Thursday, March 23, 2006
The Great Escape, March 24, 1944
Today in 1944, 76 Allied prisoners-of-war escaped from Stalag Luft III, a German POW camp that housed captured airmen. Their bold action was the basis for the film “The Great Escape” and was the largest mass escape of Allied prisoners during the Second World War.
Stalag Luft III was actually the scene of two tunneling-type escapes during the war. The first took place in 1943. Since the men’s barracks were some distance from the camp’s perimeter fence, the POWs came up with the idea to start their tunnel out in the open, closer to the edge of their area. In order to disguise their activities, the men built a vaulting horse with enclosed sides large enough to hide two men inside. At the beginning of their exercise period, the POWs would carry the vaulting horse to the yard with the two diggers inside. Once they were placed over the spot, the diggers would uncover the hidden tunnel entrance and begin working. During this time, the men above would exercise using the vaulting horse as a means of distracting the guards. They disposed of the sandy earth removed from the tunnel by filling old socks and attaching them to the inside of their trouser legs. As the prisoners walked the exercise yard, the sand would trickle out unnoticed. Three men used the finished tunnel to escape the camp and make their way to neutral Sweden.
The second tunneling plan hatched at Stalag Luft III first took shape in early 1943. The idea called for three tunnels to be dug; they were code-named “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”. “Tom” began in a dark hall of one of the prison buildings. “Dick” started in a camp bathroom and “Harry”’s entrance could be found under a stove in one of the barracks. Since the Germans used perimeter microphones designed to detect the sounds of digging, the tunnels were dug more than 30 feet underground. They were barely large enough for a grown man to crawl through except for larger areas along their length which housed air pumps and staging areas. The walls of the tunnels were shored up using wood, mainly the boards that supported the POWs’ mattresses. So much sand was removed from the tunnels that the prisoners decided dumping it via the pant leg method was becoming too dangerous. The decision was taken to fill in “Dick”, since it was used mainly for storage.
All did not go according to plan. First, “Tom” was discovered, leaving “Harry” as the only usable tunnel. Second, all of the American prisoners were moved to another camp right before the tunnel was finished, meaning that they would have to come up with another escape plan somewhere else. Finally, the tunnel was finished while March’s moon was still bright, meaning that the escapees had to put off their plans for a week while they waited for a moonless night.
Friday, March 24th, 1944 was the night they had waited for. Although they did not know it until the first man breeched the tunnel exit, the tunnel was actually shorter than intended. Instead of ending in nearby woods, the tunnel ended in front of the tree line. Deciding that it was worth the added risk, 76 men crawled out of the tunnel and made their way towards freedom. The 77th man was caught coming out of the tunnel.
73 of the 76 escapees were captured. When Adolf Hitler received word of the escape, he was furious and wanted to have all of them shot. He was persuaded against this with a compromise: 50 of the men would be executed as an example to the others and the remaining 23 would be sent back to various POW camps. The execution of these men was in direct violation of the Geneva Convention. The German commandant of Stalag Luft III was so troubled by the execution of the prisoners that he allowed the remaining POWs to build a memorial which still stands.
The remaining three men made it to freedom; two went to neutral Sweden and the other made it all the way to Spain, where he turned himself in at the British consulate. Most of the Gestapo officers responsible for the POW executions were tried after the war and were either imprisoned or put to death.