World War Two: The Escape Factory
The Great Escape
It is surely one of the most famous and heroic tales of the second world war, a group of Allied P.O.W's digging a series of tunnels, nine metres underground. The tale of The Great Escape has been told many times over, achieved legendary status through books and a Hollywood movie, but each narrative has been incomplete.
There was an intrepid body of people secretly aiding the prisoners however, a daring network of covert secret agents transmitting clandestine communications and now nearly 70 years later, the secrets of The Great Escape can finally be revealed.
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An Invisible Helping Hand
At a former military facility at Fort Hunt, Virginia in the United States, formerly known as Military Intelligence Service - Department X or MIS-X, the story of the most closely guarded secrets of World War Two begins.
Today nothing remains of the base, yet for the final years of the second world war, this place was the source that maintained contact with prisoners of more than 60 German p.o.w camps, including those at Stalag Luft 3, the site of the Great Escape.
MIS-X had two primary objectives, firstly, to assist p.o.w's in their efforts to escape, by supplying them with maps, forged documents, money, compasses and even cameras were smuggled into p.o.w camps.
Secondly they trained prisoners to become spies behind enemy lines, through covert missions and secret communications, they enabled the prisoners at Stalag Luft 3 to support the Allies in ways the Germans could never imagine.
Members of MIS-X were sworn never to expose anything regarding the top secret organisation or it's operations. This was a silence directed by the regulations of war, the Geneva Convention laid out the protection guaranteed to prisoners of war. It states that p.o.w's are no longer part of the fight, but are protected individuals. The MIS-X organisation's activities jeopardised that status, by turning a small number of p.o.w's into spies, behind enemy German lines.
A Great Personal Danger
By re-entering the fight, prisoners were bringing upon themselves an enormous personal danger. It was abundantly clear to them that they could be lawfully charged with espionage, which could result in them being executed.
MIS-X instructers were sent to England to teach secret codes to American airmen and officers who might find themselves shot down and subsequently captured by the Germans. The organisation aimed to help these downed pilots to escape, but also to become intelligence assets. With a means of covert communications, captured pilots could still assist in the Allies war effort by reporting what they saw and heard.
Captured Allied airmen had to endure long journeys deep into Germany, Hitler had personally ordered that all prisoner of war camps be built a minimum of 1,000 miles away from the western front, making successful escapes almost impossible.
Stalag Luft III
The most secure of these camps was at Sagan in Poland, near to the Polish/German border, this camp was known as Stalag Luft III.
The Geneva Convention's laws allowed prisoners to send 3 letters and 4 postcards each month. This was the opening that MIS-X intended to exploit, coded letters and postcards were sent to Fort Hunt (via another address) and then back to the camp at Sagan. The coded responses gave the prisoners the much needed lift they craved and filled them with the beleif that the Allies were turning the tide of the war in their favour, and this hope led to constructive thinking.
The U.S. military was encouraging these p.o.w's to devise ways of getting out of the camps, and for good reason. Every German soldier assigned to hunting down escaped prisoners, meant one less soldier fighting the Allies on the frontlines. Nearly 1.5 million Germans were involved in internal security, nearly one tenth of the entire German Army. Supported by MIS-X, the p.o.w's had rejoined the struggle.
By early 1943, the prisoners of Stalag Luft III had began a most daring mission, endeavouring to dig their way to freedom. Their ambitious plan was to get as many as 250 prisoners out of the camp to wreak havoc on the German state. If successful, it would be the largest mass escape of the second world war.
The Barbed Wire Front
Volunteers were quickly sought to assist in the digging of the tunnels and the communications to MIS-X requesting their help. Inside the camp, the Allied prisoners assisted with the covert operations, but they soon realised that tunneling through the loose earth was a precarious task.
Behind the scenes, the top secret organisation of the U.S. military intelligence was assisting them. This secretive programme was started by Britain as it faced the prospect of a humiliating defeat.
