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The real Great Escape

If you're a World War II buff, you've surely seen The Great Escape, the classic 1963 film with Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson and numerous other noted actors. Set in a German prisoner of war (POW) camp called Stalag Luft III, the movie chronicles an adventurous mass breakout attempt with tragic consequences. Stalag Luft III was actually a real place, and while the film takes significant liberties with historical facts, the escape attempt is also ultimately based on real events.

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Stalag Luft III during World War II (Photo: German authorities)

Stalag Luft III was established in March 1942 near the town of Sagan, then located in Germany (today, the site and the nearby town are in Poland). Its name is an abbreviation: Stammlager, Luft, III translates to "Main Camp, Air, III". "Luft" ("air") refers to the fact that it was run by the Luftwaffe, the German air force, rather than the army, which normally administered POW camps. The Luftwaffe was in charge of camps housing Western Allied air crews who were shot down over Nazi-occupied Europe.
 
Life at Stalag Luft III was better than what you'd expect from a German POW camp. With help from the Red Cross and various academics, prisoners had access to a large library and could even earn degrees. The prisoners built their own theater and regularly ran fresh West End shows. They were also allowed to operate their own news and music radio station called Radio KRGY (the acronym standing for Kriegsgefangener, "POW", and published not one but two newspapers, the Circuit and the Kriegie Times four times a week. Prisoners called the German guards "goons" to their faces, which the Germans accepted after a cheeky POW told them it was an acronym for "German Officer Or Non-Com."

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A page from the Kriegie Times that also appeared in the Prisoners of War Bulletin published by the American National Red Cross (Photo: American National Red Cross)

The camp also enjoyed an outstanding sport life. Each compound of the camp had its own athletic fields, and prisoners could play basketball, volleyball, softball, touch football, table tennis, fencing or boxing, with a league system for most sports. A small pool used to store water for firefighting was sometimes made available for swimmers. Much of the sporting equipment, as well as books, religious items for chaplains, and musical instruments for the camp's band and orchestra, were courtesy of Swedish lawyer Henry Söderberg, who was the local Young Men's Christian Association representative.

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A scene of everyday life at Stalag Luft III (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Camp money called Lagergeld was issued to imprisoned officers, who would pool it and use it for communal purchases. Red Cross parcels and food sent by relatives was similarly pooled and distributed equally, and individual prisoners could "buy and sell" goods among themselves according to a points system.

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An example of Lagergeld scrip (Photo: stalagluft3.com)

The camp's relatively jovial atmosphere was largely due to the professional respect between the Luftwaffe guards and the Allied air crews. The 800-strong guard force was largely comprised of men who were either too old for combat or convalescing from wounds or long tours of duty, and they appreciated a hassle-free work environment. Some of the men were openly anti-Nazi, including the camp's commandant, Friedrich-Willhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau.
 
Von Lindeiner-Wildau started his military career in the Prussian Army and served in German East Africa. He was wounded multiple times during World War I and retired after the war, travelling a lot in Europe and on the American continent. He hated the Nazis and refused to join the party, even though this hurt his business opportunities and social connections. He was, however, a German patriot, and agreed to return to service as part of Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring's personal staff out of a sense of duty to his country. He was assigned to command Stalag Luft III after several attempts to retire on grounds of poor health.

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Camp commandant von Lindeiner-Wildhau (right) (Photo: BBC)

He was respected both by his men and his prisoners. During one confidential discussion, he and his deputy agreed that if Hitler ever ordered them to execute POWs under their charge, they would have to disobey the order.
 
Of course, the congenial atmosphere of the camp did not mean that POWs were not trying to escape, or that the guards were not trying to stop them. Camp breaks were considered a major duty for POWs, since a man who escapes and returns home can continue to serve in combat. Additionally, regular attempts, even unsuccessful ones, forced the enemy to devote more troops and resources to guarding camps and hunting down escapees, which in turn prevented those troops from being deployed to the front.

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Red Cross parcels arriving to Stalag Luft III (Photo: stalagluft3.com)

Newly arrived POWs had to undergo vetting by their comrades to make sure they weren't German agents trying to bust open escape plans. A new arrival had to be vouched for by two POWs who knew him by sight. Those who didn't know two people were severely interrogated and escorted around everywhere by fellow prisoners until the established POWs were satisfied that he was a real Allied soldier. Several German infiltration attempts were discovered by this method.
 
