World War II: The Great Escape

A building plan of Stalag Luft III
 Kevin Rofidal / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Located at Sagan, Germany (now Poland), Stalag Luft III opened in April 1942, though construction was not complete at the time. Designed to deter inmates from tunneling, the camp featured raised barracks and was situated in an area with yellow, sandy subsoil. The bright color of the dirt made it easily detected if dumped on the surface and guards were instructed to watch for it on inmates' clothing. The sandy nature of subsoil also ensured that any tunnel would have weak structural integrity and be prone to collapse.

Additional defensive measures included seismograph microphones placed around the camp's perimeter, a 10-ft. double fence, and numerous guard towers. The initial inmates were largely composed of Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm flyers who had been downed by the Germans. In October 1943, they were joined by increasing numbers of US Army Air Force prisoners. With the population growing, German officials began work to expand the camp with two additional compounds, ultimately covering around 60 acres. At its peak, Stalag Luft III housed around 2,500 British, 7,500 American, and 900 additional Allied prisoners.

The Wooden Horse

Despite the German precautions, an Escape Committee, known as the X Organization, was quickly formed under the guidance of Squadron Leader Roger Bushell (Big X). As the camp's barracks had been deliberately built 50 to 100 meters from the fence to deter tunneling, X initially was concerned about the length of any escape tunnel. While several tunneling attempts were made during the camp's early days, all were detected. In mid-1943, Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams conceived an idea for starting a tunnel closer to the fence line.

Utilizing a Trojan Horse concept, Williams oversaw the construction of a wooden vaulting horse that was designed to conceal men and containers of dirt. Each day the horse, with a digging team inside, was carried to the same spot in the compound. While the prisoners conducted gymnastics exercises, the men in the horse commenced digging an escape tunnel. At the end of each day's exercises, a wooden board was placed over the tunnel entrance and covered with surface dirt.

Using bowls for shovels, Williams, Lieutenant Michael Codner, and Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot dug for three months before finishing the 100-ft tunnel. On the evening of October 29, 1943, the three men made their escape. Traveling north, Williams and Codner reached Stettin where they stowed away on a ship to neutral Sweden. Philpot, posing as a Norwegian businessman, took the train to Danzig and stowed away on a ship to Stockholm. The three men were the only prisoners to successfully escape from the camp's eastern compound.

The Great Escape

With the opening of the camp's northern compound in April 1943, many of the British prisoners were moved to new quarters. Among those transferred were Bushell and the majority of the X Organization. Immediately upon arriving, Bushell began planning for a massive 200-man escape utilizing three tunnels designated "Tom," "Dick," and "Harry." Carefully selecting concealed locations for the tunnel entrances, work quickly began and the entry shafts were completed in May. To avoid detection by the seismograph microphones, each tunnel was dug 30 ft. below the surface.

Pushing outward, the prisoners constructed tunnels that were only 2 ft. by 2 ft. and supported with wood taken from beds and other camp furniture. Digging was largely done using Klim powdered milk cans. As the tunnels grew in length, scratch-built air pumps were built to supply the diggers with air and a system of trolley carts installed to speed the movement of dirt. For disposing of the yellow dirt, small pouches constructed from old socks were attached inside the prisoners' pants allowing them to discreetly scatter it on the surface as they walked.

In June 1943, X decided to suspend work on Dick and Harry and focus solely on completing Tom. Concerned that their dirt disposal methods were no longer working as the guards were increasingly catching men during distribution, X ordered that Dick be backfilled with the dirt from Tom. Just short of the fence line, all work came to a sudden halt on September 8, when the Germans discovered Tom. Pausing for several weeks, X ordered work to resume on Harry in January 1944. As digging continued, prisoners also worked on obtaining German and civilian clothing, as well as forging travel papers and identifications.

During the tunneling process, X had been assisted by several American prisoners. Unfortunately, by the time the tunnel was completed in March, they had been transferred to another compound. Waiting a week for a moonless night, the escape commenced after dark on March 24, 1944. Breaking through the surface, the first escapee was stunned to find that the tunnel had come up short of the woods adjacent to the camp. Despite this, 76 men successfully transited the tunnel without detection, despite the fact that an air raid occurred during the escape which cut off power to the tunnel's lights.

Around 5:00 AM on March 25, the 77th man was spotted by the guards as he emerged from the tunnel. Conducting a roll call, the Germans quickly learned the scope of the escape. When news of the escape reached Hitler, the irate German leader initially ordered that all of the recaptured prisoners should be shot. Convinced by Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler that this would irreparably damage Germany's relations with neutral countries, Hitler rescinded his order and directed that only 50 be killed.

As they fled through eastern Germany, all but three (Norwegians Per Bergsland and Jens Müller, and Dutchman Bram van der Stok) of the escapees were recaptured. Between March 29 and April 13, fifty were shot by the German authorities who claimed that the prisoners were trying to escape again. The remaining prisoners were returned to camps around Germany. In canvassing Stalag Luft III, the Germans found that the prisoners had used wood from 4,000 bed boards, 90 beds, 62 tables, 34 chairs, and 76 benches in building their tunnels.

In the wake of the escape, the camp commandant, Fritz von Lindeiner, was removed and replaced with Oberst Braune. Angered by the killing of the escapees, Braune permitted the prisoners to build a memorial to their memory. Upon learning of the murders, the British government was incensed and the killing of the 50 was among the war crimes charged at ​​Nuremberg after the war.​​

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: The Great Escape." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, February 16). World War II: The Great Escape. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: The Great Escape." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).