Seventy Years Later: Remembering ‘The Great Escape’

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Today marks the seventieth anniversary of one of the greatest adventure stories to emerge from the Second World War.  On the night of March 24, 1944, seventy-six Allied prisoners of war escaped from Stalag Luft III, a supposedly escape-proof prison camp deep in the heart of Nazi Germany.  The prisoners escaped via a 334-foot tunnel they dug 30 feet underground.  Codenamed “Harry,” it was one of three tunnels they constructed (“Tom” was discovered by the Germans and destroyed; the third tunnel, “Dick”, was used for storage).

Tunnel "Harry" today at what remains of Stalag Luft III.

Tunnel “Harry” today at what remains of Stalag Luft III.

All seventy-six men were provided falsified German travel papers and identity cards, courtesy a forgery department established by prisoners in the camp.  Bed sheets, curtains, and the military uniforms the men had been captured in were used to tailor civilian clothing for the escapees.  In terms of scope and complexity, the escape was unequaled in its audaciousness.  After the war, a former Stalag Luft III inmate named Paul Brickhill, who helped dig the tunnels, detailed the escape in his book The Great Escape, which eventually became the 1963 Hollywood classic starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, and James Garner.

Human Game (UK edition)

Human Game (UK edition)

The movie is perhaps best remembered for the climactic chase scene in which McQueen, on a stolen motor cycle, tries to evade pursuing Nazis.  While it’s great to watch, it’s pure Hollywood fiction.  In actuality, no Americans took part in the Great Escape.  While they helped in digging the tunnels, American POWs were moved to another part of the camp just prior to the breakout, as the Germans did not like the British and Americans fraternizing with one another.

Of the seventy-six men who emerged from the tunnel, only three made it back to England.  Of the seventy-three men recaptured, the Gestapo murdered fifty on the direct orders of Hitler.  The movie ends with the doomed fifty being machine-gunned in a field.  In real life, they were killed in groups of twos and threes along desolate roads with a bullet to the back of the head.  The murders and the subsequent quest by Britain’s Royal Air Force to bring the killers to justice is the topic of my book, Human Game (available in the UK and the US).

Spare a thought today for the ingenious men who hatched such a daring plot in the face of overwhelming, and—in the end—deadly odds.

A memorial to the fifty, located near the camp.

A memorial to the fifty, located near the camp.

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