Stalag Luft III, built to house imprisoned Allied airmen during World War II, was supposed to be inescapable. The camp was located deep in Nazi territory in what is now Żagań, Poland. The Germans had purposefully constructed the camp on a sandy area that would make tunneling practically impossible. If tunneling began the sand would have to be dispersed. The top soil in the prison was much darker and as a result the sand would stand out like a sore thumb if dispersed there. Sand also has a tendency to collapse on diggers, as the prisoners would later find out. Then there was the matter of how long a tunnel would have to be. The blocks (huts housing prisoners) were positioned far from the wire fence so that should tunneling even be slightly successful the prisoners would have a long way to dig. Microphones were buried in the dirt to monitor any digging activities forcing diggers to go deep down to escape their observation. The blocks were built on stilts so tunneling through the floor proved a challenge. It would seem that escape truly was impossible.
Having said all that life at the camp wasn’t entirely awful. There were many different types of recreational activities available to the prisoners. The camp kommandant was a reluctant Nazi by the name of Colonel Friedrich-Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau. Von Lindeiner treated the prisoners with genuine courtesy. He believed that if prisoners were treated right, they would be less inclined to escape. He did this at the risk of irking his less-understanding superiors.
In April 1942 the first prisoners were brought to Stalag Luft III. Almost immediately escape plans were being made. But it wasn’t until early 1943 that the “professional” planning began. Mastermind Roger Bushell was named “Big X” of the escape committee X-Organziation. Bushell wanted to take 200 men out of camp. His main goal was to create such a havoc in Nazi territory that thousands of Germans would be tied up trying to locate the escapees. Plans were made for three tunnels named Tom, Dick and Harry which were all to be dug from the North Compound. Each had a trap door which was ingeniously hidden. Harry’s trapdoor was under a stove, Dick’s under a washroom drain, and Tom’s in a dark corner.
Besides digging there were a great many other things that warranted careful planning. Documentation (forgeries), clothing, maps, compasses were all manufactured. On each of the 200 compasses Australian Albert Hake made sure they bore the inscription, “Made in Stalag Luft III. Patent Pending”. Things that couldn’t readily be acquired were sometimes got by means of bribery. There were some guards, however, who readily supplied prisoners with what they wanted. A complex security system was set up by prisoners who put the Germans under surveillance. For the most part it was successful.
The digging of the three tunnels went along well. The problem of dispersing the sand had been solved with the use “trouser bags”; dirt filled bags worn in one’s trousers. The men went out to the compound and released the dirt in the prisoners’ gardens while another man worked to mix the sand in with the garden soil. When the Germans eventually became wise to the prisoners’ dispersal of the sand, Dick became a dumping ground for it as well as a storage for other escape supplies. With the sand having a tendency to collapse the diggers shored the tunnels up with wood. Boards commandeered from bunks made up for most of the shoring. Klim cans were used to make fat candles and for a ventilation system which helped circulated oxygen in the long tunnels.
When it became apparent that American prisoners were going to be moved to a newly constructed South Compound, digging operations were stepped up at the risk of Tom being discovered (Dick and Harry were abandoned for the time being). Since the American prisoners had worked just as hard as their Allied comrades no one thought it fair that they should be left out. Some Americans balked at the idea. The Germans already knew there was tunnel being dug they just hadn’t found it yet. With increased digging activities there was more of a chance for a slip up. But the digging continued. At one time Block 123, where Tom was located, was subjected to a five hour search which revealed nothing. It wouldn’t be until Tom was a few feet short from freedom that it was accidentally discovered. The Germans were flabbergasted by the ingenuity that went into the tunnel.
With Tom gone the prisoners turned their attention to Harry. They managed to get some electrical lighting in the tunnel by tapping into the camps electricity. Canadian Red Noble was the man to thanks for this as he had stolen the electrical wire.
By 1944 escape wasn’t such a good idea. Outside of the prison camp even civilians were becoming extremely hostile towards the allied airmen who were bombarding Germany. Other orders had been issued for escape prisoners to be handed over to the Gestapo once recaptured. The kommandant thought enough of his prisoners to let them know of the changing attitudes. He wasn’t always taken seriously. Surely it was just another ploy by von Lindeiner to discourage escapes.
March 24 was the escape date. In the time leading up to escape 200 men worked to get their new identities straight and plan their escape routes. Although it wasn’t likely all 200 men would be able to escape 200 were nonetheless ready that night. They gathered in Block 104 which housed Harry. Much to their observing comrades’ horrors there were so many men in 104 that puffs of steam were escaping from the hut. They prayed the Germans wouldn’t notice.
It wasn’t until they dug the tunnel exit that night that the men noticed they had come up 25 feet short of the woods. Delay after delay made for slow escapes. At about 5 a.m. a guard made an unexpected detour towards the exit. As he neared a movement in the woods caught his attention as two men fled. The guard took aim and prepared to fire when another man jumped out of the woods yelling not to shoot. The game was up. Four men were forced to give themselves up having been unable to make a run for it. Back in 104 prisoners began burning their papers while awaiting discovery. The next morning it was learned 76 men had escaped. The kommandant was livid saying “You have no idea what you have done”. He sent so many men to the cooler that some had to be turned away because there wasn’t any room for them.
As Bushell had hoped it would the escape triggered a national search. For most recapture was imminent and unavoidable. Many prisoners were caught not long after escaping. In all, only three would make it to freedom. Another 23 would be sent back to Stalag Luft III or to concentration camps. Sadly, fifty would be executed, among them Bushell. Adolph Hitler had originally wanted all 76 executed upon recapture but was convinced to whittle the number down to 50. The remains of the 50 men were cremated and sent back in urns to the men of Stalag Luft III. Von Lindeiner (he was later relieved of his command) was kind enough to purchase materials for the prisoners to build a memorial to the 50.
Please view this link for an interactive map of Harry.