In 1944, several months before the D-Day invasion, a group of Allied prisoners of war hatched one of the most audacious prison escapes in military history.
Their prison camp was thought to be escape-proof, yet for almost a year, prisoners worked on tunnels right under the noses of their German guards.
Then on the appointed night a large group of men escaped in the largest prison break of the war.
Learn more about Stalag Luft III and the Great Escape on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Being a prisoner of war is something that no one really wants.
Soldiers, for obvious reasons, don’t want to be held prisoner. Opposing forces also, to a certain extent, don’t want prisoners either. While it does take combatants off the battlefield, it also requires you to provide food and shelter and devote some of your resources guarding them.
The way the Germans dealt with prisoners of war during World War II was that each branch of the German military was responsible for running its own prisons. They created different styles of prisons for housing different types of prisoners.
A stalag was a prison designed to hold enlisted soldiers. Stalag is short for Stammlager, which is itself short for Kriegsgefangenen-Mannschaftsstammlager.
Officers we held in facilities known as Oflags or Offizier-Lagers.
Naval personnel were held in Marlag or Marine-Lager facilities.
Allied aircrews that were shot down over German territory were held in facilities run by the Luftwaffe known as Stalag Lufts or Luftwaffe-Stammlagers.
The events of this episode take place at a prison known as Stalag Luft III, which was located outside what is today Zagan, Poland, which is about 30 kilometers or 18 miles from the current border with Germany.
Stalag Luft III was purposely built on a site that was thought to be immune from tunneling, which had always been one of the biggest escape threats.
The soil on which the prison was built was very sandy. Sand is notoriously difficult to tunnel through as it will easily collapse. Moreover, the color of the soil made it easy to see it on the clothing of the prisoners. Guards at the facility were told to be on the watch for any dirt on prisoner clothing.
The barracks where the prisoners lived were elevated so as not to allow easy access from the floor to the ground.
Seismic microphones were also placed around the camp to detect the sounds of anyone digging.
These measures were on top of the double 10-foot high fence, guard towers, and other typical measures you would find in a prison camp.
The first compound of Stalag Luft III was constructed in April 1942. The camp, despite not being called an Oflag, almost exclusively held officers simply because most aviators were officers.
The camp was populated mostly by British aviators who were shot down over German-controlled territory.
One of the prisoners in the camp was Squadron Leader Roger Bushell. Bushell was shot down early in the war while providing air support for the evacuating troop at Dunkirk on May 23, 1940.
Bushell had become accomplished at attempting to escape. In May 1941, he broke out of a prison camp by cutting through the wire and was caught only a few hundred meters from the Swiss border.
In October 1941, he jumped off a moving train while being transported. He managed to stay free for eight months in Prague under the protection of the Czech underground before finally being betrayed by a Czech soldier who was a Gestapo informant.
In May 1942, he was then transferred to Stalag Luft III, the supposedly escape-proof prison camp. There, given his experience with prison escapes, he was set up as the head of the camp escape committee known as X Organization. Bushell was given the name Big X.
The first escape from Stalag Luft III took place in October 1943. Bushell recognized the problem of tunneling such a long distance from the barracks to beyond the fence. They solved this problem by creating a Trojan horse.
In this case, it was literally a vaulting horse, the kind used in gymnastics. Every day the men would take the horse outside for calisthenics and put it in the exact same place. However, the inside of the horse was hollow, and one or two men would be inside, digging a tunnel using bowls.
When they were done for the day, a wooden board was placed over the hole, and dirt was put on top. After three months of digging, they had a tunnel that went almost 30 meters or 100 feet, and on October 19, three men managed to escape.
All three of the men managed to make their way to Sweden, stowing away on ships. The escape was dramatized in the 1950 movie The Wooden Horse.
Throughout 1943, more American aviators began filling the camp. Eventually, the Americans outnumbered the British 3 to 1, and the total population of the camp grew to 10,000 prisoners. However, they were usually kept in separate sections of the camp and didn’t, for the most part, take part in the X Organization.
Even before the wooden horse escape in March 1943, Bushell had begun planning for something even bigger. Individuals or small groups escaping were one thing. Bushell wanted to do a break where 220 prisoners would escape all at once.
Trying to capture 220 Allied soldiers running around German-occupied territory would take enormous resources and probably thousands of soldiers that would otherwise be used in the war effort.
The plan was to dig not one, not two, but three tunnels that started in various barracks.
The purpose of the three tunnels was that if one were found, progress could continue on the others. The theory was also that if one of the tunnels were discovered, the Germans would hardly expect two other tunnels of similar size to be dug.
To get around the seismic microphones and poor soil, the tunnels were to be dug 30 feet or 10 meters straight down. There the soil would also be less sandy than was found on the surface.
The tunnels were dubbed Tom, Dick, and Harry. The security around the operation was so tight that simply using the word tunnel could make you subject to a court martial.
