The Great Escape Drove the Nazis Nuts

But Hitler’s thirst for revenge led to the murder of 50 prisoners of war

The Great Escape Drove the Nazis Nuts The Great Escape Drove the Nazis Nuts
On March 24, 1944, 76 Allied prisoners of war crawled out of a tunnel during a moonless night and headed through the snow-covered woods... The Great Escape Drove the Nazis Nuts

On March 24, 1944, 76 Allied prisoners of war crawled out of a tunnel during a moonless night and headed through the snow-covered woods of Poland.

They were fleeing the German prison camp Stalag Luft III. What happened next confounded Nazi Germany’s security forces for weeks, infuriated Hitler and led to the murder of 50 of the escapees by the Gestapo.

It’s known as “The Great Escape,” and it was World War II’s most daring and ingenious effort by Allied POWs to flee their German captors. A best-selling book and a popular Hollywood movie chronicled their flight.

But more than 70 years later, what many forget is that despite months of dangerous and backbreaking work, only three men made it all the way to freedom.

Stalag Luft III was about 100 miles southeast of Berlin near the town of Zagan, in what is now present-day Poland. The prison was huge. Divided into five compounds, the 60-acre POW camp eventually held more than 10,000 prisoners.

Opened in 1942, it was a high-security camp where the Germans intended to put all their rotten apples in one basket. The Nazis often shipped troublemakers, repeat escapees and malcontents there. And from the beginning, Berlin planned Stalag Luft III to hold Allied airmen.

Forest surrounded the camp for miles, isolating it from roads and railroad lines.

The camp’s designers picked the area because the underlying soil would help thwart tunneling, and they elevated the numerous POW barracks off the ground to make it more difficult for prisoners to clandestinely dig their way out.

Watch towers —which the POWs nicknamed “goon towers” — surrounded Stalag Luft III. So did a “death zone” stretching along the inside perimeter of the camp’s barbed wire fence. Cross the death zone, and guards would shoot you on the spot.

Still, many of the prisoners made escape plans. One of them wanted an escape so big, it would damage the German war effort.

Above — Roger Bushell in 1939. Royal Air Force photo. At top — a Sept. 17, 1944 reconnaissance photograph of Stalag Luft III. Department of Defense photo

His name was Roger Bushell, also known as “Big X.” An RAF pilot with two previous escape attempts already under his belt, he wanted to bust out as many POWs as he could from the camp … and stick it to the Germans.

“Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time,” Bushell told the camp’s escape committee. “By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun.”

As far as Bushell was concerned, the camp’s anti-escape features were nothing more than a professional challenge. He located like-minded POWs, and coordinated an effort that eventually involved the work of 600 men.

The group’s plan called for three tunnels named Tom, Dick and Harry. Tom would run underneath one of the prisoners’ barracks. They planned to dig Dick underneath the prison’s shower house. And they concealed Harry’s entrance with a stove.

Prisoners dug the tunnels 30 feet below the surface to avoid sound detectors. They cut through building supports to hide their work and concealed the entrances with devices such as a removable concrete slab.

In the meantime, Bushell and his compatriots devised clever plans to assist the construction, ranging from secret surveying techniques, to a way of disposing the excavated soil without raising the suspicion of “the goons.”

Sometimes his behavior seemed odd to prisoners who didn’t know about the escape plans. He had a brusque statement for them. “If you see me walking around with a tree trunk sticking out of my arse, don’t ask any questions, because it’ll be for a damned good reason,” Bushell said.

By the time they made their move, the German had discovered one tunnel, and the prisoners had halted work on another. Harry was the only escape route left. But the prisoners miscalculated the tunnel’s distance — as it emerged just short of a dense tree line.

Only 76 POWs managed to make it through during the escape night.

What happened next is far different than what Hollywood portrayed.

The Harry tunnel escape path in the remains of Stalag Luft III seen in 2006. Vorwerk/Wikimedia photo

As exciting and popular as the film is, the 1963 movie The Great Escape is mostly a work of fiction. The cinematic imperative to showcase big-name American stars drove the plot, not historical facts.

For one, American POWs had little to do with the construction of the tunnels, or formulating the escape plans. The Germans moved the Americans to a new compound within the camp several months before the escape. Some of the most daring escape methods in the film are also complete fabrications.

The movie depicts characters portrayed by James Garner and Donald Pleasence attempting to fly to freedom in a stolen German plane — but no escapee ever used an aircraft.

Steve McQueen’s dramatic motorcycle ride to the Swiss border — with German soldiers in hot pursuit — is a legend in film history. It, too, is total fiction. In reality, most of the prisoners traveled by foot or by railway.

Yet, the film had many qualities that did ring true. The sets constructed at a Bavarian studio were meticulously prepared replicas of the actual prison.

The film’s art director and set designers spent hours researching Stalag Luft III, and hired former POW and Royal Canadian Air Force pilot Wally Floody as a technical adviser. Floody was a POW dubbed “The Tunnel King,” because of his work organizing and leading tunnel construction at the camp.

He wasn’t only impressed with the results — he was personally affected by what he saw. When asked about what he thought of the sets, Floody replied that he knew they were realistic because they prompted nightmares about his wartime experiences.

Heinrich Himmler inspects Soviet prisoners of war at a camp in Minsk. Photo via U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Back in 1944, the escape of 76 POWs caused a major headache for the German police and security services. The Nazis mounted a massive search.

Reserve soldiers, police and the Gestapo were part of the operation to round up the escapees. Some estimates suggest the Germans committed as many as 70,000 men to the search effort.

The POWs fanned out across Germany. Most of them split up into organized escape parties led by at least one member who spoke fluent German. All had forged papers and travel passes that allowed them to move through checkpoints.

But the intensity and size of the manhunt worked against them. One by one, the Nazis rounded up the escapees, and within two weeks nearly all of them were back in captivity.

Only three of the POWs successfully escaped. Norwegians Per Bergsland and Jens Muller stowed away on a freighter to neutral Sweden. Bob van der Stok, a Dutchman, traveled by train and foot to British-held Gibraltar.

The Geneva Convention limited punishment for escape to a brief disciplinary prison sentence, usually no more than 10 days. Most of the captured POWs thought their captors would ship them back to Stalag Luft III.

But the escape was a massive embarrassment to the Reich … and Adolf Hitler wanted revenge.

The Fuhrer called for the execution of all the POWs, an order so drastic that some in the Nazi inner circle — such as Hermann Göring — tried to persuade Hitler to change his mind out of fear there would be reprisals against German POWs in Allied hands.

In the end, Hitler ordered Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler to deal with the POWs. Hitler then insisted on executing at least half of the prisoners.

Himmler had fewer scruples. He decided 50 should die — so one by one, the Gestapo interrogated and executed them. The movie incorrectly portrays their deaths as a single massacre.

The dead also included Bushell — or “Big X.”

The Gestapo murdered him and his escape partner, Bernard Scheidhauer, three days after their re-capture. The Nazis told the remaining POWs at Stalag Luft III that guards shot the prisoners “during escape.”

After the war, a 15-person Royal Air Force investigative team relentlessly tracked down the Gestapo perpetrators, captured them and turned them over to authorities for trial on charges of war crimes. The Allies hanged 21 of them — and others received stiff sentences.