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Escaping a Nazi Prison Camp

  • By Alan Burgess
  • Posted 11.16.04
  • NOVA

On the night of March 24-25, 1944, 76 Allied prisoners of Stalag Luft III, a German prison camp in Sagan, 100 miles southeast of Berlin, escaped through a tunnel named "Harry." Within days most were recaptured. An outraged Hitler had 50 of them shot, an appalling abrogation of the Geneva Convention, to which Germany was a signatory. Twenty-three were reincarcerated. Only three made it all the way to freedom—a Dutchman and two Norwegians, all flyers with the British Royal Air Force. Here's their remarkable story, which begins at the Sagan railway station. For locations of relevant towns, consult map at end of article.

The Stalag Luft III camp. "Harry" lay 30 feet underground and stretched over 300 feet from a barracks like this one to the freedom side of the camp's outer fence. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London HU21013

Alone to Breslau

Flight Lieutenant Bram van der Stok had managed to get out of Holland when the Nazis invaded, and had flown with the RAF during those first months of the war. Because of his zeal for escaping, his intelligence, his familiarity with the countryside, and his gift for languages, the Escape Committee [formed by prisoners at Stalag Luft III] had rated his chances of making a home run very highly, and he was among the first 20 through the tunnel.

He was traveling alone.

Cautiously he made his way through the woods, and almost bumped into a dark figure. It was a German civilian who said sharply, "What are you doing in these woods at this time of night?"

Bram van der Stok had rehearsed his reply to that question.

"I'm a Dutch worker. I'm afraid the police might arrest me for being out-of-doors during an air raid. Do you speak Dutch? I'm a bit scared."

The German did not speak Dutch, but Bram van der Stok's cover was perfect; the civilian took him under his wing. "I know the way to the station. You stick with me and you'll be all right."

At the station he left Bram to his own devices, and the first thing Bram discovered was that the heavy raid on Berlin had delayed his train by three hours. Bram wished someone could have told the chief of Bomber Command what trouble he was causing his fellow air force men.

He saw eight fellow escapers from Sagan, but not even by the flutter of an eyebrow did he offer a sign of recognition.

He then observed one of the German censors at the camp. He knew her slightly by sight; he hoped to God she didn't know him. But she was suspicious of one of the men on the platform, whom Bram recognized as Thomas Kirby-Green [a British pilot who was later recaptured at Hodonin in Czechoslovakia and shot on March 29]. If the police picked him up they would be alerted at once. He hardly dared look around—the station was full of Stalag Luft III escapers.

Bram van der Stok in his RAF uniform Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy of Ian Le Seuer

And—oh, hell—she was telling an officer of the German military police to go accost Kirby-Green, and demand to see his papers. Then he became conscious that the bright female eyes were fixed on him. Bram van der Stok moved closer, not farther away. The only way to counter suspicion was to face it. One thing the Escape Committee had not taken into consideration was a female Sherlock Holmes sitting in the Sagan station. Her question was abrupt.

"You are traveling tonight?"

At least he was comfortable with his German. "Yes, I'm Dutch—you can probably tell from my accent."

"You know the trains are running late?"

"Yes, I understand that is so." Bram gave a quick glance at Kirby-Green. He was putting his papers away. The military policeman was satisfied. Thank God for that.

"There are many strangers around these days," said Bram equably. That seemed to satisfy her. She had done her duty as a good German woman.

The train for Breslau arrived at 3:30 a.m. Bram van der Stok traveled second-class. He saw eight fellow escapers from Sagan, among them Roger Bushell and Bernard Scheidhauer, but not even by the flutter of an eyebrow did he offer a sign of recognition. They chugged into Breslau station at 5:00 a.m. There was no bustle of security, no groups of Gestapo or military police with hard watchful eyes. The tunnel hadn't been discovered ... yet! [To be continued...]

Roger Bushell (left), the RAF pilot who masterminded the Great Escape, was recaptured near Saarbrücken, Germany, with his escape partner, the French pilot Bernard Scheidhauer. The Gestapo shot both men on March 29. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth Carter and Ian Le Seuer

Safely to Stettin

Sergeant Peter Bergsland was Norwegian. When the Germans invaded his country he fled to England. There he joined the RAF, was shot down, and duly arrived at Stalag Luft III.