POWs not only followed around new arrivals; they did the same to the German guards as well. They kept close tabs on German guard schedules to help plan escapes, and recorded guard movements in a logbook. This book was supposed to be a secret, but it was a pretty open one, and the Germans fully knew what was happening. In fact, von Lindeiner once asked the POWs to share the book with him so he could prove that two of his guards were shirking duty and not at their posts when they were supposed to be. The prisoners complied with the request, allowing the camp commandant to prosecute the two Germans.

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Von Lindeiner-Wildhau with his staff at the entrance to Stalag Luft III (Photo: German authorities)

On the other side of the fence, the Germans also took pains to make breakouts as hard as possible. The entire camp was built on loose sandy soil, which made tunnels unstable and likely to collapse. The bright yellow sandy soil deeper down was a different color than the darker ground topside, so it was difficult to dump excavated earth on the surface: the difference in color made the change easily noticeable. Prisoner huts were elevated 24 inches to put a gap between the floors and the ground. Additionally, seismograph microphones were placed around the perimeter of the camp to detect the sounds of digging.
 
But not even these security measures could quite prevent successful escapes. In an imaginative attempt immortalized in a book and the 1950 film The Wooden Horse, prisoners built a gymnastic vaulting horse from plywood, ostensibly to use for athletic practice. The hollow horse was placed in the same spot every day, and men underneath dug a tunnel while other prisoners practiced on it, making sure they were loud enough to suppress the sounds of digging. After three months of work, three prisoners escaped in October 1943 and managed to return to Britain.

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Screenshot from The Wooden Horse, supposedly featuring a highly accurate replica of the vaulting horse (Photo: London Films)

However, another, much bigger escape attempt was already under work when the above happened, and that attempt began in March 1943 with the arrival of Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Roger Bushell. Bushell's Spitfire was shot down on May 23, 1940, during the Dunkirk evacuation (Read our earlier article – The “Miracle of Dunkirk”), and he was captured by the Germans. Over the next few years, Bushnell proved himself a consummate escapist. He first tried to break out from another camp in May 1941. He helped organize and execute a tunnel escape, but decided not to join the actual attempt. Instead, he hid in a goat shed inside the camp on the night of the escape, then crawled to the wire fence in the dark and cut a gap in it to get away. He was captured a few hundred yards from the Swiss border.

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Bushell shortly before his capture (Photo: Unknown photographer)

Next, he jumped from a train transporting POWs between two camps while the train stopped in Hannover. Bushell and a fellow escapee made contact with the Czech underground movement, but were later betrayed by a Czech soldier turned Gestapo informer, whose former girlfriend developed a relationship with Bushell. He was later transferred to Stalag Luft III, where he took over control of the escape organization from its previous leader, who was being transferred.
 
Using the codename "Big X", Bushell set into motion an escape plan of unprecedented proportions. A group of 12 to 20 POWs escaping in a single attempt was considered a good one; Bushell wanted to get 250 people out of the camp in a single night.
 
His plan was to dig not one, but three tunnels simultaneously. His reasoning was that the Germans would never expect something of that scope, so if they found one tunnel (which was always a possibility), they wouldn't look for others. The tunnels were named Tom, Dick and Harry after the old phrase referring to no specific person in particular. Looking at the big picture, Bushell realized that getting out of the camp was only the first step, and escapees would still be a long way from home. He insisted that everyone should have a set of civilian clothes (largely made by altering RAF overcoats and other pieces of uniform) and forged papers. Each tunnel departed from a different hut. The entrance to Tom was in a dark corner of a hall, Harry's entrance was under a stove, and Dick was concealed in a drainage sump. Dick was especially well-hidden, so it doubled as storage space for clothing, forged papers, compasses and other equipment.

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The stove that hid the entrance to tunnel Harry (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Over 600 prisoners were involved in the construction of the tunnels and the making of other requisites. They weren't alone: several anti-Nazi guards helped the escape attempt, sometimes in exchange for bribes of cigarettes, chocolate or coffee from Red Cross parcels. They gave the prisoners maps, railway timetables, civilian clothes and genuine official papers which could be copied by the forgers.
 
The work was Herculean in scope. According to a German inventory made after the escape, the prisoners used four thousand bed boards removed from beds, 90 complete double bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 192 bed covers, 161 pillow vases, 52 twenty-man tables, 10 single tables, 34 chairs, 76 benches, 1,212 bed bolsters, 1,370 battens (strips of wood or metal), 1,219 knives, 478 spoons, 582 forks, 69 lamps, 246 water cans, 30 shovels, 1,000 ft of electric wire, 600 ft of rope, 3,424 towels, 1,700 blankets and 1,400 cans formerly used to store Klim brand powdered milk.

