The incredible true story behind ‘The Great Escape’ is far more epic than the film
Millions of people have viewed the stunning 1963 drama-thriller The Great Escape. The action-packed flick involves a daring escape of Allied soldiers from a German POW camp during WWII. However, while the film has gained fame for its A-list actors and intense plot, most people don’t know the incredible true story that inspired the film. While it may not include some of the more bizarre elements of the film (such as the beloved motorcycle scene), the true story is an even more incredible, daring, and courageous tale of resisting tyranny and evil.
Planning their great escape
During the era of WWII, there were nearly 1,000 POW camps in Germany meant to contain Allied soldiers until the war came to an end. The specific camp which inspired The Great Escape film was Stalag Luft III. Situated in Nazi-dominated Poland, the camp was built to keep soldiers in. It included features such as high-rise prisoner housing, sandy soil, and microphones lining every inch of the camp…including mics planted in the ground beneath them. As a result, the camp was labeled as one of the most difficult to escape from. However, that didn’t stop one group of Allied soldiers from attempting to find a way out of the hard-to-escape center. Additionally, their sights weren’t merely set on saving their tails and/or jumping back into battle in defense of Britain. They wanted to present a giant middle-finger to German soldiers and machines of war, letting them know they were no match for the Allied forces.
The plan for escape was hatched by one kick-butt, daredevil soldier in 1943. Roger Bushell, an RAF Squadron Leader, was a notorious attempted-escape artist. After being taken down during Dunkirk, Bushell was transferred to two different camps, both of which he attempted to escape from. This is what resulted in his transfer to the high-security Stalag Luft III, though it hardly deterred his spirit for freedom. Third time’s the charm, right? Somehow, despite the conditions of the camp nearly preventing anyone from escaping, Bushell managed to stage an escape so bold and daring that he was certain it had to succeed. And it did. Although it took them a year to complete their plans, Bushell managed to create a system of escape that flew right under the Nazis noses. So, what was the star of his great plan? Tunnels.
Doing the impossible: Digging tunnels through Stalag
Despite the fact that the ground was sandy and nearly impossible to dig through, Bushell believed that he and the other POWs could pull off producing a tunnel with a bit of willpower, patience, and effort. After all, a tunnel would be the only possible way to escape the camp. At that point, many POWs were willing to die trying to escape. Because of the microphones planted throughout the camp, Bushell came up with codenames for the three tunnels they were going to construct: Tom, Dick, and Harry. Tom and Dick, unfortunately, went under fairly quickly. Tom was discovered by the Nazis and blown up. Dick was built in a part of the camp soon closed off for expansion, so continuing to dig was out of the question. However, Bushell believed that Harry could succeed. After all, he said, “Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug: Tom, Dick, and Harry. One will succeed!” They still had one tunnel left to bank on, and they continued to press on with the construction of their escape route.
It took them one year to complete Harry. A variety of Allied soldiers from Britain, America, Canada, and France banded together and dug the ingenious tunnel across the course of twelve months, avoiding capture and the severe consequences for trying to escape. Harry was built thirty feet beneath the ground, avoiding the nine-foot-below microphones. It was complete with electric lighting, a trolly system, a workshop, and more. They also built two underground trolley stations which they named after London landmarks: “Piccadilly Circus” and “Leicester Square.” It’s unclear how the Nazis didn’t notice an entire escape route being built under their POW camp, yet they remained entirely oblivious to Bushell’s plan and the actions of their POWs. The soldiers were certainly sneaky in their construction. They built ladders using boards from their beds, disposed of literal tons of sand by hiding it in their socks, stole wire to charge their trolley and lights, and used milk tins in place of shovels for digging. Although they had very few materials to work with, the Allies made do with what they had. And, in completing Harry, they pulled off the construction project of a lifetime. All that was left to do was escape.
Breaking out of the camp
On the evening of March 24th, 1944, around 8:45 p.m., the Allies began their escape. Those who contributed the most to the tunnel were amongst the first to begin to escape from the camp. They adorned themselves in civilian clothing bribed from the guards, forged citizen documents and work permits, drew their own accurate maps using photos found on a stolen camera, and prepared to blend in and acclimate to the Polish landscape outside of the camp. Getting soldiers out, however, proved to be tedious. Less than a dozen men could slip out of Harry every hour, making it a complicated task to get the hundreds of Allied soldiers out of Stalag Luft III during the singular night. Additionally, they experienced some tunnel collapses and a blackout during an air raid around 1 a.m. These complications, along with a clumsy German soldier nearly tumbling through their tunnel’s trap door, led to the discovery and halt of escapes through Harry around 5 a.m. The soldiers still in the tunnel were forced to return to Stalag Luft III, burning their documents and maps in their rooms and gorging on their rations. As for the soldiers who did escape? They didn’t fare so well, either.
While the film version of The Great Escape made it seem like March 24th was a lovely spring evening, the POWs were actually facing off with freezing, Polish winter weather conditions. The 76 soldiers who made their escape that night were forced to endure tough weather conditions to simply stay alive long enough to make it to civilization. Those who did manage to get away didn’t evade the Nazis for long. Sadly, after a huge Nazi manhunt and several roadblocks, 73 of the soldiers were recovered and returned to the camp within a two week period. The entire operation resulted in the escape of only three Allied soldiers: two Norwegian men and a Dutchman. The Norwegian duo was smuggled to safety on a Swedish ship, while the Dutchman returned to Europe to rejoining the Royal Air Force and continue fighting against Hitler. To teach the remaining POWs at Stalag Luft III a lesson, Hitler ordered the execution of 50 of the 73 returned soldiers, including their ringleader, Bushell. While their escape was ultimately unsuccessful, the brave heroes at Stalag Luft III showed the Nazis that they would resist Hitler at any and all costs.