Back in 1940 at Dunkirk, the British Army encountered it's darkest hour, when 50,000 men became prisoners of war.
To help the men escape, British Intelligence formed a top secret division known as MI9.
Modelled on MI9, in October 1942, MIS-X had been formed to help the American p.o.w's and the U.S. and Britain had decided that prisoners would be used as spies along what they called "The Barbed Wire Front".
MIS-X had previously informed senior officers to interrogate new prisoners and send back reports.
Every new man who came into the camp had probably seen notable and significant things during his train journey across Germany and so was debriefed on his arrival.
A team had been set up inside Stalag Luft III to compose the coded messages being sent back to Fort Hunt.
They were a select group of college graduates who were kept in the same room away from the other prisoners.
Letters and Codes a plenty!
The letters had a long journey to make, initially to Switzerland, Spain and then finally on to the U.S. sorting office in New York. Mail sorters then selected the letters bearing the names of certain individuals.
These letters were then to be flown down to Bolling Air Force Base just outside Washington, and from there they were delivered by hand to MIS-X at Fort Hunt.
One of these coded messages in particular, gave the detailed intelligence on a German munitions factory. MIS-X confirmed that it was coded, because the prisoner had written the date at the top left of the page in numerals. Then, by multiplying the number of letters in the first two words MIS-X would know the length of the coded message. i.e: How good = 3 x 4 = 12 words in coded message.
By alternately counting five words and then six, they extracted the coded information that, on this particular occasion read: "underground factory two miles north of camp near the train station".
The letter was then sent on to the original addressie who would have no idea it contained a coded message or that it had passed through one of the country's most secrertive agencies.
Making The Intel Count
Within the camp however, the German guards themselves were the best source of intelligence. MIS-X had instructed the p.o.w's to befriend their captors and any slightest piece of information was passed on to the code writers, including the location of an Officer School on the outskirts of Frankfurt.
This target's intel was then passed on to bomber groups in England who carried out a raid and destroyed the facility. The prisoners also sent back information on German troop movements, intelligence on new German weapons systems and also informed MIS-X of a design flaw on the escape hatch of the B-17 bomber.
Some individuals who had somehow managed to escape from the camp, sent eyewitness accounts to MIS-X after they had been recaptured. All this information was vital to the Allied war effort. It was now MIS-X's turn to help out the men on the "Barbed Wire Front".
The Germans issued prisoners with little more than starvation rations, so food parcels shipped by the International Red Cross proved essential. On average, one parcel per man, per week was provided, but they too, soon became inadequate.
As the number of p.o.w's grew into the tens of thousands, the Red Cross simply could not cope. So, MIS-X stepped in and formed two fake aid societies and used them as cover to ship food to the near starving prisoners.
There was another motive to this endeavour however....bribery of the German guards. individual escape attempts from the camp at Sagan had become common, but the "Great Escape" was designed to spring 250 men in one night and three tunnels were now under construction....Tom, Dick and Harry.
Tom, Dick and Harry
Initially, tunnel "Tom" offered the best chance of escape, because of it's proximity to the surrounding forest. Only a few prisoners amongst the 10,000 at the camp, knew the locations of the three tunnels.
Each of these required digging down 9 metres and tens of metres across. The entrances of these underground passages were masterpieces of deception. Tunnel "Dick" was even concealed beneath a shower drain in the floor of Hut 122.
By the late summer of 1943, the "Great Escape" was all going to plan, but then, the Americans received some bad news. Because of their rapidly growing numbers, they would soon be moved to their own compound. At least one of the tunnels would have to be finished rapidly or the Americans' chances of escape would be doomed. The prisoners were now digging for their lives and it became a race against time.
The tunnel might get them out, but without help they would still be 1,000 miles behind enemy lines. A desperate appeal to MIS-X was dispatched and helping the p.o.w's to escape became an obsession for the secret organisation at Fort Hunt.