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Four of the recaptured escapees in their handmade civilian clothes (Photo: Museum of Martyrology for Allied POWs, Poland)

The tunnels ran about 30 ft (9m) below the surface, which was very deep for such makeshift constructions. They were only about 2 ft (0,6m) across, but several larger chambers were dug out to house air pumps, a workshop and staging posts. Much of the scavenged wood was used to shore up the walls. Klim tin cans came in Red Cross parcels and had several uses. Some were fashioned into tools, others into lamps that were fueled by fat skimmed off of soup, burning wicks made from clothing. Most of them, however, had their bottoms removed, the cylindrical sides fitted into each other, and used as long pipes to supply breathing air into the long tunnels. Pumps jury-rigged from bed pieces, hockey sticks and knapsacks were used to pump air through the Klim pipes.

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The entrance to Harry, with an air pipe made of Klim cans on the right (Photo: Unknown photographer)

Excavated sand had to be rid of very carefully due to its different color from the surface soil. Pouches made of towels or underpants were attached to the insides of prisoners' trousers, scattering the sand gradually, step by step as they walked. Larger amounts were dumped into the small gardens POWs were allowed to cultivate, with one prisoner constantly turning the soil to hide the yellow sand under the darker earth. 200 blankets were used in warm weather to smuggle out sand and scatter it under the guise of sunbathing.

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POWs tending a garden in Stalag Luft III (Photo: Unknown photographer)

As time passed, disposing of the massive amounts of sand became harder and harder, especially when snowfall started covering the ground in the winter. The theater building had a large empty space under the seats, but the prisoners gave their word to the Germans not to misuse it when it was built, and such verbal agreements were considered inviolate. A panel of senior British officers convened to discuss the legality of the situation, and decided that the agreement was the Germans was only valid for the construction of the theater, not the use of the completed structure, so the space was okay to use.

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The theater at Stalag Luft III's North Compound (Photo: magicatwar.blogspot.com)

Stalag Luft III was undergoing constant expansion, and the intended exit for Dick happened to be in an area that was covered up by the construction process. Work on the tunnel was stopped and Dick was used to hold sand from the other two tunnels.

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A trolley in tunnel Harry (Photo: Unknown photographer)

Most Allied airmen captured early in the war were British or from other countries of the Commonwealth, but American POWs started appearing in later years, some of them sent to Stalag Luft III. These men joined the tunneling effort. The Germans planned to eventually build separate camps just for the Americans, so tunnel construction was sped up to allow the Americans to participate in the escape before they could be transferred to their own camps. The increased activity drew the guards' attention, and Tom was discovered in September 1943. The fact that it was the 98th tunnel discovered by the Germans just in Stalag Luft III stands testimony to the Allied soldiers' dedication. Even with Tom discovered and Dick stopped, tunnel Harry was still under construction.

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German guard Karl Greise after finding tunnel Tom (Photo: German authorities)

It should be noted that while Bushell forbade the construction of "private-enterprise tunnels" during the ongoing mass escape project, he was perfectly fine with others trying other methods to get away. In fact, he himself organized two parallel attempts. On June 12, 1943, two POWs dressed in fake German uniforms escorted 26 of their compatriots straight out through the camp's gate, supposedly taking them to the showers for delousing in the neighboring compound. All men were eventually recaptured, but a similar escape was attempted later with a smaller crew, also ending in failure.
Tunnel Harry was ready in March 1944, but it was too late for the Americans working on it; they had been already transferred to other camp. Contrarily to what we see in The Great Escape, only one American participated in the actual attempt: Major Johnnie Dodge, who was left in Stalag Luft III because he had a British citizenship.

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John Bigelow Dodge (center), the only American to participate in the actual escape attempt, photographed as a POW in 1941 (Photo: Caramoor Archives)

It was clear that not all people who worked on the plan could escape – there simply wasn't going to be enough time for everyone to crawl down the tunnel in a single night. 200 men were selected for the attempt and given numbers. The first 100 men were called the serial offenders. 30 of them spoke good German or had significant escape experience, so they had the highest chance of getting home. The other 70 were those who worked the hardest on the tunnels. The second group of 100 were the hard-arsers, and were chosen by drawing lots. They spoke no German and had lower-quality fake papers.

