NARRATOR: On a cold night in March, 1944, captured Allied airmen broke out from a secret tunnel from a prison camp the Nazis thought was escape-proof. Their breakout was immortalized in The Great Escape, a famous movie, starring Steve McQueen.
The group of airmen had spent months digging three tunnels to freedom. A few of the men are alive today to tell the tale.
DAVY JONES (Former Prisoner, Stalag Luft III): If you're claustrophobic, you're in deep trouble; you're in Stygian darkness and 30 feet of sand. And that's when you kind of wondered sometimes, "What in the hell am I doing here?"
JACK LYON (Former Prisoner, Stalag Luft III): The atmosphere was fraught with...We knew that the Germans were certain that there was a tunnel, and the gamble was who would get there first, the Germans or us? The Germans to find it, or us to get out?
NARRATOR: As a cat and mouse game, it was deadly serious, with the Nazis determined to make escape impossible.
Sixty years later, archaeologists have located the remains of the camp, and are trying to recover some of the ingenious devices made by the P.O.W.s.
PETER DOYLE (Battlefield Archaeologist): Somebody's made that to escape from this camp. And it's there, it's hidden. And we're the only people to have seen this since 1945.
NARRATOR: Where prisoners once used bare hands, archaeologists will use backhoes to hunt for a secret escape tunnel the Germans never found. With veterans who worked on the tunnels watching, the excavation will reveal the incredible exploits of the prisoners.
CHARLES HUPPERT (Former Prisoner, Stalag Luft III): I never felt in my lifetime I'd ever get to see something like this.
DAVY JONES: I never did, either.
LARRY BABITS (Battlefield Archaeologist): For them to do that with 30 feet of sand above them, you come away with a lot of respect for those guys.
NARRATOR: Up next on NOVA, a classic tale of courage and ingenuity, the real Great Escape.
Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television.
Science: it's given us the framework to help make wireless communications clear. Sprint is proud to support NOVA.
We see one small step on Mars. Microsoft is proud to sponsor NOVA for celebrating the potential in us all.
And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS stations from viewers like you. Thank you.
NARRATOR: Beneath the trees of this forest, tangled in the roots, lie the clues to a dark past. This was the site of Stalag Luft III, one of the most notorious prisoner of war camps run by the Nazis. At the height of the Second World War, these woods echoed with the sound of young Allied airmen who had been shot down over enemy territory.
They came from Holland and Poland, Canada and Scandinavia, Britain and the United States. They shared a common goal, to escape at any cost. And what they planned here was the boldest mass escape of all, the "Great Escape."
The story begins in 1942, when the Allied bombing offensive over Nazi-occupied territories was intensifying. The aircrews flying these missions knew their chances of being shot down were high. If they survived bailing out, they were usually caught. One of these flyers was a highly decorated bomber pilot from Arizona, Davy Jones.
DAVY JONES: I was in North Africa, in Tunisia, and I was hit by flak, pretty well tore the airplane up. But all the crew were able to evacuate the airplane, if they weren't thrown out. And within 20 minutes, as we walked north, a squad of German infantrymen appeared, and the classic words, "for you, the war is over."
NARRATOR: Davy Jones, along with the rest of his crew, was transported to Germany to become a prisoner of war.
JONATHAN VANCE (University of Western Ontario): The Germans had hundreds of thousands of Allied prisoners of war to deal with, many more than they ever expected. And they were hoping that they could put them all in massive camps and just leave them be. Unfortunately for the Germans, these airmen were not willing to sit by quietly, and so they became a rather serious escape problem. So around about 1942, the Germans decided, well, maybe we should take all of these troublemakers and put them in one place.
NARRATOR: The Germans created a top security camp, called Stalag Luft III. Built near the town of Sagan, in German-occupied Poland, the camp's location was ideal. Any escapees would have to travel hundreds of miles to reach freedom. It was designed to be the Nazi's most escape-proof prison.
Huts were raised off the ground, so that the guards could spot any tunneling activity. And the perimeter fence was built far away from the buildings, so tunnels would have to be even longer.
Most escapes failed, but one would make Stalag Luft III famous forever.
Today, the scattered remains of the camp have been found in this forest. Beneath the ground, archaeologists hope to discover traces of a tunnel dug for the mass breakout. It's the first time Stalag Luft III has been excavated, and the goal is to recover material evidence of the battle of wits that lead to the Great Escape.
PETER DOYLE: There's absolutely no doubt that we've simply come across from there.
LARRY BABITS: So now we're here.
PETER DOYLE: This one to this one. Okay. And so this...
NARRATOR: Peter Doyle and Larry Babits, the team leaders, are using aerial photographs and maps left behind by the prisoners. They've located the remains of a hut, beneath which, they believe, lies a secret tunnel.
