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Immortalised by the 1963 film, the ‘Great Escape’ from the POW camp Stalag Luft III is one of the most famous events of the Second World War.
Here are ten facts about this daring mission:
1. Stalag Luft III was a POW camp in modern day Poland run by the Luftwaffe
It was an officer-only camp located near Sagan (Zagan) that opened in 1942. The camp was subsequently expanded to take American Air Force prisoners.
Jack Kenneth Lyon was number 79 on the list of PoWs preparing to break out of Stalag Luft III in 1944. A Flight Lieutenant in the RAF during the war who was captured when his bomber crashed in Poland after a raid, he was on the brink of entering the ‘Harry’ tunnel when prisoners heard a gunshot and realised that the game was up.Watch Now
2. The Great Escape was not the first escape attempt from Stalag Luft III
Many attempts had been made to dig tunnels out of the camp. In 1943, Oliver Philpot, Eric Williams and Michael Codner successfully escaped from Stalag Luft III by digging a tunnel under the perimeter fence concealed by a wooden vaulting horse. This event was portrayed in the 1950 film ‘The Wooden Horse’.
3. The Great Escape was conceived by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell
Bushell, a South African-born pilot, was captured after crash-landing in his Spitfire during the Dunkirk evacuation in May 1940. At Stalag Luft III he was placed in charge of the Escape Committee.
Roger Bushell (left) with a German guard and a fellow POW / www.pegasusarchive.org
4. The Great Escape was unprecedented in scale
Bushell’s plan involved digging 3 trenches and envisaged breaking out more than 200 prisoners. More than twice that number actually worked on the tunnels.
5. Three tunnels were dug – Tom, Dick and Harry
Neither Tom or Dick were used in the escape; Tom was discovered by the guards, and Dick was merely used for storage.
The entrance to Harry, the tunnel used by the escapees, was hidden under a stove in Hut 104. The prisoners developed innovative ways of disposing of the waste sand using pouches concealed in their trousers and coats.
Recently, Dan was lucky enough to meet Charles Clarke OBE, a prisoner in Stalag Luft III during World War Two who witnessed the audacious three-tunnel escape attempt now famously known as the Great Escape.Watch Now
6. Bribed German guards provided supplies for the escape
Maps and documents were provided in exchange for cigarettes and chocolate. The forms were used to forge fake papers to help the escapees travel through Germany.
7. Not everyone involved was selected to join the escape
Only 200 places were available. Most places went to prisoners deemed the most likely to succeed, including those who spoke some German. Other places were decided by drawing lots.
8. The escape took place in the early hours of 25 March
76 prisoners escaped using tunnel Harry. The 77th man was spotted by guards, beginning a search for the tunnel entrance and the escapees.
Memorial to the 50 escapees killed after their recapture / Wiki commons
9. Three escapees got away
Two Norwegian pilots, Per Bergsland and Jens Muller, and Dutch pilot Bram van der Stok succeeded in getting out of Germany. Bergsland and Muller made for Sweden, while van der Stok escaped to Spain.
The remaining 73 escapers were recaptured; 50 were executed. After the war, the events were investigated as part of the Nuremburg Trials, which resulted in the prosecution and execution of several Gestapo officers.
10. The camp was liberated by Soviet forces in 1945
Stalag Luft III was evacuated before their arrival however – 11,000 prisoners were forced to march 80km to Spremberg.
The true story, and tragic ending, of 76 Allied prisoners' 'Great Escape' from the Nazis
Just after 5:00 a.m. on March 25, 1944, a German soldier patrolling around the Stalag Luft III prisoner-of-war camp in Żagań, Poland, noticed slushy tracks in the snow outside the camp.
As he got closer, he noticed a prisoner crawling through the snow. Realizing an escape was underway, the soldier fired his weapon in the air and called for help. Alarms went off all around the camp, floodlights were turned on, and four prisoners were captured at the mouth of a tunnel.
In the hours that followed, the Germans realized the full extent of the escape: 76 men had made it out in the largest escape attempt of the war. Almost all of them, however, wouldn't make it to freedom.
Things you didn’t know about The Great Escape: McQueen himself played the German motorcyclist who hits the wire.
Hilts (Steve McQueen) strings a wire across the road to obtain a motorcycle. McQueen himself played the German motorcyclist who hits the wire.
Charles Bronson, who portrays the chief tunneler, brought his own expertise and experiences to the set: he had been a coal miner before turning to acting and gave director John Sturges advice on how to move the earth. As a result of his work in the coal mines, Bronson suffered from claustrophobia just as his character had.
One day, the police in the German town where the film was shot set up a speed trap near the set. Several members of the cast and crew were caught, including Steve McQueen. The Chief of Police told McQueen “Herr McQueen, we have caught several of your comrades today, but you have won the prize [for the highest speeding].” McQueen was arrested and briefly jailed.
Several cast members were actual P.O.W.s during World War II. Donald Pleasence was held in a German camp, Hannes Messemer in a Russian camp and Til Kiwe and Hans Reiser were prisoners of the Americans.
During the climactic motorcycle chase, John Sturges allowed Steve McQueen to ride (in disguise) as one of the pursuing German soldiers, so that in the final sequence, through the magic of editing, he’s actually chasing himself.
During production, Charles Bronson met and fell in love with David McCallum’s wife, Jill Ireland, and he jokingly told McCallum he was going to steal her away from him. In 1967, Ireland and McCallum divorced, and she married Bronson.
Steve McQueen also personally attempted the jump across the border fence, but crashed. The jump was successfully performed by Bud Ekins.
Donald Pleasence had actually been a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II, who was shot down, became a prisoner of war and was tortured by the Germans. When he kindly offered advice to the film’s director John Sturges, he was politely asked to keep his “opinions” to himself. Later, when another star from the film informed John Sturges that Pleasence had actually been a RAF Officer in a World War II German POW Stalag camp, Sturges requested his technical advice and input on historical accuracy from that point forward.
Wally Floody, the real-life “Tunnel King” (he was transferred to another camp just before the escape), served as a consultant to the filmmakers, almost full-time, for more than a year.
Paul Brickhill, who wrote the book from which the film is based, was piloting a Spitfire aircraft that was shot down over Tunisia in March 1943. He was taken to Stalag Luft III in Germany, where he assisted in the escape preparations.
Although Steve McQueen did his own motorcycle riding, there was one stunt he did not perform: the hair-raising 60-foot jump over a fence. This was done by McQueen’s friend Bud Ekins, who was managing a Los Angeles-area motorcycle shop when recruited for the stunt. It was the beginning of a new career for Ekins, as he later doubled for McQueen in Bullitt (1968) and did much of the motorcycle riding on the television series CHiPs (1977).
During idle periods while The Great Escape (1963) was in production, all cast and crew members – from stars Steve McQueen and James Garner to production assistants and obscure food service workers – were asked to take thin, five-inch strings of black rubber and knot them around other thin strings of black rubber of enormous length. The finished results of all this knotting were the coils and fences of barbed wire seen throughout the film.
The real-life escape preparations involved 600 men working for well over a year. The escape did have the desired effect of diverting German resources, including a doubling of the number of guards after the Gestapo took over the camp from the Luftwaffe.
The motorcycle scenes were not based on real life but were added at Steve McQueen’s suggestion.
Some aspects of the escape remained classified during production and were not revealed until well after. The inclusion of chocolate, coffee and cigarettes in Red Cross packages is well documented, as is their use to bribe Nazi guards. Other materials useful for escaping had to be kept secret and were not included in the novel or screenplay. Also not revealed until many years later was the fact that the prisoners actually built a fourth tunnel called “George.”
The film was shot entirely on location in Europe, with a complete camp resembling Stalag Luft III built near Munich, Germany. Exteriors for the escape sequences were shot in the Rhine Country and areas near the North Sea, and Steve McQueen’s motorcycle scenes were filmed in Fussen (on the Austrian border) and the Alps. All interiors were filmed at the Bavaria Studio in Munich.
Steve McQueen accepted the role of Hilts on the condition that he got to show off his motorcycle skills.
James Garner developed his “Scrounger” character from his own personal experiences in the military during the Korean War.
The nationality of a few of the prisoners in the story was changed, emphasizing American, and de-emphasizing Commonwealth and other Allied.
The motorcycle that Hilts (Steve McQueen) rides is a cosmetically modified Triumph TR6 Trophy. Bud Ekins who actually performs the famous barbed wire leap stunt, was a Triumph dealer. Triumph was McQueen’s favorite motorcycle marque. The motorcycle sidecar combination that crashes into a ditch is revealed to be a Triumph motorcycle, too. As is well known, these British motorcycle models were not in existence during the Second World War and their appearance is somewhat incongruous.
With the deaths of James Garner (Robert Hendley) on July 19, 2014 and Richard Attenborough (Roger Bartlett) on August 24, 2014, David McCallum (Eric Ashley-Pitt)and John Leyton are the last surviving stars of the film.
When celebrating the Fourth of July and pouring alcohol, Hilts (Steve McQueen) is thrown off by an ad-lib by Goff (Jud Taylor). While Hilts is drinking, Goff says, “No taxation without representation.” McQueen jumps out of character and gives him a look (and mouths, “What?”) The director must have signaled to “just go with it” and the scene continues. But it is an obvious ad-lib.
The medal that Colonel von Luger wears around his neck is the Pour le Merite, also known as the Blue Max. Originally a Prussian military honor, in the First World War it was automatically given to fighter pilots who shot down eight planes (later raised to sixteen). The Nazis replaced it with the Knight’s Cross but it could still be worn by officers who’d won it before the Third Reich.
Steve McQueen held up production because he demanded that the script be rewritten to give his character more to do.
The actual escape from Stalag Luft III occurred on March 24, 1944 – which was Steve McQueen’s 14th birthday.
There is a film company called Virgil Films. It uses the sound of Virgil Hilts bouncing his baseball inside the cooler as the introduction to its movies.
For the train sequences, a railroad engine was rented and two condemned cars were purchased and modified to house the camera equipment. Scenes were shot on the single rail line between Munich and Hamburg, and a railroad representative was on hand to advise the filmmakers when to pull aside to avoid hitting scheduled oncoming trains.
MacDonald (Intelligence) is based on George Harsh, a very good friend of Wally Floody (the real Tunnel King). They were both transferred to Belaria before the escape. Harsh was a very interesting character who was from the American south and had joined the RCAF as a tail-gunner. In the 1920s Harsh had committed murder and was sent to jail for life. A medical student, Harsh performed an appendectomy on a dying prisoner and saved his life. The governor of Georgia granted him a pardon and he was set free. After the war, he had personal problems as he was plagued by guilt over the crime he committed as a youth on top of adjusting to life after fifteen years in captivity (12 years on the Georgia chain gang, followed by three years as POW). On Christmas Eve 1974, he did shoot himself but survived. A stroke soon after left him partially paralyzed. When that happened, Wally Floody and his wife brought him up to their Toronto home and looked after him. He eventually went to live -at his own urging- at the Veteran’s Wing at the Sunnybrook Medical Centre. He died in January of 1980.
Three of the actors, Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson starred together in the movie The Magnificent Seven (1960), also directed by John Sturges and scored by Elmer Bernstein.
Richard Attenborough was an RAF air gunner/photographer who served in the RAF for three years unlike his character, based on Squadron Leader Roger Bushell who was a Spitfire Pilot in 92 Squadron in the early years of World War Two.
When the Bavaria Studio’s backlot proved to be too small, the production team obtained permission from the German government to shoot in a national forest adjoining the studio. After the end of principal photography, the company restored (by reseeding) some 2,000 small pine trees that had been damaged in the course of shooting.
The song sung by Ives & McDonald on 4th July is “Wha Hae the 42nd?” Contrary to common belief it is not in Gaelic but a light Scots dialect of English. The 42nd Regiment of Foot was the Scottish regiment in the British Army known as the Black Watch.
Steve McQueen’s character Hilts was based on amalgamation of several characters, including Major Dave Jones, a flight commander during Doolittle’s Raid who made it to Europe and was shot down and captured and Colonel Jerry Sage, who was an OSS agent in the North African desert when he was captured. Col. Sage was able to don a flight jacket and pass as a flier otherwise he would have been executed as a spy. Another inspiration was probably Sqn Ldr Eric Foster who escaped no less than seven times from German prisoner-of-war camps.
Richard Attenborough was cast at short notice after the first choice pulled out.
Most of the planes in the airfield are actually American AT-6 Texan trainers painted with a German paint scheme, but the one actually flown is an authentic German plane, a Bucker Bu 181 ‘Bestmann.’
The hooch-making scene in the film, where the Americans celebrated Independence Day, is believed to be based on the British creating an alcohol distillery for Christmas Day celebrations in 1943. Captain Guy Griffiths, a Royal Marine pilot in Stalag Luft III who produced forged documents for the escape, also produced a comical illustration of the scene which survives to this day. This painting, along with many others, forms the basis for a Special Exhibition on ‘Griff’ at the Royal Marines Museum (Southsea, England) running from Easter 2010.
Jud Taylor, who played Goff, the third American in the prison, said the camp set was so authentic and impressive that one day he came upon a man walking his dog who was very distressed when he came upon the site. The man was greatly relieved, Goff said, when he learned it was just a movie set.
The gold medallion Steve McQueen wears throughout the film was a present from his wife.
The film was shot on location in a German forest. To make room for the camp set, several trees had to be bulldozed. John Sturges had to show the West German Minister of the Interior his plans and, to get permission to bulldoze, had to promise to plant two seeds for every tree felled when production was over.
The German characters were cast from actors out of Munich, including Hannes Messemer and Til Kiwe. Both had their own prisoner of war experiences. Messemer had been captured on the Eastern front by the Soviet army, escaped, and walked hundreds of miles to the German border. Frick served time in an American prison camp in Arizona. He tried to escape seventeen times.
The newspaper that Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum) reads on the train is the ‘Völkischer Beobachter’, a real newspaper produced for 25 years by the National Socialist German Workers Party. It served as a propaganda sheet for the Nazis and helped bring Adolf Hitler to power. At its height, it had a circulation of approximately 1.4 million. The headline for the issue seen in the film translates roughly to “Day after day, the Soviets have high, bloody losses.” Given that the escape in the film occurs in the summer of 1944, this too can be viewed as propaganda. The Nazis had transferred hundreds of thousands of troops to Normandy to stop the Allied advances after D-Day, allowing for the Soviet’s to launch Operation Bagration on 22 June, which pushed the Nazis back into Poland by the beginning of 13 July and sparked the Warsaw uprising. In all, the Soviet advance caused German losses of approximately 670,000 dead, missing, wounded and sick, including 160,000 captured. Although the date of the escape is unclear, given the green pastures around the Alps that the escapees encounter, one can easily surmise that the newspaper was putting a positive spin on the battles in the east.
John Leyton who played Willy, the Tunneler, was one of the most popular UK pop singers in the early s. He recorded the title song with lyrics.
Although the German airfield displays mainly North American AT-6 Texan trainers, it is feasible that this was authentic. The Germans did use the AT-6 in some numbers as advanced trainers, which they had sequestrated from the French in 1940.
The tunnel sets were were constructed of wood and skins filled with plaster and dirt and open on one side with a dolly track running the length of the set in order to shoot scenes of prisoners scooting along through them.
Early on in the production, John Sturges began receiving memos from distributor United Artists requesting female roles in the picture. One even suggested having the dying Ashley-Pitt cradled in the lap of a beautiful girl in a low-cut blouse. The studio wanted to cast this bit by having a Miss Prison Camp contest in Munich. Sturges would have none of it.
The film features no main female characters
The character of von Luger was actually based on Friedrich von Lindeiner-Wildau. As with von Luger, the real commandant was an Oberst (Colonel), a general staff officer, and a holder of the “Blue Max” (Pour le Merite) medal. However, while the pictures on the wall of von Luger’s office are of World War I flying units, von Lindeiner-Wildau earned his Blue Max in the East Africa campaigns in 1905-07 and served as an infantry officer before and during World War I. He retired from the Army in 1919 and only joined the Luftwaffe in 1937 at ‘Hermann Goring”s personal invitation.
The motorcycle driven by the character of Virgil Hilts that is used for the fence jump is a 1962 Thunderbird Triumph, which was refurbished to look like a bike 20 years older.
In the scene following Hilts’ theft of a German motorcycle, he rolls into a nearby town, and stopped by a police officer. He tells Hilts something in German, to which Hilts kicks him away and rides off. The officer asked Hilts for identification papers Hilts doesn’t have.
On entering the workshop, Roger is heard to exclaim: “Bluey, where the hell is the air pump?” “Bluey” is an Australian slang term for someone with red hair.
The German National Railroad Bureau cooperated with the production to provide trains and logistics for the railway escape sequences. Platforms were fitted on passenger cars to accommodate huge arc lamps to illuminate the train interiors. On one flat car, a large Chapman crane was set up to swing out over the passenger car and film the jump from the moving train performed by two stuntmen disguised as Garner’s and Pleasence’s characters. The bureau attached a special radio operator to the crew to alert the train engineer to any potential traffic on the main line. The shooting schedule was squeezed in between actual runs on the rails. The bureau gave the production certain times and lengths of tracks to work on until a passenger train was scheduled to come by the film train then had to duck onto a siding until the other passed.
In the film, several Americans (including Hilts and Henley) were among the escapees. In real life, American officers assisted with the construction of the escape tunnel, but weren’t among the escapees because the Germans moved them to a remote compound just before the escape.
After viewing the rushes, Steve McQueen decided his part was minor and undeveloped. He was particularly upset that his character virtually disappears from the film for about 30 minutes in the middle so he walked out demanding rewrites. John Sturges admitted the half-hour gap was likely a problem, but with the production already behind schedule due to the heavy rain, he felt he couldn’t take time out to do rewrites and rescheduling. James Garner said he and James Coburn got together with McQueen to determine what his specific gripes were. Garner later said it was apparent McQueen wanted to be the hero but didn’t want to be seen doing anything overtly heroic that contradicted his character’s cool detachment and sardonic demeanor. At the same time, McQueen never really liked his character’s calm acquiescence to his time in the cooler or the famous bit with the catcher’s mitt and ball. Sturges considered writing the character out of the story altogether, but United Artists informed him they considered McQueen indispensable to the picture’s success and would spring for the extra money to hire another writer, Ivan J. Moffitt, to deal with the star’s demands. McQueen returned to work.
Richard Harris was originally cast as Roger Bartlett, but dropped out because filming This Sporting Life (1963) was behind schedule and he was displeased with the diminished role of Big X after script changes had been made.
The actual camp – Stalag Luft III – was located in Zagan, Poland and the remains of the camp can be found at the following map coordinates: 51.599036, 15.310030
There are six different languages spoken or sung in the movie: English, German, French, Russian and one word in Spanish as well as two words of Latin “Lanius Nubicus” when Flight Lieutenant Blythe is describing the masked shrike or butcher bird in the forgery scene. There is also a song in a light Scots dialect where Ives and MacDonald are singing “Wha Hae the 42nd” in the 4th of July scene just before “Tom” is discovered.
