I was recently fortunate enough to be able to hear a presentation from a former inmate of Stalag Luft 3, the German Prisoner of War (POW) Camp that was the scene of the largest mass break – out of allied POWs during the Second World War that was later dramatised in the film “The Great Escape”. To hear first – hand from a veteran was fascinating, and I feel lucky to have been able to hear from a man who even approaching 90 was able to speak to a room of 60 delegates for well over an hour about his experiences almost 70 years ago. This first blog post covers the background to the escape attempt.
Frank was not even 20 years of age when he was shot down over occupied Europe in October 1940. As was the custom in Germany, all captured air crews were kept under the control of the Luftwaffe. In the same way, captured army personnel were in the custody of the Wehrmacht and naval personnel under the Kriegsmarine.
Initially the Luftwaffe operated just one POW Camp, Stalag Luft 1. This was located towards the north of Germany and this was where Frank initially found himself. Allied POWs were always devising new schemes to escape from the camp, and being in the North of Germany meant that once outside the confines of the camp it was a comparatively short journey to the Baltic Sea and a ferry across to neutral Sweden. Tunnels would frequently be dug, just a few feet below the surface , just enough to allow passage below the barbed wire fences, the “no – mans land” between the razor – wire that was covered by machine guns from the elevated guard towers and the sentry – patrolled outer fence.
As the war progressed and the number of aircrews captured escalated, particularly with the advent of the mass Allied bombing campaigns over Germany, a new more secure camp was required. In early 1943 Frank and the other airmen were moved to Stalag Luft 3. Frank was put in the North Compound of the camp, which alone housed 2,000 POWs. Stalag Luft 3 was located deep in what was pre – war Germany but after the post – war realignment of European borders is now south – west Poland. Even if you made it outside the razor wire, getting to Switzerland or Sweden was now much more difficult.
However, airmen, as is still the case today, are very highly trained and highly skilled individuals. Confined in captivity with nothing to do for days, weeks and months on end will quickly lead to boredom. So the focus, almost immediately, fell on finding ways to escape. All of the inmates at Stalag Luft 3 had almost to a man all had experience of previous break – outs and attempted break – outs. Consequently all of this experience was now brought together in one camp. The outcome was a ferocious desire to break out from captivity.
The Germans, having seen previous break – outs, had designed Stalag Luft 3 with the intention of incorporating the latest technology in order to thwart any possible attempts to escape. Microphones were buried around the camp and under the fences so that any digging would be heard. Powerful searchlights covered all of the perimeters, while guard towers also covered the perimters and were equipped with multiple machine guns.
It was decided that 3 tunnels would be dug out underneath the wire. Each tunnel would be far bigger and more elaborate than anything previously undertaken, as they would have to reach a dept or approximately thirty feet in order to evade the listening microphones. 3 tunnels were to be dug simultaneously as it was likely that during the lengthy construction process a tunnel would be discovered despite the best efforts of the POWs. However, in the event that one tunnel was discovered, the Germans would assume that they had uncovered the escape attempt and foiled it, little suspecting that other equally advanced tunnels were simultaneously under construction.
That is the background, the next instalment will cover how they went about such a major engineering project with virtually no resources.