PETER DOYLE: We've got the shaft down. We know, we know we've got this chamber right beneath the building, and we know that all we've got is a very small tunnel.
NARRATOR: The tunnel is thought to be 30 feet down, so it's going to be hard to find. They will need to dig a massive hole.
Peter and Larry hope that the dig will bring them closer to understanding what motivated the men of Stalag Luft III to tunnel their way to freedom.
LARRY BABITS: The psychology of being a prisoner is you're more interested in the stuff that's outside, right? Getting out. And we're trying to get in, in a manner of speaking. Not, not just into the camp and find things, but get into the mind of the people who were here, because archaeologists are really looking at what people were doing.
NARRATOR: Most P.O.W.s were obsessed with finding the best way out. One of them was Charles Huppert, a pilot from Indiana, who still thinks about escape.
CHARLES HUPPERT: The first thing I always look at, even today, when I go in a room, I stop at the door, I go in and look if there is any other exits. You never know what's going to happen.
NARRATOR: In fact, escape attempts were the obligation of every Allied officer.
JIMMY JAMES (Former Prisoner, Stalag Luft III): You were not out of the war. You were still fighting for your country, you were in uniform. And although you weren't in the firing line, it was still your duty to carry the war on as best you could.
NARRATOR: Individual escapes were an irritation to the Germans, but a mass breakout could tie up thousands of troops.
In January, 1943, former skiing champion, Roger Bushell, began plotting the ultimate escape. The plan was to dig three tunnels simultaneously, code-named "Tom," "Dick," and "Harry." If one were discovered, there would still be two in reserve. The tunnels would need to be dug over 300 feet long, to pass under the perimeter wire and into the forest 20 feet beyond it. This would allow 200 people to escape on a single night.
Hiding such a massive operation from the watchful eyes of the German guards would not be easy. The prisoners devised early warning signals to alert each other whenever guards approached. British bombardier Alan Bryett was one of those signalers.
ALAN BRYETT (Former Prisoner, Stalag Luft III): On Monday, the sign would be that you would start playing with your left-hand shoelace, and the following day it would you'd be playing with your ear, as though you'd got something wrong with your ear. And the third day, it might be you're overtaken with coughing, you know? All quite simple, common things—they were quite surreptitious. I mean, it was done very, very cleverly, and never let us down, never let us down.
NARRATOR: Playing cat and mouse with the German guards became a way of life for prisoners like Walter Morison.
WALTER MORISON (Former Prisoner, Stalag Luft III): It was a game, a sport. It was more like a sort of traditional English field sport in its way. It was played by the rules, both sides understood them.
NARRATOR: Because of the Geneva Convention, escaped prisoners were not overly concerned about getting caught.
JONATHAN VANCE: Under the Geneva Convention, which was the international agreement which covered the treatment of P.O.W.s, there was simply a short prison sentence stipulated if you escaped and were recaptured. Typically, you would have 10 days in solitary confinement. The prisoners and the guards, they were, obviously, on opposite sides, and they were doing whatever they could to frustrate each other, but I think there was a, a considerable degree of respect between the two sides.
NARRATOR: Prisoners often fraternized with their guards, who were from the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe. One even appeared in a play. But the jolly interplay between both sides would not last forever. What began as a game became deadly serious.
In the spring of '43, the prisoners started work on their tunnels. To avoid being seen underneath the huts, they cut through the building supports and made clever disguises for the tunnel entrances. "Tom" went from the dark corner of a hut corridor; "Harry" began under a stove. A tiled base was lifted to one side, revealing the top of a tunnel shaft. "Dick" started in a washroom beneath the drain cover. Hiding the tunnel entrance in a sump where dirty water collected was a master stroke. The Germans never did find "Dick." But perhaps the archaeologists will have more luck.
PETER DOYLE: The thing that started it right here, I think are again trying to get the terracotta pipes...
NARRATOR: In the remains of the washroom where they think "Dick" began, they've uncovered what looks like a drainage sump. They want to find clues that confirm this is no ordinary washroom drain. The water at the bottom of the sump was a brilliant disguise for the tunnel entrance. It made the trap door to Dick almost invisible. The prisoners made their own movable concrete slab, which slid out when they needed to climb down the tunnel shaft. Just a few inches below the surface, the archaeologists discover something that makes their heart skip a beat.
LARRY BABITS: But what is it? I mean, it's...
PETER DOYLE: It's got a rounded...It's actually got rounded edges to it. Just lift it. Just tip that out. Oh, no, look at that.
LARRY BABITS: This is so...
PETER DOYLE: It's that wide, so it's the width of the sump.
