They found Harry.

Great Escape, Steve McQueen, World War Two

copyright: fair use claimed

Harry was lost behind the Iron Curtain for much of his life. The Russians weren’t much interested in him.

But recently Harry turned up again, not that much worse for wear, considering he’s been buried for 70 years.

Harry is the most famous tunnel in the world.

He is a hundred and eleven yards long, and was sealed up by the Nazis after an audacious break-out from Stalag Luft III in Western  Poland in 1944.

The camp held 10,000 Allied prisoners on a 60-acre site ringed with a double barbed-wire fence and watchtowers.

RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell concocted a plan for a major escape. It involved digging 3 tunnels called Tom, Dick and Harry, (he wanted 3 in case one was discovered – he thought the Germans wouldn’t imagine they might attempt to dig more than one at a time. He was right.)

Previous attempts had involved the escape of a dozen or so men.

Bushell wanted to spring two hundred.

Great Escape, Steve McQueen, World War Two

source: Dagoos

Tom started in a dark corner of a hut; Dick was in a washroom drain sump and Harry was under a stove. More than 600 prisoners were involved in their construction.

The tunnels were shored up with pieces of wood scavenged from all over the camp.

Great Escape, Steve McQueen, World War TwoFor lighting they used candles made by skimming the fat off the top of soup (the Germans must have used the same cook who made our school dinners.)

They made a ventilation shaft using powdered milk containers and built an air pump using hockey sticks, knapsacks and condensed milk tins.

The tunnels were even equipped with a trolley system to shift sand and men quickly; it ran on tracks linked by rope and was pulled along by men at either end.

Prisoners put bags down their trousers, filled them with excavated sand, then pulled a string to scatter it as they walked around. They wore greatcoats to conceal the bulges made by the pouches of dirt.

They were nicknamed ‘penguins’ because they waddled when they walked.

When “Tom” became the 98th tunnel discovered in the camp, work on “Harry” was halted for four months. It was finally completed in March 1944.

But on the night of the breakout it was so cold the exit trap door was frozen solid, delaying the escape for an hour and a half.

Then there was an air raid. At 1am the tunnel partially collapsed and had to be repaired.

Finally 76 made it out. But just before dawn number 77 was spotted.

Great Escape, Steve McQueen, World War Two

photograph: Vorwerk

The Germans searched in vain for the tunnel entrance. They only found it when one of the guards got stuck in the tunnel and started calling for help. The prisoners decided to open the secret trapdoor to let him out.

The guards then took an inventory of the camp and found out half of it was missing; the POW’s had stolen four thousand bed boards, 90 double bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 192 bed covers, 161 pillow cases, 62 tables, 34 chairs, 76 benches, over two thousand items of cutlery, three hundred pieces of gardening equipment and three thousand towels. Right from under their noses.

It was like having the family come to stay at Christmas.

Great Escape, Steve McQueen, World War Two

the memorial to the 50 POW’s murdered by the Gestapo

Meanwhile the escapees were still short on luck. They couldn’t find the entrance to the local train station in the dark and decided to escape on foot. But that March was the coldest in 30 years and snow lay up to five feet deep. Most were recaptured.

Only three made it back to England; two Norwegian pilots and a Dutchman.

Hitler wanted to shoot all the recaptured prisoners as well as the camp Commandant, von Lindeiner, the camp’s security officer and the guards.

In the end fifty pilots were executed, by the Gestapo, singly or in pairs.

21 of those murdered were British and 6 were Canadians; the rest were from all around the Commonwealth.

Great Escape, Steve McQueen, World War Two

photo: HarrySagan2

If it was meant as a deterrent, it was no deterrent at all. The prisoners almost immediately began work on a fourth tunnel nicknamed ‘George’, which was still unfinished when the war ended.

It had timber-lined walls, electrical wiring with homemade junction boxes, and was tall enough to walk through at a stoop.

But this one was a fighting tunnel, headed straight for the German compound. This time they intended to steal weapons and fight their way out.

The 1963 movie ‘The Great Escape’ is based on this incident. The producers did take some licence with history; although Steve McQueen had the starring role in the film, no Americans took part in the escape.

The majority were British, most of the others came from America’s other great enemy, Canada.

Great Escape, Steve McQueen, World War Two

Steve McQueen on set.
copyright: fair use claimed

There were no actual escapes by motorcycle or aircraft either, so that classic scene where McQueen tries to leap the barbed fence on his motorbike is fiction. (But if it didn’t happen, it should have!)

Despite tinkering a little with history, the movie made the story of the escape famous. It became one of the highest grossing films of 1963, and is still one of the highest rating vintage movies to this day.

It also ensured the fifty airmen so brutally executed by the Gestapo will never be forgotten.

And now, even if they can’t bring Harry home, they finally know where he is.



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About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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  1. Lurdes says:

    Interesting story. They worked a lot, but unfortunately only 3 had the joy to really escape. I am sorry for so many executed POW. There are stories that should always have a good ending, but harsh reality wins

    • They were brave men. At least the movie meant that their courage was never forgotten. The camp commandant was cleared of any war crimes after the war – it was Hitler and the Gestapo responsible for the murders.

  2. What a great story, and that film is a classic. We all need to honor those brave men who went through this.

    Also, it does remind me of Hogan’s Heroes a bit with all the secret tunnels.


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