Alan Hamilton: What's the truth behind the fate that befell the prisoners of Stalag Luft III?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Alan Hamilton has written articles published in The Independent and The Times.]

Why are we asking this now?

In January 1945, some 10,000 Allied prisoners of war were evacuated from the prison where the escape made famous in the film The Great Escape had taken place the year before. They were forced on a trek west on Hitler's orders to escape the Russians to the east. This week, veterans of the so-called Long March, and their relatives, are to recreate their ordeal as a training exercise in survival for today's young RAF softies, whom they suspect of being insufficiently schooled in the rigours of getting back to Blighty through a hostile environment in a harsh winter. The escape officer is Dr Howard Tuck, a Cambridge historian, born long after the end of real hostilities.

What's Dr Tuck's battle plan?

To capture the bitter flavour of the decision by senior Nazi officers to round up the Allied prisoners in Stalag Luft III camp in western Silesia, near the present-day Polish town of Zagan, and march them 1,000 miles west out of the clutches of the fast-advancing Red Army with no food, no hats, no gloves, and with winter temperatures approaching -25C. The prisoners' desire to be left in their beds and await Russian liberation was ignored. The German High Command, until now well-disposed towards Allied prisoners, was verging on panic and in no mood to listen.

Did the prisoners appreciate the gesture?

Not much. Hundreds died from frostbite, dysentery and diphtheria on the march. As they passed through the German countryside some villagers offered them bread and water, others threw stones at them. With defeat about to envelop the Reich, their guards fared little better. For many POWs it was an unnecessary privation; the Red Army liberated them anyway in the end after the weary, starving column had been split up and dissipated across Germany. One survivor wrote: "Much has been written about privation. You just followed the footsteps of the man in front of you, and looked after the man behind if you could."

How did they know what was happening?

As the war drew to its close and German camp guards began to sense defeat, they allowed prisoners to listen to the BBC – and listen to it themselves – to learn of the Russian advance through eastern Europe.

Why didn't the Germans leave them to their fate?

Part code of honour among officers, part fear the prisoners would gang up with the Slavic horde from the East. Around 2,000 Allied POWs died in similar forced marches away from camps towards an imagined Western safety.

What was so memorable about Stalag Luft III?

Any cinema goer knows it well, as the setting of two evergreen war films, The Wooden Horse (jolly dashed British) and The Great Escape (Hollywood's doubtful take on history, with its famous scene of Steve McQueen leaping the barbed wire on his motorbike). Established in 1942, the camp was intended as escape-proof detention for captured Allied air force officers. It didn't stop the boys trying. Paul Brickhill, author of the book on which the latter film was based, was a real-life POW in Stalag Luft III, although he admitted himself that he had slightly "novelised" the story.

Why didn't the prisoners just sit out the war in safety?

According to the Geneva Convention (which the Nazis to some extent abided by) it is the duty of every POW to try to escape. Even at Colditz, the last refuge of incorrigible escapees, there were 310 attempts at escape, 32 of them successful. Escape remained largely the province of the officer class; for many enlisted men captured in battle or when their aircraft went down, the greeting "For you the war is over" was music to their ears. They knew that the Germans were a basically civilised lot, and that with luck they would be reasonably treated and, at least, kept alive.

How did the Germans look on escape attempts?

Not unkindly, for a while; it was all part of that military officer-class code of conduct. But Hitler and his henchmen grew weary of having to divert so many resources to recapturing those spirited Allies desperate to get home. After the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III in 1944, hundreds of troops, policemen and members of ther Hitler Youth were deployed to round up the escapees. The Führer, infuriated by the use of so many of his precious and dwindling resources, personally ordered the execution of 50 of the 73 recaptured. Andy Wiseman, one of the Long March veterans, said yesterday: "Until then, escape was a game. You escaped, you got caught, you came back, your friends waved and cheered you up. You went into solitary confinement, you came out, you got more cheers and you planned the next escape."

So what happened that night?

Three tunnels named Tom, Dick and Harry had been dug over many months in conditions of great difficulty. The underlying sand was of an entirely different colour to the topsoil, one of the reasons the Germans chose the location. Great ingenuity was employed in disposing of the soil, almost 100 tons being concealed in trouser legs and carefully shaken around the camp. The prisoners who did this vital work were known as "penguins". More soil was hidden in Red Cross food boxes, and some POWs basked on spread-out blankets knowing they were concealing what amounted to a beach. One tunnel was discovered and another, although 330 feet long, was 10 feet short of the safety of the surrounding woods. Two hundred men were supposed to escape, but the camp guards interrupted the exploit. Seventy-six men got through. Three made it home; of the remainder, 23 were sent to solitary confinement, and 50 were executed, including escape committee leader Squadron Leader Roger Bushell. Until then relations between the POWs and the camp commandant had been almost cordial; he was subsequently court-martialled for allowing the escape attempt to happen.

Did many Allies make it home?

There are no definite figures, but it is estimated that during the course of the war in Europe some 35,000 Allied servicemen, either imprisoned or trapped in enemy territory, made it back to the safety of their own lines, or into neutral territories like Spain, Sweden or Switzerland. While the Germans drove many prisoners west to escape the Russians' advance, they sadly showed no such consideration to the internees of the concentration camps.

Is The Great Escape just a load of old American hokum?..

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