It’s the 70th anniversary of the ‘Great Escape’ and even though the famous breakout from the German Prisoner of War camp inspired Hollywood there hasn’t been an official act of remembrance, well, until today.
This first formal commemoration for the escape plot was held in Zagan, Poland, where survivors, families and Polish officials got together to commemorate the prisoners. Also, 50 RAF service personnel are marching for four days to the cemetery at Poznan where the 50 prisoners of war are buried and lay wreaths in their memory.
The plot aimed to free 200 men and was the single greatest freedom attempt by POWs in the war – hence inspiring the big screen. Of those who broke out of the camp, only three reached safety and of the 73 recaptured, 50 were shot.
The risky bid for freedom from German Prisoner of War camp ‘Stalag Luft III’ took place 70 years ago, in 1944. The camp, 100 miles south-east of Berlin, held about 10,000 RAF crew at the height of its occupation.
An escape committee was formed at the camp in Spring 1943 and the escape plan hatched under the leadership of Squadron Leader Roger Bushell. Three tunnels, codenamed Tom, Dick and Harry, were started in April 1943 and were dug to a depth of 30ft and shored up with wooden boards from the prisoners' beds.
Bushell called a meeting of the Escape Committee and not only shocked those present with its scope, but injected into every man a passionate determination to put their every energy into the escape. He said:
"Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time. By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun... In North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug - Tom, Dick, and Harry. One will succeed!"
On the night of 24 March 1944, about 200 prisoners prepared to escape through Harry, a tunnel measuring over 300ft long, beneath Hut 104. Of the 76 who made their break for freedom using the tunnel, 50 were subsequently shot by the Gestapo on Adolf Hitler's orders.
Sadly, only three of the escapees managed to reach England.
Over 100,000 soldiers of the British Army were captured during the Second World War war and placed in prisoner of war camps. All PoWs were allegedly protected by rules for the treatment of Prisoners of War, which had been established in the Geneva Convention of 1929.
Forces War Records have the full nominal lists for 1945 and a large database of World War II Prisoners of War as well as a vast historic documents library with some items related to Stalag Luft III including an interesting piece from the The War Illustrated.
Are you researching a Prisoner of War?
If you are researching Prisoner of War camps you might find it helpful to know that there were two types of POW camps run by the Germans that soldiers of the British Army were assigned to, including: Oflag – camp for officers Stalag – camp for lower ranks There were separate camps for navy, aircrews, and civilians. The German camps were named according to a numbering system, beginning with a Roman numeral representing the military district the camp was located in. Following the Roman numeral could be a letter. This letter represented a specific camp within the military district. If the camp was a sub-camp, "/Z" was then appended to the end of the number. If the camp was a main camp, then the "/H" was appended to the end of the number. See our PoW tutorial.