Guide to The Great Escape

The Great Escape is a remarkable story from a remarkable period in human history. However, it is important to put it into its historical context. It wasn't the greatest escape of the war and it wasn't the worst massacre of prisoners. But none of that detracts from it being an outstanding story.


What was The Great Escape?

The single largest breakout of Allied aircrew from a German POW camp during WWII. Work on building three tunnels (called Tom, Dick and Harry for security reasons) started on 11 April 1943. Tom was discovered and blown up, Dick was used to store the spoil from Harry, which was the tunnel used in the escape.



Where did it take place?

At Stalag Luft III in Sagan, German Silesia (now Zagan in Poland).



When did it take place?

On the night of 24-25 March 1944. Selected as it was a moonless night.



How many got out?

They hoped to get out 220 but prepared documents and clothing for 200 escapers. On the night, 86 entered the tunnel, 80 got out (4 were arrested immediately when the tunnel was found), and only 76 got away initially.



What went wrong?

Ironically, an Allied bombing raid led to a black out and also disrupted the train timetable (used by many of those deemed to be most likely to succeed). The entrance was deeper than expected, so breaking through took more time. It opened out in exposed ground rather than in the tree line as planned. There were collapses, blocks (people trying to take bulky escape kits through, snapped ropes – and according to at least one account – snapped people as a result of panic attacks due to claustrophobia). While snow on the ground and freezing conditions made it easier to recapture the escapers who were often forced to seek shelter.



What was so special about The Great Escape?

It involved Hitler, Churchill and Stalin – an American relation of Churchill's was one of the POWs and together with a few other Great Escapers after being recaptured was sent to a concentration camp where Stalin's son was held). However, the most striking aspect apart from the link to wartime leaders and the planned scale of the breakout was the fate of the recaptured prisoners.

Of the 76 that got away, only three made it to safety. Fifty out of the remaining 73 were executed on Hitler's direct orders. He had wanted to have them all executed to deter future escape activity but the Head of the Luftwaffe Herman Goering pointed out there could be reprisals against German prisoners. Hitler then said over half should be killed. Head of the SS Heinrich Himmler set the figure at 50. It was the worst atrocity suffered by the RAF during WWII. However, it was not the largest Allied escape of WWII, and in size and nature it does not compare to other massacres and murders of prisoners.



How were they killed?

The actual manner of their execution was cold-blooded, and sometimes degrading. Killed in small groups, in some cases shot without warning while they were relieving themselves, others were told in advance (in one case because their Gestapo executioner wanted to see their reaction to the news).

Their bodies were cremated (believed to be the only time this happened) and the urns sent back to the camp.

Only 15 POWs were sent back to their original camp, the others were sent to concentration camps. Their survival was only by the slimmest of margins, so the actual death toll could have been higher.



Were there German victims of The Great Escape?

Yes. The German camp commandant and his security team faced a court-martial. However, the Gestapo investigating the breakout, and how the tunnel had electric lights executed three electricians (the prisoners had stolen the electric cable from them while they had been doing work around the camp but they had been too scared to report it).



Is it more than just another wartime atrocity?

Very much so. Probably the most remarkable element is that it is a fascinating insight into human behaviour – bravery, creativity, adaptability, and even frailty. There's even a fair dose of comedy.

Far from being the brutal stereotypes shown in wartime propaganda films their Luftwaffe guards often showed remarkable tolerance and restraint – and, on occasions, even kindness and a sense of humour.

However, the Luftwaffe tended to treat their prisoners better than the Wehrmacht, and generally British and American POWs fared better than Russians. Russian POWs were not covered by the Geneva Convention, and also fell foul of Nazi views on race. They suffered horrendous treatment and were often left out in the open to starve or freeze to death – literally in their millions.



Was The Great Escape an all British show?

Although largely perceived as a British RAF effort, it was very much an international alliance.

Wally Floody, a Canadian, was in charge of tunnelling; George Harsh, a convicted American murderer released from a chain gang and serving with the RCAF, headed security (taking over from another American); Al Hake, an Australian, made compasses; Minskewitz, a Pole, designed and installed the concealed tunnel entrances; John Travis, a Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe), devised the fat burning lamps and a host of other bits of equipment...

The actual Great Escapers came from a host of different nationalities; including Czech, Lithuanian, Greek, Maori (New Zealand)... While the only three escapers to reach safety were two Norwegians and a Dutchman.



Did they still try to escape after the murders?

Unlike the 1963 movie, the story didn't end with the breakout and executions. A group of Great Escapers sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, run by the SS, managed to tunnel out of there (but were all recaptured, and later moved to other infamous camps as the German Reich crumbled). While the POWs back in Sagan dug another tunnel, named 'George', but the camp was evacuated before it was used. Some did slip away during the Death Marches.



What were the Death Marches?

