Play / pause The Great Escape

The Great Escape

  • Ley Kenyon

Transcript

It’s easy to imagine that the escape attempts from Stalag Luft III

were a bit of an adventure

plucky Brits and wise-cracking Americans

engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse with humourless German guards.

In reality, the prisoners were starving,

demoralised and living in a state of constant fear

For some the physical and emotional toll was too much to bear.

There were breakdowns and suicides

and desperate attempts at escape which ended in a hail of bullets.

Escape was not only a matter of duty,

not only a chance to frustrate and hamper the enemy.

It was the only thing that gave men hope.

You needed stamina and strength to be a digger

lying for hours on one elbow, scraping away at the sand

in the tiny confines of the tunnel.

Thirty feet down, diggers worked in pairs

digger no 1 lay full length and dug out the face

pushing the earth down past his hips until digger no 2 could

scrape it towards him and load it into the trolley

Air was pumped in along a tube made from tin cans

and a small fat lamp was the only light.

It was filthy, exhausting work

and when they came up the diggers were spitting black for hours.

On a good day, the tunnel might be extended by five feet.

Elsewhere in the camp, under the noses of the guards

a whole illicit industry supported the escape plan

forgers faked permits and passes

tailors made civilian outfits and German uniforms

Carpenters cut tunnel supports from bed boards and made tools

from whatever materials they could scavenge.

Guards were bribed with chocolate and cigarettes

once tamed, a guard could be effectively blackmailed

into working with their prisoners

providing information and contraband equipment.

Eventually, after over a year of digging

the tunnel codenamed Harry broke ground outside the camp fence

384 ft from the tunnel entrance in Hut 104

On the moonless night of March 24th, 1944

76 allied officers from 12 nations crawled through the filthy tunnel

into the snow bound forest, and freedom

But the success was short lived. The mass escape enraged Hitler

and a nationwide search was instigated

Thousands of German troops were deployed to find the escapees

73 men were recaptured as they tried to make their way to neutral countries

On Hitler’s personal instructions

50 allied airmen were shot dead in cold blood by the Gestapo

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