24 March 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the ‘Great Escape’, the valiant and ultimately failed escape of 76 captured Allied airmen from the Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp. Kieran Lear reflects on an event which has forever been engrained in modern culture.
1944 will always be remembered for the year in which the Allies dominated every theatre of war in existence in Europe, with Allied army, naval and air forces slowly tightening the noose around the crippled neck of the Nazi war machine. This year, we remember the 70th anniversary of Operation OVERLORD, followed by the liberation of Paris, and recall the grand Allied campaign for freedom from oppression. One far smaller, more personal event which cannot be overlooked is that of the attempted coup d’etat by Prisoners of War (POW) incarcerated inside Stalag Luft III internment camp.
Stalag Luft III (short for Stammlager Luft, or Permanent Camps for Airmen), located in Sagan, 100 miles South-East of Berlin, was just one of many German POW camps which held British and American airmen who had been shot down over enemy territory. Each of the camp’s compounds housed 15 single story huts, measuring 10×12 feet, sleeping 15 men in five triple deck bunk beds. At its peak, the camp covered approximately 60 acres and some 2,500 RAF, 7,500 USAAF and 900 other Allied airmen were imprisoned here during World War Two. The Germans believed that security at the new camp was so tight that it would be impossible for anyone to escape. What they hadn’t bargained for was that Stalag Luft III held a highly skilled group of escape artists who set their hearts on freedom and began planning their incredibly risky escape in early 1943.
It was realised early on that for any escape attempt to succeed it had to be well planned and organised. The prisoners, therefore, established an escape committee, collating all ideas and information into one uniform plan which would maximise efficiency and leave marginal room for error. Chief escape officer was Sqn Ldr Roger Bushell, a Spitfire pilot downed on 23 May 1940 during the Battle of France known as ‘Big X’, and a former escapee who had been recaptured several times. This new committee decided to build three tunnels, with the intention of facilitating the escape of 200 prisoners, all wearing civilian clothing and carrying forged documents to aid them on their journey to Allied territory. The tunnels were given the code names ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’. and more than 600 men were involved in digging them. There were two main problems to be considered: how to get rid of the dirt that was dug away, and how to prevent the tunnels from collapsing, for digging a tunnel lengthy enough to bypass the camp’s outer wall posed a tremendous risk to those involved in the digging.
In order to prevent the tunnels from collapsing, they had to be supported with wood; the prisoners used bed boards for this task and as the tunnels grew longer and more wood was needed, many prisoners found themselves sleeping uncomfortably on beds with little support. Some even converted their beds to hammocks. It was quite a shock for many prisoners to retire to their beds only to find themselves falling through the bed and onto the floor! The price, they considered, for freedom. Prisoners also fashioned makeshift air pumps to keep the tunnel supplied with oxygen, and to aid their escape, some successfully bribed the camp’s guards to obtain maps, railway timetables and German uniforms, which were stored in the tunnel entrances, out of sight.
Removing the dirt excavated from the tunnels proved to be more of an issue, in part because the earth (a sandy, yellow subsoil) removed was a different colour to the grey, dusty earth around the camp which would naturally raise suspicion should it be deposited elsewhere, particularly if it was found on airmen’s clothing. The loose earth also compromised the structural integrity of the tunnel, meaning that collapses were a constant threat. One method used was to construct long bags which could be filled with earth then hidden in the trouser legs. A cord around the neck would open the bags thus releasing the earth on a patch of ground that was being dug or cultivated by another prisoner, such as their personal allotments, and was then kicked around to ensure it was adequately disguised by the more common topsoil. More than 100 tons of earth was disposed of in this way via more than 25,000 trips.
The discovery of ‘Tom’ was a major blow to the escape committee and all operations had to be suspended for a time to avoid further detection. This didn’t deter the escape committee and eventually ‘Harry’ was completed, with the night of the ‘Great Escape’ itself planned for 24 March 1944, which was to be moonless night. 100 men were selected for their expertise in deception, amongst other mitigating factors (such as the amount of effort put into digging the tunnels and preparing for escape), whilst lots were drawn for the remaining 100 places and maps, papers and disguises were completed and those who drew lucky made final preparations to escape the camp via ‘Harry’ under the cover of darkness. On the night itself, all allotted escapees took up positions, and it was planned that they would leave the camp in stages. Personnel were nervous and tense, a situation that was made worse by the discovery that the tunnel was around 30 feet short of the surrounding woods, which were intended to give the escapees a degree of cover as they made their break for freedom. Instead, they would have to make for the forest across snow-covered ground, along the path of a perimeter guard – detection was almost a certainty.
The escape process was far from smooth: a tunnel collapse had to be dealt with, and the painfully slow escape method stalled the breakout. By 0400 it was clear that it would be impossible for all 200 men to escape, and the decision was made to close the tunnel soon after. At 0455, not long before the tunnel was due to be shut, gunshots were heard, signifying the escapees had been caught. As the Germans searched each hut to find the source of the tunnel, the remaining prisoners attempted to burn their forged documents to conceal their identity as co-conspirators; it was only when a German guard crawled through the tunnel in reverse, that the entrance was found. A German inventory of the camp following the escape attempt revealed that 4,000 bed boards were missing, alongside 90 double bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 192 bed covers, 52 20-man tables, 10 single tables, 34 chairs, 76 benches, 1,219 knives, 478 spoors, 582 forks, 69 lamps, 30 shovels, 1,000 feet of electric wire, 600 feet of rope and 3,424, amongst other materials pilfered for use in digging the tunnels.
The consequences for those caught were to be brutal, unforgiving and insincere. 76 men had escaped through the tunnel during the breakout and of the remainder, those that were found waiting their turn were sent to the cooler – the camp name for the solitary confinement cells. Of those 76 men who escaped, three eventually made it home to the UK – Per Bergsland (shot down 19 August 1942 in a Spitfire Mk.V), Jens Muller (shot down 19 June 1942 in a Spitfire Mk.V) and Bram van der Stock (shot down July 1942, also flying a Spitfire Mk.V). 23 were recaptured and sent back to the camp. Adolf Hitler personally ordered the execution of the other 50 men. The commandant of Stalag Luft III, Lindeiner, was court-martialled by the Gestapo for not preventing the escape. ‘Big X’ was shot and killed by a Gestapo officer outside Saarbrucken, Germany.
Morale among the prisoners was low when the executions became common knowledge, and few were keen to attempt a further escape. Although only three men managed to reach safety and 50 men were murdered, the escape caused havoc among the Germans. Thousands of police, Hitler Youth members and soldiers were diverted from wartime duties to search for the escapees when a national alert was called. The accolades and determination of the select few who opted to be free of imprisonment garnered a huge amount of respect and admiration, their sheer dogged determination and will to fight for a better life even against all odds becoming the stuff of legend. Indeed, a 1963 film depicting the process of the operation was made which, ultimately, put the Great Escape in the limelight as it became one of the most popular war movies in history.
70 years on, the escape is still keenly remembered. On 24 March 2014, Bücker Bu181 Bestmann owner and pilot Will Greenwood flew his aircraft – the same type as depicted in the film The Great Escape and flown by James Gardner and Donald Pleasance, which crashes near the Swiss border having run out of fuel – in remembrance of those who lost their lives to gain freedom.
We’ll hear more from Will later in the week as he describes his Bestmann’s own ‘Great Escape’.