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The Great Escape

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During the night of March 24/25 1944 history created a backdrop for the stuff that Hollywood’s dreams are made of, together with a generous portion of fiction that is. To this day The Great Escape, a term long since assumed for a variety of different activities and events, mainly recreational in nature, is etched into peoples’ memory in the form of movie images culminating in a motorcycle chase on a sunny day at the foot of the Alps.

stalag hut webFor the Allied prisoners of war who had tirelessly worked to implement the plan to escape from Stalag Luft III (a German prisoner of war camp for members of the air force), located near the town of Sagan (today Zagan, Poland), the backdrop of that night was a cold, wintery, albeit moonless landscape, deep in enemy territory. Their dreams, if they even harboured any under the immanent threats from the environment and from their German chasers, were to survive the war and see their loved ones again. They knew from the start that dreams could be illusive, but few of them were prepared for the nightmare that ensued when 50 of the 73 eventually recaptured POWs did not return.

A few hundred officers imprisoned at Stalag Luft III had been part of a plan devised and set in motion by an escape committee under the leadership RAF Spitfire pilot Roger Bushell. Organization X, as they were called, set out to dig three tunnels simultaneously in hopes that one of them would lead the men if not back home then at least outside the wire for long enough to create some chaos and divert enemy resources.

forgerDue to the narrow confinements of the tunnels, only a small number of men could work underground at any given time. While the tunnel itself was crucial to the escape, its potential success also depended on a number of other factors that required the involvement of dozens of men. Uniforms needed to be disguised, maps and compasses were required for general directions, fake but authentic looking passes had to be made, tons of yellow sand had to be dispersed and above all, a security system was required to ensure that all activities ceased immediately whenever German guards got close to the “hot” zones.

In mid March of 1944 the tunnel they had nick-named “Harry”, about 30 feet deep and over 300 feet long, was finally considered long enough to begin work on the exit shaft. If all the calculations were correct, the tunnel opening should be located in a forest area just a few meters north of the camp’s outer fence and clearing. Bushell estimated that up to 200 men might be able to move through the tunnel before sunrise would give them up to the guards. Since more men had been involved in the work, a lottery system was used to draw names for the exit order. Men who were fluent in foreign languages and those who had contributed significantly were given a chance for a lower number and thus a better chance for making it back home.

bellowsPassing through the tunnel ended up taking longer than the anticipated two minutes per person. A power outage due to an allied air raid meant that men who had never been in the tunnel before had to navigate it in the dark. In a few sections sand fell into the tunnel, making repair work necessary. Without tools to measure distance, the exit shaft also had come up a few meters short of the forest, leaving the men without any immediate cover and thus slowing down the final stage of the exodus. When a German guard on one of his rounds came across a couple of escapers and discovered the exit hole, only 76 men had managed to get through the tunnel, 9 of them Canadian.

 

What It Took To Build The Great Escape Tunnels

A large number of items were needed to create the tunnels known as “Tom, Dick, and Harry” Through bribing, extortion, and theft, the prisoners set about to get the material they needed and hid the items in floor, walls, and even the tunnels themselves. Days after the escape, the Guards at STALAG III made a complete inventory of the camp. They found the following items missing and believed used as part of the escape.

4000 bed boards
90 double bunk beds
635 mattresses
192 bed covers
161 pillow cases
52 twenty man tables
10 single tables
34 chairs
76 benches
1212 bed bolsters
1370 beading battens
1219 knives
478 spoons
582 forks
69 lamps
246 water cans
30 shovels
300m of electrical wire
180m of rope
342 towels
1700 blankets
1400 “Klim” cans

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