Immortalised by the 1963 film, the ‘Great Escape’ from the POW camp Stalag Luft III is one of the most famous events of the Second World War.
Here are ten facts about this daring mission:
1. Stalag Luft III was a POW camp in modern day Poland run by the Luftwaffe
It was an officer-only camp located near Sagan (Zagan) that opened in 1942. The camp was subsequently expanded to take American Air Force prisoners.
2. The Great Escape was not the first escape attempt from Stalag Luft III
Many attempts had been made to dig tunnels out of the camp. In 1943, Oliver Philpot, Eric Williams and Michael Codner successfully escaped from Stalag Luft III by digging a tunnel under the perimeter fence concealed by a wooden vaulting horse. This event was portrayed in the 1950 film ‘The Wooden Horse’.
3. The Great Escape was conceived by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell
Bushell, a South African-born pilot, was captured after crash-landing in his Spitfire during the Dunkirk evacuation in May 1940. At Stalag Luft III he was placed in charge of the Escape Committee.
4. The Great Escape was unprecedented in scale
Bushell’s plan involved digging 3 trenches and envisaged breaking out more than 200 prisoners. More than twice that number actually worked on the tunnels.
5. Three tunnels were dug – Tom, Dick and Harry
Neither Tom or Dick were used in the escape; Tom was discovered by the guards, and Dick was merely used for storage.
The entrance to Harry, the tunnel used by the escapees, was hidden under a stove in Hut 104. The prisoners developed innovative ways of disposing of the waste sand using pouches concealed in their trousers and coats.
6. Bribed German guards provided supplies for the escape
Maps and documents were provided in exchange for cigarettes and chocolate. The forms were used to forge fake papers to help the escapees travel through Germany.
7. Not everyone involved was selected to join the escape
Only 200 places were available. Most places went to prisoners deemed the most likely to succeed, including those who spoke some German. Other places were decided by drawing lots.
8. The escape took place in the early hours of 25 March
76 prisoners escaped using tunnel Harry. The 77th man was spotted by guards, beginning a search for the tunnel entrance and the escapees.
9. Three escapees got away
Two Norwegian pilots, Per Bergsland and Jens Muller, and Dutch pilot Bram van der Stok succeeded in getting out of Germany. Bergsland and Muller made for Sweden, while van der Stok escaped to Spain.
The remaining 73 escapers were recaptured; 50 were executed. After the war, the events were investigated as part of the Nuremburg Trials, which resulted in the prosecution and execution of several Gestapo officers.
10. The camp was liberated by Soviet forces in 1945
Stalag Luft III was evacuated before their arrival however – 11,000 prisoners were forced to march 80km to Spremberg.