One night in late March 1944, 76 Allied airmen escaped through a tunnel from their prisoner of war camp deep in occupied Poland. Their aim was not only to get back to Britain and rejoin the war, but also to cause as much inconvenience for the German war machine as possible.
Within a few days, all but three of the escapees were recaptured, having been hampered by incorrect papers, bad weather and bad luck. The escape so infuriated Hitler that he ordered 50 of them to be shot.
Memorably depicted in the famous 1963 movie The Great Escape (itself based on former PoW Paul Brickhill’s 1950 book), the breakout from Stalag Luft III has become an iconic event of the Second World War, enshrining both Allied bravery and Nazi evil.
But how much of what we know is true?
Myth: Allied airmen had a duty to escape from their PoW camps
One of the most enduring myths about the Great Escape is that the PoWs had a duty to escape. Indeed, the myth is so persistent that even some former prisoners maintain they had an obligation to break out of their camps. The short answer is that there was none.
When they were shot down, Allied airmen were indeed expected to avoid being captured, but once they were in the hands of the enemy, there was no formal expectation that they should try to escape. Instead, as one former PoW has said: “There was a kind of corporate policy of intent that it was part of our duty to play a part in escape arrangements.”
In other words, the duty to escape was an expectation of how airmen should behave – rather like the expectation that they should be brave – and there was nothing in the King’s Regulations that stipulated that the men had to escape.
Indeed, surprisingly, two-thirds of PoWs had little or no interest in breaking out, and regarded escape activities with wariness – an attitude that is certainly at odds with the common celluloid depiction of Allied PoWs all being desperate to escape. Many were glad not to have to fight anymore, and felt that they had ‘done their bit’, and had no wish to risk their lives once more. Others felt that they lacked the necessary escape skills – such as languages or simple physical ability – and that their time could be better spent studying or improving themselves.
In fact, there was often hostility between the ‘stayers’ and the ‘goers’. In one camp, it grew so bad that one PoW threw over the wire a tin containing a note which informed the Germans that there was a tunnel being built.
Myth: The Great Escape took place in beautiful weather
In the movie The Great Escape, the action is played out in glorious spring sunshine that really shows off the use of coloured film stock. However, in reality, the escape took place in unseasonably bad conditions, with the temperature hovering around zero, and a thick layer of snow on the ground. According to one PoW, it was the coldest winter that that part of Poland had suffered for 30 years, and it was these conditions that did more to hamper the efforts of the escapees than anything else.
Many were equipped with totally unsuitable clothes, such as lightweight trousers that would normally only be issued in the desert, and boots quickly became waterlogged as the escapees tramped through woods and streams. Many came close to suffering from frostbite, and were forced to sleep in obvious shelters such as barns, which only increased the likelihood of them being captured.
Myth: The escape opened up a new front inside Germany
One of the supposed objects of the Great Escape was that it would help the war effort by wasting German time and manpower – resources that would otherwise be used on the frontline. Unfortunately, such thinking was misguided. When the Germans searched for the escapees, they only used whatever existing capacity they had within the Reich. They certainly did not requisition fighting men for the hunt.
The escape actually helped the German war effort, as during the large-scale hunts, thousands of other escaping PoWs, regular prisoners, and absent foreign workers were rounded up in the dragnet. In fact, as a result of the Great Escape, the Nazis tightened the Reich’s internal security, and thus made it harder for other Allied prisoners of war also trying to escape. Therefore, the idea that the Great Escape somehow ‘opened a front’ inside Germany is simply wishful thinking.
Myth: The Great Escape was unique
It wasn’t. Throughout the war, there were plenty of mass escapes organised by Allied PoWs. There were some 11 ‘great escapes’ carried out by British prisoners alone before March 1944.
One example is the March 1943 escape from the PoW camp at Szubin, Poland, in which 43 Allied airmen tunnelled out. All the men were recaptured, apart from one, who sadly drowned.
The Germans ridiculed mass breakouts, dismissing them as futile acts of bravado – and the resulting increase in security made mass escapes less likely to succeed. In fact, in Stalag Luft III, one German advised PoWs to escape in twos and threes to improve their chances of getting home!
Myth: There was a motorbike chase
Of all the scenes in The Great Escape, that of Virgil Hilts, played by Steve McQueen, trying to jump over the border wire on his motorbike while being chased by hundreds of Schmeisser-toting Germans is the most memorable. It’s certainly a thrilling sequence, but it has no basis in truth.
None of those who escaped from Stalag Luft III even used so much as a bicycle to get away. The motorbike scene is so gross a misrepresentation of the true escape that former PoWs booed it when they were shown the movie!
Hilts’s nationality also flags up another myth about the escape – that Americans were part of the breakout. Although US airmen watched out for patrolling Germans during the tunnel’s construction, the commandant moved them to a different compound a few months before the escape.
As The Great Escape is an American film, it is unsurprising that the hero is an all-American boy complete with baseball glove and ball. But, in reality, there was no Virgil Hilts.
To read more about the first Great Escape, which took place in July 1918…
This article was first published in the July 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine