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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

The Luft Three Tunnel

The Luft Three Tunnel

The prison camp established at Sagan, between Berlin and Breslau, known as Stalag Luft III, grew into the largest Air Force officers' camp in Germany with, eventually, a population of over ten thousand. Many of the aircrew officers who were held in it had had narrow escapes from death before reaching this camp: some had fallen incredible heights without parachutes and landed alive; others had come down at sea and spent many days of agony in rubber dinghies; a few had been roughly handled by the mob after parachuting down near the cities they had been bombing. Many of the inhabitants of Luft III had spent months in hospital; some had had limbs amputated. But their morale was high.

A number of the officers in the stalag's North Compound, which was opened early in 1943, had gained invaluable experience in making tunnels at other camps. Amongst other things they had discovered that at depths exceeding 25 feet the listening devices installed by the Germans to check tunnelling activities were ineffective.2 Also they profited by the confusion of taking up their brand-new quarters to make the entrances to the tunnels which were afterwards dug. The page 30 Germans had raised the huts a foot off the ground to make the detection of tunnelling easier. But the prisoners cut through the concrete foundations under heating stoves and through the concrete floor of a shower room. Nearly everyone in the camp undertook some escape duties. Besides the actual tunnellers, a select band who kept their mouths shut, the work called for ‘stooges’, whose tedious sentry duty made the tasks of the rest safe; electricians who linked the three tunnels to the camp supply; tinsmiths who made from empty Red Cross tins the ingenious air trunks which ventilated the narrow tunnels; ‘penguins’ who carried out the sandy spoil in Red Cross parcel boxes or in long cloth cylinders hidden in their trousers, and dumped it in inconspicuous places; forgers who prepared the false documents for use in moving about in Germany after the break; the tailors who produced civilian clothing, and the ‘contacts’ who cultivated the friendship of individual guards and ‘softened them up’ to the point where they would bring contraband articles into camp in exchange for chocolate and cigarettes from Red Cross parcels. Few escape teams were so well integrated, so unselfish, or so single in purpose.

Of the three tunnels, ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’, and ‘Harry’, begun at Luft III, the first was found by the Germans when nearly finished; the second, never taken far, was used as a dump for the spoil from the first; while the third, ‘Harry’, was taken 340 feet at a depth of 30 feet and broken on the night of 24-25 March 1944, approximately a year after the North Compound escapers began operations. It had been hoped to pass over 200 men out through ‘Harry’. Thirty per cent of the escapers had been nominated by the escape committee from among those who had contributed most to the project; the rest had been selected by lot. Almost six hundred men had helped with the work, and it was an invidious task to decide who should share in the reward. The end of the tunnel proved to be much nearer to the wire and its sentries than had been calculated, and emergence from it needed great care. Then sand fell in the tunnel itself through the bulky packs of some escapers catching in the wooden lining as they were hauled along its trolley way. With these delays the hoped-for rate of egress was never achieved, but seventy-six men got away before an astounded sentry, patrolling outside the wire in the early morning, nearly trod in the hole and raised the alarm.

So far the Luft III break had been an escape among other escapes, though certainly an exceptionally well-organised and successful one. It was the sequel which made it one of the tragedies of the war. The whole countryside was raised to catch the escapers. Huge numbers of Germans, troops and civilians, were engaged in the round-up; in this way alone the escape had hindered the German war effort. The reprisals taken on the men in camp were insignificant, but a few weeks after the break the new commandant of the camp, severely embarrassed by the duty, announced officially to the senior British officer that forty-one of the escapers had been shot ‘while resisting arrest or attempting further escape after arrest’. The senior British officer's question as to how many had been wounded was unanswerable. The list of those who had died in this way finally reached fifty.1 Of the other twenty-six, three reached freedom, fifteen came back to Stalag Luft III, and eight were held afterwards in concentration camps. The order to kill the fifty escapers came from Hitler himself, and Himmler's Gestapo carried it out.

2 Escape to Danger, Flight-Lieutenant Paul Brickhill and Conrad Norton (Faber), p. 76. Most of this account of the Luft III tunnel escape is based on this book (which also relates some outstanding personal adventures) or on three articles published in the Sunday Express (London) in October 1945 by Flt Lt Brickhill.

1 It included two members of the RNZAF, Flt Lt Arnold Christensen and Fg Off P. P. J. Pohe, and a New Zealander in the RAF, Sqn Ldr J. A. Williams. Among the dead were also Englishmen, Canadians, Australians, South Africans, Poles, Norwegians, a Frenchman, a Belgian, a Czech, and a Greek.