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The Last Escape - July '96 British Heritage Feature

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: September 23, 1996 
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THE LAST ESCAPE

by Bruce Heydt

From 1939 to 1945, R.A.F. pilots and air crews waged war on Germany from inside Hitler's Third Reich. During the course of England's defence of France and the strategic bombing campaign against targets in occupied Europe, British airmen were inevitably shot down and taken prisoner. The experience always left the stunned pilots apprehensive and disoriented, and their German captors typically greeted the prisoners with the words: 'For you the war is finished.'

Wing Commander Harry 'Wings' Day fell into German hands on Friday, the 13th of October, just five weeks after Britain's declaration of war. Unlike the younger airmen captured in the early days of the conflict, this 41-year-old veteran of the 'Great War' had a keen perspective on what lay ahead. Day told his dispirited companions: '1918 may seem a long way off to some of you. At the beginning of that year it looked as though we had lost the [First World] war. It may seem to some of you now that you have already lost this one. But we beat the Germans in 1918 and what you have already done will help to beat them again. For you the war is not over.'

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In order to restore the prisoners' shattered morale, Day assigned them a formal mission, just as if they were still serving in active R.A.F. squadrons. Henceforth, he told them, their contribution to the war effort would be to escape.

Early in the War, none of the British or Allied prisoners knew much about how to break out of an internment camp, but their guards knew as little about how to prevent it. The prisoners tested their captors' skills frequently, but did not coordinate their efforts, so that several different groups often worked out their own schemes simultaneously. These escapes often succeeded to the extent that the prisoners got beyond the barbed wire and guard towers that surrounded the camps, but rarely did they have the resources necessary to make it back to England, and the Germans recaptured most within a few hours or days.

Few of the escapees could match the exploits of Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, a South African-born R.A.F. officer. Twice he broke out of camp, and on the first attempt he came to within a few yards of the German-Swiss border before being caught. A second escape might well have succeeded if he had not had the bad luck of breaking out of camp just before assassins killed Reichsfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich in Czechoslovakia. The Germans launched a massive manhunt for the killers, and in the process, they stumbled upon Bushell hiding in Prague.

Wing Commander Day learned from these early defeats. He knew that if such small scale, impromptu operations had failed in the past, they could not succeed in the future, as German authorities tightened security to deal with the threat. Day, then being detained at Stalag Luft III–a prisoner-of-war camp at Sagan, Germany–coordinated all future escape efforts by establishing an official planning committee called the X Organization. He selected Lieutenant Commander Jimmy Buckley to mastermind the group, but in March, 1943 Buckley was killed during an escape attempt and Bushell took over control of the X Organization.

Buckley's failure, and others before it, inspired Bushell's strategy. Though unsuccessful, Buckley and a few companions sent German authorities into a near panic, forcing them to commit combat troops, which could otherwise have been deployed at the front, to the task of hunting down the escaped prisoners. This clearly indicated how important the prisoners' contribution to the war effort could be.

Bushell planned to repeat Buckley's effort on a massive scale. The Germans classified any breakout involving more than five prisoners a 'mass escape'. In contrast, Bushell planned to equip no less than 200 British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealander, and other Allied air force captives with clothes, identity papers, rations, and everything else they needed to reach neutral Sweden or Switzerland, and to dig three tunnels out of Stalag Luft III to get them on their way.

The effort required to accomplish the scheme became one of the most pervasive elements of life at Stalag Luft III. The escape itself would be a dangerous business that relatively few prisoners chose to risk, but of the 10,000 POWs in the camp, nearly half volunteered to participate in the extensive preparations Bushell's plan called for.

The obstacles separating the prisoners from freedom would have taxed human ingenuity even if the POWs had not been forced to execute their plans covertly. Security, however, demanded that every conversation be spoken in whispers and every preparation undertaken in dark corners. At the same time, German inspections and searches continually interrupted the work.

The sandy local soil presented the prisoners with their most basic problem. Their tunnels caved in almost as fast as the prisoners could dig, unless they braced them up firmly with boards. Fortunately, the Germans constantly enlarged the camp throughout war, and lumber and tools intended for constructing new barracks littered the compound. If the German guards noticed that boards tended to disappear, they did not pass their observations along to their superiors out of fear that they would be punished for their carelessness. Prisoners also collected wood by removing many of the slats beneath the mattresses in their bunks, and fashioned tools from metal condensed milk cans that arrived by the hundreds in Red Cross packages.

Bushell insisted that the prisoners call the three tunnels Tom, Dick, and Harry, so that the guards would never overhear the word 'tunnel'. Because sentries made regular searches for tunnel entrances, the prisoners took ingenious precautions to disguise them. Tom's entrance lay beneath the floor of a dimly lit corner of a narrow barracks hallway. A drain in the floor of a washroom disguised Dick's entrance, so that it was literally underwater. A concrete slab under a stove concealed Harry.

A network of spies called 'stooges' also kept every possible approach to the entrances under constant surveillance. When sentries–which the prisoners dubbed 'goons'–came into view, the stooges signalled the tunnellers to abandon their work and seal up the entrances. This war of wits between the stooges and the goons ended in a decisive Allied victory. In nearly a year of almost constant tunnelling, the Germans never once caught the POWs at work.

As worked progressed, Tom, Dick, and Harry evolved from dark holes in the ground into primitive but efficient Tube systems, complete with 'railway' tracks, miniature trolley cars, and transfer stations. The prisoners named the stations in tunnel Harry 'Piccadilly Circus' and 'Leicester Square'. They tapped into German electrical lines to light the tunnels, and constructed their own hand-powered pumps and ducts to keep fresh air circulating.

