On this day in 1944, 76 Allied prisoners of war escaped from the German camp Stalag Luft III.
Their story would be told 19 years later in the American-made film, “The Great Escape,” which starred Steve McQueen and, by many accounts, embellished the role of the camp’s American POWs while still managing to stick to the basic story.
The Germans built the camp in Zagan, Poland in 1942 to house Allied airmen officers, (hence the Luft in Stalag Luft). With barracks built well off of the ground enabling the prison guards to spot anything amiss, and resting upon unstable sandy soil that made tunneling difficult, the Germans believed they’d created an escape-proof camp. The light soil also showed on the POWs’ clothing, yet another indicator that the inmates were digging.
The Germans didn’t, however, account for Allied ingenuity. Roger Bushell, a Royal Air Force squadron leader shot down during the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, devised an escape plan that included three tunnels they named “Tom,” “Dick” and “Harry.” If undiscovered, the tunnels would enable 200 men to escape at once. He also reasoned that if the Germans found one – they did, finding and blowing up “Tom” — they wouldn’t expect others to exist. Some 600 POWs used their bed slats to dig 336 feet of ventilated tunnels. They fashioned civilian clothing and bogus paperwork enabling them to make their way through towns and back to Allied forces.
The first 100 chosen to go had to speak German, fabricated the most authentic-looking papers, and had worked most diligently to dig the tunnels.
When it came time to go, the first group exited with 76 getting out and the 77th getting caught. But among the 76 who escaped, only three reached friendly countries. The other 73 were caught. The Germans executed 50 of them, including Bushell, on Hitler’s personal orders.
The remaining POWs built a memorial at the camp for their dead comrades. And they refused to let the Germans break their collective spirit, according to a Northern San Joaquin Valley veteran who was a POW sent to Stalag Luft III a few months after the escape.
Chuck Walker, a second lieutenant and P-38 fighter pilot shot down over Hungary in July 1944, arrived at the camp in August of that year. He found still defiant POWs in the camp, where the British and American officers ran a radio station despite the Germans’ crackdown.
“We listened to the BBC every night,” Walker told the Modesto Bee in 2007. A POW stole the commandant’s dachshund. “(The commandant) tied the dog outside the barracks, and when he came back out – the leash and the collar were there – the dog wasn’t.”
They never saw the pooch again.
When “The Great Escape” movie premiered in 1963, it captivated moviegoers across America by thrilling fans with the memorable scene of McQueen jumping a motorcycle over barbed wire, and other action events fabricated for the movie. It changed Bushell’s name to Bartlett. It also exaggerated the Americans’ roles in the planning of the escape. Bushell had been a POW in two other camps before Stalag Luft III, and attempted escapes in those as well.
Indeed, the great escape from Stalag Luft III really happened 77 years ago today. Hollywood did its thing 19 years later, and the legend was born.