Thursday, March 24, 2005

On March 24th in military 1944

On this day in military history….in 1944. 76 Allied air force personnel escape from Stalag III. Stalag III was a prisoner of war camp run by the German Luftwaffe for air force personnel located near Sagan (Zagan in modern day Poland), 160 kms south of Berlin. The story of the escape was later made into a movie entitled The Great Escape (duh!) starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenbourgh, Donald Pleasance, James Garner, James Coburn and Charles Bronson which followed the events more closely than would be expected for a Hollywood movie.

The actual escape was carried out by mostly British and Canadian air force personnel since they made up most of the prisoners of the camp. The camp was built to discourage any tunneling escapes by elevating the barracks up on stilts so that the guards could see underneath. Microphones were placed in the ground to listen for digging and the ground underneath was also a light, sandy color that would be easily spotted by guards if found outside on the clothes of a prisoner. Even with these problems, the prisoners constructed three tunnels named “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”. They used everyday items to make digging implements and pieces of wood from their bunks to shore up the sides of the tunnel and even constructed an underground rail line to help them move the soil from the digging. Eventually, the entrance to “Tom” was discovered by guards, but work still proceeded on “Dick” and “Harry”. Finally, “Harry” was ready and on the 24th of March, a moonless night, the escape began. Unfortunately, the prisoners had miscalculated the length of the tunnel. It was originally supposed to open up into a wood outside the fence of the camp, but was too short so that it opened up in a clearing before the wood. Even with this problem, 76 men were able to escape from the camp before the escape was detected. Of the 76 men, three were able to evade capture. The three were two Norwegians who escaped thru the port of Stettin on the Baltic Sea on a Swedish cargo ship and a Dutch officer who escaped thru Holland to Belgium and then to France across the Pyrenees into Spain and finally to Gibraltar. Of the 73 others who were re-captured, 50 of them were shot on Hitler’s orders (he wanted all of them shot, but was dissuaded) and the other 23 were sent to other prisoner of war camps.


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