On 24 March 1944, one of the most daring events of the Second World War occurred, when a mass escape of Allied personnel from a German prisoner of war (POW) camp, Stalag Luft III was carried out. The German POW camp was situated deep within Nazi-occupied Poland, holding thousands of captured Allied airmen. Stalag Luft III was considered one of the hardest camps to escape from because three design features made it almost impossible to tunnel: the loose collapsible sandy soil on which the camp was built, the elevated prisoner housing built to expose any tunnels, and the placement of seismograph microphones around the perimeter of the camp.
However, in the spring of 1943, RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell conceived a plan for a mass escape. Having been shot down during the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, Bushell was transferred to Stalag Luft III in October 1942, having already made two escape attempts from previous camps. Codenamed Big X, his next attempt was his biggest, and most daring escape attempt yet. Planning to get an unimaginable number of over 200 men out of the POW camp in one attempt, in his own words, “Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick and Harry. One will succeed!”
Over 600 prisoners were involved in the construction of the tunnels. Given the sheer scale of the plan, the importance of secrecy was imperative. Tom was dug next to a stove chimney in hut 123 but was discovered by the guards before completion and dynamited. Dick was dug in the shower room of hut 122, however camp expansion meant the area where the tunnel was supposed to pop up was cleared of trees and shrubbery, and digging had to be halted. Instead, this tunnel was used for soil and supplies storage.
The usable tunnel, Harry, was hidden under a stove in hut 104. One year after construction began, the tunnel was finally completed in March 1944. Dug to a depth of 30ft to stay out of range of the microphones, the tunnel stretched towards the woods on the north edge of the camp. The tunnel was in fact very sophisticated, including wooden boards taken from prisoner’s beds to hold it up, electric lighting to show the way, and an underground rope-operated trolly system to move the escapees.
The resourcefulness of the prisoners was astounding, For example, during the construction of the tunnel tonnes of soil had to be evacuated and disposed of, leading to the ingenious invention of special pouches inside the trousers of the builders to allow the soil to slowly be scatter across the camp. Similarly, along with the bed boards used, a later German inventory showed that the following had gone missing: 52 twenty-man tables, 34 chairs, and 76 benches all used for the construction of the tunnels, 635 mattresses, 192 bed covers, and 161 pillow cases used to muffle sounds within the tunnel, 1,219 knives, 478 spoons, 582 forks and 1,400 powered milk cans used as digging tools, and finally a 1,000ft electrical wire, which had even been connected to the camp’s main power supply!
On 24 March 1944 the escapees were placed into three groups, with those who had contributed the most to the escape leaving first. Dressed in civilian clothing or uniform acquired through bribery and blackmail, they also had maps, fake ID papers and work permits, rations and homemade compasses. As the first escapees entered the tunnel thus started a series of unfortunate events.
Firstly, the temperature was below freezing, meaning the hatch at the exit end of the tunnel had frozen shut. Taking over an hour and a half to get it open, once open the next problem became apparent. The tunnel had not been dug long enough, and instead of coming up in the nearby forest, it actually meant the escapees would be exiting just a few yards away from a sentry tower in open ground. Delay was not an option, as the fake ID papers had been date stamped. The only option was to run a rope from the exit hatch to a nearby fence, meaning the first man out had to wait and tug the rope to give the all clear to the next escapee. Seriously delaying the escaping process, other factors for delay included tunnel collapses, men getting stuck, and a blackout caused by a nearby air raid.
In the early hours of the morning, the 77th man began to exit the hatch, but was caught by a German sentry, who set off the alarm, causing panic and confusion to those who remained. Every POW in the camp was forced to stand in the freezing cold for hours while the German guards tried to work out who was missing. Simultaneously, searches of nearby woods were carried out, and railway stations, police stations, aerodromes and tank units were all placed on high alert.
Within two weeks, 73 of the 76 escapees were recaptured, with 23 being sent to various other Nazi prison camps and the other 50 ordered to be executed by Hitler. Bushell was one of the men executed. Having managed to travel approximately 400 miles, he was captured waiting for a train just 20 miles from the French border.
Two Norwegians and a Dutchman managed to evade capture. The Norwegian pair made it by train to the port of Stettin, where they were smuggled onto a Swedish ship and taken to the safety of Gothenburg. The Dutchman made it across most of occupied Europe via rail, foot and bike, assisted along the way by various resistance movements, and eventually ending up in Gibraltar. He was later flown to England where he re-joined the RAF and went on to fight during OPERATION Overlord.
Stalag Luft III was eventually liberated in early 1945, and in 1947 the police branch of the RAF launched an investigation into the murders of the 50 escapees. After a three-year investigation, 18 Nazi soldiers were found guilty of war crimes for the murder of the recaptured POW’s, with 13 of them subsequently executed.
The story of what can be considered the greatest escape in the Second World War is captured in the 1963 film ‘The Great Escape.’ Directed by John Sturges, and starring the likes of Steve McQueen, James Farner and Richard Attenborough, the film follows Hilts (McQueen) as he takes part in the planning and execution of the daring escape. It is important to remember that the film is a Hollywood dramatization of the true story of the great escape. For example, the real escape attempt did not include a daring motorcycle jump over a barbed wire fence! However, it is a brilliantly exciting film and one that I would recommend watching.
[1 – 17] History, “The True Story of the Great Escape,” last accessed 16 May 2021, https://www.history.co.uk/article/the-true-story-of-the-great-escape
 IMDb, ‘The Great Escape,’ 1963, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0057115/
[Image 1] Imperial War Museum (IWM), ‘Allied Prisoners of War in Germany, 1939 – 1945’, HU 1605, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205234086
[Image 2] Imperial War Museum (IWM), ‘The Great Escape, March 1944’, HU 21243, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205088275
[Image 3] Imperial War Museum (IWM), ‘The Great Escape, March 1944’, HU 21090, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205088262