A few days ago, I visited The National Air Force Museum of Canada, in Trenton, Ontario. Besides getting to see lots of planes(like a restored Halifax bomber), and learning about the history of flying in Canada, I was very intrigued by an exhibit about “The Great Escape”. Since that story has seemingly fallen under the radar, I’ve decided to share it with you today.
During World War 2, many captured Allied airmen were taken to a German Prisoner-of-War camp called Stalag Luft 3. This camp was deemed to be almost “escape proof”. Among other security features, the camp boasted 9ft tall border fences, 24/7 patrols, and microphones buried underground to detect digging.
This didn’t deter the captured pilots, though. Three tunnels were dug, code-named “Tom”, “Dick”, and “Harry. This way, if one tunnel was discovered, there’d still be two other tunnels to use. Each of the tunnels was dug 30ft below ground, to avoid the microphones detecting any sound. A bellows to pump in fresh air was made out of milk tins, and the tunnels were supported by wooden bed boards.
“Harry”, which was used for the escape, was 348ft long, 2ft high, and 2ft wide. Through “Harry”, 76 men were able to get out, on the night of March 24-25 1944. Unfortunately, only a few days later almost all of the men had been recaptured, leaving only 3 who managed to get back to England. In retaliation for the escape, 50 of the men were executed. 6 of them, Gordon Kidder, Hank Birkland, Patrick Langford, George McGill, James Wernham, and George Wiley, were Canadian. 3 other Canadians, Keith Ogilvie, Alfred Thompson, and William Cameron, were spared, and sent back to camp.
One of the things I liked about this story is that the whole thing was orchestrated by ordinary people. They used brains instead of weapons to succeed. Of course, the escape wasn’t really a success, but it was one of the largest mass-breakouts of the war, something that couldn’t have been managed without a lot of hard work.
Two books about the escape that I would recommend are “The Great Escape-Tunnel to Freedom” by Mike Messerole and “Tunnel King- The True Story of Wally Floody and The Great Escape” by Barbra Hehner. The first book does a great job of engaging the reader, and provides a detailed description of the events that took place. The second book is a biography of a Canadian whose nickname was “The Tunnel King” for his work in digging the tunnels. The book takes the reader through his training as a pilot, his involvement in the escape, and even his role in the production of the 1963 Great Escape movie. Speaking of which, the movie is another good source to go to, although it isn’t entirely accurate.
There are lots of other wartime stories besides this one, like the sinking of the SS City of Benares, that have been forgotten. Hopefully, if we start talking about these tragedies, they’ll be recognized and not entirely forgotten.