Squadron Leader Roger Bushell had been shot down over Dunkirk attempting to protect the soldiers on the beach from Stuka dive-bombers. After crash-landing in a field, he had been captured and taken to a Dulag Luft transit camp, where he escaped but was caught 30 yards from the Swiss border. Bushell was held and interrogated by the Gestapo for several months before finally being sent to Stalag Luft III.
The opening up of Stalag Luft III as a secure camp for habitual escapees only served to bring together some of the most skilled engineers, tailors, forgers and surveillance experts available. Bushell knew this the moment he walked through the gates and within days he was hatching plans to get out. He was to be the spark that ignited the flame needed to focus everyone on the need to escape.
It was decided that they would dig three tunnels that, if successful, would see 250 men find their freedom. The first one was to go under the western wire from Hut 123 and into the woods beyond the wire fence. It was code-named Tom. The second was to go from Hut 122, was code-named Dick and would join up with Hut 123, while the third would go from Hut 104 and go under the northern wire. It would be code-named Harry.
With all three tunnels well under way a problem arose when about 100 Russian prisoners arrived and started chopping down trees on the south side to build another compound for the Americans. If the compound were built before Tom was completed, it would mean that tunnel would be useless. The committee decided that it would be better if they concentrated on finishing Tom and put the others on hold. The trapdoors of Dick and Harry were sealed shut and all manpower moved to concentrate on getting Tom finished before the Russians had cleared the site. The disposal of the sand from the tunnel was causing the biggest headache, until someone suggested that they fill the unused tunnel up with the sand from Tom.
German Kommandant von Lindeiner called the senior British and American officers to a meeting and told them to put a stop to all thoughts of escape. He explained that he had been called to a meeting with members of the Gestapo, who told him that there would be harsh consequences for those who escaped and for those who were left behind. What von Lindeiner did not tell them was that SS General Müller, the Berlin Gestapo chief, had issued the ‘Kugel’ (Bullet) Order that stated that other than the British and Americans, any other nationalities were to be taken in chains to Mauthausen Concentration Camp and executed by either gas or shooting.
On 14 March one of the tunnellers came back to the hut shaking with excitement and a huge grin on his dirty face. He had pushed a rod through to the surface and realised that there was only 6in of soil between them and freedom. Plans had to be drawn up as to how many were going and what civilian clothes, documents and permits were ready. The dates set for the escapes were 23 and 24 March, depending, of course, on the weather.
Finally, 23 March arrived and there was an air of expectancy around the camp, but with snow still on the ground there was reluctance to move. An emergency meeting of the escape committee was held the following morning and it was decided that the longer they waited the more chance there was of them being discovered. It was decided they would go that night. The atmosphere throughout the camp was electric and it was a miracle the guards did not pick up on the tension.
At 8:30 pm, the tunnel crew announced all was ready and the first of the men slipped down the shaft and onto the tunnel's trolley. When the first seventeen men were in position underground, John Bull, one of the tunnellers, opened up the last 6in of dirt and felt the cold, fresh air. Poking his head through the hole, he got the shock of his life – they were not in the trees, they were at least 10ft short of the tree line and just 15 yards from a guard tower in which he could clearly see the helmet of the guard. For one year 600 men had worked tirelessly in shifts to dig this tunnel, and they were now 10ft short.
The solution was that one man would crawl out, attach a rope to the top of the ladder and then make his way to the tree line. Once there he would give two tugs on the rope if it was clear and the next man would crawl out, and so on. Back in the hut the tension was almost at breaking point as the remaining men waited, not knowing what was happening.
Slowly but surely the men were slipping through the tunnel and out into the woods. Then, just after midnight, air-raid warnings could be heard and suddenly all the lights in the tunnel went out, plunging the area into an inky blackness. Those stuck in the tunnel at the time were suddenly hit with a wave of claustrophobia, but fat lamps were quickly lit. Outside, the searchlights and boundary lights that had been playing all over the compound were also switched off, the guards peering into the blackness of the compound to look for prisoners hoping to take advantage of the raid and cut through the wires.
This gave the escapees the opportunity to speed up the exiting of the escapees, but more stoppages inside the tunnel were causing delays. Then there was a partial tunnel collapse that took almost thirty minutes to clear and it became apparent that they were not going to get everyone away as they only had two hours before dawn. At 5 am the streaks of dawn started to penetrate the blackness of the sky.
For a moment all was quiet, then suddenly the crack of a rifle was heard and all hell broke loose…
Extracted from Freedom Trails by Terry Treadwell