The ‘Great Escape’ from Stalag Luft III

One of the watch towers at Stalag Luft 3, Sagan.

One of the watch towers at Stalag Luft 3, Sagan.

General view of the huts and compound at Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp, scene of the 'Great Escape' in 1944.

General view of the huts and compound at Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp, scene of the ‘Great Escape’ in 1944.

In the POW camp of Stalag Luft III a multi national group of RAF officers had dedicated their time and energy to an unprecedented escape plan. During the course of 1943 three tunnels, ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’ had been excavated. Only Harry remained at the beginning of 1944, after the Germans had built over the exit to Dick and discovered Tom. 200 officers now planned to make their escape in a single overnight breakout.

All would travel down the 102 metre long tunnel on trollies pulled along wooden tracks. It was planned that they would emerge in woods away from the barbed wire fence, out of sight of the prison guards. With so many escaping they knew the Germans would mount a huge manhunt for them. The expectation was that at least some men would make a ‘home run’:

Ken Reese had been actively involved in the tunnelling and on the evening of the 24th anxiously waited his turn in the queue:

The weather outside was as grim as it could be – well below freezing with lots of snow – so I dressed accordingly: long-johns, long-sleeved vest, thick pullover from my parcel, greatcoat and cloth cap. Our pockets were stuffed with matches, escape rations, maps, a compass, a tin oil light and tin can hopeful for any hot drink. Gloves, spare socks and some toiletries completed the kit; we thought we looked bad enough without having to add a few days stubble to our convict-like appearance.

The tension in the room was stomach-churning, almost worse than before any operation I could remember. We were bubbling over with excitement. It was a genuine adventure in the sense that no-one really knew what would happen, but the ultimate prize, of getting home and being free again was vivid in the minds of every one of us. This was a lottery and that winning ticket might be ours.

Red, staring down at his feast, but like the rest of us almost unable to eat it, said, ‘This should see us through the first couple of days. We won’t need to touch any escape rations.’

There was a lot of good-humoured banter and leg-pulling about what to do when we got back home, then at 19:00 hours we shook hands and slipped out into the dark.

When Red and I entered Block 104 for a horrible moment I thought we’d had it: in the dim light the first thing I saw standing before me in the corridor was a German unteroffizier. Panic hit me and I nearly passed out, then from under the hat I made out the face of Tobolski, a Polish flying officer, going out with Wings Day.

They were going to catch a train to Stettin, then try to stow away on a Swedish ship. Wings was resplendent in a very smart suit, while Tobolski’s German uniform, even now I had the chance to see it up close, was a masterpiece, every swastika, badge and belt in the right place. Tommy Guest was a genius.

There were about 200 of us spread evenly in the rooms throughout the hut. I can’t honestly remember if we had been allocated rooms according to our escape numbers, but that was probably the case. Everyone was nervous, checking constantly papers, escape rations, appearance — all the small details your life might depend upon later.

Pat Langford had already opened up the entrance, and as planned, Crump and Conk Canton were down the tunnel. Apart from hanging blankets to block the light, they also fastened six-inch strips of blanket to the shaft ends of the railway lines to muffle any sound, and made sure that all the electric light bulbs were working.

Yet again I sent up a prayer of thanks that Red had bagged that cable; electric light would make a big difference to those who had not yet been down the tunnel. At 8:45 pm, Crump and Conk emerged from the shaft and announced that everything was complete and ready to go.

The first group now went down the shaft to the tunnel led by the two hauliers for Piccadilly and Leicester Square, who then hauled the group through to open the tunnel exit.

See Ken Rees: Lie in the Dark and Listen.

There was however a problem. Another RAF pilot, Bram Vanderstok, the most decorated aviator in Dutch history, who had escaped from Holland in 1940, describes the events:

At 10:00, nothing happened, and at 10:30 p.m., still nothing seemed to move. Soon word came that there were problems down below. The fellows in the tunnel asked for a rope at least forty feet long. What for, we didn’t know. The stream of escapees was to have begun at 10:00. It was now almost 11:00 and no one had gone through yet.

Soon we knew what it was all about. When they had dug the last part of the exit shaft, a stream of fresh air had blown through the tunnel and we knew we had an opening outside the fence. It was a glorious moment! But when our digger, Johnnie Marshall, carefully put his head through the hole, he noticed he was twenty feet short of the edge of the woods. As fast as he could, he let himself down, crawled through the blankets that sealed off the light in the tunnel and reported his observation to Roger.

A German photograph, taken after the escape, of the exit shaft from ‘Harry’.

‘Sir,’ he stammered, ‘the tunnel is too short. It’s twenty feet short of the woods. Somebody goofed!’

‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Roger demanded, and then he realized his earlier suspicion was true.

The tunnel exit opening was outside the camp, but not quite in the projected place. Due to a slight error in direction and a miscalculation, the opening was between the barbed wire fence and the edge of the woods — not in the woods, as planned. Roger and his crew were near panic, but this was not a time for indecision or desperation. Something had to be done now and without hesitation. After a few minutes Marshall came up with an idea.

