Stalag Luft III in Germany is infamous for the mass escape attempt which took place in 1944, where 50 prisoners of war were executed during what became known as the Great Escape. 

Less well known is an equally daring escape which occurred 80 years ago this month.  

Vaulting horse

A sketch of the vaulting horse made by a fellow PoW. 

Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams was a pilot with 75 Squadron when, in December 1942, his Stirling bomber was shot down over Germany. He was imprisoned in the supposedly escape-proof Stalag Luft III, which was specially designed to hold Germany’s most prized prisoners and aircrew. 

A key element in his escape plan was a wooden vaulting horse made from Red Cross crates. This would be carried out of the recreation hut by four fellow prisoners, while one or two escapers clung on inside.  

The vaulting horse was always set down in the same spot and, working from inside the horse while a group of prisoners vaulted over it, they began excavating their tunnel, and carefully replacing the topsoil each day. 

Under the noses of the guards, the prisoners had to continue exercising over the vaulting the horse – despite their poor physical condition caused by a near-starvation diet. And the further the tunnel grew, the longer the vaulters had to go on jumping. 

The excavated dirt was a sandy yellow colour and contrasted with the brown topsoil. So it was hidden in many ingenious places, including inside prisoners’ trousers. These men would walk around the compound allowing the dirt to slowly trickle down their trouser legs and onto the ground. They were usually followed by other prisoners, nonchalantly treading the sand into the surrounding dirt to mask the trail. 

vaulting horse garden at stalag

The camp’s vegetable gardens were often used to deposit soil taken from the escape tunnel. © IWM. 

Sometimes the horse would be carried out empty and ‘accidentally’ knocked over. On one occasion, the prisoners even left the vaulting horse, which covered the tunnel entrance, and ran a circuit around the compound. These incidents helped to allay any suspicion among the watching guards. 

Gradually a shaft was sunk and for four-and-a-half months they tunnelled, overcoming a succession of almost fatal setbacks. Eventually the tunnel passed beneath the wire perimeter, and one night in October 1943 three men – including former RAF Association member Eric Williams – made their escape.  

Later that night, a guard walking outside the wire stumbled when his foot disappeared into a hole in the ground. The alarm was raised, but the three escapees were long gone. Eventually they all made it back to England. 

The Germans roused the remaining prisoners, but numerous roll calls and identity checks had to be abandoned when prisoners continually disrupted proceedings to buy the escapees more time. To restore order, a few hundred German soldiers guarding a nearby aerodrome were drafted in, and the checks restarted with the compound now surrounded by heavily armed guards. This led to the day being known thereafter as ‘Tommy-gun Saturday’. 

One prisoner who was present that day later told Air Mail magazine: 

“[During previous, failed, escape attempts] the Commandant and a horde of his junior officers would inspect the site and, with great bonhomie, congratulate the would-be escapees on their ingenious efforts, commiserating with them that weeks of hard work had been discovered and left unrewarded. 

“We came to take this very much for granted and were amazed at the difference it made when the Huns found we had, for once, pulled a fast one on them over the wooden-horse episode. 

“When the ‘goons’ [guards] realised that the whole proceeding had been carried on right under the nose of the guard in the ‘goon-box’, day after day, week after week, their sense of humour, never very noticeable, evaporated completely.” 

daily life in stalag

German guards on duty by a watch tower at Stalag Luft III. © IWM.

Air Mail

This account of the wooden horse escape, and the subsequent events in Stalag Luft III, are taken from longer versions first published in Air Mail in 1949. Air Mail is the RAF Association’s quarterly members’ magazine, which covers all aspects of the RAF and RAF Association’s work from 1918 to today. To receive Air Mail, which is the RAF Association’s quarterly members’ magazine and looks at all aspects of the RAF’s work, now and since it was founded, become a member  and opt for Air Mail as part of your membership.