The real WWII 'Great Escape': How 76 men escaped from Nazi captivity in Stalag Luft III

The real Great Escape
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In the dark hours of March 24, 1944, a daring and meticulously planned operation unfolded within the confines of Stalag Luft III, a German prisoner-of-war camp in Sagan, now modern-day Żagań, Poland.


Known as the "Great Escape," this audacious act involved 76 Allied airmen tunneling their way to freedom through a 336-foot-long underground passage.


While the escape itself was a feat of human ingenuity, courage, and collaboration, its aftermath was marred by tragedy, as 50 of the recaptured escapees were executed in violation of the Geneva Convention. 

The 'escape-proof' Stalag Luft III camp

Stalag Luft III, situated in Sagan, was a camp primarily for captured Allied airmen, many of whom were officers and considered high-risk prisoners by the Germans.


The camp was designed to be "escape-proof," with features such as seismographic microphones to detect underground activity and elevated huts to prevent tunneling.


Despite these measures, the prisoners, hailing from various countries including Britain, Canada, Australia, and Poland, were determined to break free.


They were driven not just by a desire for personal freedom, but also by a sense of duty to continue fighting the war in any way they could, even if that meant simply tying up German resources in the effort to recapture them.

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Who were the escapees?

Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, known as "Big X," was the mastermind behind the operation.


A Cambridge-educated barrister and a Royal Air Force pilot, Bushell was captured in 1940 and had made several escape attempts before being sent to Stalag Luft III.


His leadership and organizational skills were instrumental in coordinating the complex operation, which involved not just digging tunnels but also forging documents, creating disguises, and gathering intelligence.


Bushell was among the 50 escapees who were recaptured and executed, but his legacy lived on as a symbol of resistance and ingenuity.

Another pivotal figure was Harry "Wings" Day, a senior British officer and a veteran of both World Wars.


Day was responsible for the overall administration of the escape plan, ensuring that the various elements came together seamlessly.


His experience and calm demeanor provided much-needed stability and guidance throughout the planning and execution phases.


Bernard Scheidhauer, a French pilot, was one of the first to crawl through the tunnel on the night of the escape and was also among those executed upon recapture.


His participation highlighted the multinational nature of the effort, as prisoners from various Allied countries collaborated in the escape.

Herbert Massey, another senior British officer, played a key role in organizing the escape and was responsible for some of the diversions that helped keep the German guards distracted.


Richard Atcherley, the highest-ranking officer in the camp, was not directly involved in the escape but provided tacit approval and moral support for the endeavor.


Gordon King, the camp's medical officer, faced the difficult task of providing medical care under constrained conditions and played a role in certifying prisoners as fit for the escape.

Then there was Paul Brickhill, an Australian POW who did not participate in the escape due to his claustrophobia but later wrote the book "The Great Escape," which brought widespread attention to the story.


His account, based on firsthand interviews and observations, became the basis for the 1963 Hollywood film of the same name.

WWII prisoners of war in a German stalag
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How the escape plan was created

The clandestine group known as the "X Organization" was the nerve center of the Great Escape operation within Stalag Luft III.


Led by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, the X Organization was a highly structured and specialized unit, with various committees and subcommittees responsible for different aspects of the escape plan.


The organization was so named to signify the unknown variable in an equation, a fitting metaphor for a group whose activities had to remain a mystery to the German guards and authorities.


Comprising a mix of officers and enlisted men from various Allied countries, the X Organization operated under a strict code of secrecy and discipline to minimize the risk of discovery.

The organization was divided into several departments, each with its own specific responsibilities.


There were "tunnel kings," experts in engineering and excavation who oversaw the digging of the tunnels Tom, Dick, and Harry.


The "penguins" were responsible for dispersing the soil excavated from the tunnels, a task they accomplished through ingenious methods like secreting bags of dirt inside their trousers and releasing it during walks in the yard.


The "forgers" created fake identification papers, travel permits, and other documents that the escapees would need once outside the camp.


The "tailors," meanwhile, fashioned civilian clothes from blankets, uniforms, and other materials, so that escapees could blend in with the local population.


There were also "scroungers," who had the critical job of obtaining necessary materials, often through bartering or repurposing items found within the camp.

The X Organization also had an intelligence unit that gathered information on German troop movements, local geography, and public transportation schedules.


This information was crucial for planning the escape routes and providing the escapees with the best chance of evading capture.


The organization even had a security team, responsible for keeping an eye on potential informers and maintaining a system of lookouts to warn of approaching guards.

WWII prisoner escape documents
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Preparing for the big escape

The operation was so complex that it took over a year to bring it to fruition. The cornerstone of the plan was the construction of three tunnels, each starting from a different location within the camp to maximize the chances of at least one reaching completion without detection.


The tunnels were about two feet square and shored up with wooden boards scavenged from beds, buildings, and other available sources.


The engineering challenges were immense, including the need for ventilation, the disposal of tons of excavated soil, and the risk of tunnel collapses.