LARRY BABITS: This was the door in the sump.
PETER DOYLE: It's got to be, hasn't it?
NARRATOR: Immediately, Larry and Peter grasp the significance of what is no ordinary concrete slab.
LARRY BABITS: This is the door. This is the door!
PETER DOYLE: That is amazing. So this...
LARRY BABITS: Wow.
PETER DOYLE: This proves it's here, doesn't it? There's no doubt.
LARRY BABITS: Wow.
NARRATOR: Once the prisoners had created the trapdoors, they were ready to start digging the tunnels, but there was a major problem to overcome. The experience of guarding Allied troublemakers had taught the German guards to be vigilant. They even buried microphones around the perimeter of the camp to detect digging.
This forced the prisoners to dig a vertical shaft, 38 feet down before tunneling out toward freedom deep enough to be out of range of the microphones. This was no job for claustrophobics.
Ken Rees was one of the first to be recruited.
KEN REES (Former Prisoner, Stalag Luft III): The room I went into was a room of keen escapers and people who had quite experience on tunnels. And Johnny Bull, who became a great mate of mine, invited me onto his digging team. So I was lucky enough to get in on the ground floor, as it were. I think they thought, because I was a Welshman, I must be good at mining or something.
NARRATOR: In the early days of Stalag Luft III, there was only a handful of captured American pilots. Among them was Davy Jones, who became a tunneler on "Dick."
DAVY JONES: We considered ourselves the elite, if you will, of the group. And it turned out there were really only three Yanks, three of us who, who worked underground. And so we were, rightfully, proud of that fact.
NARRATOR: As the archaeologists dig deeper, another problem emerges that was all too familiar to the tunnelers on the Great Escape. Below the tree roots and top soil, there was nothing but sand.
The Germans deliberately located Stalag Luft III in this area of sandy soil. Any bright golden sand on the surface would be a telltale sign of tunneling activity. Diggers had to change their clothes every time they went underground.
DAVY JONES: Well, they had some long johns, and they were clammy, wet, sandy, grubby: terrible. That's one of the worst parts of the whole experience of digging was getting into those. You strip off and get in the goddamn long johns and go to work. You went in, and then they sealed you in, because they'd only take sand out at certain times. You'd go in the hole, and in the early days we'd stay there all day. That was sort of the routine.
NARRATOR: It was so cramped, there was not even enough room to turn around, so diggers worked in teams of two.
KEN REES: The main digger, he'd go forward, and you'd go up the tunnel to him, backwards, so that you were feet to feet. You were facing down the tunnel and he was facing forward.
NARRATOR: Although the soft sand was easy to dig, there was always the danger of collapse. Tunnels had to be shored up using wooden boards.
DAVY JONES: Put a board in, and put one side and then the other. And then you put the top board into a notch. And then you pack the sand on all three sides, and that would be one frame. And you'd repeat that.
NARRATOR: As the tunnels grew longer, the prisoners made a personal sacrifice to find enough timber.
ALAN BRYETT: Each bunk bed had, originally, 20 bed boards on it, and the taking of bed boards was continuous. Just before the escape, if my memory serves me right, we was down to something like eight bed boards each, which, I will tell you, is damned uncomfortable, actually, to sleep on.
CHARLES HUPPERT: We got our wood wherever we could. We would get it out of the barracks. And those poor barracks, I wondered why they didn't fall down, because all the bracing in the attics were practically taken out.
NARRATOR: The two-foot bed boards dictated the dimensions of the tunnels, one board high and one board wide. Even with the wooden shoring, tunnelers were always at risk of being buried alive.
KEN REES: I was only involved in one fall. My head was covered, but my number two pulled me out fairly quickly. Could be a bit worrying, you know, because you were down, what, 30-feet down. No one knew from the German side where you were, what you were doing, and so if there'd ever been any nasty fall, you realized that you'd just about had it.
DAVY JONES: That's when you kind of wondered sometimes, "What in the hell am I doing here?" You're in Stygian darkness in 30 feet of sand. And if you're claustrophobic, you're in deep trouble.
NARRATOR: As the hole gets deeper and wider, the archaeologists are starting to appreciate how treacherous and unpredictable sand can be.
LARRY BABITS: Sand is dangerous. And what we're facing now is something that the tunnelers, when they did the Great Escape, had to face. It's the same problem on a larger scale that the tunnelers had. How do you keep all this sand with the tremendous weight above it from coming down?
NARRATOR: Today, disposing of the sand is easy, trucks cart it all away. But when the tunnels were dug, sand disposal had to be carried out in secret. One slip up and the entire operation would be exposed.
Prisoners came up with a novel solution, trousers bags made from socks, from which sand could be discreetly scattered. The sand sprinklers became known as penguins.
