70 Years Later: A Look Back at the Escape from Stalag Luft III

Barracks at Stalag Luft III

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the escape attempt by 76 Allied airmen from the Stalag Luft III.  Many of you have undoubtedly seen the 1963 Steve McQueen film The Great Escape, which brought this story to the forefront.   I am sure that there are many people out there who, like me, find this a fascinating portion of WWII history.  In honor of this anniversary, I thought we would take a moment and look at the 76 men who attempted escape and the three who actually made it back to Allied territory. 
Located in Zagan, Poland, construction on the first compound (East Compound) was completed and opened on March 21, 1942.   This camp, run by the German Luftwaffe, was designed to be a prisoner-of-war camp for Allied airmen.  In April 1942, the first prisoners to arrive at the camp were British Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm officers.  Stalag Luft III had a number of features that made escape extremely difficult and nearly impossible.  First, the barracks which housed the prisoners were raised off the ground in order to help guards detect any tunneling activity.  Secondly, the camp was constructed in an area with very sandy subsoil – which happened to be bright yellow in color, making it easily detectable if placed on surface soil and visible on clothing.  This subsoil was very loose and susceptible to collapse meaning structural integrity of any tunnel would be very poor. 
Roger Bushell
Construction was continuous at the camp and by the end of March 1943 the North Compound for British airmen was opened.  North Compound is the site of this great escape plan.  Each of these compounds consisted of 15 single story huts.  Each bunk room could sleep 15 men in five triple deck bunks.  At the height of occupation, the camp held about 2,500 RAF officers, 7,500 U.S. Army Air Forces, and about 900 officers from other Allied air forces. 
In the spring of 1943, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell of the RAF conceived a plan for a major escape from the camp.  Bushell was in command of the Escape Committee and channeled his effort to finding weak points in the camp and procuring the necessary supplies for the escapees.  Bushell’s original plan was to dig three tunnels at the same time and attempt to break 200 men out at once.  Codenamed “Tom,” “Dick,” and “Harry” the three tunnels were a ploy of deception – Bushell believed that if one tunnel was discovered, the German guards wouldn’t think that two additional tunnels were in the work.  One key component of Bushell’s plan was that each of the escapees a full complement of paperwork and have civilian clothing made for them.
Tunnel “Harry” showing escape route
Tunneling was difficult work, mostly because the prisoners had to evade growing German suspicion that something was a foot.  When “Tom” was discovered, the 98thtunnel in this camp to be, construction on “Harry” ceased for a while as well.  Using the wooden slats from their beds, tunneling around 336 feet, and ingenious methods of funneling air in the tunnel and over 200 tons of sand out, a date for escape was finally selected.  The first group of 100 guaranteed a spot in the tunnel were those who spoke good German, had the most complete set of papers, and were considered those how had worked the hardest on the construction of the tunnel.  
30 ft drop into entrance of tunnel

As night fell on March 24, 1944, all those who had been selected to be a part of the escape made their way to Hut 104.  Slowly, men made their way down the tunnel.  “Harry” exited about 45 feet from one of the camp watchtowers.  The 77thman to emerge from the tunnel at 4:55 am was spotted by one of the guards.  Of the 76 men to attempt escape, only three made it all the way to an allied country.  The remaining 73 men were recaptured over the course of the following days—of those men, 50 were executed on Hitler’s order, including the mastermind of the escape Roger Bushell.

Fellow prisoners created a memorial to their fallen compatriots in the prison camp ceremony. 
To learn more about the Great Escape and those involved, visit the following sites: 

Memorial to those executed after the escape

Until next time,

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