Under the Geneva Convention, prisoners were allowed recreational packages from home and this would be an ideal opportunity to smuggle contraband into the camp. With less than a month until the shipment of items were to be sent to the camp, the team at Fort Hunt were continually pressed to think creatively.
They secreted compasses, money, forged documents and maps inside chess boards, chess pieces, buttons, torches, table tennis bats, shoe brushes, board games, beneath chocolate bar wrappers, inside tins of food and inside playing cards. The packages were taken to Baltimore to avoid a Washington postmark and the p.o.w's at Stalag Luft III were notified by coded letter that help was on it's way.
Getting The Packages Through
At Stalag Luft III, the packages loaded with contraband started to arrive at a hut outside the compound. The German guards were supposed to search these packages carefully., but they had become accustomed to the American's hospitality and were diverted in their searching of the packages with the offer of fresh coffee and chocolate from the prisoners.
Opening the loaded packages required special vigilance by the p.o.w's, they observed every German officer moving around the camp. They used an early warning system of lookouts called "Stooges" to alert each other of the presence of any guards and watching the Germans was their only job in the camp.
Above all else, the prisoners required German money, both to bribe the guards with and to survive outside the camp once they had escaped. The team at Fort Hunt had counterfeited thousands of German Reichmarks and hid them inside the packages.
Cameras were another essential item as they gave up-to-date photographs that could be used on forged identification papers and travel passes. Moving through Germany and Poland was impossible without proper identification and all bridges and roads were patrolled by German sentries and no town or village was safe from prying eyes.
It took nearly three months for a coded message to get back to MIS-X to inform them that the first loaded packages had made it safely through to the prisoners at Stalag Luft III, and the team at Fort Hunt were jubilant at the news.
A Little Help From London
This gave them the confidence to continue their work, but the length of time it took to correspond with the camp remained a concern. MIS-X needed to communicate with camp directly. This meant a remarkable feat of invention and the cooperation of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
The town of Sagan in Poland still honours the memory of the Great Escape, over 65 years ago, it's isolated location hampered Washington's efforts to assist the p.o.w's and in London, British Intelligence faced the same dilemma, but then the BBC joined the effort.
They broadcasted coded messages into their news bulletins that reached as far away as Poland, now the problem was how to get secret radios to the p.o.w's inside the camp and master carpenters set to work. They transformed a Cribbage peg board into a working radio and it was capable of receiving the BBC bulletins from London.
A crystal radio was hidden inside the board and nails placed in certain holes allowed the set to pick up the BBC's long wave programmes, the codemasters did the rest.
By the summer of 1943, the radios started arriving at the camp and a man was immediately assigned to listen to every word. The BBC began each coded message with the sound of a bell and the assigned p.o.w would write down each word, i.e: a syllable, a dot, 2 syllables, a dash and the BBC were talking to the prisoner directly in Morse Code.
The broadcasts provided a reassuring voice amidst the uncertainty of war. By now, tunnel "Tom" extended 16 metres toward the surrounding forest and freedom. One tonne of sandy earth was generated for each metre of tunnel and by September 1943, there was only 9 metres to go.
The Discovery Of Tom
A constant threat came from the guards responsible for uncovering any escape activity, these were known as the "Ferrets". Every single one of these was observed by the p.o.w's continuously and if they got within a certain proximity, the tunnel would be closed up and sometimes this was a race against time, one in which the Americans ultimately lost.
The Germans managed to discover tunnel "Tom" and one week later the American prisoners were marched out of the compound to their new quarters.
This left the unfinished "Dick" and "Harry" tunnels and for the remaining Allied officers, "Harry" offered the best chance of escape, six months after the Americans had left the camp, the tunnel was finished.
March 24th, 1944
Inside Stalag Luft III, more than 200 prisoners were poised to end their stay of captivity. the first British prisoner, Johnny Bull, breached the tunnel at 10:30pm, but was alarmed to discover that the tunnel was short of the safety of the forest's trees. Not only that, but the tunnel exit was only 30 metres away from a German watchtower.