ALAN BRYETT: Now, to be a penguin was this: you went across to where the tunnel was and filled up your socks with sand. But if you had too much sand put into your sock, then you waddled, and it was called being a penguin. And then, of course, the guards saw you were a penguin, and said that chap's up to no good and would search you. And therefore, the secret was that the people putting the sand in didn't put too much in.
Having done that, you then walked around the camp. The prisoners were encouraged to cultivate their own little garden, and if I was a penguin, I would go up and talk to him, because while he was raking over his little plot of land, I was admiring his tomatoes, but he was, actually, in fact, raking in the sand...little dodges like that. But sand was a terrible problem.
NARRATOR: And the sand remains a problem, as the backhoe struggles to shift it. But on the surface above, the archaeologists think they have uncovered proof that the concrete slab they found is "Dick's" trap door.
PETER DOYLE: This, I think, is a significant find, very significant find, because what we've got on the slab are a couple of quite deep holes, slots, and those slots must really be to let in the slab into the side of the sump. And so this, most likely, is going to be a tool for letting in that slab. And it fits absolutely perfectly.
LARRY BABITS: Look at the upper side. We've got an abrasion that runs right here at the top, and it's abraded there.
PETER DOYLE: Yeah, as you can see, we're going to have to pull it out, like that...
LARRY BABITS: Yeah.
PETER DOYLE: ...which then is going to wear this thing back down, isn't it? And then like this.
NARRATOR: Lifting hooks would have been essential to haul up the trapdoor from its tight fitting slot in the washroom drain. The German guards carried out surprise searches, so the prisoners had to be able to close the tunnel entrance quickly.
ALAN BRYETT: The tunnel was only open for about 10 minutes, rather like when racing cars go into a pit stop, and the thing stops, and everyone does his job like that very, very quickly. And it could be done, opened and closed, in about 10 minutes. It had to be done quickly, because the Germans were wandering around, not...maybe only one or two Germans, but wandering around in every hut all the time, so you had to be slick.
NARRATOR: As the tunnels grew longer, the stakes became higher than ever. The prisoners were increasingly concerned about keeping their operations secret. They had amassed a huge amount of escape equipment, scavenged or stolen from all over the camp. The Germans later drew up an astonishing list of things that had disappeared. 4,000 bed boards, 34 chairs, 52 tables, 90 double-tier bunk beds, and 1,700 blankets to muffle underground sounds.
But the most useful escape item was the powdered milk can, sent to prisoners by the Red Cross. They were known as Klim, milk spelled backwards. Over 1,400 were used. Charles Huppert became an expert in turning tin cans into tools.
CHARLES HUPPERT: We used Klim tins for everything that we made, because you could cut the ends out, and have a large piece of tin to work with. You can straighten that out flat, and make a...join them together in a locked joint, such as this, and take your wooden mallet and hammer them down. Then you take your backside of a knife and bear down on that, with a lot of pressure on both sides of that crimp, so that the tin will not separate, in order to make the tools that are used in the tunnels: the digging tools, the funnels, and the lamps to give light.
NARRATOR: The archaeologists have found an object that could have been made from one of Charles Huppert's cans.
LARRY BABITS: What is it? It's metal.
PETER DOYLE: That's...what? It's some kind of handle.
LARRY BABITS: Yeah. No, don't pull that out.
PETER DOYLE: Does the wire go all the way around it?
LARRY BABITS: Well, look how thick the corrosion is here.
PETER DOYLE: Yeah, all the way around from there. And it's pinched in.
LARRY BABITS: But this isn't really corroded.
PETER DOYLE: Just take that off.
LARRY BABITS: It's kind of flimsy for a ladle. I wouldn't think of it as being...
PETER DOYLE: Yeah, you wouldn't be able to shift sand with that.
LARRY BABITS: You know, you couldn't really use it for a scoop.
PETER DOYLE: What's that black?
LARRY BABITS: Wait, where?
PETER DOYLE: That's got to be a lamp, hasn't it?
LARRY BABITS: And there's a wick.
NARRATOR: These lamps burned mutton fat, skimmed off the greasy soup served up in the camp kitchen. With candles in short supply, it was a brilliant innovation.
CHARLES HUPPERT: Then we install a wick. We usually found someone that had worn out a pair of pajamas that had a cord made out of cotton, and then we would drop that in there.
NARRATOR: But the longer the tunnels became, the less oxygen there was at the end. The mutton fat lamps were going out, and the tunnelers were suffocating. So the prisoners devised a way to pump fresh air into the tunnels. Walter Morison helped with the design.
