Once again, another fascinating true story of World War ll has found its way into my e-mail, and I am taking the liberty of retelling it for my readers. It is a story familiar to most aficionados of World War II movies; albeit, the facts are somewhat different than the film’s storyline.
As World War II progressed, the Royal Air Force (RAF) became increasingly cognizant of the growing shortage of English pilots. With many able-bodied pilots interned in Nazi prison camps, the RAF hatched a scheme to loose and repatriate these pilots.
Our story begins in Stalag Luft lll, a Luftwaffe-run prisoner-of-war (POW) camp that housed captured air force servicemen. Located in the German Province of Lower Silesia near the town of Sagan (currently, Zagan in western Poland) – 100 miles southeast of Berlin, it initially housed British, Canadian, Polish, and Australian pilots, although by 1943 American pilots were among those interned there. The remote camp’s site was selected, primarily, because it was considered that any escape attempted by tunneling would be extremely difficult.
Yet, tunneling was the means of escape employed on the night of March 24-25, 1944. 600 prisoners simultaneously dug three tunnels named Tom, Dick, and Harry. Ultimately, Harry was the tunnel selected for use on that fateful night. Using information, maps, and currency cleverly concealed by the RAF in games of Monopoly delivered to the airmen with sundries distributed by the Red Cross, 76 men completed the “great escape” from Stalag Luft III. Of the 76, only three ever made it back to Britain. The remaining 73 were recaptured with 50 of these brave men suffering execution at the order of an infuriated Fuhrer Adolf Hitler.
Fast forward to 2011 when an archeological team led by Dr. Hugh Hunt, a Cambridge University engineering professor, made the trek to Poland to discover what secrets remained about the remarkable escape. To their amazement, the team uncovered the entrance to the tunnel named Harry that lay untouched for 67 years. The tunnel and most of the bed boards that kept it from collapsing were still in place. Also, an ingeniously constructed ventilation system was in working order as well as a trolley system to hasten the escape route. Further excavation also identified other tunnels named George and Roger – named after the mastermind behind the operation, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell.
Gordon (Gordie) King, an aircraft radio operator now 92 years old and perhaps the oldest living survivor of the camp, had an emotional experience watching the dig. He was # 141 on the list of escapees, among those unable to gain freedom when #77 blew his cover that sounded the alarm.
The Hollywood version of the great escape was taken from the novel of the same name by Paul Brickhill. Its story features Captain Virgil Hilts, an American pilot played by Steve McQueen. A work of fiction, Hilts’ escape on a motorcycle never happened at Stalag Luft lll. Yet, the film captures the raw drama and emotion that must have been felt by the participants in one of the most dramatic escapes in the history of warfare.
This untold true story, as Walter Cronkite would say, is one that “alters and illuminates our times” and stands as a lasting tribute to the ingenious prisoners of Stalag Luft lll and their great escape.