Escape

03 24 tunnel harryThe night of March 24th marks the anniversary of the “Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III, a prisoner of war camp in Poland, in 1944. It isn’t a story that ends well. Of the seventy-six men who escaped, only three made it back to British soil. The others were recaptured and fifty of them were shot, which was clearly not brilliant. However, for a brief time they were all free and it is a magnificent story.

The site of Stalag Luft III, which opened in March 1942, had a number of features which made it particularly difficult to tunnel out of. Firstly, all the huts that housed the prisoners were raised about 2 ft (60cm) from the ground to make it easier for the guards to detect any digging. Secondly, it was built on very sandy soil that made tunnelling difficult. At surface the sand was bright yellow, deeper down it was dark grey. So if anyone digging tried to hide the darker subsoil on the sandy surface, it would be easily detectable. There were also seismograph microphones all around the camp’s perimeter that were supposed to detect digging.

Stalag Luft III is best known for two famous escapes that took place there. On both occasions, the prisoners tunnelled out. The first occasion, in October 1943, involved a sort of modern day Trojan Horse. The prisoners took a vaulting horse out into the yard and would spend the day jumping over it. What the guards didn’t know was that there was someone hidden inside the horse. While everyone else was jumping, he was digging. Every day, the entrance to the tunnel was concealed with boards and covered with sand. Every day, they came back and dug a bit more. Three men were able to escape, all made it home and there was no loss of life. So arguably it was more successful than the escape of March 24th. But it was not on such a grand scale.

The second escape plan involved six hundred prisoners and it was hoped that two hundred of them might get away. It was a massive operation that took around a year to complete. Under the command of Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, they began to dig three tunnels at once. The idea being that if one was discovered, their guards would not imagine that there were another two tunnels well underway. The three tunnels were named ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’. Tom was begun in a dark corner, next to a chimney, Dick, in a drain in a washroom and Harry, underneath a stove. The tunnels were very deep, about 30 ft (9 m) below ground, and very small, about 2ft (60cm) square. They shored up the sides with wood scavenged from around the camp. Mostly they used the boards that held up the mattresses on their beds. Each bed had twenty boards. After their escape, each bed was found to have 03 24 klimabout eight boards left. Another massively useful resource were ‘Klim’ cans. These were cans of powdered milk supplied by the Red Cross. They could be used to make scoops, candle holders and later, as the tunnels became longer, to build ventilation ducts. The candles, they made by skimming the fat off their soup and they used scraps of old clothing to make wicks. They built air pumps out of bits of beds, hockey sticks, knapsacks and Klim cans to keep the diggers supplied with fresh air. Guards were bribed with chocolate, coffee and cigarettes from their rations and they provided civilian clothes, maps, railway timetables and official paperwork. All things that they would need on the outside.

Dumping the soil was, of course, difficult. Mostly they sprinkled it onto the ground from concealed pouches in their clothing. Sometimes they dug it into the soil while they were digging their garden. When it began to snow, they ran out of places to hide the soil outside. They decided to tip it underneath the floor of a theatre building that was part of the camp. Tunnel Dick became unusable when the camp was expanded, covering its planned exit. So they partly refilled it with excavated soil. The entrance to tunnel Tom was discovered in September 1943. It was the 98th tunnel to be discovered at the camp. All work on Harry ceased until January 1944.

The escape was planned for the summer, but they brought their plans forward to the moonless night of March 24th because security was being tightened up. There were two groups of one hundred who planned to get away. The first group, the ‘serial offenders’ were those who had a history of escaping, spoke German, or who had just put in an awful lot of effort. The second group, the ‘hard arses’ were determined by drawing lots. They would need to travel at night as they spoke little or no German and had only basic forged paperwork. They all gathered in hut 104 where the entrance was.

As they crawled through one at a time, the first thing they discovered was that the tunnel exit was frozen solid. When they got out, they found that their escape route was not quite so well hidden by trees as they had hoped. Also, it had been snowing. The route of their escape would be clearly seen by daylight because of the dark muddy trail they would leave behind them. Also the tunnel collapsed at about one in the morning and had to be repaired. Seventy-six men managed to get away. The seventy-seventh was caught. As I said at the beginning. Seventy three of the men were recaptured. Hitler personally ordered them all to be shot., along with the camp Commandant, the security officer, all the guards that were on duty and even the camp’s architect. Fifty of the prisoners were shot, which was very much against the Geneva Convention and everyone was very shocked by it. In July a notice went up in all allied POW camps. It read: “THE ESCAPE FROM PRISON CAMPS IS NO LONGER A SPORT”.

After the escape, an inventory was made at the camp to find out what was missing. Here is a list of the things that the prisoners had taken:

  • 4,000 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
  • 1,212 bed bolsters
  • 1,370 beading battens
  • 1,219 knives
  • 478 spoons
  • 582 forks
  • 69 lamps
  • 246 water cans
  • 30 shovels
  • 300 m (1,000 ft) of electric wire
  • 180 m (600 ft) of rope
  • 3,424 towels
  • 1,700 blankets
  • 1,400 Klim cans
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