WALTER MORISON: The air pump is a fascinating device. And it needed quite an array of materials. There are two sides of beds, two ends of beds, four ice hockey sticks, four ping-pong bats, two kit bags with nine coat hooks...empty powdered-milk tins.
NARRATOR: It was designed to pump air on both the forwards and backwards strokes, preserving the energy of the pumper.
These photos were taken later by German guards.
Fresh air was sucked into the air pump along a line of Klim tins going down the shaft. It was piped under the floor of the tunnel through another row of tins.
Shortly after the air pump was installed, the task of moving sand up and down the tunnel was also transformed by an amazing feat of engineering: underground railways, complete with a change over station, where diggers could switch trains to reach the second half of the tunnel. Between April and September, 1943, the prisoners used the railway to move at least 130 tons of sand. But, however ingenious their inventions, the prisoners could not make everything themselves. Some items had to be acquired from the German guards by blackmail.
JONATHAN VANCE: The prisoners had access to something that the guards didn't, and that was Red Cross food: chocolate, coffee, soap, tea, raisins, sugar, things like this. A lot of these things had not been available in Germany in the civilian economy for years, so it turned out that most guards were willing to do almost anything to get themselves a couple of bars of soap or a package of coffee, even to the point of smuggling in a camera, or loaning their identity papers so they could be forged, or bringing in pieces of a typewriter, this sort of thing.
NARRATOR: Several months into the digging, an audacious theft completely changed life underground. Two sharp-eyed prisoners stole some wire from German workmen, and installed lighting in the tunnel, tapping into the camp's electrical supply.
LARRY BABITS: Now move your hand out for a second.
NARRATOR: Digging around the drain, the archaeologists may have found evidence of this primitive wiring.
LARRY BABITS: What kind of metal does that appear to be? Is it copper?
PETER DOYLE: No, no, it's tin of some kind. But it hasn't, it hasn't decayed. It's not steel or anything. It's not iron or steel.
LARRY BABITS: But is it regular? What's the sheathing like? Is it a regular looking one?
PETER DOYLE: Sheathing does not...it looks home made.
We've dug down through the bottom of the concrete floor. Now this is a washroom, you're not going to have an electrical cable under a washroom, it just doesn't make any sense, so the bottom line is that if we've got electrical cable here, it's either been put in after the war, or it was electrical cable that was put in by the escapers. I mean, those are the only two possibilities, really.
NARRATOR: The prisoners strung bulbs along the entire length of "Tom," "Dick," and "Harry." Riding through the tunnels had become a spectacular experience.
But as the big night of the escape drew near, the German guards were becoming increasingly suspicious. And the prisoners had a new worry; they were running out of places to dump sand. They decided to focus their efforts on tunnels "Tom" and "Harry," and refill most of "Dick" with sand from the other two. But tunnel "Dick" would still play a vital role in the buildup to the escape. By now, there were over 600 prisoners involved in this clandestine operation. Special forgery teams worked on ensuring a safe passage across Germany after the escape. While tailors made home made insignia for escape clothes, artists forged elaborate identity papers. With hundreds of passes and disguises coming off the camp production line, a secure location to hide them was vital.
"Dick," with its secret entrance, was the perfect hiding place, so it was turned into a storage room.
And near the entrance, the archaeologists uncover an amazing artifact that may have been kept there.
PETER DOYLE: It's a stamp. It's got a Wehrmacht symbol on it.
LARRY BABITS: And...yes...is it the same rubber stuff that we were just looking at?
PETER DOYLE: Yeah, that is, that is amazing. Look, Larry.
LARRY BABITS: This is unbelievable. Look at that. You can even see the feathering on the ends of the eagle's wings.
PETER DOYLE: That's the Ausweis, isn't it? To get me out?
LARRY BABITS: Yeah, this is a stamp that you'd put over a guy's picture...
PETER DOYLE: Yeah.
LARRY BABITS: ...on an Ausweis. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought we'd see a forger's stamp. I mean, everybody talks about them, and things like that, but I just never, never would have thought that we'd come up with one.
NARRATOR: This stamp is a forgery, the first to be recovered from one of the tunnels. It was painstakingly carved from the only available source of rubber.
ALAN BRYETT: I had my flying boots with me, and I remember a chap coming round and taking my boots away. When I got them back, the rubber heels had been taken off, and there were wooden heels there, because the rubber heel was used to make rubber stamps which you could then cut a Swastika out, or various other German emblems to put stamps on passes.
NARRATOR: Just as this tantalizing find is uncovered, Davy Jones, Jimmy James and Charles Huppert return to Stalag Luft III, for the first time, to see the tunnel they worked on 60 years ago.
JIMMY JAMES: Are you down to the level of "Dick" now, more or less?
