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The Great Escape - A True Story

Updated on July 19, 2013
tillsontitan profile image

Mary has been a movie fan since she was a little girl. She watched movies every night of the week on Million Dollar Theater..

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

Sagan Germany:
Zagan, Poland

get directions

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?

See results

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 (
  • 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!

Never Forget

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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    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      5 years ago from New York

      Yes Cam, it certainly was a great movie and I thought many wouldn't know the facts. Glad you enjoyed this.

      Randy, you are so right. It is an amazing story of courage and made for a great movie.

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 

      5 years ago from Southern Georgia

      A super review of the real facts and people who should be, and are,

      considered heroes of WWII. Loved the book and the movie.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Dallas, Texas through August 23, 2019.

      I enjoyed that film, and I also enjoyed this hub. Thanks for pointing out all of the facts for us.

    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      5 years ago from New York

      thanks JPSO, often the facts behind the movie are so well hidden we never know them. Glad you enjoyed.

    • JPSO138 profile image


      5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines, International

      I saw the movie, but your hub is even better. It is very informative and facts are so clear. Most of the movies are made to provide entertainment and most facts are twisted and some added to make it a great movie to watch. Up for this one!

    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      5 years ago from New York

      Thanks DDE, sometimes Hollywood surprises us ;)

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      The Great Escape - A True Story a brilliant write and is interesting to know of what happened back then. A useful and informative hub!

    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      5 years ago from New York

      Glad you enjoyed Lyricwriter. According to Wikipedia;

      Per Bergsland, Norwegian pilot of No. 332 Squadron RAF

      Jens Müller, Norwegian pilot of No. 331 Squadron RAF

      Bram van der Stok, Dutch pilot of No. 41 Squadron RAF, are the three that escaped.

      Bergsland and Müller made it to neutral Sweden first, by boat, while Van der Stok travelled through France before finding safety at a British consulate in Spain.

      Thanks for the votes and shares. As your holiday week begins, I hope it's a great one.

    • thelyricwriter profile image

      Richard Ricky Hale 

      5 years ago from West Virginia

      Til, voted this up, useful, awesome, interesting, and shared on FB. Til, great article. I remember reading a little of this in your other article. Incredible to nearly build 3 tunnels in that scenario. I hate that most of them were shot at one time or another. Do you know what ever happened to the 3 that escaped? I enjoy learning history and this was a great read. Best wishes.

    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      True TT...wars are horrible but have shaped our country. Those who fought and gave their lives need to be remembered.

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 

      6 years ago from California

      "We must never forget". Thanks for the reminder.

    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      How interesting greatstuff.

    • greatstuff profile image


      6 years ago from Malaysia

      Mary, I went to boarding school and we have weekly movie shows, part of the Film Society's activities

    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      Vinaya you will not regret watching this movie. Not a lot of shooting but a great war movie all the same.

      Greatstuff, glad you enjoyed this hub. I didn't know it was ever shown in schools...we learn something every day.

    • greatstuff profile image


      6 years ago from Malaysia

      I think this movie is everyone's favorite (for that generation). It was shown at our school's weekly movie time slot and Steve became our favorite actor. It is on my top ten best movies ever! A good read and thanks for sharing.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      6 years ago from Nepal


      I take fascination on world war stories. I have not watched The Great Escape, however, it is on my list. I knew the movie was based on real events, however, did not know the actual story.

      Thanks for sharing this well researched article.

    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      Thanks Deborah. I couldn't resist writing about a great movie and a heroic escape attempt! Thank you for sharing.

      Thanks Thief12, nice to have you visit.

      Pagesvoice you are so right. Imagine all those great actors in one film, and if I may be unfeminist, not a woman in the bunch! Thank you for stopping by and leaving such a great comment.

    • pagesvoice profile image

      Dennis L. Page 

      6 years ago from New York/Pennsylvania border

      Voted up and +++. You certainly picked a great movie to write about. "The Great Escape" gave the viewing audience a stellar cast of characters, along with highlighting Steve McQueen's prowess on a motorcycle.

      The inside, behind the scene look at the facts surrounding the German POW camp was fascinating. Thank you for giving us some clarity regarding this historical event.

    • Thief12 profile image

      Carlo Giovannetti 

      6 years ago from Puerto Rico

      Liked the film a lot, and I also liked this hub.

    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 

      6 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      Great escape is one of the greatest movies..and Steve McQueen was awesome.. It is a true story you are so right.. thank you for writing about this it is a wonderful hub



    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      How wonderful to think I would've touched your father with my humble hub. Muddy Waters and Led Zepplin, what a wonderful mix! I can hear the melodies in my head. I'm sure your cottage was rockin and cats Rollin ;)

      Your wonderful shares are always appreciated....keeps me going! Best to you in the north my friend.

    • epigramman profile image


      6 years ago

      Good evening my Mary of Movie Hub stardom - I remember seeing this classic film with my dad as a kid and I still enjoy it to this day on another level as an adult. My dad would have loved your world class hub tribute and presentation (as his son did) because he was a veteran of World War II as a Canadian soldier who landed on the Juno beach during D-DAY and during his civilian life my dad was quite a historian and war film buff - I am currently listening to Muddy Waters loud and may take in the Led Zeppelin reunion concert from 2007 on my dvd a little later so it's a rocking cottage at Colin's tonight.

      I will post and link your most definitive hub here and in a big part it's due to all of the awesome research you did about the reality behind this story.

      Sending you Saturday night wishes from Colin and his cat crew at lake erie time 10:50pm I intend to watch the documentary behind the real Great Escape at a later date.