With Russian and Allied armies closing in POW and concentration camps were closed down and the prisoners often forced to move further into German territory. These forced marches, often took place in freezing winter conditions, with little or no food, with the constant risk of air attack and an added hazard for aircrew – the possibility of assaults on airmen by German civilians outraged by the bomber campaign (although, in many cases, POWs actually experienced kindness – in at least one instance, the mother of a German POW said she was doing it because her son had told her he was being well looked after). Stragglers were often shot if they fell behind. Although the Stalag Luft III prisoners were generally better treated. In fact, at least one of them helped carry their elderly guard's rifle for him. Inmates of concentration camps did not fare so well. At Sachsenhausen regular prisoners were forced marched to the coast – anyone falling behind or showing any kind of dissent was immediately killed. Often regular German Army (Wehrmacht) personnel intervened to prevent ill-treatment by the SS guards. However, their kindness counted for little – many of the survivors who reached the coast were loaded on to ships and taken out to sea and deliberately sunk with them on board. A shortage of ships allowed some to survive until liberated by Russian forces.



Where the people responsible brought to justice?

Future Prime Minister, then Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden promised retribution for the murders of the airmen in parliament (saying the people responsible would face 'exemplary justice'). The investigations into the executions of the escapers and the attempt to bring those responsible to justice are a remarkable story in their own right. Even, if at least some of the guilty were left off remarkably lightly. A number of others were hanged but in at least one case it hardly seemed fair.



How does The Great Escape link to other aspects of history?

The Great Escape is very much a people story. And as it is the people who provide links to other important places, events and people. Major John Dodge, an American volunteer veteran of WWI and WWII wasn't even in the air force but was allowed to stay with aircrew prisoners due to his family links to Winston Churchill. John Pohe, a Maori airman, helped airdrop the commandos on the famous Bruneval Raid (and was one of the murdered Great Escapers). David Lubbock, mentioned as the nutritionist in The Great Escape, also partnered the legendary and legless Douglas Bader on some of his escape bids. He also links to his father-in-law, the quite amazing John Boyd Orr – trained as a doctor; worked as a ship's surgeon; established an institute for nutrition; served as an Army (winning an MC and DSO) and then Navy doctor in WWI; established the Rowett Institute; successfully campaigned to improve child nutrition; advised the British government on food during WWII; and afterwards became the first Director General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (with David Lubbock as his First Secretary); later, created as a Baron, and awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. While 'Wings' Day and others sent to the concentration camps were not only able to provide information on the fate of SOE agents and others executed there, but also link to the stories of Mad Jack Churchill, a Commando officer; Peter Churchill, a SOE agent and future husband of Odette Sansom (another agent whose story was also made into a film); and Sigismund Payne Best (a British agent kidnapped by the Germans in 1939).



What happened after they were liberated?

Some British and American POWs in the Russian Zone had a rather anxious wait before finally being freed after the war had ended. Tragically, at least one planeload of returning POWs crashed on takeoff killing all on board. On a lighter note, apparently tired of waiting to get back home, two former POWs (George Harsh and Kingsley Brown, American and Canadian respectively) decided to speed things up by trying to steal a Shorts Sunderland flying boat to make their own way across the Atlantic. Other former prisoners went back to their pre-war jobs. Some continued in the armed forces, some became successful businessmen, some entered politics – one even became the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Many later wrote about their experiences – some focus only on their wartime experiences, others are more autobiographical.



How does The Great Escape link to Hatfield?

At least one of the key players in The Great Escape forgery team is known to have completed part of his RAF training at Hatfield.

Click here to go Gordon Brettell – Part 1


Interestingly, the first 'Big X', Fleet Air Arm pilot Lieutenant James Buckley was active in civilian flying circles in the 1930s. He took part in the 1930 King's Cup Air Race, and among the famous names in the field were Geoffrey de Havilland, Geoffrey de Havilland Jr, Alan Butler and his wife. So it's more than likely he would have visited Hatfield at some stage. Sadly, he lost his life on the last legs of an earlier escape attempt.



How is The Great Escape remembered?

The Great Escape occupies a special place in the British public's consciousness – partly due to Paul Brickhill's 1951 book 'The Great Escape', which was one of the earliest, detailed, published accounts of life behind barbed wire. It gained a whole new audience through John Sturges' 1963 film, based on the book. However, while the pre-breakout activity was accurately portrayed, the largely American cast, the blending of characters, and the commercially-minded script did distort the facts. For example, Steve McQueen is said to have only agreed to take part if he could show off his bike riding skills – none of the real Great Escapers is known to have used a motorbike. And far from sunlit meadows the escapers had to deal with harsh winter conditions with snow on the ground.

It's a shame they resorted to such tactics as the real story is more than dramatic enough. It is sensational, entertaining, and in places deeply moving.



How do I find out more?

There have been many (several hundred) books about life as POWs and covering The Great Escape and others (in many cases POWs involved were moved between various camps – some serial escapers took part in escapes at several camps). Others deal with the lives of people who took part – before, during and after being captured.

Click here for books and DVDs on The Great Escape




The story both at Sagan and particularly after The Great Escape, when recaptured POWs were in the hands of the SS and Gestapo, involves a mix of slang, German names, ranks and security organisations. This glossary will hopefully help people understand the terms used. 

Click here for The Great Escape Glossary A-M


Click here for The Great Escape Glossary N-Z



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