Many of us baby boomers saw this movie while coming of age and thought it was the greatest of all time. Even today, we’ll watch it again for the umpteenth time. Why are people drawn to this film? The Great Escape, immortalized by Hollywood and Steve McQueen and internationally famous as an extraordinary story of courage and ingenuity. It was also true and did happen.
Although this is not a story about Vietnam, I thought it important to share with you as seeing “the movie” is something we may all have in common.
The real Stammlager Luft III, more commonly known as Stalag Luft III was a Luftwaffe-run prisoner-of-war camp during World War II housing captured allied airmen. It was situated in the German Province of Lower Silesia near the town of Sagan (now Żagań in Poland) about 100 miles south east of Berlin.
The site was selected because it would be difficult to escape by tunneling. As many people know, though, the camp is best known for its two prisoner escapes that took place by tunneling – as portrayed in the films The Great Escape (1963) and The Wooden Horse (1950), and the books by former prisoners Paul Brickhill and Eric Williams from which the films were adapted (very loosely, in the case of The Great Escape).
Stalag Luft III had a number of features that made escape extremely difficult – those in charge of the camp bragged that it was “escape proof”.
Construction of escape tunnels, in particular, was discouraged by several factors. The barracks housing the prisoners were raised off the ground to help guards detect any tunneling activity.
Secondly, the camp was constructed on a very sandy subsoil. This subsoil was bright yellow, making it easily detected if put on the surface soil (which was a grey dust) and visible on clothing. The loose, collapsible sand also meant the structural integrity of a tunnel would be very poor.
A final defense against tunnel construction was the use of seismograph microphones around the perimeter of the camp to detect any sounds of digging.
Despite huge interest in the subject, encouraged by the film starring Steve McQueen, the tunnel remained undisturbed over the decades because it was behind the Iron Curtain and the Soviet authorities had no interest in its significance.
But at last British archaeologists have excavated it, and discovered its remarkable secrets.
Untouched for almost seven decades, the tunnel used in the Great Escape has finally been unearthed. Archeologists have recently uncovered a 4th forgotten and top secret tunnel on the grounds of the former POW camp of which the movie, “The Great Escape” was about.
Many of the bed boards which had been joined together to stop it collapsing were still in position. And the ventilation shaft, ingeniously crafted from used powdered milk containers known as Klim Tins, remained in working order.
Scattered throughout the tunnel, which is 30ft below ground, were bits of old metal buckets, hammers and crowbars which were used to hollow out the route.
A total of 600 prisoners worked on three tunnels at the same time. They were nicknamed Tom, Dick and Harry and were just 2 ft square for most of their length. It was on the night of March 24 and 25, 1944, that 76 Allied airmen escaped through Harry.
Barely a third of the 200 prisoners many in fake German uniforms and civilian outfits and carrying false identity papers, who were meant to slip away managed to leave before the alarm was raised when escapee number 77 was spotted.
Tunnel vision: A tunnel reconstruction showing the trolley system.
Only three made it back to Britain. Another 50 were executed by firing squad on the orders of Adolf Hitler, who was furious after learning of the breach of security. In all, 90 boards from bunk beds, 62 tables, 34 chairs and 76 benches, as well as thousands of items including knives, spoons, forks, towels and blankets, were squirreled away by the Allied prisoners to aid the escape plan under the noses of their captors.
Although the Hollywood movie suggested otherwise, NO Americans were involved in the operation. Most were British, and the others were from Canada, (all the tunnelers were Canadian personnel with backgrounds in mining) Poland, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa.
The site of the tunnel, recently excavated by British archaeologists.
The latest dig, over three weeks in August, located the entrance to Harry, which was originally concealed under a stove in Hut 104. The 111-yard passage was sealed by the Germans after the audacious break-out from the POW camp.
The team also found another tunnel, called George, whose exact position had not been charted. It was never used as the 2,000 prisoners were forced to march to other camps as the Red Army approached in January 1945.
Watching the excavation was Gordie King, 91, an RAF radio operator, who was 140th in line to use Harry and therefore missed out. ‘This brings back such bitter-sweet memories,’ he said as he wiped away tears. ‘I’m amazed by what they’ve found.’
Bitter-sweet memories: Gordie King, 91, made an emotional return to Stalag Luft III.
As a special bonus, I’ve attached four short videos (34 minutes in total), “The Making of the Great Escape” for a first-hand look to see how Hollywood made this great film. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Much of the information used for this article was obtained from: http://therealgreatescape.com/stalag-luft-iii/ and YouTube.
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