The Great Escape

One of the things that fascinated me as a kid – from about fifth grade through high school, at least – was escapes from places like POW camps, concentration camps, and the like.

I’m not sure what fascinated me so much about them; perhaps because they were the ultimate “do-it-yourself” job; putting together the means and resolve to break out of a closely-guarded prison deep in the middle of hostile territory, with little on ones’ side in the way of materials or supplies – nothing, indeed, but the scraps around you and whatever your ingenuity could make of them.

I read many of these stories when I was a kid; Escape from Colditz by P.R. Reid, about the men who resolved to break out of the “escape-proof” Colditz Castle.  More fascinating still, Paul Williams’ The Wooden Horseone of the most improbable sounding ones of all; British prisoners at a camp in German/Polish Silesia built a wooden vaulting horse, which dozens of POWs used for daily exercise.

Scene from the British film version of “The Wooden Horse”. Yes, this happened.

Inside the horse were two men.  The other POWs carried the horse to the exact same spot in the middle of the compound every day, above a concealed trap door under the sandy topsoil.  The men inside dug first down, and then under the wire, every day for eight solid weeks on end – and then were carried, complete with their load of excavated sand, back to the barracks at the end of the shift.  Finally, the three men involved – Williams, Michael Codner and Oliver Philpot – completed the tunnel, and made their break.

Another scene from “Wooden Horse”. Not a matter for claustrophobics.

Incredibly, all three made it back to safety; Williams and Codner via Denmark and Sweden, and Philpot to Switzerland.

Perhaps it’s my trait of rooting for underdogs – but I’ve always been fascinated by these stories.

One thing that amazes some people – who know that most of what Hollywood peddles as “history” is utter BS – is that the movie The Great Escape, the early-sixties classic starring Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen and “based on a true story”, actually is not all that loosely based on a real escape.

And it happened seventy years ago tonight.

And in some ways, the story was more incredible than the movie could have portrayed.

During World War 2, the lot of the Prisoner of War is hard to explain to people whose entire frame of reference is the horror stories of the Vietnam and Korean wars, to say nothing of the Holocaust.  That was due to a curious throwback that still held general force during World War 2 – the idea of the “Laws of War”, ground rules that “civilized” powers agreed to abide by, even as they were making hamburger out of each other on (and, during WW2, hundreds of miles behind) the “battlefield”.

One of those laws; prisoners of war must be treated humanely and according to at least the broad outlines of military discipline.  The rules – spelled were clearly-cut; “prisoners of war” were members of organized national militaries, captured while on military operations at “the front” or – especially during the early years of World War 2 – after bailing out over enemy territory.   They couldn’t be killed (provided they’d “laid down their weapons”), held hostage, subjected to any indignities or extrajudicial punishments without due process of law, or subjected to excessive forced labor (enlisted prisoners could be compelled to some, non-excessive manual labor; officers were exempt).  Torture – or any especially aggressive efforts to get more than names, ranks and serial numbers from POWS – was right out (although POW interrogators were incredibly devious about getting information via permitted means).

The United States, the UK and Commonwealth, France, Poland and Germany had all signed the Geneva Conventions of 1864, 1906 and/or 1929; the Soviet Union had not.   Which led to one of World War 2’s more savage distinctions; Nazi Germany, among the greatest mass-murderers in history, was modestly scrupulous about observing the Geneva Convention’s rules with prisoners from the US, UK, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Greece (and to a lesser extent Poland) – in no small part, obviously, due to the fact that there were German POWs held in the UK, US and Canada.  The USSR (and Japan) never signed the Geneva Conventions; both treated POWs horribly.  The Germans returned the favor; those that weren’t murdered at the front (and didn’t volunteer for the various Nazi-sponsored anti-Soviet military units, like Vlasov’s Army) were shipped to labor, concentration and extermination camps.

But while the law forbade especially punitive treatment (and required the neutral Red Cross to inspect the camps for adherence to the Conventions), it didn’t mean that the life of the POW was a fun one.  Boredom prevailed (although the men became adept at entertaining themselves); for enlisted men, work was monotonous (although not especially taxing).  As the war dragged on, and food supplies in Germany and occupied territories got shorter and shorter, POWs’ rations shrank commensurately (the Geneva Convention ensured POWs rations 2/3 those of the captor nation’s own troops; great for Germans in the US, who frequently came home much healthier than they’d left; not so great for Americans and Brits, who often resembled concentration camp inmates by the end of the war).

To complicate things?  Troops were still members of the military, and expected to carry out the war effort to the best of their ability.  Escape, in particular, was seen as a means of disrupting the enemy’s war effort; every man who escaped from the camps, even if they failed, would tie up hundreds or thousands of German troops and police for the entire time they were at large.

But it wasn’t easy.


Stammlager-Luft III  (“Aircrew Camp 3”) was built near the town of Zagan, in western Poland.  Due to the vagaries of Nazi bureaucracy, each service was responsible for its own type of POWs – so the Luftwaffe (Air Force) was responsible for all captured airmen.  Officers (a disproportionate number of airmen) were kept in separate camps from enlisted men – so Stalag III was all air force officers.  Originally it included Americans – mostly survivors from the hundreds of US bombers being shot down over Europe – along with hundreds of British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African, Norwegian, Dutch, French and Greek pilots captured thus far in the war.

Stalag-Luft III, from one of its guard-towers.

The officers organized a vigorous “escape committee” early on.  Officers would review proposals for escapes, veto the dumb ones, and provide assistance – help with finding civilian clothing, forged ID papers, maps and other necessities – for the projects that got green lighted.