John Sturges’ assistant Robert E. Relyea was an amateur pilot and offered to fly the plane himself for the sequence in which Hendley and Blythe commandeer a plane for their escape. In one segment he had to simulate the plane losing power and descending over a line of trees. According to Relyea, a farmer in his field saw the plane with its Nazi insignia coming in low over his head and threw his rake at it. Another time Relyea was arrested when he had to put the plane down in a field that happened to belong to a German aviation official. He also piloted the plane in the crash shot, knocking himself unconscious and being taken to the hospital where he woke up later feeling a sharp pain down his back.
Steve McQueen and James Garner became friends on this film. They bonded over their love of cars.
The discovery of ‘Tom’ was a major blow to the escape committee and all tunneling had to be suspended for a time to avoid further detection. Eventually ‘Harry’ was completed and the night of the Great Escape was planned for 24th March 1944, a moonless night. Lots were drawn for the 200 places and maps, papers and disguises were completed.
On the night itself all allotted escapees took up positions in hut 104. It was planned that the escapees would leave the camp in stages. Everyone was very nervous and tense, a situation that was made worse by the discovery that the tunnel was around 10 feet short of the woods. This meant that the tunnel exit was on the path of a perimeter guard. By the time that a decision was made on how to signal when the coast was clear, it was around 10pm. Further delays were caused by some men panicking in the tunnel.
By 4am it was clear that it would be impossible for all 200 men to escape and the decision was made to close the tunnel at 5am. At around 4.45am a shot was heard at the tunnel exit. The tunnel had been discovered.
76 men had escaped through the tunnel. Of the remainder, those that were found waiting their turn in hut 104 were sent to the cooler – the camp name for the solitary confinement cells.
10 Facts About the Real Great Escape - History
By Jeffrey A. Denman
In early 1942, the air war over Germany was taking its toll on the Royal Air Force. Prisoner-of-war camps throughout Germany were bursting at the seams, and as February rolled around rumors began to spread that the Germans were building a new camp somewhere in Upper Silesia near the Polish border. The Germans spent a great deal of time and effort on the construction of this new camp. It was to be situated far from any Allied or neutral country. Therefore, if escapes were attempted, they would be extremely difficult and recapture the likely result.
For most airmen fortunate enough to survive their plane being shot down, the war took on a different role once they found themselves behind the wire. No longer were bombing runs or engaging enemy fighters the primary concerns. Now, the airmen needed to survive, harass the enemy to the best of their ability, and escape. Sometimes, just getting to the camp could be hazardous.
Flight Lieutenant Nathaniel Flekser reflected on his own experience: “How lucky I really was dawned on me when I later met RAF prisoners who were shot down while on bombing missions over Germany. They were attacked by angry civilians, brutally interrogated by the Gestapo, and packed into cattle cars. One crew was thrown into a furnace.”
The usual greeting from the German captors, “For you, the war is over,” was the furthest thing from the truth. It now became a different kind of battle—a battle that involved physical and mental endurance and still the possibility of death outside the wire.
“His duty was now survival, escape, communication. He no longer engaged his enemy in the air. He met him in the isolation of an interrogation cell at Dulag Luft…. He met him behind the barbed wire at Stalag Luft III. He met him on a forced march in the dead of winter. He met him in the mare’s nest of Stalag VIIA,” wrote the historian of the Association of Prisoners of Stalag Luft III.
Security at Stalag Luft III
RAF aircrews were regarded with some degree of respect by the Germans and, given their reputation as excellent soldiers, their escapes had a better chance of succeeding. Therefore, the new camp would have tight security.
Stalag Luft III was located just south of the town of Sagan (now Zagan, Poland), approximately 100 miles southeast of Berlin. The camp was one of six POW camps operated by the Luftwaffe for British and American airmen. The Wehrmacht and the Kriegsmarine also operated their own system of stalags. Geographically, the area was desolate, a perfect location for a POW camp. Winter temperatures plummeted well below zero, and the surrounding countryside consisted of either flat farmland or dense pine forest.
The Germans had learned a great deal about incarcerating prisoners. They originally cut two new compounds out of the forest with six huts in each, and all the huts were raised off the ground so the detection of tunnel activity could be more easily ascertained by the German ferrets, guards whose duty it was to detect escape attempts. Later, the Germans would regret the fact that they built concrete foundations underneath the washrooms and the stoves. In addition, trapdoors were built in the floors and ceilings to make the process of inspection more efficient. Eventually, Stalag Luft III would expand to hold 10,000 POWs by war’s end.
The barbed-wire fences had an ominous appearance. There were two fences with a gap of several yards between them and an overhang on the side facing the compound, which made them virtually impossible to scale. About 10 yards inside the double fence ran the warning wire. All prisoners knew that to cross the warning wire meant certain harm from the machine guns situated in the guard towers, or goonboxes, that were spaced at distances of about 100 yards.
When the Germans chose the location of the camp, the composition of the soil was certainly an advantage for them. Under the topsoil was yellow sand that would make dispersal an almost impossible task for anyone attempting to tunnel out of the camp. Lastly, the huts were situated a good distance from the wire, making tunneling a difficult affair.
Life in the POW Camp
The new commandant of the camp was Colonel Friedrich-Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau, a 61-year-old veteran of World War I and the winner of two Iron Crosses. Although he joined the Luftwaffe and became a member of Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring’s personal staff, von Lindeiner was not an adherent to the Nazi cause. When he was not allowed to retire, he made his way to Sagan as commandant.
Although food was in short supply, the POWs were treated fairly within the context of the Geneva Convention. It was the International Red Cross that saved the day for prisoners throughout the Reich. Since the camps provided only small rations for their prisoners, the Red Cross provided one parcel per man per week. Each parcel contained soup, corned beef, powdered milk, Spam, chocolate, coffee, cheese, and real jam. Nonetheless, given the rigors of camp life and escape activities, one never had the satisfaction of experiencing a full stomach. The prisoners were always able to hoard enough food for special occasions throughout the year, but food remained an obsession.
Prisoners were also permitted to receive mail and to send four cards and three letters per month. They were allowed to receive a 12-pound parcel every three months or so. These packages from their families consisted of daily necessities such as toothbrushes, clothes, and razors. The mortality rate was very low considering the circumstances. Some prisoners died from natural causes and others from triggerhappy guards who fired random shots into the compounds.
Roger J. Bushell: Big X
Late in 1942, Squadron Leader (S/L) Roger J. Bushell, commanding officer of No. 92 (Spitfire) Squadron, arrived at Stalag Luft III. He had been shot down on May 23, 1940, during the Battle of France. Taken to the Dulag Luft (Luftwaffe Transit Camp), he subsequently escaped and almost made it across the Swiss border before being recaptured.
He was then sent to Barth on the Baltic coast. After several months there, Bushell and a few others were being transferred to another camp when Bushell and a Czech officer in the RAF, Jack Zafouk, slipped under the floorboards of the truck they were riding in and made their way to Czechoslovakia. At this time, the assassination of SS Gruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, had taken place in Prague, and Czechoslovakia was in an uproar.
Bushell was captured by the Gestapo and sent to Berlin for interrogation. Members of the Czech family that had harbored him were shot, and Zafouk was sent to Colditz. By the time Bushell reached Sagan, his hatred of the Germans was evident. Although he did not divulge his experiences with the Gestapo, it is thought that their tactics disregarded the provisions guaranteed by the Geneva Convention.
One prisoner recalled that Bushell was as tough as nails. The senior British officer was immediately made Big X, and no one did anything without his permission. He would decide who made an escape. He was a ruthless individual. He also knew full well that if he escaped again and was recaptured he would be shot.
Building the X Organization
Big X began organizing his escape committee right away. Some of the most notorious escapers were gathered at Sagan. Crump Ker-Ramsay and Wally Floody were in charge of tunneling. The American, A.P. “Junior” Clark, was put in charge of security. Ralph Abraham and Tommy Guest assumed control of the tailoring department, replicating German uniforms and civilian clothes. Johnny Travis created escape kits, while Tim Walenn and his forgers were copying ID papers and all sorts of passes. Forging was a painstaking and arduous task.
Bob van der Stok described the dangers of forging: “Most false papers were made with watercolor which was risky because it runs when wet. Type writer ribbon ink, stencil ink and printing inks do not run when the paper gets a little wet.”
Luckily, a number of guards proved helpful to the prisoners by providing maps, railway schedules, and a host of passes such as Ausweise, Vorlaufweise (pass and temporary pass), and Urlaubscheine (military leave pass). Many official documents took up to a month to create.
All in all, Bushell was able to assemble the most competent surveyors, forgers, tailors, engineers, and security experts for a mass breakout of over 200 men that would cause such a severe internal disruption that resources from the war effort would have to be diverted to the escapers. It was hoped that several men would be able to make their way back to England.
The Ferrets of Stalag Luft III
The X organization had several adversaries within the camp who had to be controlled, particularly the ferrets. The two main ferrets were Corporal Karl Griese, nicknamed Rubberneck, and Staff Sergeant Hermann Glemnitz, whose camp name was Dimwits. Rubberneck was not a favorite of the prisoners. He did not really like the prisoners, which was evident, and he had a very distasteful personality. Glemnitz was a different sort of man, conscientious in his work he was the reason for many failed escape attempts. He was actually well liked by the prisoners and had the respect of many in the compound.
Underneath Glemnitz and Griese were several other ferrets known simply as Keen Type, Adolf, and Rudi. Keen Type was just as his nickname suggests, while Adolf wore a Hitler-like moustache. Rudi was nondescript other than, as with all ferrets, he had to be closely observed.
