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TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: November 16, 2004


Great Escape homepage

The real Great Escape didn't feature Steve McQueen racing through the Third Reich on a motorcycle like in the 1963 movie, but the big breakout was still thrilling in every way. This program sheds new light on the audacious escape of 76 Allied airmen from a Nazi POW camp during World War II.

Sixty years after the event, NOVA follows a team of archeologists as they search the site of Stalag Luft III for new evidence of the clandestine operation, which involved 600 prisoners digging three highly sophisticated tunnels, code-named Tom, Dick, and Harry. Each tunnel was made with railways, electric lights, and underground air pumps—all under the noses of German guards.

The detainees were planning to spring 200 men via Harry on the moonless night of March 24, 1944. Unfortunately, a guard spotted the 77th man as he exited the tunnel beyond the perimeter fence, but 76 managed to get away, fanning out in all directions and forcing the German army to commit tens of thousands of troops to an intensive manhunt.

In the ensuing search through the camp to shut down all tunnels, the guards never found Dick. But archeologists did, and NOVA films them uncovering the cleverly concealed entrance, hidden at the bottom of a washroom sump behind a concrete trapdoor that is still in place. "Yes, I remember going down there about 60 years ago," reminisces Jimmy James, a former RAF pilot who is one of several Great Escape veterans to visit the excavation.

Incredibly, the tunnels were 30 feet deep—the height of a three-story house—a measure taken to evade German listening devices planted in the ground to detect tunneling activity. Another challenge was the nearly pure sand through which tunnelers had to dig; the airmen used wooden supports to keep the passages from collapsing. Wood was in short supply at the camp and had to be scrounged from bed slats and by cannibalizing the barracks. "Those poor barracks: I wondered why they didn't fall down, because all the bracing in the attics was practically taken out," recalls Charles Huppert, a U.S. airman from Indiana.

Getting rid of sand also presented a problem, which was solved by "penguins"—prisoners equipped with special trouser bags filled with sand that could be discreetly scattered as the men waddled around the camp. Tunnelers were equally creative in utilizing empty milk cans to construct tools and ductwork for the ventilation system. (For more on the tunnel, see A Prisoner's Sketchbook and Inside Tunnel "Harry".)

To prepare for life on the lam, teams made insignias for escape clothes and forged elaborate identity papers, evidence of which turns up in the excavation of tunnel Dick. Future escapees were also organized into small groups, each headed by a fluent speaker of German.

Although Stalag Luft III was located in eastern Germany, in what is now Poland, hundreds of miles from friendly territory, three men managed to cross most of Europe and make it to freedom (see The Three That Got Away). As for the 73 who were recaptured, 23 were returned to German camps, and tragically, 50 were summarily shot in violation of the Geneva Convention as Hitler's revenge against those who dared to break out of his "escape proof" prison.

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Guard Tower at Stalag Luft III

The Nazi builders of the Stalag Luft III prison camp thought they had made it escape-proof, but they were wrong.

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Great Escape
The Three That Got Away

The Three
That Got Away

Only three escapees made it all the way to freedom.

History's Great Escapes

History's
Great Escapes

Review 10 celebrated getaways.

A Prisoner's Sketchbook

A Prisoner's Sketchbook
See POW Ley Kenyon's extraordinary drawings.

Inside Tunnel "Harry"

Inside Tunnel "Harry"
Learn how the POWs jerry-built their escape passage.



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