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The Great Escape

Roger Bushell of the RAF

The Luftwaffe prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Silesia was the scene of the Great Escape on March 24-25, 1944.

Opened in March 1942, the camp was specifically designed to thwart escape attempts: it consisted of several separated compounds, the barracks were raised off the ground, and the perimeter fence was equipped with seismographic microphones to detect the sounds of digging. The yellow sandy subsoil made tunneling hazardous and disposing of excavated soil was made nearly impossible. At its peak Stalag Luft III housed more than 10,000 POWs.

The Great Escape was planned by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell of the Royal Air Force (RAF). In early 1943 he called together the camp's "Escape Committee" and laid out a plan to break out around 200 prisoners of the camp. It was obvious that not all of the escapees would be able to make it back to Britain, but the German effort to capture a large number of people would keep the internal security of the Third Reich occupied, drawing valuable resources and manpower away from the war effort.

Three tunnels were excavated simultaneously to increase the chance that at least one of them would succeed in reaching freedom. The work demanded the concerted efforts of several hundred prisoners. Some of them would "duty pilot" German guards, logging their comings and goings and warning fellow prisoners of approaching danger. Others fabricated tools for digging from food cans and materials gleaned from Red Cross parcels. The POWs took care not to use tools given to them on parole for digging the tunnels. Yet another group converted prison garb and odd items of clothing into civilian clothes or forged papers for the escapees.

The three tunnels, named Tom, Dick and Harry, were dug about 30 feet below ground to avoid detection by the seismographic microphones. Their entrances were hidden in a barrack, in a washroom drain and under a stove. Their walls were shored up with planks from the prisoners' beds and odd pieces of wood to prevent the loose sand from caving in. The POWs made the most of their makeshift equipment: the tunnels had staging posts, workshops, ventilation systems complete with air ducts and pumps, and even electric lighting rigged into the camp's power grid. The excavated sand was carefully scattered on the surface in small amounts from bags attached to the inside of the prisoners' trouser legs.

Gardening in Stalag Luft III. Tending to the small plots in front of their barracks offered the POWs a chance to dump the sand excavated from the tunnels

Work on the Dick tunnel had to be abandoned when a new compound was opened above its planned area of exit. In September 1943 American POWs were moved to a separate compound and German guards discovered the entrance of Tom. Fearing detection, the remaining British airmen stopped work on Harry until January of the following year. The tunnel was finally ready by March and 200 men were selected for escape based on their past escape attempts, proficiency in German, efforts in digging the tunnels and lot drawing.

On the evening of March 24 the escape started an hour late because frost sealed the exit door shut. When they were finally able to open it the POWs realized that exit was much closer to the perimeter fence than intended. Therefore they had to slow down the rate by which prisoners could emerge from the tunnel. 76 men managed to get free before the tunnel exit was discovered by a German guard. Only three of them made it back to England. The others were captured, and by March 30 fifty of them, including Bushell, were shot in retaliation on Hitler's orders.

The exit of 'Harry' reached the surface within view of one of the watchtowers

This blatant disregard of the Third Geneva Convention caused consternation in the British Parliament. Even Stalag Luft III's new commander was horrified and allowed the prisoners to build a memorial for their fallen comrades. After the end of the war the RAF conducted an investigation to find the perpetrators of the killings. Thirteen former Gestapo officers were hanged in February 1948 while others received prison sentences.

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