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March 24th: The Great Escape
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March 24th: The Great Escape

Before we even begin to talk history, let’s make one thing clear: if you have never seen The Great Escape, you absolutely should. It’s a fantastic film. In fact, go ahead and watch it as soon as you finish reading this whether you’ve seen it before or not. But before you sit down for some classic film thrills, why not learn the true story that inspired them? Because there was a real Great Escape full of brilliant scheming, bravery, and tragedy that took place in March of 1944 in present-day Poland.

Stalag Luft III

The camp where the action took place opened in March of 1942 and eventually grew to cover 60 acres of land in the then-German province of Lower Silesia. Manned and operated by the German Air Force (Luftwaffe), Stalag Luft III held Allied pilots and aircrew throughout World War II. The Germans specifically designed the facility to deter potential escape attempts. Raised barracks built on sandy ground were meant to prevent the digging of any easily hidden and constructed tunnels. And seismographic microphones around the perimeter could ostensibly detect any underground activity. 800 Germans, mostly Luftwaffe personnel too old for frontline/flight service, ones who had competed long tours at the front, or recovering from serious injuries, served as guards.

As far as prisoner of war camps go, however, the place wasn’t all that bad. It featured a massive library and schooling system where inmates could earn actual college degrees through exams provided by the Red Cross. The camp had athletic facilities and equipment of all kinds, from volleyball courts to ping pong tables, and organized leagues of teams. The prisoners had their own orchestra, several smaller bands, and a theater that put on bi-weekly plays. But, despite all this, Stalag Luft III was still a POW camp. And most prisoners there were understandably eager to escape.

Roger Bushell

In October of 1942, Royal Air Force Squadron Leader (the equivalent of a major in the US Air Force) Roger Bushell arrived at Stalag Luft III. Shot down early in the war (during his very first engagement, in May of 1940), he’d already escaped from two POW camps. He, along with his friend and companion during both prior escapes Lieutenant Commander Jimmy Buckley (a Royal Navy aviator), began planning for a major breakout in the spring of 1943. Buckley was soon transferred to another facility. But Bushell continued planning and preparing for a large-scale escape under the command of the senior prisoner in the camp, RAF Air Commodore (equivalent of a brigadier general) Herbert Massey. The plan was to get  a whopping 200 men out with falsified documents and civilian clothes.

Digging the Tunnels

Construction on the tunnels, of which there were initially three, began shortly after Bushell hatched his plan. 600 men took part in either the digging, manufacturing of supplies, or forging documents. They also received assistance and documents to copy from anti-Nazi Germans, including several of the camp’s guards. Just like in the film, the tunnels were codenamed Tom, Dick, and Harry. They were dug roughly 30 feet deep and extremely narrow, roughly two feet in diameter. Wood covertly scavenged from across the camp provided shoring up, which was highly necessary to prevent collapse in the sandy soil of the camp. Digging tools were made out of tin ration cans, many from Red Cross food parcels. As the tunnels grew longer, the prisoners jerry-rigged air pumps from materials around the camp. To distribute the dug-up sand and dirt, the prisoners carried pockets full of it in specially sewn pants and underwear to scatter it around as they walked or gardened above ground. As the digging advanced, they found new places to hide sand like under the seats of the theater.

There were some major snags along the way. Eventually, the area Dick was to end in got built over by a camp expansion. Construction on Dick ceased and the excavated portion became a storage area for tools and supplies. The prisoners’ options narrowed further when the Germans discovered and dynamited Tom in September of 1943. As a result, the prisoners refrained from further digging for a few months. A separate, successful escape of three prisoners (using a fake gymnastics vault horse) from a different compound of the camp in October of 1943 also raised the Germans’ alert status. But digging resumed on Harry in January, 1944. The prisoners completed the tunnel in March.

The Great Escape

The escape itself took place on the first moonless night after Harry’s completion, about a week later, on Friday, March 24th. The 200 men assigned to break out assembled at the tunnel’s entrance in Hut 104. But their departures were delayed over an hour because the exit hatch was frozen shut. When they finally opened it, the prisoners found the tunnel came short of the treeline around the camp. Plus, with snow on the ground, the escapee’s tracks would be clearly visible from the nearest guard tower. Nevertheless, the decision was made to start sending men. The first one exited Harry at 10:30pm.

Further problems arose as the prisoners began sneaking out. An air raid shut off the lights in the camp, to include the ones strung through the tunnel, temporarily. And a temporary collapse occurred around 1:00am. Despite all this, 76 men made it out of the tunnel and into the woods. A guard spotted the 77th man, New Zealander Leonard Trent of the RAF, just as he reached the treeline at around 4:45am. Trent surrendered and the tunnel was discovered.

Captures and Executions

If those 76 men who made it safely to cover had survived, the story of the real Great Escape could be considered a happy one. Sadly, 73 were quickly recaptured. An enraged Adolf Hitler initially ordered every recaptured officer shot. But his fellow monstrous human beings Herman Goering and Heinrich Himmler talked him down to only executing most of them. Under the pretense of returning them to Stalag Luft III, members of the Gestapo took pairs of escapees from their various holding locations and executed them.

Among those killed was Roger Bushell, mastermind of the escape itself. A total of 50 men were thus executed in the Stalag Luft III murders. The other 23 were returned to POW camps. The three men who successfully escaped, all of whom survived the War, were pilots from foreign squadrons of the RAF: Norwegians Per Bergsland and Jens Müller, and Dutchman Bram van der Stok.

The Aftermath

By April, the POWs still in the camp managed to not only compile a nearly-complete list of those they (correctly) believed the Germans had killed but pass it on to a Red Cross representative. The British House of Commons heard the news in May. Massey, who the Germans repatriated due to ill health a few weeks earlier, confirmed it for the public. After the war the British tried many of the surviving gestapo members responsible for the murders. Many were imprisoned or executed for their war crimes. But the doling out of such justice could not bring back the 50 men executed for their attempted Great Escape.

Now that we bummed you out, go ahead and watch The Great Escape. It still has a slight bummer of an ending, but it is a classic. And it’s based on a book by Paul Brickhill, a member of the Royal Australian Air Force who took part in the real escape as a lookout and head of security for the forgers. So as Hollywood-ized as the movie version is, you know it has strong roots in the heroic and tragic Great Escape of 1944.

Read more great stories, facts, and editions of This Week in Military History (like this one about another gutsy WWII escape) in our military history section.

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