'The Great Escape’ re-created by Cambridge University historian
IT took 4,000 bed boards and thousands of items of cutlery to build, plus an inordinate amount of bravery. Now the 330ft tunnel used for the "Great Escape" from Germany’s infamous Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp has been recreated.
A Cambridge University historian behind the attempt described the original efforts of the RAF airmen as “astounding”. Hugh Hunt and a team of experts wanted to investigate the complexities of building a 330ft tunnel underneath a camp that was deliberately built on a type of sandy soil that should have made the prisoners’ job impossible.
They revisited the site and constructed a 33ft imitation, crafting digging tools and saws from bits of gramophone players, bunk beds and kit bags, and copying the trolley track along which the 76 PoWs who escaped pulled themselves through the tunnel.
Mr Hunt said the exercise showed how remarkable the achievement of the airmen was. “It’s simply amazing what they achieved given how difficult it was,” he said.
“But talking to some of those who were involved, we also got a sense of the bravery, camaraderie and fun of it all — despite the fact that the Germans knew they were tunnelling and were looking everywhere for them.
“What is astounding is the range of skills that the prisoners had to build the tunnels, ventilate and light them, as well as making compasses, radios, forging documents, heat-treating metals, you name it.”
The escape of RAF airmen from the PoW camp in March 1944 was immortalised in the 1963 film starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough.
Seventy-six prisoners escaped, having spent a year digging two tunnels — Harry, which was completed, and George, which went unfinished. Two other tunnels were started but Tom was discovered by the Germans and Dick had to be abandoned when the camp expanded over its planned exit point.
Led by Sq Ldr Roger Bushell, the PoWs used 4,000 bed boards, 90 double bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 3,424 towels, thousands of knives, forks and spoons and about 1,400 Klim powdered milk cans – used to engineer an ingenious ventilation system. Some of the cans were among items found when Mr Hunt’s team excavated George.
The prisoners also forged documents and befriended, bribed or coerced German guards to provide them with the civilian clothes and train timetables essential once they reached the other side of the fence. However, all but three of the escapees were recaptured. Fifty were executed by the Gestapo, including Sq Ldr Bushell.
For the return to Stalag Luft III, near Zagan, which is now in Poland, Mr Hunt, from Cambridge University’s engineering department, and his team were filmed for a Channel 4 documentary that will be shown tonight .
It also includes interviews with veterans of the escape, such as Frank Stone, a gunner who said he was thrilled to return to the site.
“Although only a handful of men worked on the tunnel directly, the escape plan involved hundreds of prisoners who never really knew what the plan was,” said Mr Hunt. “It was some people’s job to move bin lids or wear their hat a certain way if a German guard was coming — but they never knew why.
“It took a year to dig the tunnel but for more than 70 years 'Harry’ and 'George’ have remained undisturbed — and with them the final secrets of a remarkable story and history.
“We all came away with an appreciation of just how difficult — and dangerous — digging the tunnel must have been.”