The tunnels were started in three different huts. The tunnels were started under stoves or under shower drains which actually had segments of the building foundation underneath them.
The tunnels were highly elaborate constructions, given the conditions they were built under. They had to be reinforced with wood, which was taken from bunks and from the interior and rafters of the barracks.
Air ventilation systems had to be created to pump air to the tunnelers. Electric lights were strung up with wire that was scrounged.
Digging was done with modified powdered milk cans. The tunnelers would often work next to naked so that dirt would get on their clothes.
One major problem was what to do with all of the dirt that was excavated from the tunnel. The eventual solution was to create long bags that would be placed inside the pants of the prisoners. They would be filled with dirt, and as they walked around the prison yard, they would release the dirt from the bottom of the bag and kick it into the ground.
An estimated 25,000 trips had to be made to remove all of the dirt from the tunnels.
However, digging the tunnels was only one hurdle that had to be overcome. Once the prisoners made it outside the fence, then what?
They had to procure maps to know what was around them. They had to have civilian clothes made to blend in. They needed forged documents to get through checkpoints.
Many of the things they had to make, and some of them they got by bribing German guards with chocolate and cigarettes they received from the Red Cross.
An estimated 600 men were involved in various aspects of the escape attempt.
As work on the tunnels continued, the Germans began to get suspicious that something was up. They transferred 19 of their biggest suspects to a different camp, even though only 6 of them were actually working on the escape.
In June 1943, Bushell decided to halt work on Dick and Harry so they could focus all of their attention on Tom. The dirt from Tom was used to fill in Dick as it was now considered too dangerous to spread dirt in the yard.
However, on September 8, their work came to a halt when the Germans discovered Tom.
The Germans destroyed Tom, and tunneling activities were put on hold for several months.
The destruction of Tom meant that all of the remaining efforts went into the construction of Harry.
Work on Harry began again in January 1944. After almost three months, the tunnel was believed to be ready.
The escape committee scheduled the break for a night with a new moon, which was Friday, March 24.
The order of the escapees was determined by who had the best chance of making it in terms of language skills and who had put the most work into the project. Roger Bushell was to be one of the first through the tunnel.
There was a problem, however. The tunnel was supposed to break through past the tree line, which was just outside the fence. However, the tunnel was about ten meters from the tree line.
The temperature was near freezing, and there was snow on the ground. They had to go slowly. Instead of one man going out per minute, it was reduced to 10 an hour. During the escape, there were other problems. There was a collapse in the tunnel which had to be cleared, and there was an air raid during the escape, which caused the electricity to be cut, rendering the tunnel to be pitch black.
The initial decision was to cancel the escape so they could go back and finish the tunnel properly, but they realized their forged documents were all dated for an escape that night, so they had to go ahead.
Seventy-six men managed to escape before the Germans found out what was happening.
When word of the escape spread, Hitler was furious. He demanded that they all be captured and executed. When it was pointed out to him by Heindrich Himmer and other high-ranking Nazis that it would be a violation of the Geneva Convention that would hurt their relations with neutral countries, and it could result in reprisals against German pilots, Hitler consented to just having 50 of them executed.
Over the next several days and weeks, a manhunt took place throughout every area under German control.
Back at the camp, the Germans were astonished at the scope of the operation. Thousands of bed boards, dozens of bunks, hundreds of mattresses, thousands of utensils, and other equipment were unaccounted for and had all been used in the escape attempt.
The escapees had problems the moment they left camp. It was an unusually cold March with deep snow, so cross-country travel wasn’t possible. Some of the maps they had were wrong, which resulted in many men missing their trains.
In the end, 73 of the 76 escapees were caught. Of the 73, 50 of them were executed as per Hitler’s orders.
The only three prisoners to make it to freedom were Per Bergsland and Jens Müller, both of whom were Norwegian pilots, and Bram van der Stok, a Dutch pilot.
Bergsland and Müller made it to Sweden with the help of sympathetic Swedish seamen, and van der Stok crossed the entirety of Europe using his language skills and crossed the Pyrenees into neutral Spain and finally to British Gibraltar on July 8.
Roger Bushell, the mastermind of the plan, was executed along the side of the road outside of Ramstein, Germany, on March 29.
After the war, the execution of the escaped prisoners, which was a violation of the Geneva Convention, was considered a war crime. Members of the Gestapo who were responsible were brought up on charges at the Nuremberg Trials. Several were executed or imprisoned.
The mass escape from Stalag Luft III has been dubbed The Great Escape, It has been the subject of books as well as the very popular 1963 movie of the same name starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough.
The escape from Stalag Luft III remains one of the greatest prison breaks of any kind in history. The fact that so many men were able to do so much under such conditions and under such scrutiny does indeed earn it the distinction of being The Great Escape.
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