One was the “Wooden Horse” – one of the most successful attempts.  Others included men sneaking out in “honey carts” – horse-drawn tanks full of sewage pumped from the camp’s pit latrines (it didn’t work), attempts to scale or cut the wire fence (some worked, others ended with dead inmates), and many other permutations.

Most were unsuccesful.  Most led to a few weeks solitary confinement on bread and water, provided one wasn’t shot by guards before one could give up.

And most were stymied by the geography of the area.  Zagan is in a wide-open, flat part of Poland, with little in the way of natural cover for those attempting a break.  Worse, the soil is a kind of slimy yellow sand that exhibits almost no cohesion; it’s almost impossible to dig through.  How bad is it?  A few years ago, PBS’s “Nova” program did a hour-long feature on the escape.  They went to Zagan and tried to carry out an archaeological dig to find relics of the escape on the long-deserted camp site – and almost lost a bucket-loader when the walls of the pit caved in.

It was an incredible engineering achievement.


The “Escape Committee” plotted out the greatest mass-break ever attempted.  They launched three tunnels – code named “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”.  Their entrances were scrupulously camouflaged – under a stove, in a shower drain and the like.

They were driven thirty feet deep, to avoid problems of settling at the surface giving the tunnel away.  They were intended to be long – over 300 feet long, to reach the nearby scraggly woods and whatever cover they allowed.

A sketch of “Harry”, by British prisoner Ley Kenyon.

But digging a tunnel in that sand was like digging through wet oatmeal.  So the diggers had to shore up the tunnel continuously, using bedboards and other bits of wood scavenged from around the camp; beds that had been held up with 20 slats were left with half a dozen by the time of the escape.

They also had to fabricate a ventilation system – a pump made out of coats pushing air through ducts made out of condensed milk cans, which also provided the raw material from which the prisoners build scoops and all manner of other implements.  They also built a crude trolley system to haul people through the tunnels and haul sand out…

..which was where the complications began.  The sand came out of the ground looking yellow.  It took time in the sun to bake it to a dull gray – and until it did, it was clearly visible to the guards. The prisoners staged elaborate gardening and land-clearing jobs to cover the dumping of yellow sand – and even then, it was German surveillance of the sand-moving process that led to the discovery of “Tom”, in September of 1943.

The construction of an addition to the camp right over “Dick’s” planned entrance led to that tunnel being converted to a sand storage dump (and much recycling of wood and other parts) and hide for the forged papers, clothing, and travel rations that were being mass-produced undercover in the camp.

The Americans were transferred to a different camp in the spring of ’44 – leaving only officers from Britain, the Commonwealth, and some smaller nations.

And 70 years ago tonight, the escape went ahead.

The events themselves were complicated – I’ll refer you to the Nova and Wikipedia articles on the subject for all the details.

As it turned out, there’d been a miscalculation – after 300 feet of digging, “Harry” came up a few feet short of the woods.  Of 200 men queued up to make the break, only 76 made it out before the break was discovered.

Of those 76, only 3 made it to safety; two Norwegian Air Force pilots, Per Bergsland and Jens Müller, escaped to Sweden, while Dutch pilot Bram “Bob” Van Der Stok managed to get to neutral Spain and find a British consulate.

Hitler was outraged; he initially ordered not only all 73 recaptured prisoners executed, but also the camp’s commander, the designer, the security director and all the guards who’d been on duty that night.  His second in command, Hermann Göring, interceded, worried about reprisals against German POWs in the UK, Canada and the US.

But fifty of the prisoners were executed, shot in ones and twos, usually by surprise, by Gestapo agents.    The dead included 21 Brits, 6 each from Canada and Poland, 5 Australians, 3 South Africans, 2 each from Norway and New Zealander, and one each from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece and Lithuania.

The episode shows many things; the marvels of human ingenuity, the mindless brutality of Hitler…

…and the fractures, rivalries and internal divisions in the Nazi system.   Hermann Göring…was the good guy?   There was little love lost between the Luftwaffe (and less still with the Army and Navy) and the Gestapo;  the camp’s next commandant, Colonel Franz Braune, an old-school German officer who was horrifed at the executions, and who not only allowed the 1000-odd prisoners remaining in the camp to build a memorial at Zagan to the 50 dead, but contributed to it personally.

The memorial to the murdered airmen, near Zagan, Poland.

And Von Lindeiner, the commandant on whose watch the escape occurred?  After dodging a firing squad a Göring’s behest, he escaped a war crimes trial due to the impassioned testimony of…the surviving senior British officers from Zagan, who testified to his scrupulous adherence to the Geneva Convention on all matters under his control.

But after the war, 21 Gestapo agents were tried and executed for their roles in the murder of the 50 allied officers (and, generally, many others; Gestapo officers had all kinds of blood on their hands).   But, ironically, the highest-ranking official directly accused in the case, SS Gruppenführer Arthur Nebe, the man who picked the 50 prisoners to be murdered, was himself executed by the Gestapo as well – for his involvement in the “Bomb Plot” against Hitler.

But that was another Hollywood movie, Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie.


Speaking of movies?  For a Hollywood war movie of its era, The Great Escape, with Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough, is actually modestly realistic…

…except for anything involving Steve McQueen’s part.  There was no motorcycle chase in the Alps, no failed jump into the barbed wire, and no Americans involved whatsoever.

But otherwise, it wasn’t bad at all…


4 thoughts on “The Great Escape

  1. I did not realize that The Wooden Horse and The Great Escape were both about the same camp. I read The Wooden Horse sometime around fifth grade, which was also about the time The Great Escape movie came out. I think most fifth grade boys have fantasies about escaping from someplace and going off to have big adventures. It is only as we get a few years older that the more tragic aspects of such stories come into focus.

  2. Pingback: Hollywood Polishes The Cannonball | Shot in the Dark

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