10 Facts About the Real Great Escape | History Hit

10 Facts About the Real Great Escape

Cassie Pope

20 Mar 2019

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. 

Jack Kenneth Lyon was number 79 on the list of PoWs preparing to break out of Stalag Luft III in 1944. A Flight Lieutenant in the RAF during the war who was captured when his bomber crashed in Poland after a raid, he was on the brink of entering the ‘Harry’ tunnel when prisoners heard a gunshot and realised that the game was up.
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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.       

Roger Bushell (left) with a German guard and a fellow POW / www.pegasusarchive.org

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.  

Recently, Dan was lucky enough to meet Charles Clarke OBE, a prisoner in Stalag Luft III during World War Two who witnessed the audacious three-tunnel escape attempt now famously known as the Great Escape.
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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.  

Memorial to the 50 escapees killed after their recapture / Wiki commons

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 

Cassie Pope