This detailed diagram of Stalag Luft III shows the routes of the four tunnels dug by the prisoners of the Great Escape. The men nicknamed the tunnels Tom, Dick, Harry, and George.
All ferrets could search any hut without warning, which made them extremely dangerous. Luckily, the prisoners instituted the Duty Pilot system under the direction of George Harsh, the head of internal security. All Germans would be logged in and out of the camp to ensure that no German was left in the compound to sniff out escape activity.
To protect all the illicit work being conducted, a complex set of hand signals was used to warn the various departments of Germans in the compound, thus giving them time to conceal the work that was being carried out. This system did not fail the prisoners. Alan Bryett recalled, “The Germans were wandering around in every hut so you had to be slick.”
Where to Dig?
By early April 1943, Bushell and Floody had chosen the locations for three tunnels. “Tom” was to go from Block 123 heading west toward the woods. This hut was the farthest from the main gate and thus received the longest warning of a snap inspection. The location of the trap was in the concrete floor by the chimney. “Dick” was to go from 122 and was to start in the washroom. An inside hut was not likely to be suspected. “Harry” was to head north from 104 and would be the least likely to be suspected because of the length involved. Harry was to begin under a stove in one end of 104.
Delmar T. Spivey, an American, had the opportunity to inspect the traps. “So skillfully were they constructed that I couldn’t find the trap leading to any of them [tunnels] even when I was told I was looking at it…. The entrance was so cleverly hidden that I couldn’t find it even when I got down on my knees and searched the spot where I knew it to be.”
Bob van der Stok, a Dutch pilot, observed that there was a trapdoor 10 feet down the tunnel shaft with a false bottom, so that if the Germans found the trap and destroyed it the real tunnel would be preserved and the prisoners would still be able to access it from another location.
The ingenuity of the prisoners was brilliant. For instance, to start Harry’s trap an old pick head taken from a Russian POW was attached to a baseball bat and used to hammer away at the concrete until dirt was reached. Many diversions took place outside the hut that helped mask the noise inside.
Sand dispersal was a huge obstacle to overcome. The problem was how to spread the yellow sand among the ordinary garden soil. Peter Fanshawe came up with the brilliant solution to use trouser bags. The legs of woolen underpants were cut off and the ends tied with a piece of string. The string went around a man’s neck with the underpants legs inside the legs of his trousers. There was a pin attached to the bottom of each bag and a string tied to each pin. The strings went up inside the trousers to the pants pockets. At the trap, the bags would be filled and then the “penguin” would go to a particular spot, pulling the string, and out would come the sand from the bottom of his pant legs.
Constructing the Escape Tunnels
The actual tunneling was a very dangerous proposition. There were always two diggers working together, one facing toward the dig and one facing away. The man facing away dragged the dirt away from the face of the tunnel. Each tunnel was shored with bed boards, but there were often situations where the roof would cave in and the number two man would have to pull the other digger out, usually while he was choking on sand and dirt. A wooden railway system was used for sand removal, and the railway cars were pulled back along the length of the tunnel by another member of the tunnel team.
At the bottom of each shaft was a chamber that contained an air pump and a storage area. The tunnel was ventilated using old tins that were connected and laid under the floor of the tunnel. At the other end was an air intake pipe that led up to the surface.
Fat lamps were originally used to light the tunnels. The fat from mutton soup or a similar concoction was put into a small container, and then a makeshift wick that was made from the drawstring of a worn set of pajamas was inserted. Fat lamps were smelly and created soot, so it was not the greatest lighting technique. However, when a prisoner stole 800 feet of electrical wire, the tunnels were wired for light after being connected to the camp’s power source. Fat lamps did have to be used for daytime tunneling, as the camp’s generator was not turned on during the day.
A German soldier demonstrates the operation of the trolley system and one of the sand trucks used to haul dirt from the farthest end of the tunnel to the dispersal point.
A Major Setback for the Prisoners
In mid-June 1943, a piece of news shook the prisoners. Russian prisoners were now clearing the trees on the south side of the fence so that Americans would have their own compound. If the compound were finished before the tunnels, the Americans would miss out on the escape. Bushell decided to go all out on Tom because it was the longest.
Work progressed until the tunnel was 260 feet long. Bushell decided that it was long enough even though it was some 40 feet short of the wood, but 140 feet outside the wire. However, one of the penguins was careless and left yellow sand on the ground before it was covered up. Glemnitz saw it, and the compound was abuzz with ferret activity. In the summer of 1943, Tom was finally discovered. It was a devastating piece of news.
After the discovery, Bushell decided that it was important to lie low, so tunneling ceased for about two months. Unfortunately, soon after the Germans blew up Tom, the Americans were moved to their new compound. It was a hard day for the Americans, but the loss of Tom was most frustrating for the British and other Allied POWs who had already been behind the wire for several years.
Charles Huppert, one of the Americans involved in the escape organization, was frustrated yet resigned. “I didn’t like it because all the work I did was for naught. But, there was nothing you could do about it, so you accept it.”
In late 1943, with the Germans clearing the woods to the west where Dick was supposed to go, Harry seemed the only logical choice. It was decided to reopen Harry on January 10, 1944. The escape committee decided to put the sand underneath the theater seats, as there was a gap of about one meter between the floor of the theater and the ground below. With the snow covering the ground, it would be impossible to hide the yellow sand outside.
The Kugel Order
By the middle of February, Harry was two-thirds of the way complete. There were a few setbacks, but work on Harry continued to move forward. The mood was lighter among the prisoners. It did not last long, as the escape business took on a more ominous air. At the end of February, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, issued the order known as Stufe Romisch III, which said that every escaped Allied officer was to be handed over to the Gestapo. The recaptured officers were to be officially reported as “escaped” and not recaptured.
Shortly after the news broke, the Gestapo paid a visit to Stalag Luft III, informing von Lindeiner that harsher measures would be meted out to future escapers. The Allied bombing campaign over Germany was taking its toll, and civilian casualties and the destruction of the German war machine were surely the two main factors in this directive from Himmler’s office.
The stakes grew higher in early March. SS General Heinrich Müller, head of the Gestapo, issued what is known as the Kugel (Bullet) Order, stating that recaptured escapee officers, other than British and Americans, were to be taken in chains to Mauthausen Concentration Camp. The commandant at Mauthausen was instructed that prisoners transferred under the Kugel Order were not to be entered on the camp books but, instead, taken to underground cells and either gassed or shot.
After the order was issued, von Lindeiner assembled the senior officers, chaplains, and doctors and asked all of them to end all escape attempts. “It is not worth it, gentlemen,” he said. “The public temper outside is running very high, particularly against the Allied Air Forces, and escapers may suffer harsh consequences. The war may be over in a year or two … it is not worth taking unnecessary risks now.”
600 Prisoners Involved
Although the news brought a sense of uneasiness, the prisoners pushed forward. Harry was now 348 feet long. The surveyors among the prisoners had said it was 335 feet to the edge of the wood. The escape date was moving closer. As it did, the escapers began the process of teaming up in pairs. Bushell paired up with Lieutenant Bernard Scheidhauer, a member of the Free French Forces.
Over the course of the preceding year, over 600 prisoners had been involved in the escape process. The escape committee and Big X decided that 200 should make the escape through Harry. The first 100 to go were the ones who had the best chances this was largely based on the ability to survive outside the wire due to language capability, nationality, and knowledge of the territory. The second 100 were men who had contributed in some way to the daily operation. All of the places were determined by ballot, which took place a month or so prior to the escape.
The exit order was decided by giving the first 30 places to train travelers with the best chances of successful escape. The next 40 were given to those whose contributions to the process had been indispensable, and the last 30 to the next most important workers. The remaining places were determined by the escape committee, and they were those whose names had not come up in the ballot.
By March 14, the tunnel was finished. All that remained was to break the last foot or so of the exit shaft. The escape committee had decided to schedule the breakout on the night of the 23rd or 24th of March, as there was no moon on either of these nights. Escapers were briefed on their particular escape routes, and escape kits as well as clothes and food were distributed. Bushell and the committee met on the morning of March 24, and it was decided that this was the night. The forgers began dating all the documents. The trapdoor was readied, and the anticipation around camp was palpable.
Following the discovery of the escape, a German soldier crawls from the exit of one of the tunnels.
The Escape Begins
As night fell on the 24th, the first escapers began moving to hut 104. By 8:40, the first group of prisoners entered the tunnel. Johnny Bull was in front and went up the shaft to loosen the ceiling boards. He could not do it, so Johnny Marshall went up after removing his escape clothes. They were already behind schedule, and as Marshall cleared the last bit of dirt from the tunnel ceiling he poked his head out. Harry was short of the woods. Luckily, the guards were watching the compound and not the other side of the road. Marshall descended and told Bushell.
After recovering from the disappointment, Bushell and the others at the bottom of the shaft decided to use a signal rope. The escaper would wait at the top of the exit shaft, hold the rope that was tied to the ladder, wait for two tugs and crawl out to the woods.
It was now 10:30, and the plan was 90 minutes behind. Sentries circled the compound at regular intervals, but the men were able to get clear of the tunnel. However, delays were taking place in the tunnel. The cases that train travelers were carrying were taking a toll. Some cases were getting caught behind the frames in the tunnel, while other men held their cases too far in front of the trolley line inside the tunnel, causing it to tip. It was about 11:30, and only six escapers had followed the first 17 through the tunnel.
To complicate matters, the air raid siren went off. Minutes later, with the power source cut, the lights went out in the tunnel, paralyzing the escape process. Bryett recalled, “Between 12:00 and 1:00 no one got out.”
