The Background

Stalag Luft III was a Luftwaffe-run prisoner of war (POW) camp during World War II, which held captured Western Allied air force personnel.

The Stalag was established in March 1942 in the German province of Lower Silesia near the town of Sagan (now Żagań, Poland), 160 kilometres (100 miles) south-east of Berlin. The site was selected because its sandy soil made it difficult for POWs to escape by tunnelling.

It is best known for two escape plots by Allied POWs.

  • One in 1943 that became the basis of a fictionalised film, The Wooden Horse (1950), based on a book by escapee Eric Williams.
  • The so-called Great Escape of April 1944, which was conceived by Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, and was authorised by the senior British officer at Stalag Luft III, Herbert Massey. A heavily fictionalised version of the escape was depicted in a film, The Great Escape (1963), which was based on a book by former prisoner Paul Brickhill.
The Great Escape

In March 1943, Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Roger Bushell conceived a plan for a mass escape, which occurred on the night of 24/25 March 1944. He was being held in the North Compound with the other British and Commonwealth airmen. He was in command of the Escape Committee that managed all escape opportunities. Falling back on his legal background to represent his scheme, Bushell called a meeting of the Escape Committee to advocate for his plan.

Massey, as senior British officer, authorised the escape attempt. The simultaneous digging of three tunnels would become an advantage if any one of them was discovered, because the guards would scarcely imagine that another two were well underway. The most radical aspect of the plan was not the scale of the construction but the number of men intended to pass through the tunnels. Previous attempts had involved up to 20 men, but Bushell was proposing to get over 200 out, all wearing civilian clothes and some with forged papers and escape equipment. It was unprecedented in size and would require unparalleled organisation. As the mastermind of the Great Escape, Roger Bushell inherited the codename of “Big X”. The tunnel “Tom” began in a darkened corner next to a stove chimney in one of the buildings. “Dick”‘s entrance was hidden in a drain sump in one of the washrooms. The entrance to “Harry” was hidden under a stove. More than 600 prisoners were involved in their construction.

The Tunnel

The tunnels were very deep – about 9 m (30 ft) below the surface. They were very small, only 0.6 m (2 ft) square, though larger chambers were dug to house an air pump, a workshop, and staging posts along each tunnel. The sandy walls were shored up with pieces of wood scavenged from all over the camp, much from the prisoners’ beds (of the twenty or so boards originally supporting each mattress, only about eight were left on each bed). Other wooden furniture was also scavenged.

the great escape
Harry – The Great Escape

tunnel-harry-the-great-escape
Tunnel Harry | The Great Escape

“Harry” was finally ready in March 1944. In their plan, of the 600 who had worked on the tunnels only 200 would be able to escape. The prisoners were separated into two groups. The first group of 100, called “serial offenders,” were guaranteed a place and included 30 who spoke German well or had a history of escapes, and an additional 70 considered to have put in the most work on the tunnels. The second group, considered to have much less chance of success, was chosen by drawing lots; called “hard-arsers”, they would have to travel by night as they spoke little or no German and were only equipped with the most basic fake papers and equipment.

The prisoners waited about a week for a moonless night, and on Friday 24 March the escape attempt began. Unfortunately for the prisoners, the exit trap door of Harry was frozen solid and freeing it delayed the escape for an hour and a half. Then it was discovered that the tunnel had come up short of the nearby forest; at 10.30 p.m. the first man out emerged just short of the tree line close to a guard tower. To avoid being seen by the sentries, the escapes were reduced to about ten per hour, rather than the one every minute that had been planned. Word was eventually sent back that no-one issued with a number above 100 would be able to get away before daylight. As they would be shot if caught trying to return to their own barracks, these men changed back into their own uniforms and got some sleep.

Despite these problems, 76 men crawled through to freedom, until at 4:55 a.m. on 25 March, the 77th man was spotted emerging by one of the guards. The guards had no idea where the tunnel entrance was, so they began searching the huts, giving men time to burn their fake papers. Hut 104 was one of the last to be searched, and despite using dogs the guards were unable to find the entrance. Finally, German guard Charlie Pilz crawled back through the tunnel but found himself trapped at the camp end; he began calling for help and the prisoners opened the entrance to let him out, finally revealing its location.

The Aftermath

Of 76 escapees, 73 were captured. Adolf Hitler initially wanted them to be shot as an example to other prisoners, along with Commandant von Lindeiner, the architect who designed the camp, the camp’s security officer and all the guards on duty at the time. Hermann Göring, Field Marshal Keitel, Major-General Westhoff and Major-General von Graevenitz (head of the department in charge of war prisoners) all argued against the executions as a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Hitler eventually ordered SS head Himmler to execute more than half of the escapees. Himmler passed the selection on to General Arthur Nebe, and fifty were executed singly or in pairs. Roger Bushell, the leader of the escape, was shot by Gestapo official Emil Schulz just outside Saarbrucken, Germany. Bob Nelson is said to have been spared by the Gestapo because they may have believed he was related to his namesake Admiral Nelson. His friend Dick Churchill was probably spared because of his surname, shared with then British Prime Minister. Seventeen were returned to Stalag Luft III, and four were sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where they managed to tunnel out and escape three months later, although they were recaptured and returned there. Two were sent to Oflag IV-C Colditz.

There were three successful escapees:

  • Peter Bergsland, Norwegian pilot of No. 332 Squadron RAF
  • Jens Müller, Norwegian pilot of No. 331 Squadron RAF
  • Bram van der Stok, Dutch pilot of No. 41 Squadron RAF

Reference: Stalag Luft III

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