March 24, 1944: The POW Camp that Spawned 2 Major Motion Pictures

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A Brief History

On March 24, 1944, the hard work of 600 American and British POW’s was ready to pay off, and 200 of them were ready to escape from Stalag Luft III!

Digging Deeper

Stalag Luft III operated as a prisoner of war camp run by the German Luftwaffe to hold allied aviators (officers) that had been shot down and captured.  Having been opened in 1943, the camp held almost 11,000 allied airmen, mostly American with about a quarter of the total British and some 900 from other allied air forces.

Determined to escape, 600 of the inmates worked digging 3 separate tunnels 30 feet below the surface (named Tom, Dick and Harry), building air pumps out of whatever garbage or materials they could gather.   The sand and dirt excavated to make the tunnels was disposed of by prisoners rigging sandbags hidden in their trousers that could be dumped and scattered as they walked about. Eventually, one of the tunnels was discovered by the guards and closed, and the method of disposing of excavated soil had to change.  The solution was to refill one of the tunnels, leaving only one for the actual escape.  The POW’s had used incredible ingenuity in preparing for escape, manufacturing civilian looking clothes and forging identity papers.  It was decided 200 men could safely escape, and these were chosen by their ability to speak German and by how much time they had put in working on the tunnels.  The remainder were chosen at random.

When the actual escape got underway on the evening of March 24, 1944 a few problems kept the number of escapees down to 76, with delays caused by a frozen entry point, an exit hole that had been miscalculated and was within sight of a guard tower, and even a tunnel collapse that had to be dug out!  The 77th escaping prisoner was seen by the guards and immediately captured, ending any further escapes. The Americans had been transferred shortly before the escape, and only British officers escaped.  Of those, 73 were recaptured and Hitler was livid when he found out, ordering executions for all captured POW’s, all guards on duty, the camp security officer and the architect who had designed the camp!  Herman Goring among others argued against executing the prisoners, and “only” 50 of them were executed.  Another fact about the reprisals was that workers in the camp were also executed because the prisoners had stolen work materials used in the escape.

This great escape became the basis for the 1963 movie, The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen.  This film would not be the only movie made about an escape from this camp, as the 1950 British movie, The Wooden Horse, had already been made (and was the 3d biggest movie made by British cinema that year). The escape referred to in The Wooden Horse had taken place in October of 1943, also by tunnel, and this time done by the incredible trick of constructing a wooden vaulting “horse” that the prisoners would carry outside during exercise time and practice their vaults, while 2 men concealed within would be digging the escape tunnel!  Each day the entrance would be covered and the next day work would start again, under the noses of the guards! Over 3 months 3 British POW’s dug a 100 foot tunnel and eventual escaped successfully.  Not on the scale of the other escape, but certainly quite cracked!  Books about both escapes have been written.

If you were a POW, would you just wait for the end of the war or try to escape?

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.