March 24, 1944: The Great Escape

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Seventy-five years ago today the Great Escape got underway.

For those of us of a certain age (I had just finished the third grade), the exploits of Steve McQueen in the film version of The Great Escape, gunning his motorcycle over those daunting fences standing between him and freedom, defined in large part our understanding of WWII. That is, the Americans, with some help from the Brits, always lead the way, and remain defiant to the end, win or lose.

Unfortunately, as with many Hollywood creations, it was mostly all made up. There were almost no Americans in Stalag Luft III in March 1944 (most having been moved to a POW camp of their own), and no American took part in the escape.

All of which is unfortunate, as the real story is heroic enough (even if not sufficiently American in origin). The plan was conceived by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell of the RAF, known to fellow prisoners as “Big X.” He proposed an escape scheme staggering in its scope, objectives and complexity. Big X set out in March 1943 to dig not one, but three, escape tunnels (appropriately dubbed Tom, Dick and Harry) to spring fully 200 prisoners in one massive breakout. Over 600 men in all would be involved in the effort, involving excavation, preparation of civilian clothing, forging of identity papers and travel documents, serving as lookouts, etc.  The idea behind multiple tunnels, even though it tripled the exertions required, was quite clever. If one tunnel was discovered, the Germans would conclude that POW efforts had been seriously set back, while in reality the Allies would have suffered little to no setback at all.

The tunnels were dug about 30 feet below the surface to hide the noise and prevent cave-ins in the sandy soil. Shoring the tunnel walls (the tunnel itself was about two feet square) was accomplished using bed slats and other cast-off wood. [Following the escape German authorities took a detailed inventory in the camp and discovered that 4,000 slats were missing, as were 1,700 blankets, 3,400 towels, countless utensils and other items.] The escape entrances were cleverly disguised, an ingenious trolley system was rigged up to speed the workers to the excavation site and speed the withdrawal of sand—almost 200 tons worth. An equally ingenious means of disbursing the surplus sand was also devised. At first POWs were recruited to carry dirt in false sleeves inside their pants legs which could be opened via their pockets, scattering debris onto the ground. When suspicions were aroused, and when winter snow rendered the ground white, other places and methods were employed. Primitive bellows (to keep the tunnels filled with oxygen) and lighting hooked up to the camp’s electricity source completed the scene.

Outline of escape tunnel “Harry”

All of this massive work was so cleverly conceived and staged that the Germans, aware that something was afoot and increasing their own vigilance, nevertheless could not discover the existence of the tunnels. Surprisingly, while camp authorities redoubled their efforts to thwart any escape attempt, ordinary German guards proved susceptible to bribes of chocolate, coffee and cigarettes (which the POWs received from the Red Cross), for which they gladly provided rail schedules, official documents (from which forgeries could be made), and other needed items.

Eventually “Tom” was discovered, and “Dick” abandoned. All hopes rested on “Harry.”

The original plan called for a breakout in the summer of 1944 to take advantage of the longer daylight and better weather. Ever increasing watchfulness by camp authorities, however, necessitated a sped-up timetable, and the next moonless night fell on March 24.

Despite all the meticulous planning, all did not go so well. The start time was crucially delayed for over an hour when bitterly cold temperatures froze the exit trap door. More seriously, it was discovered that the 335 ft. tunnel did not exit into the safety of the nearby woods as planned, but fell just short of the tree line, and close by a guard tower. This slowed the rate of escape from sixty men per hour to only ten per hour.

Seventy-six men successfully exited Harry before a sentry noticed the seventy-seventh man, around 5:00am, and raised the alarm. Thus, while brilliantly planned, the net result of the thousands of man-hours of effort was a complete bust. Of the seventy-six escapees, seventy-three were ultimately rounded up, of whom fifty—including Big X—were executed. The dead represented thirteen nationalities. Of the remaining twenty-three, seventeen were returned to Stalag Luft III, four were sent to Sachsenhausen, Odd Nansen’s abode at the time (where they again escaped via a tunnel, and were again recaptured), and two were sent to Colditz Castle. [After the war the murder of the fifty POWs was included in the war crimes indictment at the Nuremberg Trials, and several members of the Gestapo, including the killer of Bushell, Emil Schulz, were tried and executed.]

Great Escape Memorial By CSvBibra – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2742057.

The three successful escapees were Bram van der Stok a Dutch flyer (No. 41 Squadron RAF), and two Norwegian pilots: Per Bergsland (No. 332 Squadron RAF) and Jens Muller (No. 331 Squadron RAF). Muller wrote a memoir of his exploits in 1946 under the title Tre kom tilbake (Three Returned). It has just been translated into English for the first time and published as The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III (Naval Institute Press, 2019).

The last surviving participant in the breakout, Dick Churchill (no relation to Winston) passed away little more than a month ago, on February 12. He was 99.

Despite the frightening cost, Churchill felt until the end of his life that the venture had been worthwhile. In an interview with the BBC, he observed: “You fell into a certain category. Were you going to sit and enjoy the very few delights of a barbed wire prison camp until you were rescued, or were you going to try and get out of the place? You could be a quiet person, do nothing much, above all don’t annoy the Germans or the Gestapo, or you can try and do the opposite and feel better as a result of doing it.”

Dick Churchill

RIP Squadron Leader Churchill, as you join the seventy-five other escaped POWs who preceded you—some  at the hands of a firing squad—and the many, many others who toiled for so long in obscurity to make your valiant effort a reality.

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