The massive escape of 76 Allied airmen from a Nazi POW camp in March 1944 remains one of the most famous prison escapes in history. Although the German Luftwaffe designed Camp Stalag Luft III to be escape-proof, the daring and real-life prison escape was immortalized in the 1963 film. The great Escape proved the contrary.
When the Nazis built the maximum security camp 160 km southeast of Berlin to house Allied airmen captured during World War II, many of whom had already escaped, they took elaborate measures to prevent the digging of tunnels, like lifting prisoner huts and burying microphones nine feet underground along the perimeter fence of the camp. Additionally, the camp was built on yellow sand which would be difficult to dig and hide for anyone attempting.
The Nazis, however, ignored the daring and ingenuity of the British, American Canadians and other Allied Flyboys who worked for nearly a year to build a tunnel that would allow them to flee captivity. For the airmen, the penalty for being caught escaping – typically 10 days in solitary confinement under Geneva Convention rules – was worth the risk.
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They built three evacuation tunnels: “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”
The covert operation was led and organized by Roger Bushell, a Royal Air Force pilot who was shot down over France while assisting in the evacuation of Dunkirk. In the spring of 1943, Bushell and over 600 POWs began building three tunnels codenamed Tom, Dick, and Harry. The plan called for each tunnel to extend over 300 feet to the protective forest cover outside the perimeter fence of the camp.
Inside Hut 104, the prisoners building the Harry Tunnel worked hard for days to eat away at the building’s support columns to avoid being seen working under the barracks. From a trapdoor hidden under a still-lit heating stove to discourage the Nazi guards from getting too close, they ducked more than 30 feet to be out of range of the microphones. Working in claustrophobic conditions, the diggers stripped of their long underwear or removed all their clothes so that the shiny golden sand did not stain them and arouse the suspicions of the German guards. The captives excavated at least 100 tons of sand, stuffed them into hidden socks and discreetly sprinkled and raked in the soil of the small gardens maintained by the prisoners.
Collecting and stealing materials for the operation, the prisoners stripped some 4,000 wooden bed boards to build ladders and consolidate the sandy walls of the two-foot-wide tunnels to prevent their collapse. They stuffed 1,700 blankets against the walls to muffle the sounds. They turned over 1,400 cans of powdered milk supplied by the Red Cross into digging tools and lamps in which wicks made from pajama strings were burned in skimmed sheep fat from the soup. fat that was served to them.
As the tunnel lengthened and oxygen levels dwindled, the prisoners used a stolen wire to plug into the camp’s power supply and power a string of light bulbs. They even made a rudimentary bellows air pump system built in part with hockey sticks, backpacks, and ping-pong rackets. And they built a system of underground rope-drawn carriages to transport sand with switch junctions named after two London landmarks: Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square.
To prevent the Nazis from learning about the operation, the airmen used an elaborate surveillance system and used subtle signs such as turning the page of a book or playing with a shoelace to signal an approaching guard. By bribing the guards with Red Cross products unavailable in Germany, such as chocolate, coffee, soap and sugar, the prisoners obtained cameras and travel documents that a team of artists obtained. used to forge identity cards, passports and passes. They reproduced travel stamps by carving designs into boot heels and using shoe polish as ink. The plan was to dispatch some 200 prisoners of war, chosen by those with the best language and escape skills to succeed, who worked the most in preparation and, then, in the draw.
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Only 76 of the 200 planned prisoners escaped
The Nazis eventually discovered the Tom Tunnel and summoned photographers to chronicle their discovery before it was demolished. As the Nazis celebrated their discovery, however, they were unaware that work on the other two underground passages was continuing. The prisoners eventually turned Dick into a storage space and focused all construction on Harry, which was completed in the late winter of 1944.
Around 10:30 p.m. On the frigid, moonless night of March 24, 1944, British bomber pilot Johnny Bull slowly walked through the tunnel over 30 feet below oblivious Nazi guards and threw his head out of the snowy ground beyond the fence of the camp. As he breathed in the freezing air and filled his lungs with freedom, the sweat-soaked prisoner discovered that the tunnel had stopped a few feet from the forest’s protective blanket. The blunder slowed down the escape process – those coming out of the tunnel had to wait for a rope tug signal “by the coast” from an escapee already in the forest – and dashed plans to get the 200 men out to the full.
The process was tedious as the prisoners, dressed in civilian clothes and carrying false documents, lay down on the rope-operated wooden cart and were pulled one by one through the tunnel to their escapes. Less than a dozen men made it through every hour, and a partial tunnel collapse and an hour-long blackout in a midnight air raid further slowed the operation.
At around 5 a.m., a German soldier on patrol nearly fell into the exit shaft and discovered the tunnel. The prisoners inside rushed to the hut and burned their false documents. The Nazis discovered that 76 prisoners escaped from their so-called escape-proof camp.
Nazis caught 73 escapees and executed 50
The daring and ingenuity displayed by the Allied pilots were the raw material of the films, and the escape was immortalized in the 1963 blockbuster. The great Escape, which starred Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson and James Coburn. However, there was no Hollywood ending for most of the 76 men who left Stalag Luft III.
The Nazis mobilized a massive manhunt. They erected roadblocks, increased border patrols and searched hotels and farms. In less than two weeks, the Germans had recaptured 73 of the escapees. Only three men managed to get to safety: two Norwegians who boarded a freighter for Sweden and a Dutchman who managed to get to Gibraltar by train and on foot.
An enraged Adolf Hitler personally ordered the execution of 50 of the escapees as a warning to other prisoners. In violation of the Geneva Convention, Gestapo agents drove the airmen, including Bushell and Bull, to remote locations and murdered them. After the war, British investigators brought the Gestapo killers to justice. In 1947, a military court found 18 Nazis guilty of war crimes for shooting at recovered prisoners of war, and 13 of them were executed.