It was immortalised in The Great Escape – now a group of men have revealed the work behind the Stalag Luft III breakout by recreating the tunnels that were used.
Since the 1963 film starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough, the escape of RAF airmen from the Nazi prisoner of war camp has become the stuff of legend. But many of the means the 76 men used to escape via a 100m-tunnel have remained secret.
A team of experts, archaeologists, veterans and RAF personnel, led by Cambridge University’s Dr Hugh Hunt, returned to the site near Zagan, Poland, to find out.
They excavated the remains of George, a tunnel that was in progress when the war ended, and Harry, the tunnel which the airmen used on March 24, 1944.
Dr Hunt said: “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 actually was.
“It took a year to dig the tunnel but for more than 70 years since then, 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.”
The modern-day team designed a 10m tunnel, evaluated shoring methods, built the railway track and crafted digging tools and saws from bits of gramophone players, bunk beds and kit bags.
Dr Hunt said that working with the sandy earth was particularly tricky: “It’s like making sand castles on the beach; it’s fine if it’s a bit damp, but it dries out very quickly and then the walls cave in.”
To make the real great escape, the prisoners, led by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, stole 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 for a ventilation system.
All but three of the escapees were recaptured. Fifty of the 73 were executed, including Roger Bushell.
Digging the Great Escape is on tonight on Channel 4 at 9pm.