“The Great Escape” in 1944 – the story of incredible bravery

March 24, 2021

On the night 24/25 March 1944, 76 Allied Prisoners of War crawled through a narrow tunnel and staged the largest attempted escape from a prison camp in World War II. Stalag III close to Sagan, Poland, housed prisoners the Germans considered the ‘greatest flight risk.’ As a result, the huts were elevated and seismograph microphones helped in the prevention of the digging of tunnels, but this did little to deter the men from their escape attempts.

The brain behind the ‘Great Escape’ was Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, known as ‘Big X,’ and his plans for the tunnels began in spring 1943. Three ‘bloody big’ tunnels were to be dug with the code names Tom, Dick and Harry in order to get 200 men out. The word ’tunnel’ was never to be uttered, but from the three tunnels dug, one should succeed.

Roger Bushell’s grave. Commonwealth Cemetery Poznan / Cmentarz Wojenny Wspólnoty Brytyjskiej in Poznań. Picture: T. Wiśniewski

Tom went out from under Hut 123, Dick was under the shower room in Hut 122 and Harry was under the stove in Hut 104. Over 600 prisoners were involved in some aspect of the escape. Dick was deemed unsafe and abandoned, and Dick was discovered by the German guards in September 1943.

Stalag Luft III in Sagan. Picture: Public domain

A year in construction, Harry went down 30 feet, was 2 foot wide and dug 336 feet long to bring them out in the woodland that surrounded the camp. 4000 wooden boards shored up the tunnel, complete with air pumps, electrics and a trolley pulley system. Junctions within the tunnel were named Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Sqaure. The 100 tons of soil dug out was distributed about the camp by ‘Penguins’, crew with the dirt hidden down their trousers.

Diagram of Harry tunnel of Great Escape. Public domain

The inventory was substantial including 4000 bed boards, 52 tables, 34 chairs and 76 benches were used to make tunnel walls and ladders. 635 mattresses, 192 bed covers and 161 pillows cases were used to muffle the sounds. 1219 knives, 478 spoons, 582 forks and 1400 powdered milk cans were used for digging. 1000 foot of electrical wire provided the lighting.

German uniforms and civilian clothes were produced along with maps, fake ID papers, travel and work permits. Photographs for these were taken with a camera bribed from German guards.

Commonwealth Cemetery Poznan/ Cmentarz Wojenny Wspólnoty Brytyjskiej in Poznań. Picture: T. Wiśniewski

It was the coldest winter in Poland for 30 years and it took an hour and a half to open the hatch that had frozen shut. It was then that they discovered the tunnel was in open ground, not beyond the treeline. Once the guards were furthest from the opening, each prisoner awaited a tug on a rope ascended the ladder, crawled over the snow-covered open ground and disappeared into the woods. One man every six minutes. 76 men escaped and scattered in various directions in their bid to evade capture.

After the escape the Gestapo took overthe camp and the Commandant Freidrich Wilhelm Von Lindeiner-Windall was removed and the search for those that had escaped began. Two weeks later 73 had been caught. Of those recaptured, 50 were executed on the orders of Hitler. Many were shot by the side of the road. The 23 survivors were sent to various camps. A Dutchman evaded and escaped through Europe and Gibraltar before making his way back to the UK, and being part of Operation Overlord. Two Norwegians were smuggled into Sweden.

The new Commandant of theStalag III, Oberst Werner Braune allowed for a memorial to be erected by the prisoners.

Memorial stone marking the end of Harry Tunnel. The Polish language inscription reads: “To the Allied airmen, prisoners of STALAG LUFT III, participants in the GREAT ESCAPE. Żagań 2004”. Picture: Twitter @WBH (Wojskowe Biuro Historyczne)

The Germans evacuated the camp as Soviet Forces approached, sending the prisoners on the ‘Long March.’ Stalag III was liberated in 1945, and 18 Nazi soldiers were found guilty of war crimes, with 13 being executed.

GREAT ESCAPE LOSSES ON THE IBCC WALLS OF REMEMBRANCE:

  • FLIGHT LIEUTENANT L.G. ‘JOHNNY’ BULL IBCC PANEL 138
  • FLIGHT LIEUTENANT MICHAEL CASEY IBCC PANEL 142
  • FLIGHT OFFICER DENNIS COCHRAN IBCC PANEL 21
  • SQUADRON LEADER IAN CROSS IBCC PANEL 25
  • FLIGHT LIEUTENANT BRIAN EVANS IBCC PANEL 33
  • FLIGHT LIEUTENANT WILLIAM GRISMAN IBCC PANEL 174
  • FLIGHT LIEUTENANT EDGAR HUMPHREYS IBCC PANEL 186
  • FLYING OFFICER GORDON KIDDER RCAF IBCC PANEL 194
  • FLYING OFFICER WLODZIMIERZ KOLANOWSKI POLISH AIR FORCE IBCC PANEL 60
  • SQUADRON LEADER THOMAS KIRBY-GREEN IBCC PANEL 194
  • FLIGHT LIEUTENANT ANTONI KIEWNARSKI POLISH AIR FORCE IBCC PANEL 59
  • FLIGHT LIEUTENANT PATRICK LANGFORD RCAF IBCC PANEL 61
  • FLIGHT LIEUTENANT TOM LEIGH AUSTRALIAN IBCC PANEL 198
  • FLIGHT LIEUTENANT JAMES L.R. LONG IBCC PANEL 200
  • FLIGHT LIEUTENANT GEORGE MCGILL RCAF IBCC PANEL 71
  • FLIGHT LIEUTENANT HAROLD MILFORD IBCC PANEL 212
  • FLIGHT OFFICER JERZY MONDSCHIEN POLISH AIR FORCE IBCC PANEL 213
  • FLIGHT OFFICER KAZIMIERZ PAWLUK POLISH AIR FORCE IBCC PANEL 224
  • FLIGHT OFFICER POROKURU POHE RNZAF IBCC PANEL 227
  • FLIGHT OFFICER ROBERT STEWART IBCC PANEL 248
  • FLIGHT OFFICER JOHN STOWER IBCC PANEL 102
  • FLIGHT OFFICER DENYS STREET IBCC PANEL 103
  • FLIGHT LIEUTENANT CYRIL SWAIN IBCC PANEL 250
  • FLIGHT OFFICER PAWEL TOBOLSKI POLISH AIR FORCE IBCC PANEL 107
  • FLIGHT LIEUTENANT ARNOST VALENTA CZECHOSLOVAK IBCC PANEL 257
  • FLIGHT LIEUTENANT GILBERT WALENN IBCC PANEL 110
  • FLIGHT LIEUTENANT JAMES WERNHAM RCAF IBCC PANEL 262
  • FLIGHT LIEUTENANT JOHN F. WILLIAMS IBCC PANEL 265

A further 24 were executed by the Gestapo including Squadron Leader Roger Bushell who was captured just 20 miles from the French border. 20 British, 6 Canadian, 6 Polish, 5 Australian, 3 South African, 2 New Zealand, 2 Norwegian, and 1 from Argentina, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece and Lithuania were killed. Twenty-three prisoners were returned the camp.

Memorial to “The Fifty” Allied airmen executed after the “Great Escape”. Public domain

Three men managed to make ‘home-runs’, Sergeant Per Bergsland, Second Lieutenant Jens Mϋller, both Norwegians serving with the Royal Air Force and Flight Lieutenant Bram ‘Bob’ van der Stok, from Holland serving with the Royal Air Force.

Source: International Bomber Command Centre

Pictures: International Bomber Command Centre, Wojskowe Biuro Historyczne, Tomasz Wiśniewski

 

 

 

 

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