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Escapes from POW Camps

Failed and successful escapes from World War II POW Camps.
Latest hand-picked WWII news. See also: German POWs, WW2 POWs, WWII Memorabilia, Militaria.

Documentary Film: The Great Escape: Secrets Revealed
It's known simply as the Great Escape. On the night of March 24, 1944, 76 allied airmen made a daring break from Stalag Luft III, an "escape proof" POW camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. It was done under the collective noses of their captors, and the means - a long but narrow tunnel dug by hand - is still considered a great example of ingenuity and the desire for freedom at all costs. Now, more than 70 years after the event — and through a 90-minute documentary on History Television — viewers will see how the airmen pulled it off through the expertise of technicians and an archaeological dig.
(toronto.com)

RAF serviceman Richard Birtle, last survivor of The Great Escape, passes away aged 92
A man believed to be the last survivor of The Great Escape has died aged 92. Richard Birtle was captured during the trial run for the D-Day landings in Dieppe, France, in August 1942 before being ending up in the Stalag III camp. He then teamed up with other POWs who plotted a daring escape by digging tunnels underneath the camp and worked as a "penguin" - the men who dispersed soil through their trousers. Birtle only narrowly escaped an SS death squad himself - a line of fellow POWs were shot in front of him - before being liberated by American troops on April 29 1945 after 3 years being held captive in the camp.
(dailymail.co.uk)

Alex Cassie, who aided great escape from Stalag Luft III POW camp, dies at 95
It was on the night of March 24 and 25, 1944, that 76 Allied POWs crawled through a 340-foot-long tunnel below the Stalag Luft III camp carrying what looked like officially stamped documents and id cards. Flight Lt. Alex Cassie, a British bomber pilot, was one of a half-dozen artists who had been forging those documents for months. As a result he was placed among the top 50 on the list of those who would sneak into the tunnel. But knowing that he was claustrophobic he chose to stay in the barracks. "All five of my hut mates had been shot. Often I've asked myself, 'Why didn't I go?' I can't shake off the vague feeling of guilt, that why should I have been the lucky one?"
(nytimes.com)

Historian recreates the great escape PoW tunnel using bed boards and cutlery just like in the original
Their feat was immortalised on the silver screen and came to symbolize the determination of those who survived the Second World War. And now the efforts of the RAF airmen have been recreated by historian Hugh Hunt for the documentary film "Digging the Great Escape". The 330ft tunnel - made from 4,000 bed boards and dug with thousands of pieces of cutlery - used by POWs for their "Great Escape" has been rebuilt using the same makeshift tools and materials used by the inmates. Other materials used included 90 double bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 3,424 towels - and also 1,400 milk cans to create a ventilation system.
(dailymail.co.uk)

Little-known fourth Great Escape tunnel, called George, to be excavated
One of the awe-inspiring thing about the World War Two is that so often there are secrets even behind the secrets. The big secrets of the POW camp Stalag Luft III were of course Tom, Dick and Harry - tunnels used in one of the most famous cases of WWII POWs attempting to escape. But did you know that even after most of those trying to escape were executed the inmates still went on to build a fourth tunnel?

In the spring of 2011 "George" -- a little-known fourth tunnel which was dug after the escape but never actually used -- will be excavated. As a bonus, couple of WWII veterans who were involved in digging this extremely secret tunnel are planning to visit the excavation.
(bbc.co.uk)

Jack Harrison, the last survivor of The Great Escape, passes away at 97
Jack Harrison, believed to be the last of those involved in the Great Escape, has passed away. In 1944 he was waiting - dressed as a civilian engineer, with fake papers to prove it - for his turn to crawl through "Harry" under the wire of Stalag Luft III. Throughout his life, Harrison played down his role in the escape attempt from Stammlager der Luftwaffe III - meaning a camp for airmen - where 10,000 RAF officers and non-commissioned aircrew were contained. He acted as a "runner" for Squadron Leader Roger Bushell - the mastermind behind the digging of the 3 escape tunnels (Tom, Dick and Harry).
(dailymail.co.uk)

WWII POW Horace Greasley claimed he escaped from his POW camp over 200 times
Horace Greasley claimed an unique record among World War II PoWs: escaping from his POW camp over 200 times. The reason he risked his life was simple: he had begun a romance with a local German girl. Rosa Rauchbach was running even greater risks than Greasley. A translator at the camp where he was imprisoned, she had hidden her Jewish roots from the Nazis. Discovery of their affair would likely have meant doom for them both. Greasley recounted the unbelievable details of his experiences in his "autobiographical novel" Do The Birds Still Sing In Hell?
(telegraph.co.uk)

Henry Lamond was one of the first three men to escape from a tunnel at Stalag Luft III
Wing Commander Henry Lamond was captured in Crete after attempts to rescue stranded personnel in his Sunderland flying boat. In the spring of 1942 he was among the early arrivals at Stalag Luft III at Sagan, Luftwaffe boss Hermann Goering's show camp for Allied airmen and one he claimed was escape-proof. Lamond and his colleagues set about proving him wrong. He was one of the first 3 men to escape from a tunnel at Stalag Luft III and remained loose for a week. Later he worked on the 3 tunnels before the Great Escape, and on the night of the breakout (March 24/25 1944) he was the dispatcher.
(telegraph.co.uk)