Wings Day, who was at the base of the exit shaft, moved back through the tunnel to light the fat lamps. That took about half an hour. But more problems continued. Ropes broke on the trolleys. Frames were knocked out of place, causing sand to fall, which meant reframing the damaged section. Blanket rolls got caught on the frames and under the wheels of the trolley, causing it to derail.
On the Other Side of the Fence
Bob van der Stok, escaper 18, was on his way to the railway station during the air raid and was actually stopped by a German soldier en route. Asked where he was going, van der Stok told the German that he was a foreign worker, and luckily was directed by the soldier to the shelter at the railway station.
By 4:55, a total of 87 escapers had left 104. Roger’s goal of 200 men getting out was not going to materialize. The men controlling the trap in 104 decided that number 87 was to be the last. The first traces of dawn were appearing on the horizon.
The men traveling cross-country had the toughest going of all the escapers. Thomas Nelson endured terrible conditions. He remembered, “The majority of people going through the woods like myself were heading for Czechoslovakia. We were … somewhere between fifty and a hundred kilometers from the Czech border. But it was a difficult border because it was so mountainous.”
Nelson and his partner Dick Churchill traveled by night and slept during the day. “So at a very early stage in our escape attempt we had to wade through flooded streams. And consequently we were very quickly wet and uncomfortable. But the conditions were extremely bad. We continued on this kind of basis for two nights.”
Uncovering the Escape
Near the exit hole, the situation was becoming more intense by the minute. One of the guards had deviated from his path and was heading straight toward the hole. He was walking on the near side of the road closest to the woods. Mick Shand, a New Zealander, was lying face down in the snow not moving a muscle. The guard came within a foot of the hole before he must have noticed the path made by the prisoners to the edge of the trees. He unslung his rifle and pointed it at Mick Shand. Lawrence Reavell-Carter, just inside the trees, saw the entire situation develop. He jumped out from behind the trees waving his arms yelling, “Nicht schiessen! (Don’t shoot)” The guard fired a shot wildly as Shand ran into the woods. The game was up!
Kens Rees, who was at the bottom of the shaft, recalled, “I heard the shot straight away and realized what had happened. So I backed up very quickly….”
Bryett lamented years later, “We got so close to being out in the open and we lost it.”
After the shot was heard, all the men who were in the tunnel scampered back to the safety of 104. Identity papers were destroyed and rations eaten in fear of German reprisals. The trap was closed and the covering stove returned to its original position. Soon, there was a tapping noise under the stove and the ferret Charlie Pilz emerged.
When von Lindeiner reached hut 104, he was in an extremely agitated state, warning the prisoners that they had made a grievous mistake and the Gestapo was sure to be involved. “I have never seen men so annoyed. They were absolutely livid…. The Germans had discovered 76 men had escaped and all hell broke loose,” remembered one prisoner.
The prisoners used boards from their beds to support the walls of the long tunnels and even rigged an electric lighting system after makeshift lamps proved problematic.
Rounding Up the Escapees
The German reaction to the escape was not surprising. First, von Lindeiner made all the necessary calls up the chain of command, including a call to Max Wielen, head of the Breslau Kriminalpolizei office, who then ordered a “Grossfahndung,” the highest form of national alert. German troops, local police, Gestapo, and Landwacht (Home Guard) were all informed.
The Führer was informed of the situation the morning of the escape. As expected, he flew into a rage and demanded that all the escapers be shot. Himmler finally convinced Hitler that not all should be shot, and so the number 50 was settled upon. Slowly but surely, the escapers were recaptured and turned over to the Gestapo. In small groups or alone, they were driven to remote locations and shot. All the Gestapo reports said the same thing: shot while escaping.
Jimmy James was caught near the Czech border and was taken to a new camp. When he arrived, he asked another prisoner, “Where are we?” The prisoner replied, “Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and the only way out is up the chimney.”
Wings Day and Flying Officer Pawel Tobolski had a different experience. “Flying Officer Tobolski and I caught the 0105 train for Berlin and got through without incident,” wrote Day. “We left the Silesian railway station separately, met outside and made the contacts we wanted. We stayed the night in Berlin and went off to Stettin but the contacts which F/O Tobolski helped to make there failed. We made contact with two French prisoners of war about midnight on 27/28 March and they housed us with a small French prisoner of war working party in a room in a disused factory. They told us all the other Frenchmen were friends. However on the next morning between 1000 and 1100 hours after all the Frenchmen, except two, had gone to work two Gestapo officials in plain clothes came in with revolvers demanding the two ‘Tommies.’ It seemed clear that we had been betrayed. We were arrested and marched through the streets with our hands over our heads to the Gestapo H.Q. at Stettin.”
Three men made it to freedom. Per Bergsland and Jens Muller made it back to England via Sweden, and Bram van der Stok made it to Gibraltar. Fifty escapers were shot by the Gestapo, 17 were brought back to Sagan, four went to Sachsenshausen, and two to Colditz. Back at Stalag Luft III, von Lindeiner had been arrested and taken away. He escaped execution. The new commandant, Colonel Franz Braune, had just taken over when the senior British officer, Herbert Massey, was summoned for a meeting. Through an interpreter, Colonel Braune announced that 41 prisoners had been shot while escaping. When asked how many were wounded, the commandant replied that there were none. Soon, the number 41 would grow to 50.
Was it Worth the Price?
After the war, the British government began the task of tracking down those responsible for the murders. The Special Investigation Branch of the RAF began the painstaking task. Over the next several years, they accounted for 69 of the 72 criminals. Many were convicted and served prison sentences, while others were hanged for their roles in the murders. Some of the perpetrators disappeared into the Soviet bloc and were never tried. By May 1968, nearly a quarter century after the escape, the last trial was over.
The British prisoners stood face-to-face with death on that cold March night and yet pressed forward, knowing that their chances for success were slim. In far from optimal conditions, these men executed one of the most miraculous feats ever accomplished by a confined group with few resources other than their own ingenuity.
Was it worth the price? It depends. Roger Bushell wanted to break out as many men as he could to create internal havoc within the Reich. He certainly did that and paid the ultimate price.
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.
Talk:Factual accuracy of The Great Escape
So far, a useful fork from the main article, but requires some good sourcing fortunately, there IS good stuff out there to compare the reality with the fiction however, we have an unwieldy title which is to me more journalistic than encyclopedic if anyone can come up with a better version, let's hear it. -- Rodhull andemu 23:46, 29 November 2008 (UTC)
Be careful about who is doing the "comparing": WP:NOR and WP:SYN prevent WP editors from making the comparison and drawing conclusions. Also, Film Style Guidelines tell us that differences must be put into real-world context and that merely listing and describing the differences are discouraged. Consequently, the focus of this article should be on why the screenwriters and Sturges decided to deviate from Brickhill's book and reality (i.e. what production and artistic goals, realities, logistics, and opportunities caused them to make the changes). This is the real-world context that is required to truly make this article interesting and of value. This approach would require extensive sourcing. As it stands right now there are many problems with the article since much of its content lacks development and production relevance (not to mention appropriate sources). For example, it references as "differences" the original prisoner band being replaced with a choir and the locations of the tunnels being juxtaposed, but gives no reason why these changes were made or what significant effect resulted for the audience. And what are changes from the book as opposed to historical fact? These are only two examples among many. Finally, I question why this treatment — which would nicely augment the Production section of the film's article if done well — is being done here rather than the article? Especially since that and related sections in the film article are sadly deficient.
Jim Dunning | talk 14:34, 2 January 2009 (UTC) I am nominating this article for deletion. The discussion page is here.