Sergeant Bergsland and his partner, fellow countryman Lieutenant Jens Müller, also with the RAF, decided to team up for the Sagan escape. They headed for Stettin, where Swedish ships regularly docked and departed. Both spoke perfect Swedish.

They came out of the tunnel as Numbers 43 and 44, and Müller was surprised at the ease of passage through Harry. His report to Intelligence explained what had happened:

"It took me three minutes to get through the tunnel. Above ground I crawled along holding the rope for several feet: it was tied to a tree. Sergeant Bergsland joined me; we arranged our clothes and walked to the Sagan railway station.

"Bergsland was wearing a civilian suit he had made for himself from a Royal Marine uniform, with an RAF overcoat slightly altered with brown leather sewn over the buttons. A black RAF tie, no hat. He carried a small suitcase which had been sent from Norway. In it were Norwegian toothpaste and soap, sandwiches, and 163 reichsmarks given to him by the Escape Committee.

They were now inside the docks, and they had to get out.

"We caught the 2:04 train to Frankfurt an der Oder. Our papers stated that we were Norwegian electricians from the Arbeitslager [labor camp] in Frankfurt working in the vicinity of Sagan. For the journey from Frankfurt to Stettin we had other papers ordering us to change our place of work from Frankfurt to Stettin, and to report to the Bürgermeister of Stettin."

The journey was uneventful. They traveled in a third-class carriage full of civilians and looked like any ordinary travelers. They arrived at Frankfurt at 6:00 in the morning, and caught a connecting train to Küstrin at 8:00 a.m. They had a beer in the station cafe, and while they were sipping, the first inspection took place. A wandering German Feldwebel [sergeant] of the military police approached them. He looked at the cheerful, fresh-faced young men who spoke excellent German with a Norwegian accent, gave their papers a cursory examination, touched his cap, and departed. Bergsland and Müller clinked mugs, smiled, and drank up.

They caught the 10:00 a.m. train from Küstrin to Stettin and arrived at lunchtime.

In this photo from Stalag Luft III, Peter Bergsland (left) and Jens Müller (right) pose prior to the Great Escape with fellow Norwegian Halldor Espelid, who was caught after the break and executed. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy of Jonathan Vance, University of Western Ontario;

To Sweden through a brothel

"We walked around the town, visited a cinema and a beer hall, and after dusk went to an address given to us by the Escape Committee.

"It was a French brothel bearing the inscription 'Nur fur Ausländers—Deutschen verboten' ['Only for foreigners—Germans forbidden']. We knocked on the door. As we did so a Pole who was standing on the street approached us and asked us if we had any black-market wares for sale. We asked him if he knew any Swedish sailors. He fetched one out of the brothel. We made our identity known, talking in Swedish, and he told us that his ship was leaving that night and to meet us at 20:00 hours outside the brothel."

The Swede was as good as his word, and was waiting for them when they returned. He led them to the docks, and told them to duck under a chain while he reported to the Control Office. He would then go aboard, wait for an all clear, and then whistle them to come aboard.

They waited in vain. No signal was given. Seamen cast off the ropes and they watched the ship set sail down the channel. They could hazard a guess that he probably tried to enlist help to get them aboard, and was probably told by his friends that one was likely to end up in a Nazi concentration camp if caught. They were now inside the docks, and they had to get out. The best meeting place in town was obviously the brothel, if they could get through. They decided to take a chance; the officer at Control hardly bothered to glance at their papers. But disappointingly the brothel was a no-nonsense establishment, and closed its doors at 2:00 a.m.

Recaptured Great Escape prisoners, each carrying a briefcase and wearing the hand-made civilian clothing they donned for their short-lived getaway Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy of the Museum of Martyrology for Allied POWs

The area itself, however, was certainly populated by seamen; and they looked like seamen. Small cafes were open; small, sordid hotels did business. They had a meal and paid for a room in one of the hotels. They had taken part in one of the most momentous escapes in history; they'd taken their chances and gotten away with it. They were already asleep as their heads fell towards the pillows, and did not wake until four o'clock the following afternoon. Müller looked across at Bergsland and grinned. "Another visit to 17 Klein Oder Strasse, I think."

