The Great Escape - A True Story
Model of the Hollywood set for "The Great Escape"
Famous Prisoners held at Stalag Luft III
- British actor Rupert Davies
- Singer Cy Grant
- Actor Peter Butterworth
- Writer Talbot Rothwell
- American novelist and screenwriter Len Giovannitti
- Professor Basil Chubb, author and political science lecturer
- Peter Thomas, later Lord Thomas after a political career as a Welsh Conservative politician, and cabinet minister
The Great Escape Background
I wrote a little bit about "The Great Escape" in a previous article entitled "War Movies in the 1960s". Arguably one of the best war movies of our time. Steve McQueen went from stardom to super stardom because of this movie and his motor cycle scenes were responsible for a huge spike in motor cycle sales. The movie is actually based on the book "The Great Escape" written by former POW Paul Brickhill. Brickhill did not participate in the tunnels due to his claustrophobia but was obviously an eyewitness to it all.
This is more about the real event than the movie though you'll read comparisons along the way.
Yes it was a German prisoner of war camp and yes there was escape. Actually there were two escapes. The second was depicted in the movie "The Wooden Horse", a British war movie which was made in 1950.
The term "Great Escape" is based on the fact that Stalag Luft III was built to prevent escapes. It was actually raised above the ground so German soldiers could see underneath to prevent prisoners from building tunnels.
I am amazed at the true grit of these men.
Location of Stalag Luft III
Location of Stalag Luft III
Kommandant of Stalag Luft III, Oberst Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau, photo originally from Nazi records
Stalag Luft III
This World War II prisoner of war camp was built by the Germans in 1942. It was meant captured officers. Space was later added for non-commissioned officers. The first prisoners were British RAF and Fleet Air Arm officers. The area where "The Great Escape" occurred opened in March of 1943. Another area was opened for American soldiers, and one area that was opened for British sergeants was later converted for Americans. By the time it was finished the camp was 60 acres in size.
It is believed a majority of the food served to the prisoners came from the American, Canadian, and British Red Cross. The Germans provided some but depended on the Red Cross for the bulk of the food. There was also a bartering system in place where prisoners could barter for items. They could use items they received or believe it or not, they received a 'pay check' from the Germans that they could use. Of course only the officers were paid.
They did actually have a recreation area. Volleyball courts and athletic fields were provided. The prisoners were able to play all manner of sports from baseball to table tennis. Prisoners were occasionally allowed to swim in a pool that was mainly used for fighting fires.
Another fact I found amazing was the availability of a library and courses that could lead to a degree. The courses were provided for by the Red Cross. The prisoners built a theater and were also able to use the camp's amplifier system to broadcast a radio show.
The prisoners were leery of newcomers, afraid of infiltration by the Germans. Any new prisoner had to be vouched for by two current POW's. If he couldn't then he had an escort at all times until he could prove himself. Many infiltrators were actually caught this way.
Treatment here was actually pretty good considering it was a German POW camp. The reason was the guards. They were either too old for duty or young convalescents. Deputy Commandant Major Gustav Simoleit was a professor before the war and treated the men better than was the norm for POW camps and I'm sure the SS and/or Gestapo were not happy about it, but it was still a POW camp with rules to follow.
Tunnel Harry Completed
The Actual Great Escape
According to Wikipedia, In the spring of 1943, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell RAF conceived a plan for a major escape from the camp. He told the men;
"Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time. 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!"
I read that over six hundred prisoners were involved in the construction of the three tunnels. All manner of materials was used to build the tunnels. Milk cans were used to fashion tools. According to Wikipedia, clothes were used to make wicks that were used in the tunnels for light. A pump was built to pump fresh air into the tunnels as they got longer and no air could circulate on it's own.
Just as we saw in the movie, the prisoners loaded their pants with sand from the excavations and then dumped the sand around the yard as they walked. Again from Wikipedia, I found the Germans suspected something was going on but couldn't find the tunnels. However, disposing of the dirt started to become more and more of a problem. The German's actually helped solve the problem. When they were expanding the camp they blocked off tunnel "Dick". The men began to fill Dick up again with the dirt from the other tunnels.
Photos from 1939 to 2011 at Stalag Luft III
Tunnel "Harry" as outlined in 2007
The Great Escape
Most American prisoners had been transferred out of Stalag Luft III so in reality there were no American's involved in the escape.
There were two groups of escapees; one group of 100 was the group most likely to succeed in the escape. They spoke German and had very authentic forged papers. The second group referred to as the "hard arsers" were less likely to succeed, spoke almost no German and were told to travel by night.
Yes, the tunnel did come up short just like in the movie. Additionally there was a problem with the trap door being frozen shut. The exit of the men was not as quick as the movie. Ten men per hour were brought out through the tunnel. The air raid seen in the movie that slowed down the escape was another fact, it actually happened during the escape. These slow downs were the reason only seventy six of the two hundred escaped.
Of the seventy six who escaped, seventy-three were recaptured. This embarrassment went all the way to Hitler. He wanted to execute every one of the seventy-three returned but Hermann Göring, Field Marshal Keitel, Major-General Westhoff and Major-General von Graevenitz convinced him it was a violation of the Geneva Convention. So, instead, he had fifty men shot, including Squadron Leader Roger Bushell.
Differences between the real event and the movie? There was no motor cycle rider and no motor cycle involved in the real escape. The fifty men shot were not all shot at the same time as they were in the movie but were shot at different times and places.
Did you know the movie "The Great Escape" was based on a real escape?
Similarities to the Movie and Other Facts
- According to the UK's Daily Mail, Steve McQueen's character was based on one British Flight Lieutenant Leslie Bull. As I said previously, there was no motor cycle. Bull did work the rope from the forest to the tunnel to signal the men below, just as we saw in the movie.
- The seventy-seventh man leaving the tunnel was spotted by a guard and captured.
- The tunnels were thirty feet deep and wood was used to shore up the tunnels as they were being dug.
- Wood for the shoring came from the attics and beds in the barracks.
- Forged papers were made by the prisoners.
- Three POWs crossed most of Europe and made it to safety, two Norwegians and a Dutchman.
- The entrance to the Great Escape tunnel was uncovered in 2011.
- Prisoners used; 4,000 bed boards, 90 bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 62 tables, 34 chairs, 76 benches, 3,424 towels, 2,000 knives and forks, 1,400 cans of powdered milk, 300 metres of electric wire and 180 meters of rope to build the tunnels (dailymail.com)
- It took eighteen months to build the successful tunnel.
- After the war twenty Gestapo officers were sentenced to death for their part in the execution of the fifty.
- Roger Bushell escaped three times prior to the Great Escape. The Gestapo threatened to kill him if he ever tried again.
- Five million German soldiers were sent out to find the seventy-six escapees!
Whether you have seen the movie or not, whether you enjoyed the movie or not, you must never forget the courage and fortitude of the two hundred men that braved the dangers and built a thirty foot tunnel to escape a German Prisoner of War Camp.
There are many accounts of the Great Escape written by survivors of the camp. Of course one might want to start with Paul Brickhill's "The Great Escape", but don't overlook the many others.
I hope you have enjoyed this look back at history and will leave a comment.
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