Jim Dunning | talk 18:37, 14 February 2009 (UTC) I would like to see this article remain. I won't dispute the points made above. The article needs references and could do with some rework. However, I didn't stumble upon this article. I specifically looked for it. That would indicate some real-world interest in the topic. I do respect the guidelines. They are there for a reason. I will say there is certainly a place for this article in Wikipedia. Perhaps it needs to be renamed or recategorized to avoid guidelines issues. I've looked at Film Style Guidelines. The reference from that link is from the linked article real-world context. The title of that article contains "writing about fiction". This not a fictional film. Maybe those guidelines don't apply directly. If you're talking about the difference between the movie Jaws and the original book, these guidelines make sense as there is little value in the just stating the differences without the artistic reason. With non-fiction, there is value to the differences alone. Many people will learn of this important piece of history from the movie alone. Without a great deal of research, they could find it difficult to learn what actually happened. This article can help a great deal in that regard. (Though many would be interested in seeing the reason for the changes as well). I will be sad to see this article removed. Wantnot (talk) 22:33, 16 February 2009 (UTC) I just read this comment above. It is a fictional film, not a documentary as implied above.184.108.40.206 (talk) 14:27, 16 May 2009 (UTC) I should have said that the film is "not entirely fictional" in my comment. Of course it is not an entirely factual account of the historical events. It is however based on a book which is a factual account. Therein lies the value of this information - learning what parts of the film are factual. As I mentioned, I came to this page looking for exactly this information. Information which I feel is both relevant and significant. Wantnot (talk) 11:22, 20 April 2013 (UTC) I've copied these comments to the deletion discussion you may want to keep an eye on it. -- Rodhull andemu 22:40, 16 February 2009 (UTC)
Surely if you quote an well-known source this can hardly be called original research. It can only be original research if you quote facts that can't be verified. -Paul 220.127.116.11 (talk) 21:01, 7 May 2009 (UTC)
- <outdent If that is a reliable source, we can use it, but I don't know about the reputation for accuracy of that website leave it with me, I'm taking a look at the whole article at present. Rodhullandemu 20:25, 19 May 2009 (UTC)
This article has an awful lot of uncited material and I see this caused some controversey earlier but no one has done anything to fix it. I just spent alot of time looking for some sources for the statements and can't find anything to support them. Whoever wrote them really needs to step up and provide support for what she or he did. Maybe time to start deleting stuff.18.104.22.168 (talk) 00:02, 14 May 2009 (UTC)
This is why we have a responsibility to be more diligent about sourcing material we add to articles: Wikipedia passed. Journalism flunked. Wikipedia's reputation improved mightily as a result of how quickly editors first tagged the fraudulent quote (within two minutes) and then removed it within hours. "Fitzgerald stressed that Wikipedia's system requiring about 1,500 volunteer "administrators" and the wider public to spot bogus additions did its job, removing the quote three times within minutes or hours. It was journalists eager for a quick, pithy quote that was the problem." To put things into perspective regarding the disputed material in the Great Escape articles, it has been in either this "factual accuracy" article or the film article without attribution since at least March 2006, some of it since 2005. It had been repeatedly tagged for needing sources in the film article and when it was finally removed (with numerous requests for and attempts to find reliable sources), an editor copied it wholesale from the film article to this article, knowing it was questionable or unverifiable. Read the numerous news stories about WP's Maurice Jarre article and decide for yourself if we are doing WP readers and fellow editors proud by continuing to leave questionable material in this article for over three years. I'm not saying the copy is bogus, but we don't know! So save it someplace while editors who are interested can work on it, but remove it while that's being done to maintain the integrity of WP.22.214.171.124 (talk) 19:22, 16 May 2009 (UTC) Whilst appreciating your point, the editor who created the fork hasn't been around that much to see it through and this article has already survived one AfD. So we can't just userfy it on the basis that it contains unsubstantiated material. If we did that, half of Wikipedia would vanish. What it needs is some attention, which I have offered to provide- except that the libraries aren't open until Monday. Some patience, please. The world will not collapse weasels will still dance the hornpipe and peasants will still make merry after the storm. Rodhull andemu 19:31, 16 May 2009 (UTC)
The author who split this article from its parent doesn't seem to be around that much, but that's no reason to abandon it. However, there is an issue at present over how we source the differences, leading to this exchange about WP:SYN:
- That guideline says, "Plot summaries do not normally require citations", but other sections do. The sections with the "accuracy" analyses are not part of a film article's Plot description, so any material must be cited. Validation of the contents of a Plot section is performed differently than for other sections (consensus). More importantly, the section is comparing two works WP editors cannot do the comaprison. It must be done by a reliable source, such as a reviewer or critic. So, a reliable source who makes the comaparison between the numbers of escapees in the film versus reality must be found, otherwise it's WP:SYN.HaroldPGuy (talk) 17:01, 14 May 2009 (UTC)
- A careful reading of WP:SYN suggests otherwise to me the two examples shown there, and commentary thereon, lead to the conclusion that we may state X and Y as properly sourced facts what we may not do is state "X and Y, therefore Z". If we merely state X and Y, the reader may draw Z as a conclusion, but us doing so is the synthesis. Rodhullandemu 17:07, 14 May 2009 (UTC)
One problem with Rodhullandemu's suggestion to execute an end-run of WP:SYN by placing a sourced fact about the film next to a sourced fact about the actual escape and have the "reader [. ] draw [. the] conclusion" is that this is an article about the film and any copy not directly related to the film would risk removal. Also, it results in just plain sub-standard prose (paragraphs full of unconnected sentences?). What is wrong with doing the work and finding credible sources who have found discrepancies? If editors have to play games with the Pillars of WP to add copy to this article just because sourced information cannot be located, than maybe the article shouldn't exist.126.96.36.199 (talk) 13:58, 16 May 2009 (UTC)
Perhaps you should judge the finished result, or at least when I've had a chance to do some research. I live in the country and find it difficult to get to a library however, get there I shall. Neither am I proposing that I lower my writing standards they have, after all, given me a reasonable income for over 30 years. Obviously third-party comparisons, if they are available, are to be preferred over bald juxtapositions of facts but the prevailing opinion at WP:NORN thus far is that if we can cite an event in the film (which we may, per WP:FILM) against the same event in reality (which is also feasible), there is no breach of WP:SYN, and no playing of games. Rodhull andemu 14:18, 16 May 2009 (UTC)
Here's a video from Youtube, in four parts, about the making of the movie The Great Escape, including some comparison of the movie with the real-life event. According to the Youtube notes, this video came from the movie's DVD.
Nice one. I assume it's the DVD with extras, just as citable for WP:V purposes using <> as the original film, and should appease the nay-sayers. I'll make a start sometime tomorrow. Thanks. Rodhull andemu 00:14, 17 May 2009 (UTC) You're welcome. --Bob K31416 (talk) 03:19, 17 May 2009 (UTC)
Here's a video from Youtube, in three parts, about the real-life person that was the inspiration for the character Virgil Hilts. According to this video distributed by
fromMGM Home Entertainment, which made The Great Escape,the man was David Mudgett Jones.
Presently in the wiki, Mahon is given as the real-life person, which may be partially correct. It appears that Jones was the inspiration for the character but possibly some of Mahon's experiences were added to the character.
- I have removed Mahon as an inspiration for Hilts the main source (history in film) cites "an internet correspondent" the Daily Express say "is believed to have been". Neither is reliable enough for our purposes. Vance doesn't mention Mahon at all- worse than that, he doesn't even mention 121 Squadron, so I think we can discount that story out of hand. Rodhullandemu 12:26, 21 May 2009 (UTC)
A written comment that is found 2 min 15 sec into the film, as viewed at Youtube,
This is a true story. Although the characters are composites of real men, and time and place have been compressed, every detail of the escape is the way it really happened.
I don't think that it is correct to say that any character is based mainly on one real-life person, unless possibly there is a consensus of sources, or there is a source that recounts a writer or the director of the film saying that. It seems that people in the media who write articles, obituaries, etc. about real-life POWS of Stalag Luft III are coming to conclusions that are based on their work that is not sufficiently thorough or well thought out.
BTW, how does one cite something that is in the film? --Bob K31416 (talk) 17:16, 24 May 2009 (UTC)
Last point first <> has a "quote" field for dialogue etc, and a "time" field for pinpointing events, dialogue, etc. On the other point, I've been thinking about the "composite" problem, and am coming to the conclusion that we could say "The character of Hilts is a composite of several inmates contenders include. ", then list them with sources. In this way, we are not saying that this is the truth, merely that others have made the comparison, and we avoid the WP:OR problem, as long as the sources are reliable, e.g. reputable journalists or film critics. I'm still trying to pin down the BFI's press notes from the original release, which I believe deals with this topic and is an authoritative source. Rodhull andemu 18:32, 24 May 2009 (UTC) Thanks for the info and I agree with your suggestion regarding composite etc. Regarding BFI, I would be concerned that the author of the BFI info might make the same mistake as others if he/she says that Hilts is mainly based on one real-life person, unless the film writer or director is mentioned as the source of the info. --Bob K31416 (talk) 19:44, 24 May 2009 (UTC) An example of what I think is the most reliable type of source for who a character is based on, is this part of the narration of the video The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones It comes 20 seconds into the video. "Sturges said, 'One of the characters in the actual story that we based Steve's part on, was a man called Jones. We wanted to be able to substantiate the fact that there was an American in this thing who had the kind of go-to-hell atmosphere around him that they all had.' " Unfortunately, regarding who was the real-life inspiration for a character, this is the only case I've seen of a source getting info from a quote of a writer or the director, which I believe is the most reliable type of source. In this case, it was from the director John Sturges. --Bob K31416 (talk) 21:22, 24 May 2009 (UTC) Sturges says only the "go-to-hell atmosphere" not events. It is clear that Hilts' actions were not inspired by Jones and this comes back to the oft seen phenomenon of needing to appeal to an American audience by Sturges mentioning Jones and excluding others. This phenomenon is clearly seen in the movie about the Enigma machine, inspired by real events/people etc, but actually having no American inspiration at all despite the movie infering otherwise. As per Rodhull I think "contenders include. " is a good way to go. We can say with a degree of confidence Jones was the inspiration for the personality with the events depicted being inspired by X, Y and Z and perhaps adding specific events tying these together such as I mentioned earlier. Wayne (talk) 06:23, 25 May 2009 (UTC) Re "Sturges says only the "go-to-hell atmosphere" not events. It is clear that Hilts' actions were not inspired by Jones and this comes back to the oft seen phenomenon of needing to appeal to an American audience by Sturges mentioning Jones and excluding others." Please note that Sturges made these comments just before he died in 1992, so in this interview it doesn't appear that he was trying to appeal to American audiences for his 1963 film. Also, we don't know that these were the only comments that Sturges made about Hilts. Don't forget one of your previous comments regarding Jones, "David Jones and Jerry Sage were the prisoners who made the alcohol for the real July 4th party that is depicted in the film." And note that in the film it was Hilts, Hendley and Goff, that made the alcohol. (See the part that begins 3 minutes into the Youtube video and lasts for about 2 minutes.) --Bob K31416 (talk) 12:34, 25 May 2009 (UTC) One added note regarding a possible way that the characters were developed. What the creators may have done was first create fictional characters without being too specific, and then they connected a mixture of real and fictional incidents to those characters in order to tell the story in an entertaining way.