PETER DOYLE: Yes, we're right down at the level of "Dick." That's the bottom of "Dick."
DAVY JONES: You're in the tunnel itself, hopefully.
NARRATOR: After two days of excavating, the backhoes have dug down to 30 feet. The engineers have inserted a steel frame to protect the archaeologists as they work.
Delicately scraping through the sand, they begin to uncover the remains of tunnel "Dick."
PETER DOYLE: Well, what we've got is the tunnel itself, 30 feet down. And the exciting thing is, you've got these timbers, brownish material, and the timbers showing the edge of the wall, you see a very nice straight line now. And then over in the corner there, we're starting to pick out rust; it's bits of tin that have been taken into the tunnel. So we're actually seeing here the escape tunnel as it was being constructed.
LARRY BABITS: And you can see, right as you go along here, they put boards in there from the beds.
NARRATOR: Although the roof of the tunnel has collapsed, the outline of the decomposed bed boards can still be seen.
LARRY BABITS: I have a question about that.
DAVY JONES: Okay.
LARRY BABITS: How did you fit in this?
DAVY JONES: Well, you can get as far as your elbows, and then you reached up to dig, and then you put the board up, and then you packed the sand around it, to hold it in place.
LARRY BABITS: But, sir, you're 90-some years old, and your shoulders are too broad to fit in here now.
NARRATOR: The archaeologists have also found original Klim tins, which supplied air to the diggers. Amazingly, they are still in place on the floor of the collapsed tunnel.
PETER DOYLE: Do you remember these tins?
CHARLES HUPPERT: Oh, sure. Must be a Klim tin.
DAVY JONES: Oh, I don't think there's any doubt about that.
PETER DOYLE: How many do you think you used?
CHARLES HUPPERT: Quite a bunch of them.
PETER DOYLE: Too many?
CHARLES HUPPERT: Yeah. But we had more of those than anything else, so... Who would have thought that?
JIMMY JAMES: Yes, I remember going down there about 60 years ago. Yes, straight down like that.
PETER DOYLE: Can you remember...is this familiar to you, gentlemen?
DAVY JONES: I can't believe that. Do you think that...was that there?
PETER DOYLE: That was there.
DAVY JONES: You found it in the dirt? Come on.
PETER DOYLE: Yeah. Can you remember how it was put in?
DAVY JONES: You slid down the side.
PETER DOYLE: ...because we found this hook that fits into the slab.
DAVY JONES: Son of a bitch.
LARRY BABITS: You guys can stand right there and know that in 1944 you stood right there.
DAVY JONES: That's exactly right.
PETER DOYLE: Incredible. How long did it take you to get from the top to the bottom?
JIMMY JAMES: Well, it depends how fast you went, but...
CHARLES HUPPERT: It depends how fast you were, or how fast you went.
NARRATOR: As the tunnels advanced, so did the Allied war effort. The tide was beginning to turn. Up in the skies over Europe, the full might of the United States Air Force was now raining bombs over Hitler's Germany. But the daylight missions proved costly for U.S. bomber squadrons, and thousands of airmen were captured by the Germans.
There were so many new P.O.W.s arriving at Stalag Luft III, that the Germans announced plans to build a new compound just for Americans.
Worried that American prisoners would miss out on the Great Escape, the diggers doubled their efforts on tunnel "Tom." The increased activity aroused the guards' suspicion. One day, a surprise search revealed what the guards were looking for, the entrance to tunnel "Tom."
The Germans, convinced they had foiled a massive escape, took a number of photographs to celebrate their good fortune. They had no idea there were two other tunnels left.
Shortly afterward, the American flyers were all transferred to their new compound.
ALAN BRYETT: I didn't like it because of all the work that I had done was for naught. And...but there was nothing you could do about it, so you have to accept it.
NARRATOR: With the Germans on high alert, the prisoners left behind were desperate to finish tunnel "Harry." British flyer Jack Lyon, responsible for tunnel security, received a tip off that the Germans knew the digging had not stopped.
JACK LYON: The atmosphere was fraught...We knew that the Germans were certain that there was a tunnel, and the gamble was who would get there first, the Germans or us? The Germans to find it, or us to get out?
NARRATOR: By the middle of March, 1944, tunnel "Harry" was finished. The prisoners were raring to go, but had to wait over a week for the first moonless night.
At last, on Friday, March 24, the fateful moment arrived. One by one, the nervous escapers showed up at the hut. There was a strict pecking order, beginning with the men who were thought to have the best chance of eluding capture.
Further down the list were men like Alan Bryett, who had gotten their place by lottery.