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German officers at a tunnel entrance after its discovery (Photo: Unknown photographer)

The escape began on March 24, a moonless night. Things immediately got off to a rocky start, as the trapdoor to the tunnel was frozen solid and took an hour and a half to work open. The first man emerged on the other side at 10:30 p.m., only to find that the 111-yards-long (102m) tunnel came just a little too short. The exit was supposed to be among trees, in the forest that lay next to the camp.
 
Unfortunately, the exit was just short of the tree line, in open ground. Additionally, even if the guards didn't spot the men getting out, there was snow on the ground and the escapees would create a dark trail while crawling toward the trees. Word was sent back, and the rate of travel was reduced from the original one man per minute to roughly 10 men per hour to reduce the chance of discovery. This meant there was no way to for all 200 would-be escapees to get out.

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The exit of tunnel Harry (in the background), just short of the trees and uncomfortably close to the mockup fence representing the original camp perimeter (Photo: Creative Commons)

To make things worse, the camp's electric lights were shut down due to an Allied air raid, and the underground lights in the tunnel, which were powered by electricity leached from topside, went dark with them, further slowing down travel in the tight tunnel. At around 1 a.m., the tunnel partially collapsed and had to be repaired.
 
Even with all these setbacks, 76 men made it out by 4:55 a.m., when the 77th was spotted by the guards. People still inside quickly burned their fake papers so their participation couldn't be proven, while the Germans went from hut to hut looking for the entrance to the tunnel. It was so well hidden that it eventually took a guard to enter through the exit, backtrack all the way, and make noise so his location could be determined. In fact, it was the prisoners who opened up the entrance to let him out, since the other guards were not nearby.

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Guard tower at Stalag Luft III (Photo: public domain)

The 76 men who got out disappeared into the forest and started their long trek home. Many of them intended to board a train at the local station, but couldn't find it until after sunrise, when they were more likely to be apprehended.
 
In the end, only three men made it home. Bram van der Stock, the most highly decorated pilot in Dutch military aviation history, had a close run-in with a German woman who worked as a censor at the camp, and who almost recognized him at the station. She engaged him in conversation, but he managed to put on the air of someone with nothing to hide, throwing her off. He made it home to the Netherlands, but the country was occupied by the Nazis and full of spies and informants. He eventually linked up with the French Resistance and joined several other airmen, a French officer, a Russian and a young French lady acting as a guide in a trek across France, through the Pyrenees mountains and into neutral Spain, from where he could travel back to Britain.

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Bram van der Stok (Photo: Ian Le Seuer)

Norwegians Peter Bergsland and Jens Müller took a train north to Frankfurt, posing as electricians on business from a labor camp. They changed trains and got to the port city of Stettin (today Szczecin in Poland). There they met a Swedish sailor leaving a brothel, and the man agreed to help them sneak onboard his ship and hide in the anchor chain locker until the neutral vessel was safely at sea.

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Bergsland (left) and Müller (right) with fellow Norwegian POW Halldor Espelid in Stalag Luft III. Espelid was captured after the breakout and executed. (Photo: Jonathan Vance, University of Western Ontario)

All of the other 73 escapees were rounded up by the Germans. When Hitler was informed of the unprecedented mass breakout attempt, he first wanted all participants shot. Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring, chief of Nazi High Command Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, and SS-leader Heinrich Himmler all argued with him and asked him to change his mind. They did this not out of moral considerations, but because they realized that such a drastic act of revenge might prompt the Allies to also mistreat German POWs. Hitler still insisted that more than half of the escapees be killed, and Himmler decided to set the number at 50. Unlike what's depicted in The Great Escape, the men were not murdered in a single massacre. They were picked up from wherever they were recaptured by Gestapo men singly or in pairs under the pretext of returning them to the camp by motorcar. The car would then stop somewhere in the countryside for a "toilet break," and the men would be shot from behind.
 
The camp's commandant, von Lindeiner, was removed from his position and threatened with court martial; a fate he only avoided by feigning mental illness. Later in the war, he was wounded by Soviet troops, and he eventually surrendered to British forces, spending time in the POW camp known as the "London Cage", this time as a prisoner rather than the administrator.
 
A memorial dedicated to "The Fifty" now stands not far from the camp's old site. It was built by Stalag Luft III POWs with permission from a later commandant who was appalled by what happened. Von Lindeiner also donated material to the memorial, which stands to this day to preserve the memory of the men who died while trying to regain their freedom.

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The memorial to The Fifty today (Photo: stalagluft3.com)
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