6 Incredible Things You Need To Know About The Great Escape

Some fascinating facts about the great escape from Stalag Luft III and what it took to break free…

The Great Escape

One bitingly cold night in March 1944, a group of Allied prisoners of war mounted a daring break out at the Stalag Luft III camp in Poland. You've heard the story before, but here are six things you might not know about the event immortalised as the Great Escape.

Revealed: The Great Escape

1. THE OTHER ESCAPE

The Great Escape wasn't the first bid for freedom at Stalag Luft III. A year before, in 1943, a fantastically peculiar escape took place thanks to the ingenuity of three POWs and the help of a lot of pretend-athletes. The three men created their own equivalent of a Trojan Horse by cobbling together a gymnastic vaulting horse using bits of wood around the camp. The horse was then placed near the perimeter fence, ostensibly for inmates to exercise on.

The hollow vaulting horse concealed the three friends who would dig a tunnel into the soil while their fellow prisoners kept up the pretense by jumping over the horse above. At the end of every day, a wooden board would then be placed over the tunnel entrance and covered with dirt. After three months of being carried in the horse to and from the tunnel, the three diggers eventually scurried to freedom. Nobody died or was re-captured, making it technically much more successful than the Great Escape a year later.

2. FRIENDLY(ISH) RELATIONS

German officers at the camp were mockingly nicknamed "goons" by the POWs. The Germans were aware of this, but were misled by the prisoners into thinking it stood for "German Officer Or Non-Com". Generally, relations between the prisoners and guards was tolerably cordial and cooperative. There was a "live and let live" attitude, and prisoners actually amused themselves by winding up the guards - a hobby known as "goon-baiting". The POWs also carefully tracked the movements of all the guards throughout the camp using special log books - again, the Germans were aware of this, and in one amusing incident a senior German officer requested use of the POW log book to check if his men were bunking off work.

Klim Tins

3. DIGGING FOR VICTORY

The Great Escape was a mammoth undertaking, involving more than 600 prisoners and the digging of three separate tunnels named Tom, Dick and Harry. The thinking was that if the Germans discovered one tunnel, there would be back-ups. The most essential tool for creating the tunnels? Empty powdered milk tins. Known as Klim ("milk" spelt backwards), they were sent to the POWs by the Red Cross, and around 1,400 Klim tins were turned into makeshift shovels and even used to create ventilation ducts in the tunnels. Cleverly, the diggers lit their way using "candles" created using fat scooped up from the greasy soups served in the canteen. Even more cleverly, they later used stolen wire to tap into the camp's own electricity supply, stringing up bulbs throughout the tunnels.

All in all, creating the tunnels involved using around 1,700 blankets (to muffle the digging sounds), 4,000 bed boards (to keep the walls from caving in) and 1,219 knives for getting through the seemingly endless earth.

4. THE PENGUINS

One of the biggest challenges of the Great Escape was the soil itself. The Germans had deliberately built Stalag Luft III in an area with eye-catchingly yellow, sandy soil. This meant that any yellow stains or smudges would be noticed by guards as evidence of an escape being planned. For this reason, the POWs adopted a "uniform" for digging the tunnels. On arriving for "work", they would strip down and put on long johns that one POW described as "clammy, wet, sandy, grubby, terrible". That's what they would wear as they dug away in claustrophobic conditions.

Then there were the "penguins". These were the chaps tasked with disposing of the soil from the tunnels. They were given that name because they carried the soil in secret trouser pouches made from socks, causing them to waddle as they walked to the camp gardens, where the soil would be released and raked into the ground. It's thought there were 200 penguins during the Great Escape.

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5. THE DISCOVERY

On the night of the escape, 76 men managed to make it through the tunnel and out of the camp. The 77th men was spotted by guards, causing the remaining would-be escapees to scramble back to the huts. The trouble was, they had stacks of forged identity papers, maps and other contraband piled up in their quarters which they had just moments to get rid of before the guards charged in. The men were therefore forced to set several bonfires, throwing all their carefully created papers into the hungry flames. The Germans were "absolutely livid", according to one prisoner, and everyone was immediately put into solitary confinement.

6. AN EVIL END

In the end, out of the 76 men who got away from Stalag Luft III that fateful night, only three actually made it to freedom. Everyone else was re-captured by the Germans in quick time, but it wasn't a cause for great alarm - the prisoners assumed they'd simply be sent back to the camp. Instead, the Gestapo wanted to make an example of them, and in one of the worst war crimes involving Allied POWs, they executed 50 of the men involved in the Great Escape. It was such a shocking breach that even the Luftwaffe officers at the camp were horrified, and permitted the prisoners to build a memorial to their fallen comrades.