ALAN BRYETT: They wanted, on that night, for as many people to get out as possible. I might only get five or 10, 15 miles, but if I could get up and hide up in a barn or lay in a haystack or something like that, it would confuse the Germans as to just how many had got out, while the real escapers, who went by the train, were really making their proper escapes.
NARRATOR: At 10:30 p.m., at the top of the vertical shaft, digger Johnny Bull cut through the last inches of soil, and breathed in the fresh air. Finally, after 11 months of hard work, the Great Escape was underway.
Johnny Bull was the first man to taste freedom. But there was a snag. The tunnel was slightly short. It had cleared the perimeter fence but had not reached the woods. Anyone emerging from the hole could be spotted by the German guards patrolling the fence every few minutes.
For a moment, the plan seemed doomed. Then word came back to use a rope as a signaling device. From the cover of the woods, two tugs meant the coast was clear.
Back at the hut, the next batch of escapees was sent down into the tunnel. Each man took roughly 10 minutes to make his way to the exit shaft. Everything seemed to go according to plan, but on the stroke of midnight, disaster struck.
JACK LYON: There was an air raid, not an unusual occurrence, but of all the things the RAF did, it was...I thought well, that was a bit...they would pick tonight.
ALAN BRYETT: All the searchlights went out, the lights went out in the hut, and the lights which had been rigged up in the tunnel from the hut went out as well. And so between 12 o'clock and one o'clock, virtually no-one got out.
NARRATOR: Eventually, the air raid ended and the lights went back on. Now the escape could continue. By 2:00 a.m., only 38 prisoners had made it through the tunnel. Number 39 was Jimmy James.
JIMMY JAMES: Of course, it was a very exciting moment escaping by this enormous tunnel, which about 600 of us worked on for a year. I was pulled up to the exit, and looked up, 30 feet up the shaft, and the stars were up above.
NARRATOR: But with all the delays, progress was much slower than anticipated. Fewer than a dozen men per hour were making it through the tunnel. At 5:00 a.m., after a mix-up with the rope signal, the 77th man emerging from the tunnel was spotted by a guard. Ken Rees, who was next in line to escape, heard it all from the bottom of the exit shaft.
KEN REES: I heard the shot and realized straightaway what had happened. So I backed up very quickly. By this time, the trolleys were forgotten, as it were, so we were left. It was just a case of crawling back. At the time—it sounds silly, I suppose, now—I was afraid that perhaps a German would come down the tunnel and shoot up the tunnel. And I didn't feel I wanted another bullet at that end.
NARRATOR: Ken Rees was the last man to make it back, the last man in tunnel "Harry." Back in the hut, the men were frantically hiding the evidence. The guards were on their way, and no one wanted to be caught with fake passes and other contraband.
ALAN BRYETT: We started a number of bonfires, and in the hut there were small bonfires going on, with chaps burning up maps and diagrams and money and documents. It was only a matter of two or three minutes, but by the time the Germans got in, a lot of it was charred.
I have never seen men so annoyed. They were absolutely livid, livid. It was quite obvious that it was a big escape, and the Germans discovered, to their horror, that 76 people had disappeared, and then all hell was let loose.
NARRATOR: Everyone caught was put in solitary confinement, including Ken Rees.
KEN REES: We were bitterly disappointed, after all the work. Foolishly enough, we thought, you know, "This is our chance to get home."
ALAN BRYETT: I think the reaction of most of us caught was, "We got so close to freedom. We weren't going to get back home, but so close to a few days out in the open, and we've lost it."
NARRATOR: Wearing civilian clothing, many of the 76 men who had made it out were on their way to local railway stations, hoping to catch trains across Europe. Each escape party was led by a fluent German speaker, who would do all the talking if they needed to buy tickets or show their identity cards.
Jimmy James was heading for the village of Tschiebsdorf, with a group of 12 other escapees.
JIMMY JAMES: There's the railway line. This must be the old, part of the old platform. I don't know.
NARRATOR: Remarkably, no one recognized Jimmy's party as escaped prisoners, and they were able to buy 12 train tickets. In short order, they were en route for Czechoslovakia.
Meanwhile, the Germans had mounted a massive search.
JONATHAN VANCE: Every auxiliary soldier, every auxiliary policeman, was mobilized in the camp area. So probably, within 24 hours of the tunnel being discovered, there were perhaps 60 or 70,000 extra troops who had been brought on board and were around the camp, beating through the forests, looking in the bushes, trying to find these 76 airmen.
NARRATOR: But the escaped prisoners, traveling by train, were already long gone, fanning out across German territory.
Jimmy James' party made it as far as the Czech border, where they were arrested and thrown into cells. Jimmy was separated from his group, and handed over to the S.S., who drove him to a different camp.