Perhaps McQueen's character Hilts got the greatest amount of screen time because McQueen was one of the most popular and entertaining actors in the world, and would make the movie more entertaining.-Bob K31416 (talk) 11:50, 26 May 2009 (UTC) Actually, according to Sturges McQueen, Bronson and Coburn were all given parts because they were in the Magnificent Seven. The success of that film gave Sturges enough pull to make the Great Escape (this was Sturges' third film in a row to use McQueen). At that time McQueen was not the "most popular actor in the world" as his wife has stated that while he was a rising star the Great Escape was the film that launched his career. While McQueens' motorcycle action was included in the revised script when production began (Hilts was to escape by train in the original script), the Hilts character was a much smaller part. After filming started McQueen objected to James Garner's character (Hendley) having more screen time and lines than Hilts and held up production for six weeks by demanding the script be rewritten to make his part bigger. According to Garner and Pleasence (Blyth) McQueen stormed off the set and refused to return until his part was rewritten. This rewrite not only added many of the events based on real incidents that we see but also added Hilts baseball tossing in the cooler. Wayne (talk) 14:33, 26 May 2009 (UTC) Good point and info! (Care to share the link for the source?) I crossed out the "world" sentence that was in my previous remarks. Thanks. --Bob K31416 (talk) 15:56, 26 May 2009 (UTC) A little bit of this n' that: 1) Regarding the baseball bouncing in the cooler, here's something interesting I found on p. 24 in the book POW baseball in World War II by Tim Wolter. The task of chronicling the history of ball playing at Stalag Luft III is a daunting one. The size of the undertaking alone is a challenge, for this camp represents the absolute pinnacle of POW baseball. Nowhere else before or since have so many POWs participated. During the peak summer of 1944 there were probably upwards of 200 teams active in the six compounds of Stalag Luft III. The escape earlier that year caused most escape activity to be suspended, which freed up the energies of POWs for sports. 2) At the end of that page 24 is this. Although the film makers did employ numerous former Kriegies [POWs] as technical advisors and therefore did depict many details of camp life faithfully, the overall tone of the movie is a bit deceptive. Americans play a prominent role in the film, whereas they had a minor role in the escape, which was largely a British affair. 3) In the video about Jones, he talks about his experience of being among a pretty select group of 20-25 POWs who were diggers in the tunnels and he said that they were of various types and he mentioned a few: Canadian, South African, Australian, . . He talked about how he and the other diggers had to wear dirty, clammy, long johns on the outside of their clothes as coveralls so that they didn't get the distinctly colored dirt on them that might tip off the guards that they were digging. He gave some other details that weren't in the movie either. I'm beginning to get the impression, that of the Americans in the camp, Jones was the one that was the most involved in the escape preparations. --Bob K31416 (talk) 00:16, 27 May 2009 (UTC) Break re "Cooler King"
I'm still working on this, but it seems it wasn't uncommon for disruptive inmates to be consigned to solitary for lengthy periods. Mahon, who I removed as being unsourced, could be a contender, although Vance doesn't mention him he did spend some time in solcon, and was a pain in the side of the Germans, but didn't take part in the escape itself because he was in the cooler at the time. I've also found yet another contender, Bill Ash, who is mentioned briefly in Vance but more completely here, and I've emailed the author about this. I think we have to have regard to the disclaimer already cited as to composites, and accept the weakness of some of our sources in the interests of a defensible article. I'm coming rapidly to the conclusion that perhaps Hilts was actually more McQueen than anyone else, given his invention of the motorcycle escape. Rodhull andemu 01:03, 27 May 2009 (UTC)
From what I remember Jones was on the original escape committee before he was transfered to the American compound. I recently read a NYT article on the movie and it said, based on what the other actors in the movie have said, Hilts personality was actually McQueens own. So it's likely the inspiration for Hilts was McQueen. Wayne (talk) 01:57, 27 May 2009 (UTC) From what I've seen so far, I would take Sturges at his word when he said, "One of the characters in the actual story that we based Steve's part on, was a man called Jones. We wanted to be able to substantiate the fact that there was an American in this thing. ". Jones may have been the main American in the escape preparations, and then there was the July 4th hooch making, so he was interesting, relevant, and a reasonable choice to start out with. So Hilts started with Jones and stuff was added from many others and motorcycles, etc. So, maybe it's this way: The initial inspiration for Hilts was Jones, then there were the incidents from other POWs added, and also McQueen's ideas of what the character should be like, with McQueen's own personality and motorcycles, etc. added into the mix. Make sense? --Bob K31416 (talk) 03:21, 27 May 2009 (UTC)
Perhaps this wiki should be replaced with an article on the real event and maybe titled The great escape from Stalag Luft III. For discussion of possible problems with the present wiki, see the discussion at Hippo43's talk page and at a section of WP:NORN.
The most significant comparisons of the film and reality can be made in a section of the wiki on the film. I suspect that one can pick apart every film that is based on a true story, but it wouldn't be worthwhile, in my opinion. Feature films are media for entertainment, not education. Making a film for the purpose of attracting moviegoers is an art in itself. I don't think mentioning minor details that aren't correct is worthwhile. The few major ones can be mentioned in the film's wiki. It can also be mentioned that the film is rather accurate.
There is also inaccuracy in the sources that describe the film. For example, there's a small army of POWs that are said to be the most heroic character Hilts, some with little reason, when in fact none of the POWs fit this character well. BTW, this is done by authors, not by the POWs themselves. Another example is the sources' failure to mention that the movie portrayed most of the 76 escapees as British, where in reality most were other nationalities that served in the RAF or their own countries' air forces. The nationalities of the 3 that made it all the way home, 2 Norwegian and one Dutch, weren't mentioned at all in the film.
These problems wouldn't exist for an article on the real great escape which can be used for comparison with the film by the reader. --Bob K31416 (talk) 00:33, 6 June 2009 (UTC)
I completely agree that this would be best in a short section within The Great Escape (film). I don't think there needs to be another article on the event itself. We already have articles on the film, the book and the camp, and the latter (Stalag Luft III) contains a good section on the escape. --hippo43 (talk) 01:31, 6 June 2009 (UTC) After looking at the Stalag Luft III wiki, I see that it already covers a lot of the great escape so I certainly agree with you that a new article on the real event isn't useful. Thanks for pointing that out. However, there may come a time when the escape section is split off and becomes a separate article. It's quite large at the present, compared to the other parts of that wiki. --Bob K31416 (talk) 03:41, 6 June 2009 (UTC) Agree - I wouldn't argue with splitting it now. --hippo43 (talk) 10:38, 6 June 2009 (UTC)
This is a great opportunity to merge the excellent work done on the "inaccuracies" page into the film article's Production section and make it even better. 188.8.131.52 (talk) 12:29, 6 June 2009 (UTC)
Please take a look at WP:NORN#Factual accuracy of The Great Escape where this article been under discussion. I very much agree with the idea (expressed above) of shifting the focus of this article to the historical event (which would include a short section on how the film differs from the historical account). I would also suggest that the bulk of this article be merged into The Great Escape (film).
crux of the argumentconsensus at NORN seems to be that is that it is not Original research to point out the differences between a film and the historical events the film is based upon. but a lot of it is Trivia. The movie is a work of fiction and not a documentary. Yes, it is fiction that is based on reality, but it is fiction never the less. We don't expect a work of fiction to have factual accuracy. This raises the question as to whether the film's factual accuracy is a notable enough topic to warrent it's own article.
Personally, I don't think it is. The factual accuracy of a work of fiction is an interesting topic, but not a notable one. It best belongs as a short section in either the article on the film, or an article on the historical event (or both).
Finally, for what it's worth (although this is sort of an "other stuff exists. or rather doesn't exist type argument), I will note that this seems to be the only article on the factual accuracy of a work of fiction based on history. for example, we don't have an article on "Factual accuracy of Gettysberg (film)" or "Factual accuracy of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (TV series)". Some of our article on films may have factual accuracy sections, but not an entire article devoted to the topic. Blueboar (talk) 13:58, 6 June 2009 (UTC)
(You might want to rephrase your "crux" statement because it might be interpreted to mean that the discussion at WP:NORN#Factual accuracy of The Great Escape found that it wasn't OR, which wasn't the case. Thanks. --Bob K31416 (talk) 14:40, 6 June 2009 (UTC) ) (Done. Thanks Blueboar (talk) 15:31, 7 June 2009 (UTC) ) (Not what I meant, but never mind for now. Have a good one. --Bob K31416 (talk) 20:31, 7 June 2009 (UTC) )
I've removed all of the unreferenced examples from the article, and trimmed out others which didn't reflect what was said in the sources. I'm sure some of the other sources, which I haven't been able to check yet, will not make the connection that the article implies. As it stands, the article is made up of less than 10 'facts'.
I propose we merge this material back into The Great Escape (film). I can't see how this merits a separate article.
At the same time, I suggest we split the section on the historical event out from Stalag Luft III and create The Great Escape (Stalag Luft III) (or a less clunky title). The section on the real escape takes up the majority of that article, and should probably exist outside the article on the camp. --hippo43 (talk) 17:45, 6 June 2009 (UTC)
Not the first time this has been suggested: go for it! 184.108.40.206 (talk) 19:00, 7 June 2009 (UTC)
In using information about film production from Rob Davis' site "The 1963 film of the Great Escape", one should consider that none of the "sources" for the site appears to deal with the film's production or adaptation process. 220.127.116.11 (talk) 04:12, 8 June 2009 (UTC)
Also, what is the "Vance" source in the references section? 18.104.22.168 (talk) 04:13, 8 June 2009 (UTC) Another thing to consider when describing the film as based on a "factual" (implied) autobiography "with a few fictitious additions", is that Brickhill's "autobiography" is categorized as a novel (fiction), and a book (fact) on Clavell's career states that when he wrote the script for the film, he based much of it on his own POW experience on the other side of the world from Stalag III and "tempered it with the fantasy Hollywood demanded" (p. 5). "Few", therefore, might be a bit of an understatement. It is, afterall, a fictional adaptation of a novelization of an event. About the only thing of real interest as far as adaptation differences mentioned in this article is the enhancement of the Americans' roles (the "demands" of Hollywood), which did spawn a reaction from some critics (otherwise known as credible sources) all the rest are trivial changes that are always made in film adaptation. What is the point of having this article? Merge the significant (and sourced) stuff into the film article and put this puppy out of its misery. 22.214.171.124 (talk) 04:42, 8 June 2009 (UTC) Rather than the problem being the prominence of Americans (plural) it seems to be one American character, Hilts. Perhaps the Hendley character alone, an American in the RAF, would have properly represented the American involvement in the escape. Americans, be they in the American or British military, were a part of the escape. We should be careful not to overcompensate for the inappropriate prominence of Hilts. For example, Johnnie Dodge an american in the British army who escaped George Harsh, an American in the RAF who was in charge of security and was 1 of 4 on the executive council David Jones of the USAAF who was one of the 20-25 who dug the tunnels and Barry Mahon an American in the RAF. Please note that this doesn't mean American involvement was limited to just these four, who are the ones that I recall were specifically mentioned in the sources that I looked at. Here's an excerpt from an article that is an example of the type of information that we have to be careful about.
