March 2, 1942  The Great Escape

For POWs of officer rank, escape was the first duty.

Stalag Luft III was a German POW camp in the province of Lower Silesia, built to house captured Allied airmen.  The first “Kriegsgefangene” (POWs), arrived on March 21, 1942. The facility would grow to include 10,949 “kriegies”, comprising some 2,500 Royal Air force officers, 7,500 United States Army Air officers, and about 900 from other Allied air forces.

Barracks were built on pilings to discourage tunneling, creating 24” of open space beneath the buildings. Seismic listening devices were placed around the camp’s perimeter. In the German mind, the place was the next best thing, to airtight.

Kriegies didn’t see it that way, three of whom concocted a gymnastic vaulting horse out of wood from Red Cross packages.

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A Trojan horse was more like it. Every day, the horse would be lugged out to the perimeter. Above ground, prisoners’ gymnastic exercises masked the sound while underground, kriegies dug with bowls into the sand, using the horse itself to hide diggers, excavated soil and tools alike.  Iron rods were used to poke air holes to the surface.

Every evening for three months, plywood was placed back over the hole, and covered with the gray-brown dust of the prison yard.

On October 19, 1943, the three British officers made their escape.  Lieutenant Michael Codner and Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams reached the port of Stettin in the West Pomeranian capital of Poland, where they stowed away on a Danish ship. Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot boarded a train to Danzig, and stowed away on a ship bound for neutral Sweden. Eventually, all three made it back to England.

RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell was shot down and forced to crash land on his first engagement in May 1940, but not before taking two Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters with him. Taken to the Dulag Luft near Frankfurt, Bushell formed an escape committee along with Fleet Air Arm pilot Jimmy Buckley, and Wing Commander Harry Day.

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Roger Bushell, (right), the Cambridge-educated son of British parents, was born and brought up in South Africa. Bushell was the inspiration for the film character “Bartlett”, played by Richard Attenborough

For POWs of officer rank, escape was the first duty. Roger Bushell escaped twice and almost made it, but each time his luck deserted him. By October, Bushell found himself in the north compound of Stalag Luft III, where British officers were held.

By the following spring, Bushell had concocted the most audacious escape plot in the history of World War Two. “Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time”, he said. “By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun… In North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick and Harry. One will succeed!”

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The effort was unprecedented. Previous escape attempts had never involved more than twenty individuals. Bushell, soon to be known by the code name “Big X” was proposing to get out with two hundred.

Civilian clothes had to be fashioned for every man.  Identification and travel documents forged. “Tom” began in a darkened hallway corner. “Harry’s entrance was hidden under a stove, “Dick”‘s entrance was concealed in a drainage sump.

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The Red Cross distributed high calorie, dehydrated whole-milk powder called “Klim” (“Spell it backwards”) throughout German POW camps. Klim tins were fashioned into tools, candle holders and vent stacks.  Fat was skimmed off soups and molded into candles, using threads from old clothing for wicks.

Of fifteen hundred prisoners in the compound, six hundred were involved in the attempt.  200 “penguins” made 25,000 trips into the prison yard, sacks sewn from the legs of long underpants, disposing of soil.  The tunnels were some kind of engineering marvel.  30′ down to avoid seismic detection equipment, and only two-feet square, the three tunnels extended outward for the length of a football field and more.

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Prisoners rigged an electric lighting system and shored up the tunnel sides, using bedboards

Penguins were running out of places to put all that soil, around the time the camp was expanded to include “Dick’s” planned exit-point.  From that time forward, “Dick” was refilled from the other two.  “Tom” was discovered in September 1943, the 98th tunnel in the camp to be found out.

Flight Lieutenant Nathaniel Flekser reflected on his own experience: “How lucky I really was dawned on me when I later met RAF prisoners who were shot down while on bombing missions over Germany. They were attacked by angry civilians, brutally interrogated by the Gestapo, and packed into cattle cars. One crew was thrown into a furnace.” H/T warfarehistory.com

The escape was planned for the good weather of summer, but a Gestapo visit changed the timetable.  “Harry” was ready by March.   The “Great Escape” was scheduled for the next moonless night.  March 24-25, 1944.

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German soldier demonstrates trolley system used to transport soil for dispersal

Contrary to the Hollywood movie, no Americans were involved in the escape.  At that point, none were left in camp.

The great escape was doomed, nearly from the start.  First the door was frozen shut, then a partial collapse required repair.  The exit came up short of the tree line, further slowing the escape.  When guards spotted #77 coming out of the ground, it was all over.

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German crawls out of tunnel entrance, following discovery

German authorities were apoplectic on learning the scope of the project.  90 complete bunk beds had disappeared, along with 635 mattresses.  52 twenty-man tables were missing, as were 4,000 bed boards and an endless list of other objects. For the rest of the war, each bed was issued with only nine boards, and those were counted, regularly.

Gestapo members executed German workers who had not reported the disappearance of electrical wire.

In the end, only three of the 76 made it to freedom:  Norwegians Per Bergsland and Jens Muller made it back to England via Sweden.  Dutch pilot Bram van der Stok made it to Gibraltar.   Hitler personally ordered the execution of the other 73, 50 of which were actually carried out.

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General Arthur Nebe is believed to have personally selected the 50 for execution.  They were 22 Brits (including Bushell), 6 Canadians, 6 Poles, 4 Australians, 3 South Africans, 2 Norwegians, 2 New Zealanders, and one man each from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, and Lithuania.  All but seven were RAF airmen.

Nebe himself was later implicated in the July 20 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and executed on this day in 1945.  Roger “Big X” Bushell and his partner Bernard Scheidhauer were caught while awaiting a train at the Saarbrücken railway station.  They were murdered by members of the Gestapo on March 29, who were themselves tried and executed for war crimes, after the German surrender.

Dick Churchill
Dick Churchill, last surviving veteran of the “Great Escape”, died on February 12, 2019.

New camp Kommandant Oberst Franz Braune was horrified that so many escapees had been shot. Braune allowed those kriegies who remained to build a memorial, to which he personally contributed. Stalag Luft III is gone today, but that stone memorial to “The Fifty”, still stands.

Dick Churchill was an HP.52 bomber pilot and RAF Squadron Leader.  One of the 76 who escaped, Churchill was recaptured three days later, hiding in a hay loft.  In a 2014 interview, Churchill said he was fairly certain he’d been spared execution, because his captors thought he might be related to Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The last surviving veteran of the daring escape which inspired the 1963 movie died at his home near Crediton, Devon, England, on February 12.  Five weeks ago.  Dick Churchill was ninety-nine years old.

 

A Trivial Matter
Rumors that Stalag Luft III’s American POWs were to be moved to another compound sped up work on Tom, raising German suspicions and leading to the tunnel’s discovery in September 1943. The tunnel was blown up using dynamite, causing a nearby guard tower to sink into the hole. The discovery was bad news for the Kriegies, but no end of amusement from watching how much work went into rebuilding that tower.
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