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