Ingenious solutions were devised, such as creating an air pump from empty milk tins and using candles for lighting.

The disposal of the excavated soil was another significant hurdle. The soil from the tunnels had a different color than the surface soil, making it easily noticeable if disposed of carelessly.


The "penguins," as they were called, employed a variety of methods to distribute the soil without arousing suspicion, including secreting it in their trousers and discreetly releasing it during walks in the prison yard.


They even went so far as to study the wind patterns to ensure the soil would be scattered without drawing attention.

Forgery was another critical aspect of the preparation. A team of "forgers" worked tirelessly to create the necessary identification papers, travel permits, and other documents that would be required once the prisoners were outside the camp.


They used materials like ink extracted from clothing, gelatin lifted from the soles of boots for erasers, and even homemade tools to replicate the rubber stamps used by German officials.


The "tailors" were responsible for creating civilian clothing that would allow the escapees to blend in once they were beyond the camp's fences.


They used a mix of stolen, bartered, and repurposed materials to craft convincing outfits.

"Go, go, go!" How the escape unfolded

The night of March 24, 1944, as darkness fell over Stalag Luft III, the escapees knew that the plan was fraught with risk, but the prospect of freedom and the chance to rejoin the fight against Nazi Germany outweighed the dangers.


The tunnel selected for the escape was "Harry," the only one of the three tunnels that had reached completion without being discovered by the German guards.


Measuring 336 feet in length and terminating just beyond the camp's perimeter fence, "Harry" was a marvel of covert engineering.

The escape began with a setback. The exit point of the tunnel was found to be short of the tree line, leaving escapees exposed to the watchtowers.


Despite this, the decision was made to proceed. One by one, the men crawled through the narrow, dimly lit tunnel, each carrying a small bag of provisions and forged documents.


The plan was for 200 men to escape, but the process was slower than anticipated.


The air inside the tunnel was stifling, and the effort of crawling through the confined space was physically exhausting.


Moreover, the escapees had to emerge one at a time, wait for a signal that the coast was clear, and then make a dash for the cover of the nearby woods.

By the time the guards discovered the escape the next morning, 76 men had made it out.


The alarm was sounded, and a massive manhunt was launched.

Escape from Stalag Luft III
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The manhunt for the escapees

The audacity of the escape was a slap in the face to the German military, and the ensuing manhunt was launched with a ferocity that reflected both the scale of the breakout and the authorities' desperation to recapture the escapees.


Thousands of German troops, police officers, and even Hitler Youth were mobilized for the search, which extended across a wide swath of territory.


Roadblocks were set up, train stations were monitored, and identity checks were carried out with increased rigor.


Wanted posters featuring sketches and descriptions of the escapees were distributed far and wide.

The escapees, for their part, employed a variety of tactics to evade capture. Some tried to blend in with the local population, using their forged documents to pose as foreign laborers or itinerant workers.


Others attempted to travel by night and hide by day, seeking refuge in barns, haystacks, or dense forests.


A few even tried to board trains, despite the heightened security, hoping that their forged papers would withstand scrutiny.


They were guided by rudimentary maps, handmade compasses, and, in some cases, the assistance of sympathetic locals who risked their own lives to help.

Despite these efforts, the vast majority of the escapees were recaptured within a short period.


The German authorities used dogs, informants, and aerial reconnaissance to locate the men, and many were caught due to bad luck, exhaustion, or the sheer impossibility of remaining undetected during such a large-scale manhunt. 

German guards hunting escaped prisoners
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The tragic punishments handed out for those caught

Of the 76 men who had dared to break free from Stalag Luft III, only three managed to reach the safety of neutral or Allied territory.


The rest were recaptured and faced a fate that was both cruel and illegal under international law.


Adolf Hitler, enraged by the audacity of the escape and the embarrassment it caused, ordered the execution of the escapees.


After some debate among his senior officers, who were concerned about violating the Geneva Convention, it was decided that 50 of the recaptured men would be shot.


This flagrant violation of the rules governing the treatment of prisoners of war was intended to serve as a deterrent to future escape attempts, but it also revealed the depths of brutality to which the Nazi regime was willing to sink.

The 50 men were not executed en masse but were instead taken in small groups to various locations to be shot, their bodies often left unceremoniously by the side of the road.


The killings were carried out in secrecy, and it was several months before the full extent of the tragedy came to light.


When news of the executions reached the remaining prisoners at Stalag Luft III and the wider world, the reaction was one of shock and outrage.


The killings were widely condemned as war crimes, a judgment that was later confirmed at post-war trials where several of the German officers involved were convicted and sentenced.

The legacy of the Great Escape extends far beyond the legal ramifications. The story has been immortalized in various forms of media, most notably in the 1950 book "The Great Escape" by Paul Brickhill, an Australian POW who was in Stalag Luft III at the time of the escape.


His account was later adapted into a 1963 Hollywood film starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough.


While the film took liberties with the facts for dramatic effect, its success ensured that the story reached a global audience.