They arrived at the brothel at six, and met two more Swedish sailors coming out through the door. They were affable when the two Norwegians explained their difficulties.

"Ja," they said. "You come, catch the tram with us and we go back to our docks. Four miles out near Parnitz." By that time it was 8:30 and getting dark. The Swedish sailors slouched up to the German soldier on guard, showing their papers, the two Norwegians close behind. The guard was helpful. "All part of the same crew?" he inquired, and they nodded vigorously. He stood aside to let them pass, not even asking them for papers.

Safely on deck, the Swedes slapped them on the back, and said, "Not bad, eh? Now we've got to hide you because the ship doesn't sail until seven tomorrow morning, and there's bound to be a German search before we sail."

When they reached Sweden they shook hands and gave a whoop for joy. Two out of 76 had reached freedom.

Their hiding place was the anchor locker holding the great coiled chain. In one corner was a pile of netting and sacks. The sailors heaved it aside and formed a sort of inner nest. "Now you can sleep. But don't be snoring when the Germans arrive tomorrow morning. Usually they don't have dogs. Dogs don't like climbing up and down thin steel companion ladders."

Hours later Bergsland and Müller heard the Germans tramping towards them; the hatch was thrown open and closed again; the search was perfunctory. The feet stamped away. Half an hour later the propellers began to thrash water and they felt the ship begin to move. Their two friends came down with food and drink, and the smell of sea coming in through the hawseholes in the bow was like an elixir of freedom. When they reached Sweden they shook hands and gave a whoop for joy, for it was a small victory for them. Then they went to find the British consulate. Two out of 76 had reached freedom.

The three that got away traveled enormous distances through Nazi-occupied territory. In this map, trace their respective routes to freedom through the towns they passed through. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy of Jonathan Vance, University of Western Ontario

All the way to Gibraltar

Bram van der Stok sat on a bench in the Breslau railway station and pretended to doze. He believed that "he travels fastest who travels alone." He was wearing civilian clothes—at least they looked like that, although they were in fact an Australian air force overcoat and a converted naval jacket and trousers, RAF shoes, and a beret.

He bought a second-class ticket to Alkmaar, boarded the train, and at 10:00 a.m. arrived in Dresden, where he had a long layover. He dozed in two cinemas until 8:00 p.m., then went back to the station to catch a train to the Dutch border at Bentheim. He realized that the tunnel had been discovered, and the hunt was on, because his papers were carefully scrutinized on four occasions. At the frontier post his papers were examined again, but now it was easier. His Dutch was, naturally, perfect, and his papers were in order.

He traveled by train to Oldenzaal, then on to Utrecht. Here the Escape Committee had given him the address of an underground resistance worker. The man welcomed him, gave him fake identity papers and ration cards, and kept him safe in his home for three days. But there was no victory yet. Holland was part of Germany's conquered Europe; informers and spies were everywhere. Bram van der Stok still had to move fast.

He traveled by bicycle to another safe house in Belgium, where he was given Belgian identity papers, then on by train through Brussels and Paris. More false papers and south again to Toulouse, and now he was installed in the Maquis resistance chain [the French resistance]. He met up with two American lieutenants, two RAF pilots, a French officer, a Russian, and a French girl who acted as a guide. Together they crossed the Pyrenees and arrived in Lérida. The Spanish were neutral, but not necessarily friendly. The British consul took them over in Lérida, and Bram van der Stok arrived in Gibraltar on July 8.

His escape journey had taken almost three and a half months. He was back in England within a few days, the third to make a home run.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Great Escape.

Alan BurgessThe late Alan Burgess, a former RAF pilot, is author of The Longest Tunnel: The True Story of World War II's Great Escape (Grove Weidenfeld, 1990), from which this article was excerpted with kind permission of the Burgess estate. Image courtesy of Mrs. Katherine Burgess.

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