JIMMY JAMES: The S.S. officer told me to get out. He said, "Ha ha. Hello, James. This is a nice place. You will not escape from here." And I came face to face with our senior British officer on the escape, and I said, "Hello, sir, where are we? In Colditz?" He said, "No." He said, "This is Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The only way out of here is up the chimney."
NARRATOR: Against incredible odds, Jimmy managed to tunnel out of the concentration camp. He was recaptured after 14 days on the run and remained a prisoner until the end of the war.
Just three of the Great Escapers reached freedom, Norwegians Per Bergsland and Jens Muller, stowed away on a freighter to Sweden, while Dutchman Bob van der Stok traveled by train and foot to Gibraltar. Everyone else was rounded up by the Germans within two weeks.
They assumed they'd be reunited with their friends back at Stalag Luft III, since the Geneva Convention forbids harming escaped prisoners, but a terrible war crime was about to be committed.
DAVY JONES: It was several days before we found out about casualties. We didn't realize then that people had been killed. Then we started to find out.
ALAN BRYETT: We got the news because the Gestapo men came across and said that so many of the prisoners who escaped from Stalag Luft III have been recaptured, they have tried another escape and have been shot and killed. And a senior British officer said, "How many have been injured in this second escape?" And the answer was, "None."
KEN REES: The Germans themselves said that they were shot while trying to re-escape, et cetera, but, of course, this was rubbish.
NARRATOR: The Great Escape had incensed Hitler, who insisted all the recaptured prisoners be executed to set an example. His generals persuaded him to reduce the number to 50.
The airmen were handed over to the Gestapo, driven to remote locations and shot.
JACK LYON: It shocked us at the time, not so much the loss of life, but how it occurred. If those chaps had actually been mown down by a guard under machine gun as they ran, we possibly would accept it. But to line them up against a wall and just give the old, you know, the Genickschuss, I mean, that's, that was something different. That's not, that's not playing it by the rules.
KEN REES: I was devastated, because, in my room, Johnny Bull, who I'd been with the whole time, who'd started me with the tunneling, and I was on his team, he was one of the 50 who was shot. And then when I was back in my bunk, I would look across to his bunk and think, God, you know, he, he had been shot down, and the babe... had a baby born afterwards, that he had not seen. And it...I just couldn't get over the fact that he was never going to go home, never going to see his wife again, and child.
NARRATOR: After the war, most of the Gestapo agents responsible for these murders were hunted down to face war crimes tribunals. The Luftwaffe colonel at Stalag Luft III was so appalled by the action of the Gestapo that he allowed the prisoners to build a memorial to the 50 outside the camp.
DAVY JONES: We were outraged, and, of course, saddened. And some people we knew quite well, like my roommate.
JIMMY JAMES: Coming back and actually looking at it, you look at those names, and think you knew them all. And you think, well, "Why isn't my name up there as well?" It was just luck, fortune of war.
NARRATOR: From the memorial, the veterans return to get one final look at the tunnel. Even with the support frame, it has become too dangerous to dig on any further. The archaeologists decide to call off the excavation and refill the hole.
PETER DOYLE: You've got to treat these things with respect. These things can collapse any time, crush the timbers and collapse on the men, and it would be incredibly difficult to get anybody that was digging a tunnel out of here.
LARRY BABITS: Tunnels are scary things, and when you do them in sand they can be really scary. I was scared out here, working in the open with the sky over me, and for them to do that with 30 feet of sand above them, you come away with a lot of respect for those guys.
NARRATOR: For archaeologists and veterans alike, this dig has reminded everyone of the incredible achievement of the Great Escape.
CHARLES HUPPERT: I never thought in my lifetime I'd ever get to see something like this.
DAVY JONES: I pooh-poohed the thing until yesterday. I didn't believe it until I saw it.
NARRATOR: Sixty years after the most famous escape in history, the remains of the last tunnel would be buried forever.
Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television.
We see you reaching for the stars. Microsoft is proud to sponsor NOVA for celebrating the potential in us all.
Science: it's given us the framework to help make wireless communications clear. Sprint is proud to support NOVA.
And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS stations from viewers like you. Thank you.
Written and Directed by
Online Editor/ Visual Effects
Produced & Directed by
NOVA Series Graphics
Post Production Online Editors
Post Production Assistant
Associate Producer, Post Production
Post Production Supervisor
Post Production Editor
Post Production Manager
Producer, Special Projects
Senior Science Editor
Senior Series Producer
Senior Executive Producer
A Windfall Films Production for NOVA/WGBH Boston in association with FIVE.
© 2004 WGBH Educational Foundation and Windfall Films Ltd.
All rights reserved
© | Created September 2006
Support provided by
For new content
visit the redesigned