The work of equipping prisoners for their dash to freedom may have been even more ingenious. Forgers duplicated complete sets of identity papers, overlooking no detail that would make the hand-drawn documents look authentic. Every mark on each document had to be painstakingly hand-drawn to simulate typewriting or official stamps and seals. A clandestine photo studio provided identity photos, using a camera donated by a big-hearted guard who believed the prisoners just wanted to send pictures home to their families.

The most intricate documents took forgers a full month to duplicate, but sometimes other skills produced quicker results. The prisoners bribed several of the German guards to supply other needed materials. One guard even agreed to take some blank forms home for his wife to type up.

The clothing needed to make 200 escaped air force officers look like German civilians was made from blankets, altered from service uniforms, and stolen from a camp store. Some material found its way into camp in packages sent by the prisoners' families. The British intelligence services in England helped out by sending blankets that had been secretly marked with patterns for civilian business suits. The patterns remained invisible until the prisoners moistened the blankets. The captives also received shipments of what appeared at first glance to be fresh R.A.F. outfits, but which were actually cut in the style of German Army uniforms so they could be easily altered.

Finally, every escapee received a homemade compass, fashioned by magnetizing strips of metal cut from razor blades and mounting them in cases made from melted phonograph records.

Despite incredible ingenuity and every precaution, however, German guards discovered tunnel Tom when one of them accidentally dropped a pickaxe, breaking a corner from the cement slab that covered the entrance. The Germans immediately collapsed the nearly completed tunnel with a charge of dynamite, but Tom took its revenge. The Germans had no idea how much dynamite they needed for the job and in the end they grossly overestimated. The blast not only collapsed the tunnel but also damaged the drainpipes running from one of the German barracks. In trying to make repairs, the Germans toppled one of their own guard towers.

Though disheartened by the setback, the POWs continued to work on the two remaining tunnels. Eventually, Bushell halted work on tunnel Dick and used it as a place to hide the sand removed from Harry, which the tunnellers finished in mid-March, 1944. It ran for 336 feet from its entrance under the stove to the exit shaft, which rose to within a foot of the surface. The remaining distance was to be broken through only at the moment of escape.

Bushell scheduled the breakout for the night of 24th March. The 200 escapees gathered in the barracks over the tunnel entrance in preparation for making their way, one by one, through Harry. Each prisoner descended the entrance shaft and laid down on a trolley car waiting at the bottom. A POW at Piccadilly Circus pulled the trolley through the tunnel by rope. At the first transfer station, the escapee switched to a second trolley for the ride to Leicester Square and on to the exit shaft, while the first trolley was pulled back down the tunnel toward the entrance for the next passenger.

Harry was only two feet high and two feet wide, and a bump of a head or an elbow against the side usually resulted in a cave-in, so even with the trolleys and some good luck, Bushell expected it would take all night to pass 200 men through the tunnel. Problems threw the schedule into disarray right from the outset, however. The remaining foot of soil separating the exit shaft from the surface proved to be a major obstacle. A wooden frame that prevented an accidental cave-in from exposing the exit had frozen into place and the tunnellers worked at it for half-an-hour before it came free. Then, the first prisoner to poke his head through to the surface discovered that a gap in the ring of trees encircling the camp left the exit easily visible from both a nearby guard tower and the route walked by a sentry outside the barbed wire.

With no other choice, Bushell decided to risk going ahead with the breakout, relying on a prisoner watching from the woods and tugging a signal rope when it was safe for each subsequent escapee to make the dash from the tunnel to safety.

One by one the prisoners exited and started on their way, but just a short time later a cave-in halted the flow of escapees for another 30 minutes. Even when traffic resumed, only a handful of POWs made their way through Harry each hour, far below Bushell's planned rate of one every four minutes.

As dawn approached, the POWs in charge of the tunnel told those who had not yet got through to hide their escape gear and return to their own barracks, since there was no longer any hope of them getting away. At the same instant, outside the wire, the prisoners' luck ran out. The German sentry who had been within gunshot of the escaping POWs all night finally noticed steam rising from the ground near the woods and, taking a detour from his usual rounds to investigate, discovered the tunnel's exit.

While the game was up, however, the Germans did not immediately learn the location of the other end of the tunnel. None of the guards was anxious to climb into Harry's exit and trace the tunnel back to its origin. One finally consented to do so and climbed down into the hole, but when he did not reappear for more than an hour, his superiors naturally became concerned. A search of every barracks in the compound had failed to disclose Harry's entrance, and finally the camp Commandant swallowed his pride and asked the British prisoners to please rescue the missing guard. By then they had already done so on their own initiative, after hearing cries for help coming from beneath their barracks floor.

During the night, 76 British and Allied airmen escaped from Stalag Luft III. The story of their heroic defiance of their captors had a tragic conclusion, however. Only three of the prisoners made it safely out of occupied Europe. Of those who were recaptured, 50, including Squadron Leader Bushell, were executed in retaliation for the trouble they had caused the Germans.

By this time an Allied victory to the war seemed imminent, and the surviving prisoners decided there was no reason to risk further escapes. After the war, the Government of Poland erected a monument near Sagan, dedicated to the Allied prisoners who had died there. Somewhere beneath the ground close by, a second monument of sorts–tunnel Dick, which the German guards never discovered–serves as a tribute to their ingenuity and perseverance.



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