Roger looked the two diggers straight in the eye, said, ‘We go!’ and then, ‘Get forty feet of rope!’

The order for forty feet of rope echoed to the tunnel entrance and up to the waiting people in hut No. 104. Somehow, forty feet of rope was sent down and transported all the way via ‘Piccadilly Circus’ and ‘Leicester Square’ to the end station, where quick action was taken. One end of the rope was attached to the uppermost part of the ladder. The first man out had to crawl to the shrubs in the woods and act as a controller.

Another German photograph of the exit from ‘Harry’, showing the length of rope used by the escapees.

Three jerks on the rope was the signal for the next man to crawl out, follow the rope and disappear in the forest. Every fth man would be controller for the next four. Finally, they had the rope ready.

Roger said, ‘Warn everyone of the new procedure.’

Bram Vanderstok was one of the lucky ones who got away that night and lived to tell the tale. After the war he moved to the USA where he practised as a doctor and was a long term member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Ken Rees found himself in the tunnel itself in the early hours of the morning of the 25th. He had to rapidly retrace his steps when the tunnel was eventually discovered by the passing German sentry.

The delay probably saved Ken Rees’ life. 76 men had escaped, causing a massive manhunt across wartime Germany. Hitler was incensed and ordered that all those caught should be shot. Eventually 50 men were murdered by the Gestapo.

THE AMERICANS IN STALAG LUFT III

Somewhat controversially the 1963 film The Great Escape was a highly fictional account, which included US officers participating in the escape, and an episode with the character played by Steve McQueen attempting to escape by motorbike. Neither of these aspects of the film had any factual basis.

Yet there were US officers in Stalag Luft III and they had been involved in the original planning for the escape. The only reason they were not directly involved in the actual escape in March 1944 was that the US officers shad been moved to separate compounds within the camp, on account of their growing numbers.

The material collected by the US Air Force Academy in its special collection ‘Stalag Luft III Archive’ features prominently in a 2019 book, Stalag Luft III. This is a comprehensive collection of images and stories about the reality of life in the camp and many photographs illustrating the original tunnel and how it was built. The following images and excerpts are reproduced by kind permission of the publisher.

Lieutenant Colonel Albert P. Clark during his time as a Prisoner of War.

Lieutenant Colonel Albert P. Clark

Graduating from the US Military Academy West Point in l936, Clark joined the Army Air Corps to train as a fighter pilot. With the rapid expansion of the Corps after the fall of France in June 194O, Clark received accelerated promotion. By the spring of 1942, as a 29-year-old lieutenant colonel, he was the Executive Officer of the 31st Fighter Group (equivalent to an RAF Wing).

In June 1942 the Group deployed to Britain, the first American fighter unit to do so. On arrival, it was equipped with the Spitre VB. That July, Clark, together with other key members of the Group, was attached to the RAF Tangmere Wing to gain operational experience.

After taking part in ship protection patrols over the English Channel, he carried out his first fighter sweep over northern France on 26 July. After a tussle with four Fockewulf FW19Os, Clark was forced to crash-land close to Cap Gris Nez and became one of the first American aircrew to be captured.

After a spell at Oberursel, he was taken to Stalag Luft III and placed in the East Compound. He was initially the subject of some curiosity among the British inmates, but was quickly accepted by them. Clark soon became involved in sending coded messages to MI9 and initiated a successful campaign to improve hygiene in the compound.

He also became involved in escaping. On being moved to the North Compound, when it opened in March l943, Clark was put in charge of security while the tunnels for the Great Escape were being dug. Unfortunately for him, in September 1943 all the Americans were moved to the newly constructed Centre and South Compounds, with Clark going to the latter. There he took control of escape and intelligence-gathering activities.

The latter included coordinating the operation of secret cameras (sent in ordinary parcels by the US Army) for recording all activities in the camp. Clark took part in the long march westwards after the camp was evacuated in January 1945, and ended up in the camp at Moosburg.

He remained in the Air Force after the war, rising to the rank of Lieutenant General. His last position was Superintendent of the US Air Force Academy and he was instrumental in establishing the Stalag Luft III archive, part of the Academy’s Special Collections.

Three British prisoners of war produce news sheets in one of the huts at Stalag Luft III PoW camp.

Three British prisoners of war produce news sheets in one of the huts at Stalag Luft III PoW camp.

The entrance to 'Harry',

The entrance to ‘Harry’, with the improvised pipe that pumped fresh air into the 102 metre long tunnel.

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Steve Lintott April 1, 2019 at 7:45 pm

Another book about this event called “The Great Escape The Untold Story” was published in 2013. Authored by Ted Barris, it received the Certificate of Honor from the Stalag Luft III POW Association, and was co-winner of the Libris Award for Non-Fiction Book of the Year.

craig gleason March 27, 2014 at 2:25 am

Amazing story. I think if I had survived being shot down not to mention however many missions before that with the knowledge that the war had swung clearly in the allies direction, I would have been content to wait to be liberated knowing I had done my job. These soldiers clearly went above and beyond!

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