The Great Escape Pt 2

The POWs in Stalag Luft 3 knew full well that their conversations were often being overheard by their German Captors, who would sometimes even climb below the huts in order to be able to hear more clearly the contents of the hushed conversations inside. Any mention of words like “tunnel” and “escape” would be easily overheard. Hence the tunnels were named Tom, Dick and Harry. You could be talking about issues to do with either tunnel by referring to the name and it would sound far less conspiratorial.

All 3 tunnels were far bigger undertakings than anything that had previously been attempted by escaping POWs. The presence of the listening equipment  meant that the tunnels had to be at least thirty feet below ground. To dig such a deep shaft required a stable means of access for an extended period of time – over many months. There could be no  tunnelling from the exercise yard for a few feet below a fence over a period of several days, so they had to be dug with access from within the huts themselves. Consequently 3 tunnels, each with entry shafts thirty feet deep and lengths of several hundred feet would have to be built. Furthermore POW camps did not come readily equipped with supplies to allow such huge engineering projects. However, as previously discussed, the POWs were very skilled and resourceful individuals.

They could fashion a set of bolt cutters from the metal gratings on the heaters in each hut, cutting away the bars, and heating the tips with sugar to make them hardy enough to cut through steel. They could manufacture a rudimentary compass by moulding the plastic from old vinyl LP records. Glass could be moulded into shape by being cut using scissors / bolt cutters provided the entire pane of glass was immersed in water. Solder was obtained from the tiny fragments found on the cut away strips on corned beef tins. When it is possible to fashion construction equipment from virtually nothing, it becomes possible to see how it was also within the realms of possibility to create fake ID papers and civilian outfits for the POWs to use during the long journey through Germany after the breakout.

The entry to the first tunnel, “Tom”, was in the washrooms of one of the Huts located closest to the forest on the other side of the razor wire. The length of the tunnel required here would be shorter than from any of the other camp boundaries. Several Polish airmen in the camp had been stonemasons prior to the War, and created an entrance below the concrete in the washroom. Once in place, the entrance stone could not be differentiated from the rest of the concrete in the washroom floor.

Such a large shaft and tunnel required shoring, as otherwise the loose soil and clay would easily cave in and trap the tunnellers. The solution was bed boards, the slats supporting the mattresses of each  inmate. How could there be enough bed boards, which were only a few inches wide, to shore up three lengthy tunnels? It has to be remembered that there were 2,000 inmates in the North Compound alone. Each man was asked to supply 5 bed boards each. Instantly, there were 10,000 bed boards, more than enough to get the projects under way.

Not all of the 2,000 inmates were in on the scheme. Some wanted no part in it, and did not want to know what was being planned. Others were happy to help the effort, but had no intention of escaping themselves. Frank was one of these. He assisted in sweeping out the hut where Harry was located, as the excess of dust and clay could have revealed the presence of the tunnel. Basic security also meant that not everyone could know about exactly what was being planned.

Progress on Tom was strong, but disaster struck when the forest was cut back, making the length of tunnel required even longer, and the Germans were also suspicious. During a thorough search, the tunnel was discovered. The German captors were amazed at the sheer size and scale of Tom, along with the ingenuity of the washroom entrance. Photographs were taken, and visitors to the camp were eagerly shown the tunnel, as afterall the escape attempt had been successfully thwarted before it had begun. Shortly afterwards the tunnel was dynamited and destroyed. The jubilant German captors were not to know that there were still two other tunnels still under construction. All efforts were now put into progressing Harry.

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