We’ve all seen or at least heard of the film ‘The Great Escape’ starring Steve McQueen, but today is the 70th anniversary of the event that inspired the film. Stalag Luft III was a Luftwaffe-run prisoner of war camp in Poland during the Second World War that housed captured Air Force servicemen, and its site was deliberately chosen because it was notoriously difficult to escape by tunneling.
Life in the prison wasn’t all bad though, as it had the best-organised recreational programme of any POW camp in Germany, with facilities that included volleyball courts, basketball courts, table tennis and swimming. Many POW’s were even able to make use of the extensive library that allowed them to earn degrees in English or engineering. But some of the prisoners dreamed of freedom, and in the Spring of 1943, Squadron leader Roger Bushell RAF conceived a plan for a major escape from the camp, which occurred on the night of 24-25 March 1944. He attempted to engage the determination of other men in the camp, declaring “Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time. By rights we should all be dead! Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick, and Harry. One will succeed!”
The tunnels were extremely deep, about 30feet below the Earth’s surface, but only 2feet square. Of the 600 prisoners who assisted in the escape plan, only 76 actually managed to escape to freedom and they had to wait patiently for a moonless night so that they could escape under complete darkness. The figure would have been 77, but the last man was spotted by a guard just as he was leaving the compound, and surrendered. Of the 76 men that escaped, 50 were recaptured and executed.
As of April last year, only two of the original escapees are believed to still be alive. The story resonated with the public and was depicted in the successful 1963 film ‘The Great Escape’.