used to cart out the excavated sand. Roger Bushell had hoped to get a man out of the tunnel every minute or so, but because of the surveying blunder and the necessity to escape much more carefully than had previously been thought, progress in the escape was now frustratingly slow. Problems with the prisoners who had blanket-rolls only added to the bottle-necking problems. The blanket-rolls were ordinary blankets rolled up with all the prisoner’s necesities tucked inside it. The rolled up blanket was tied up with string and the string was slung over the prisoner’s neck and shoulders. The problem was that if the blanket-rolls weren’t rolled and tied properly, they became too bulky and they got jammed inside the two-foot-wide tunnel, causing delays and risking cave-ins. The tunnel-shoring was held up purely by friction and the downward force of the sand…there were no nails or screws to act as a backup.
Things eventually fell into a rhythm of sorts, and the prisoners were able to escape from the camp rather smoothly. Everything went pear-shaped at 5:00am on the 25th of March, though. A guard stumbled across the hole in the earth created by the open mouth of the escape-tunnel (although how it was not discovered sooner was a mystery to some prisoners, as the heat from the tunnel and the chilly air outside meant that there was a column of steam coming up from below!) and blew his whistle and fired warning-shots. The prisoners in the tunnel quickly backed up into the hut while prisoners awaiting escape in the hut were told to start burning their civilian clothing and escape-documents and aids. Prisoners were sent out to the parade-grounds for counting and in the end, it was determined that seventy-six prisoners had escaped.
In terms of escaping from a POW camp during WWII, escaping the camp itself was fairly easy. It was escaping from German-occupied Europe that was hard. Of the seventy-six prisoners who got out, fifty were recaptured and executed, twenty-three were recaptured and sent back to various prison-camps, from Stalag Luft III to Colditz and three escaped to freedom.
When Hitler had heard of the mass-escape of Allied POWs, he flew into a rage. He originally ordered that everyone be shot. Not just the prisoners, but even the camp kommandant and even the guards on duty that night! Hitler’s advisors managed to convince him that such an act would destroy Germany’s reputation in the eyes of the world forever (not like that hadn’t already been done by that point), and advised him to take a less aggressive line of action. Hitler then ordered that “more than half” of the prisoners should be shot.
Orders were sent out and a list was compiled. It was said that all the prisoners that were captured and which were marked for death, were to be told that they’d be driven back to Stalag Luft III, but that on the way, some excuse would be made, usually that the trip would be a long one and that the prisoners (usually in groups of two or three) would be let out of the cars or trucks to have a drink or to relieve their bladders. It would be at this point that the German guards would be instructed to shoot them in the back of the heads. Their bodies would then be cremated to destroy evidence of manner of death, and the message passed on that the prisoners had been “shot while resisting arrest” or that they had attempted “further escape after arrest”.
Although the escape didn’t get everyone home, it did achieve one of its chief aims – To distract the Germans from the war-effort. Paul Brickhill, the famous Australian soldier, POW and writer who penned the original “Great Escape” account in 1950, estimated that at least five MILLION German troops were deployed to track down the escapees, and that most of them were tracking them down full time!
At the end of the war, the British made the arrest and prosecution of all the guards and soldiers who had killed the fifty escapees marked for death, one of their main tasks. Most Germans didn’t want to kill the escapees, they probably didn’t see any real point in it, but they knew that if they didn’t do it, they’d be shot for disobeying orders. The trials for the prosecuted Germans lasted fifty days, one for each of the killed escapees.
Although it wasn’t a total success, although it was a horrific waste of life, although only three out of nearly a hundred men made it to freedom, the Great Escape remains one of the most famous stories of the Second World War. And it remains that famous to this day.
The memorial to the fifty Allied airmen who were murdered by the Germans in the days and weeks after the Great Escape. It is located a couple of miles away from the site of the camp, near the Polish town of Sagan (spelt ‘Zagan’ today)
To the Fifty