Stalag Luft III was a Luftwaffe-run prisoner of war camp during World War Ii that housed captured air force servicemen. It was in the German province of Lower Silesia near the town of Sagan, 100 miles (160 km) southeast of Berlin. The site was selected because it would be difficult to escape by tunneling.
For sheer planning, risk, and scale, prison escapes don’t get much more complex than the 1944 escape of 76 Allied soldiers from Stalag Luft III, a German prison that operated during WWII. The escape was the culmination of over a year of work by some 600 prisoners. The men dug three tunnels (nicknamed “Tom,” “Dick,” and “Harry”) 30 feet beneath the surface of the prison with the plan of tunnelling past the main fence and surfacing in the nearby forest. End of “Harry” tunnel showing how close the exit was to the camp fence. This required a sophisticated construction process that included the use of wood blocks for support, a series of lamps, and even a pump to make sure the soldiers digging had enough air to breathe. After gathering a collection of civilian clothes and passports, on March 24, 1944 the soldiers began to make their escape. Unfortunately, the tunnel had come up short of the forest, and as the men surfaced they were in clear sight of the guards. 76 men still managed to escape, but the 77th was spotted and the tunnel was shut down. The Nazis took a special interest in the escaped prisoners, and all but three were eventually caught.
Former RAF gunner Frank Stone, 89 years old and a survivor was held captive in the notorious Stalag Luft III camp, built by the Nazis in what is now Polish, after he was shot down on a bombing mission and he remembers.
The day after the mass escape from Stalag Luft III, Hitler gave personal orders that every recaptured officer was to be shot. Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, chief of state security, and Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, head of the German High Command, who had ultimate control over prisoners of war, argued about the responsibility for the escape.Goering pointed out to Hitler that a massacre might bring about reprisals to German pilots in Allied hands. Hitler agreed, but insisted “more than half” were to be shot.
Of a total of 76 successful escapees, 73 were recaptured, mostly within days of the breakout, of whom 50 were executed. These summary executions were conducted within a short period of recapture. Outrage at the killings was felt immediately, both in the prison camp, among comrades of the escaped prisoners, and in the United Kingdom, where the Foreign Minister.
There were three successful escapees: Per Bergsland , Norwegian pilot of No 332 Squadron RAF, Jens Müller , Norwegian pilot of No 331 Squadron RAF and Bram van der Stok , our Dutch pilot of No 41 Squadron RAF. Bergsland and Müller made it to neutral Sweden by boat, while van der Stok travelled through France before finding safety at a British consulate in Spain.
Antony Eden rose in the House of Commons to announce in June 1944 that those guilty of what the British government suspected was a war crime would be “brought to exemplary justice.”
After Nazi Germany’s capitulation in May 1945, the Police branch of the Royal Air Force, with whom the 50 airmen had been serving, launched a special investigation into the killings, having branded the shootings a war crime despite official German reports that the airmen had been shot while attempting to escape from captivity following recapture. An extensive investigation into the events following the recapture of the 73 airmen was launched, which was unique for being the only major war crime to be investigated by a single branch of any nation’s military. General Arthur Nebe, who is believed to have selected the airmen to be shot, was involved in the 20 July plot to kill Hitler and executed at the Plötzensee prison by Nazi authorities on 21-03-1945, age 50.
Still, thanks to the popularity of the famous movie based on it, as well as its sheer scale and audacity, “the Great Escape” remains one of the most well-known prison escapes of all time.