Here’s the Unbelievable Real Story Behind ‘The Great Escape’

(Photo Credit: Archive Photos/ Stringer/ Getty Images)

Many people have seen the classic 1963 Steve McQueen movie, The Great Escape, but few know the true story that inspired the film. Here we take a look at the real great escape that happened in 1944.

Stalag Luft III

Stalag Luft III
Prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III which was run by the Luftwaffe for captured airmen until its liberation on April 29, 1945. (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/ Getty Images)

The movie was based on Paul Brickhill’s 1950 non-fiction book, The Great Escape. Brickhill was an Australian fighter pilot and a prisoner of war at the Luftwaffe-run POW camp, Stammlager Luft III, more commonly known as Stalag Luft III.

Stalag Luft III was located in the German province of Lower Silesia, near the town Sagan (now Żagań in modern-day Poland). The camp was about 100 miles southeast of Berlin.

Steve McQueen in The Great Escape
Steve McQueen wearing a German military uniform, sitting astride a motorcycle in a publicity still issued for the film, ‘The Great Escape’, 1963. (Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection/ Getty Images)

This specific location was chosen for the German POW camp because it would be difficult for prisoners to escape – especially by tunneling. In fact, the Nazis took elaborate measures to prevent any attempt to tunnel. These measures included raising prisoners’ huts off the ground and burying microphones nine feet underground along the camp’s perimeter fencing.

Stalag Luft III was built on top of yellow sand that would be tough to tunnel through. The fact that the camp was built on this sand also meant that the structural integrity of any tunnel would be weak. The yellow sand would also expose anyone who attempted to escape through tunneling.

Tunnels were worked on for nearly a year

Captured RAF soldiers at Stag Luft III
Captured RAF officers at Stalag Luft III lay the foundations for a new hut, 1944. (Photo Credit: Keystone/ Getty Images)

In the Spring of 1943, over 600 prisoners at Stalag Luft III began to dig three tunnels. This effort was led by Royal Air Force pilot Roger Bushell who had been shot down over France while assisting with the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Bushnell hoped to get 200 prisoners out in a single attempt by digging a total of three separate tunnels. He figured that if a German discovered one of the tunnels, they wouldn’t imagine two more were also being built, and the evacuation plan could progress.

These three tunnels – nicknamed Tom, Dick, and Harry – were very deep, about 30 feet below the surface. The tunnels were held up with pieces of wood, with 4,000 bed boards used in the construction.  Other materials, including tin cans, were used to help reinforce the tunnels. These materials gave the tunnels the necessary support to hold up in the sandy subsoil.

Captured RAF airmen
Captured RAF officers at Stalag Luft III, 1944. (Photo Credit: Keystone/ Stringer/ Getty Images)

The prisoners used stolen wire to hook up to the camp’s electrical supply and were able to string lightbulbs in the tunnel to illuminate the dark space. To ensure the German guards didn’t learn what was going on, the prisoners developed an elaborate lookout system and used subtle signs to signal to others that a guard was approaching.

Prisoners working on the tunnels bribed German guards with numerous Red Cross goods unavailable in Germany – including chocolate, coffee, soap, and sugar. In return, prisoners received cameras and travel documents that were turned into identity cards, passports, and travel passes.

The Great Escape gone wrong

Church service at Stalag Luft 3
Church services conducted by British and allied prisoners at the German prison camp, Stalag Luft III. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

In March 1944, the last tunnel was completed. Before the completion of Harry (the final tunnel), the Germans had discovered the tunnel Tom and destroyed it. The POWs also had decided to turn the tunnel Dick into a storage space, meaning when Harry was completed, it was the only usable tunnel for escape.

The escape was set for March 24, 1944. However, the prisoners realized a problem afoot as the first escapee exited the tunnel. When digging Harry, the prisoners assumed that the tunnel would reach a nearby forest. However, it was soon apparent that the tunnel was not long enough, as it exited just short of the tree line, close to a guard tower.

Because of the snow on the ground and the tunnel not ending in the forest, the prisoners realized that any escapee would leave a trail in the snow as they went into the forest. To avoid being caught, the prisoners reduced the number of escapees from one every minute to ten an hour. Then, around one in the morning, a portion of the tunnel collapsed and had to be quickly repaired.

End of Harry Tunnel
Memorial showing the end of the tunnel, “Harry.” (Photo Credit: Vorwerk/ Public Domain under CC BY-SA 3.0/ Wikimedia commons)

Despite all these unexpected problems, a total of 76 prisoners were able to crawl through the tunnel to freedom. Unfortunately, around five in the morning on March 25, a German soldier nearly fell into the tunnel’s exit while on patrol, and the prisoners’ escape was exposed.

The Nazis mobilized a massive search for the escapees after discovering the tunnel. They increased border patrols, searched nearby farms and hotels, and established roadblocks. Within two weeks of the escape, the Nazis had recaptured 73 of the 76 men.

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After hearing about the event, Hitler personally ordered the execution of 50 escaped airmen as a warning to other prisoners. The 1963 movie depicts these men being killed in a single event, but in reality, the Gestapo killed the condemned singly or in pairs in secluded locations. In 1947, a military tribunal found 18 Nazis guilty of war crimes for shooting the recaptured escapees.