This slowed up the breakout considerably and by 04:50am, only 76 prisoners had successfully achieved their eacape. The 77th man came out of the tunnel right at the feet of a German guard and the Great Escape was over. Within a week, all but 3 of the escaped prisoners had been recaptured.
But making it home wasn't the only measure of success, as 1.5 million Germans had to be mobilised to hunt for the escapees. Hitler's war plans had been significantly undermined and he decreed personally that 50 of the escapees were to be shot. The Nazis explained this away by claiming that the 50 men had been "shot whilst trying to escape" and this provoked a stern reaction from the British officers toward the camp kommandant.
What followed was an astonishing act of regret, the German kommandant was appauled at this act of Nazi brutality and he amazingly allowed prisoners out of the camp compound, so that they could build a monument to their fallen comrades.
The Great Escape ended tragically, but it strengthened the resolve of the Americans that remained at the camp. There numbers had grown to more than 7,000 and they had no intention of giving up the fight.
Escape Is No Longer A Sport!
The new German decree stated that "Escape Is No Longer A Sport", the Gestapo started arriving at the camp and pushing people around. Everything started to get ugly and prisoners were now being shot.
Across Europe, the Germans sense of urgency resulted from a dramatic shift in their fortunes in the war. The Russians had overrun the German Army in the east and Hitler's forces were now in retreat. the Soviet Army had it's sights firmly set on Berlin.
In England, the Allies prepared the largest amphibious invasion in the history of warfare . On the 6th June 1944, D-Day, more than 150,000 Allied troops on more than 5,000 ships attacked five heavily defended beaces at Normandy in Northern France.
Fear Of Reprisals
Thanks to MIS-X, the news of the D-Day landings could be heard within Stalag Luft III at Sagan. But for the prisoners, the likelyhood of a German defeat brought about new fears...how would the Nazis react towards them.
The escape committee sent an avalanche of requests to MIS-X and the team at Fort Hunt took advantage of the rules of the Geneva Convention allowing family members to send much larger packages. These initially contained surplus clothing, but after the Germans had become lulled into a false sense of security, the packages became stuffed with contraband.
By the end of 1944, the prisoners were starting to look beyond the war, to the day of reckoning. Huge accumulations of photographs taken by smuggled in cameras, were later used as evidence at the Nuremberg War Trials after the end of World War 2.
As the Allies closed in from the east, German troops around Stalag Luft III, reinforced their position. The prisoners were becoming increasingly concerned as German fortifications were being built around the camp. Allied commanders feared a potential order from Hitler for troops to enter the camp and murder the prisoners.
If this was the case, the p.o.w's intended to put up a fight and they began to train up suicide squads, silent killers who would overrun the guards and seize the Germans' weapons in readiness for a pitch battle.
Liberation And The End Of The War
In the end however, this course of action wasn't necessary as on a cold January day in 1945, Stalag Luft III was closed and thousands of prisoners were marched west. There fait was unknown to them and they allegedly had buried numerous time capsules containing escape devices and sensitive documents.
In April 1945, Allied forces liberated countless p.o.w camps throughout Germany, for the Americans of Stalag Luft III, the dream had finally come true. The few prisoners who knew of the MIS-X project were told to forget everything about it.
On August 14th 1945, the Japanese finally surrendered in the Pacific, signalling the end of the second world war. Six days later in America, the American Secretary of War, possibly fearing violations of the Geneva Convention, ordered that any records of the existence of MIS-X , be wiped out.
Gone But Not Forgotten
The men of MIS-X took many of their secrets to their graves, but what they did achieved a great difference, not only in the numbers brought home, but also in the numbers encouraged to fight on. They overcame daunting obstacles to ensure that prisoners they never even knew, would realise that they had not been forgotten.
And in a distant corner of Poland, those who died during the Great Escape are also remembered, lives lost in the pursuit of freedom.