The Escape from Stalag Luft III
- 24th March 1944 -
Depicted in the film The Great Escape, the attempt by 200 men to free themselves from a German prison, for Air Officers, in the middle of a forest in Upper Silesia, has gone down in legend. This vast POW camp in Poland, then East Germany, 100miles south east of Berlin, was the scene one of the most daring and extraordinary feats of those in captivity in the Second World War.
The site had been selected by the Germans due to the difficult nature of tunnelling. The barracks were raised 60cm off the ground to allow guards to check underneath them, the sandy subsoil made it hard to secure the tunnels and the subsoil was bright yellow, making it hard to get rid of it around the camp on the grey, dusty ground. The Germans had also put seismograph microphones around the perimeter to pick up the sounds of tunnelling.
The camp was opened on 21st March 1942 and the first prisoners were British Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm Officers who arrived in April. The centre compound was opened on 11th April 1942 for the British but was soon used for the Americans instead. On 29th March 1943 the British North Compound was opened – and it was from here that the Great Escape happened.
Further compounds in the south (September ’43) and west (July ’44) were opened and at its peak there were 2,500 British, 7,500 American and around 900 others, making just under 11,000 prisoners in total. Each compound consisted of 15 single storey huts. Each bunkroom was 10 x 12 feet and slept 15 men in 5 triple bunk beds.
In October 1943 there was a successful break out. The prisoners used a gymnastic vaulting horse to conceal men and tools and this was taken out each day for the prisoners to exercise. Using what tools they could fashion they dug a tunnel with the noise of the gymnasts concealing the noise of the tunnelling. Each evening, when the ‘horse’ was brought back in, a board was put over the tunnel with soil on top of that. To avoid the tunnel collapsing they used wood from the Red Cross parcels they received. After 3 months they reached 100 feet and Lieutenants Michael Codner and Eric Williams and Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot escaped and made their way back to Britain, getting lifts on various ships. Williams and Philpot wrote books of their accounts and a film, The Wooden Horse, was made of the story.
It was in March 1943 that Squadron Leader Roger Bushell came up with the idea of three tunnels, which he nicknamed, ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’. All three were started in various places, under heaters and dark corners. The idea was that if one tunnel was found the guards would never look for any more. The tunnels were 9 metres under the surface and 0.6m square. There were chambers that house air pumps and tools.
To disguise the soil coming out of the tunnels special pouches were put in their underpants and trousers to put the soil and various hidden sites were found to deposit it including the land they were given to tend. In September ‘Tom’ was discovered by a guard and work on the others stopped. Eventually the other two were re-started and by March they were ready to go. The Americans had now been moved away from this compound and none of them were to take part in the escape – despite the best intentions of Hollywood.
They wanted to go in the summer when the weather was better but the arrival of the Gestapo to try and detect possible tunnels in March forced their hand and the evening of March 24th/morning of the 25th was chosen as the date as it was to be a moonless night. There had been 600 men working on the tunnels but only 200 were able to use it that evening. 100 were chosen as the first group – those who spoke good German and had a good chance of escape and seventy others who had spent the most time working on the tunnels. The second hundred were chosen by lot.
‘Harry’ was the chosen tunnel but due to the extreme cold the escape hatch was frozen solid and took an hour and a half to open delaying the operation considerably. At 10.30pm the first man emerged and found himself not far from a guard tower. Although the tunnel just reached the forest the trees were so bare that they got little cover. The thick snow made it harder too as they would leave a dark streak where they crawled to the protection of the trees. Therefore, only ten an hour could go rather than one every minute. Thus the second hundred men chosen were not going to make it by daylight. They made their way back to their beds so as not to expose the break-out. At 1am the tunnel collapsed delaying the escape further.
Seventy-six men had escaped when the seventy seventh was spotted by a guard and the cover was blown. Squadron Leader Leonard Trent, from New Zealand, gave himself up. The authorities looked for the tunnel but could not find it until one of the guards crawled backwards and emerged in hut 104. The tunnel had been found.
The men who had escaped kept running. Unfortunately, they missed the entrance to the railway station and their night train. Eventually seventy-three of them were recaptured. Of the three that got away two were Norwegians and one Dutch - and they made it back home.
Hitler was furious and demanded that all escapees be executed along with all the guards on duty that night and the architect of the camp. Hermann Goring and other senior German officers claimed that this would break the Geneva Convention. Hitler however demanded that Himmler, head of the SS, should shoot at least half. This was carried out singly or in pairs. The leader, Roger Bushell was one of those shot. Dick Churchill, one of those who made it out but was recaptured, was saved by his name – they thought he was related to the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.