By 1944, thousands of Allied airmen had been shot down and captured by the Germans. But even in captivity, it was the duty of every officer to attempt to escape in order to tie down German resources to guard the prisoners. By late 1942, troublesome prisoners with multiple escape attempts were sent to Stalag Luft III (Air Prison 3) which was deemed “escape proof” by the Lufwaffe.
But what the Germans really did was place every escape artist on continental Europe in the same camp. Led by British Squadron Leader Roger Bushnell, the camp formed an escape committee that spearheaded an effort to breakout hundreds of prisoners in a single night.
The planning and preparation effort for such an endeavor was huge and would take over a year. Every prisoner had to be given a disguise, travel documents, a fake ID, maps, compass, and enough survival gear to get them to a friendly or neutral country. All the while avoiding German and other occupying authorities. All of which had to be manufactured in secret under the noses of the camp guards. The biggest problem however was getting out of the camp. To effect this, four tunnels were dug, code named “Tom”, “Dick”, “Harry” and “George”. Preparations for the mass breakout continued throughout 1943 and into 1944.
By winter in early 1944, three of the tunnels had been abandoned and all efforts put into “Harry”. On the moonless night of 24 Mar 1944, 200 prisoners of Stalag Luft III were waiting their turn to travel through the 104m long tunnel from the camp to the woods beyond. But the tunnel wasn’t long enough and when the first escapee broke through the earth, he found he was 3m short of the wood line and very near the route of a German roving guard. A signal system was set up to avoid the guard but the throughput of Harry was seriously diminished. Not all 200 would make it out that night. The decision was made to go ahead anyway.
76 prisoners escaped that night in the largest breakout in World War 2. The Great Escape caused chaos across occupied Europe as tens of thousands of German and Axis troops attempted to track down the fugitives. 73 of the 76 were eventually recaptured. Hitler was so incensed by the breakout that he personally ordered the first 50 killed by the Gestapo. The other 23 were returned to the camp alive. Only three would actually make it to safety. One made it to neutral Spain via the French Resistance and two stowed away on a ship bound for neutral Sweden.