The Cooler King character is believed to be based on a British officer, Flight Lieutenant Barry Mahon of 121 Squadron RAF, who served as a technical director on the film. Mahon was shot down in August 1942 and sent to Stalag Luft III, where he was imprisoned in isolation, “the cooler”, for his many escape attempts. Although he’d been due to go through the tunnel first, his decision to decline no doubt saved his life.
McQueen is said to have taken a liking to the ex-POW and asked to have Barry’s background written into his own character. According to film blogger Tom Cleaver: “Barry fought like hell to get the movie as real as he could, as his own way of paying respects to the dead.”
The producers’ decision to make him a US escapee wasn’t the only example of the film’s slant towards all things American. Although three tunnels – Tom, Dick and Harry – were dug as portrayed in the film, it was not during the July 4 celebrations that Tom was discovered by the Germans, although that did make for a dramatic piece of storytelling.
What do you mean, "be careful about"? IMDb is not considered a reliable source for this type of information (see Citing IMDb Discussion), and, anyway, WP editors cannot decide which sources are more "truthful" than others. If two or more reliable sources contradict each other, then all must be presented. It does not matter whether Americans were actually part of the escape if critics and authors (reliable sources) write about a perception that Americans received more attention than they should have (rightly or wrongly) — just as the Daily Express did — then that must be presented. Similarly, if other publications state that the presentation is accurate, then those viewpoints must presented alongside the others for balance. WP editors cannot decide to leave them out just because they don't believe them. Reliable sources and Verifiability are the Pillars here, not "truth": "The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth—that is, whether readers are able to check that material added to Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source, not whether we think it is true."
You note a problem with the film is an omission of the "international" composition of the escapees, which may be true, but if no critics or other writers note that film omission, then it cannot be placed in a WP article. I've noticed you depend on sites such as [www.trasksdad.com http://www.trasksdad.com/PopsProgress/] for information: unless those sites indicate proper scholarship through listing of credible sources, then the information found there cannot be included in WP articles. This has nothing to do with "truth" again I do not doubt Peter Porter's veracity when it comes to telling his father's story, but since WP absolutely requires it be verifiable for it to be included, it's doubtful any of that information can be included. Now, that information may be helpful in research leading to other, but reliable, sources which may lead to inclusion of the material, and that's fine.
Also, please consider this Film Style Guideline when considering the material in this article. 126.96.36.199 (talk) 17:20, 8 June 2009 (UTC)
- Why do you assume the writer is biased? Why not simply a mistake was made? 188.8.131.52 (talk) 23:15, 9 June 2009 (UTC)
- I referred you to the page so you would have more information on the problems with depending on IMDb. Many of the points made in the discussion would -- rightfully -- suggest that you use the NYT's article as the source instead of IMDb (I'm unsure why you didn't just refer to the newspaper article in the first place). Also, please don't assume writers are trying to "hide" something they might simply be in error, but with the best of intentions. 184.108.40.206 (talk) 23:15, 9 June 2009 (UTC)
- But please consider WP:WEIGHT as well. 220.127.116.11 (talk) 23:15, 9 June 2009 (UTC)
- It would be nice . . . and it is our job as editors. 18.104.22.168 (talk) 23:15, 9 June 2009 (UTC)
I have reverted Marktreut's statements about what would have 'probably' happened under the Geneva convention. This is not a point that is referenced so is original research. Citing the Convention itself is not enough - you need a secondary source which has made this point. See WP:NOR. --hippo43 (talk) 11:06, 23 July 2009 (UTC)
I would argue for OR exemption on the grounds that one of the major characters in the film was released under this convention shortly after the escape and for an injury far less serious than Blyth's blindness. G/C Herbert Massey (S.B.O. Ramsey in the film) injured his leg in Germany and was repatriated to Britain by the Germans very soon after the escape due to this injury. This can be cited and as his injury was also duplicated by his character in the film this provides a connection for the claim and proves "the point". Wayne (talk) 16:14, 23 July 2009 (UTC) You haven't explained why this would mean OR should be allowed. Your argument is classic original research and, while really interesting, has no place in an encyclopedia. --hippo43 (talk) 16:28, 23 July 2009 (UTC)
Does anyone have access to a copy of this book (Timespan — Escapes by Tim Healey)? It would be good to know if the passages referenced deal with this escape specifically or escapes in general. Thanks. --hippo43 (talk) 17:28, 23 July 2009 (UTC)
I've merged the material from this article into the main film article, as discussed above. Can we now look at deleting this article? I don't know what the procedure is. --hippo43 (talk) 17:40, 23 July 2009 (UTC)
To comply with GFDL, we should not delete the article since that would lose the required attribution of edits to editors what can be done is to make the article into a redirect to preserve the edit history. Rodhull andemu 18:00, 23 July 2009 (UTC) Thanks. If there are no objections I'll do it in a few days. --hippo43 (talk) 18:31, 23 July 2009 (UTC)
By Beth Hale for the Daily Mail
Updated: 07:39 BST, 24 November 2009
It was a tale of such extraordinary courage, drama and tragedy that it was immortalised in the film The Great Escape.
Now the ageing pages of a Second World War diary have revealed an even more remarkable first-hand account of the circumstances of the famous prisoner of war break-out.
For as 77 determined Allied officers made their bid for freedom from beneath the wire fences of Stalag Luft III, another British serviceman still within the camp was documenting their exploits in a meticulously-kept diary.
Revealed: Coded plans for The Great Escape were found in Flight Lieutenant Ted Nestor's detailed diary
Captured: Flt Lt Nestor was sent to the prison when he was shot down over Germany aged just 23
Flight Lieutenant Ted Nestor wrote about the escape in coded form - calling it 'The Spring Handicap' with '100 under starters orders'.
Later he added a diagram showing the hut from which the escape was launched, with red dotted lines showing the route of a tunnel leading under the camp fences and to the outside, trees marked in green - entitled 'the tunnel through which the escape was made'.
Stalag Luft III was a Luftwaffe-run PoW prison for 10,000 captured servicemen in Silesia, now Poland.
Flt Lt Nestor was just 23 when he was shot down over Germany on a bombing raid in August 1943 and sent to the camp.
Over the next year-and-a-half the young navigator kept a detailed record of daily life there, including his comrades’ dramatic escape plan – one of the most famous acts of heroism of the war.
The escape, later made famous in a blockbuster film starring Steve McQueen, was on March 24, 1944.
Flt Lt Nestor, who was born in Waterloo near Liverpool, writes about the ‘Great Escape’ in code, as if it were a horse race, describing how just prior to the escape the men were ‘under starter’s orders’.
In a later entry, which he titles ‘The Escape’, he records in detail the size of the tunnel, where the exit was and how they learned that many of the escapees had been killed.
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All the way to Gibraltar
Bram van der Stok sat on a bench in the Breslau railway station and pretended to doze. He believed that "he travels fastest who travels alone." He was wearing civilian clothes—at least they looked like that, although they were in fact an Australian air force overcoat and a converted naval jacket and trousers, RAF shoes, and a beret.
He bought a second-class ticket to Alkmaar, boarded the train, and at 10:00 a.m. arrived in Dresden, where he had a long layover. He dozed in two cinemas until 8:00 p.m., then went back to the station to catch a train to the Dutch border at Bentheim. He realized that the tunnel had been discovered, and the hunt was on, because his papers were carefully scrutinized on four occasions. At the frontier post his papers were examined again, but now it was easier. His Dutch was, naturally, perfect, and his papers were in order.
He traveled by train to Oldenzaal, then on to Utrecht. Here the Escape Committee had given him the address of an underground resistance worker. The man welcomed him, gave him fake identity papers and ration cards, and kept him safe in his home for three days. But there was no victory yet. Holland was part of Germany's conquered Europe informers and spies were everywhere. Bram van der Stok still had to move fast.
He traveled by bicycle to another safe house in Belgium, where he was given Belgian identity papers, then on by train through Brussels and Paris. More false papers and south again to Toulouse, and now he was installed in the Maquis resistance chain [the French resistance]. He met up with two American lieutenants, two RAF pilots, a French officer, a Russian, and a French girl who acted as a guide. Together they crossed the Pyrenees and arrived in Lérida. The Spanish were neutral, but not necessarily friendly. The British consul took them over in Lérida, and Bram van der Stok arrived in Gibraltar on July 8.
His escape journey had taken almost three and a half months. He was back in England within a few days, the third to make a home run.
The Stalag Luft III camp. "Harry" lay 30 feet underground and stretched over 300 feet from a barracks like this one to the freedom side of the camp's outer fence.