    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      Glad you enjoyed . I always loved the movies and found the facts fascinating.thanks so much for the votes GF.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      6 years ago from South Africa

      Mary, this is a very interesting hub - the truth behind the fiction-version of The Great Escape - Really worthy to know :) Voted up to the top :)

    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      I was surprised at first too Moonlake. Thanks for the vote.

    • moonlake profile image


      6 years ago from America

      Love the movie but I always liked anything Steve McQueen was in. Great hub I didn't know all the information you put on this hub. Voted up.

    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      Definitely a must see Deb. It is a really great movie.

      You won't be sorry if you watch it Kathryn. Hope you have a great day too.

    • Kathryn Stratford profile image


      6 years ago from Windsor, Connecticut

      That is an amazing story, and I didn't know the movie was based on a true story! It makes me want to check the movie out.

      Thanks for sharing this with us, and have a wonderful day!

      ~ Kathryn

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Amazing pictures of both then and now. It's sad that most escapes were not successful, but bravo for the few that were. You did some wonderful work on this. I didn't see the movie, which really is a necessity in historical information. Luckily, the prisoners were treated fairly well in the scheme of things, which was so rare.

    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      Thanks Michael. Seems everyone favors this movie!

    • cleaner3 profile image


      6 years ago from Pueblo, Colorado

      Mary ..great read here.. This was one of my favorite movies as a young man. Steve Mcqeen was an actor of the old school . Liked this a lot.

    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      Definitely not taken the wrong way Frank. It was meant to be entertaining with some facts thrown in ;)

      A lot of people noticed Steve McQueen more after this one Mary. Thank you for the vote and share.

      drbj, I would imagine Steve McQueen and James Garner's characters (which by the way were said to be compilations of the real men's characters) made their point with a lot of people. Thanks for the vote.

      I was surprised to learn it was based on fact as well Bill. We never know when we're watching a movie, unless of course the ads for it's release tell us. Thank you so much for the vote and shares....really appreciated.

      Writer Fox, as I said to Bill, sometimes we don't know. Hope you enjoy watching it again.

      WND, we can be an amazing species can't we ;)

      Yes, Jericho, Steve McQueen was awesome.

      Faith, I can't imagine. First being a POW and then what they went through...I'm glad you found it interesting. I was surprised when I found out it was a true story then even more so when I compared the facts. Thank you for the vote and share. God bless.

      Oh Mhatter, thank you for the wonderful comment! You are most welcome.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      To say this was interesting is an understatement. thank you

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 

      6 years ago from southern USA

      You're so right, dearest Mary, never forget, never . . . can you even imagine going through such!

      I truly found your facts of the true account so very fascinating and to compare those with the movie added so much added interest. Wow, there were a good bit of differences.

      I really do love Steve McQueen in the movie . . . I must say!

      Thank you for all the hard work you have done here in this excellent hub, as it is very obvious just how much work went into this piece.

      Voted up +++ and sharing

      God bless you, Faith Reaper

    • jericho911 profile image

      Kenneth Claude 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      One of my favorite all-time movies ! Steve McQueen is just AWESOME in it !

    • wetnosedogs profile image


      6 years ago from Alabama

      Greatly written hub.

      Isn't it amazing what courage humans have?

    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 

      6 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      I never realized that the movie was based on a true story! You article has inspired me to see the movie again.

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts

      Mary, what a great account of the Great Escape. This is one of my favorite war movies. It was very interesting to learn the differences between the movie account and the actual event. Now I want to see the movie again :) Another great addition to your movie niche. Vote up, shared, pinned, etc...

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      6 years ago from south Florida

      That movie is very vivid in my mind, Mary, and I remember how heroic both Steve McQueen and James Garner were in their respective parts. You have written a fascinating account of the true story behind the film. How sad that only three men survived that escape.

      Voted up!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      6 years ago from Florida

      This is one of my very favorite movies. I fell in love in S. McQueen after seeing this one! I had read that it was based on a true has to admire these men for their courage.

      Voted UP, and shared.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      6 years ago from Shelton

      this historical event is amazing and don't take it the wrong way I found it entertaining as well voted awesome

    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      It always so good to see you here Joe! Reading your comments makes writing my hubs worthwhile!

      A truly heroic and sad event at least the movie will keep it alive in honor of the fifty.

      So glad I could draw out the little boy....I think that little boy is always there and we love reading about him and talking to him.

    • hawaiianodysseus profile image

      Hawaiian Odysseus 

      6 years ago from Southeast Washington state

      Your article motivates me to go find a copy of this great movie and watch it all over again. I did not know this was actually based on a true story! It pays in more ways than one to read your wonderful writing, my friend. I'd also forgotten or blocked out the fact that fifty men were shot in the movie. How very sad! Their families will always know that their heroic sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers had done everything possible to survive and attempt a return to their loved ones. Thank you very much for drawing out of me the little boy who, along with his brothers, used to love playing army in the dirt and brush outside our home. Aloha, and have a great escape of your own today!


    • tillsontitan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      I saw The Great Escape on TWC the other night and the host mentioned the true event...I just had to write a hub. Thanks for the vote PaisleeGal.

      Thanks Michelle.

      I'm trying Bill ;) There is so much to write about movies, maybe I can be the new Siskel or Ebert ;) Thanks for the praise.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Loved the movie and love this account of the historical event. I also love how you expanded on your Academy Award niche to include this historical story. Well done, continue to be a living example of how this writing gig works.

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Wow!! To think this actually happened! Loved this movie!!

    • PaisleeGal profile image

      Pat Materna 

      6 years ago from Memphis, Tennessee, USA

      Very interesting information! All the facts you listed are intriguing. Great idea to compare the movie to the facts too. As usual, well done. Voted up!


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