This month marks the 80th anniversary of the Great Escape, when 76 Allied prisoners of war broke out of Stalag Luft III, a prisoner of war (POW) camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Three escape tunnels, named Tom, Dick and Harry, had been excavated over the preceding year in great secrecy and with even greater ingenuity. Only three of the escapers made it home, and of the 73 who were caught, 50 were executed on the orders of Adolf Hitler. Although the escape is one of the most well-known episodes from WWII, here are 10 things you possibly didn’t know… 

  1. Between January and March 1944, diggers had removed 80 tons of sand to construct tunnel ‘Harry’. The record for a single day’s digging was 4 March 1944, when 14 feet of sand was excavated from the tunnel. 
  2. By April 1944, 90 double beds, 3,424 towels, 2,209 pieces of cutlery, 1,000 feet of electrical wiring, and 660 feet of rope had been taken from the camp for use in excavating and shoring up the tunnels. 
  3. The Great Escape was not the first breakout from Stalag Luft III. Only five months previously, three men – including former RAF Association member Eric Williams – had tunneled to freedom beneath a wooden vaulting horse.
  4. Among the escapers from Stalag Luft III were four veterans of the First World War: Harry Day, John Dodge, Bernard Green, and Antoni Kiewnarski.
  5. Two Norwegian escapers, Per Bergsland and Jens Muller, were in neutral Sweden less than four days after breaking out of the camp.
  6. The youngest escaper to be caught and executed by German authorities was New Zealander Arnold Christensen, who was just 21 years old when he was murdered.
  7. The first official report of the executions came on 19 April 1944, during a routine inspection of the camp by officials from neutral Switzerland, who had the task of checking on the treatment of Allied POWs.
  8. POWs in Stalag Luft III constantly complained to the camp staff, and to their own governments, about a severe shortage of light bulbs and fixtures in the camp. But after the escape, when it became clear that most of the missing items had been used in the tunnels, Allied officials declined to pursue the matter, stating “the less said about it for the moment, the better.”
  9. The last trial for the Stalag Luft III murders concluded in May 1968, when Fritz Schmidt of Kiel Gestapo was sentenced to two years in prison for his part in the killings of Jimmy Catanach, Arnold Christensen, Halldor Espelid, and Nils Fuglesang.
  10. To mark the 80th anniversary of the Great Escape, on March 24 eight motorcyclists will stage a breakout at sunrise from Stalag Luft III, and ride 560 miles to the Hook of Holland before sunset to catch their ferry back home. The ride will be raising funds for the RAF Association. 
The great escaoe - a German guard an guard climbs out of escape tunnel Harry after its discovery

A German guard climbs out of escape tunnel Harry after its discovery. © IWM

the great escape - A cart used to remove the earth and a device used for pumping air into escape tunnels, both made my POWs

A cart used to remove the earth and a device used for pumping air into escape tunnels, both made my POWs. © IWM

List compiled with the assistance of Professor Jonathan F. Vance, author of The True Story of the Great Escape: Stalag Luft III, March 1944. To get 20% off this book click the link above and use the code RAF20. (Valid until 31 March 2024).