"I owe my life to the Nazis who foiled the Great Escape" says the last survivor
Ken Rees - RAF bomber pilot shot down into a Norwegian lake and shipped to Stalag Luft III - was next in line to use the escape tunnel when the Nazis discovered it. "Had I got out, I would have ended up like the 50 who went before me." Digging tunnels was the men's activity from the moment they arrived: "Before we got organised, the senior British officer got hold of Roger Bushell and made him Big X [responsible for organising escape attempts]. And Roger said: `We are not having this any more with everybody having their own personal tunnel... We are going to have 3 tunnels only... Tom, Dick and Harry.`"
(dailymail.co.uk)

World War II airman's diary reveals Great Escape plot
Coded plans for "The Great Escape" have been discovered in the diary of a WWII airman. After the Stirling bomber he was navigating was shot down in 1943, Ted Nestor ended up as a POW at the camp where 77 Allied officers dug a tunnel and escaped. His journal includes stories of camp life, cartoons and coded reference to the breakout. Now his daughter Sharon Cottam has visited Stalag Luft III in Poland and learned that her father was a war hero. "Dad talked about the escape in his diary but, obviously he wrote about it in code. He called it the start of 'The Spring Handicap' and said there were '100 under starters' orders.'"
(bbc.co.uk)

65th anniversary of Cowra breakout: Japanese POWs attacked with nails, knives and baseball bats
On 5 August 1944 a POW camp near Cowra in Australia saw one of the biggest WW2 prison escapes. At 2am Japanese POWs, shouting "Banzai", broke through the wire, one group on the northern side, one on the western and one on the southern. Armed with knives, clubs with nails and hooks, they moved across the wire with blankets. 359 POWs escaped. The leaders ordered escapees not to attack civilians, and none were injured. Benjamin Hardy and Ralph Jones manned the No. 2 Vickers machine-gun and fired into the wave of escapees, but they were overwhelmed.
(wikipedia)

Former POWs travel back to Germany to mark anniversary of 'Great Escape'
Former POWs of the German POW camp immortalised in the WW2 film 'The Great Escape' will travel back to Germany to honour to the men who were killed after the breakout. Adolf Hitler ordered 50 recaptured Allied airmen to be shot as a deterrent to others trying to escape from Stalag Luft III. Only 3 men made 'home runs' to safety through a tunnel which, tied up tens of thousands of Germans in the search for the escapers. Soon the veterans will gather at exit of Tunnel Harry to commemorate all those who were held at Stalag Luft III.
(telegraph.co.uk)

Wing Commander Tim Thomas, the last known survivor of Great Escape camp, dies
The last known survivor of the German prisoner-of-war camp which inspired the film The Great Escape has died aged 87. Wing Commander Tim Thomas, who was granted an OBE and the Air Force Cross, was among hundreds of servicemen who spent 14 months digging 3 tunnels (Tom, Dick and Harry) under the fence at the high-security Stalag Luft III camp. Thomas was caught as he moved for the exit but he persuaded Nazi guards to spare his life.
(dailymail.co.uk)

The Mole, Britain's most prolific PoW tunnel digger in WWII, dies aged 95
Britain's most prolific World War II tunnel-digger and one of the men behind the Great Escape has died. Nicknamed The Mole, John Fancy helped dozens of inmates escape from POW camps in Poland, Lithuania and Nazi Germany. Warrant Officer Fancy was caught in 1940 after being shot down on a bombing raid over occupied France. During 5 years of imprisonment in a number of camps, he dug at least 8 tunnels and escaped 3 times himself but was recaptured on each time. He was sent to Stalag Luft III in Sagan in 1942. There his expertise was used to help plan the break-out of 76 men that became known as the Great Escape.
(dailymail.co.uk)

Sydney Dowse - one of the key constructors of the Great Escape tunnel
Sydney Dowse, who died aged 89, was one of the main builders of the tunnel used in the Great Escape. He was one of those who got away, and was on the loose for 14 days before being recaptured and sent to the Sachsenhausen, where he dug another tunnel to get a few more days of freedom. Dowse had been in captivity for just over a year when he arrived in May 1942 at Hermann Goering's "escape-proof" camp Stalag Luft III, at Sagan. He made 2 failed attempts before further attempts were put on to a more formal basis by the establishment of an escape committee under the chairmanship of Roger Bushell, known as "Big X".
(telegraph.co.uk)

The Australian War Memorial (AWM) acquires rare POW escape maps
The Australian War Memorial has acquired rare WW2 escape maps made by an Australian POWs interred in Nazi Germany. The maps were drawn by Lieutenant Jack Millet who was caught in Crete in 1941 and sent to the Oflag IV-C high security camp after escape attempts. Oflag IV-C was a castle in Colditz near Dresden that was used to hold high risk POW's. Two of the maps in the collection are hand-drawn masters used to create copies. "As the main map maker, he would have been a key person... encouraged not to escape because his skills... they would have preferred for him to remain in the camp to assist others in escaping," said map expert Dianne Rutherford.
(abc)

War hero Bill Knaggs, author of "The Easy Trip", fondly remembered
Bill Knaggs was one of only two crew members to make it when their plane was shot down over Normandy in 1944. The RAF warrant officer put down his escapades in "The Easy Trip". He also gave speeches to raise funds for the families of those who had helped people escape the Nazis. Knaggs had spent 6 nights making the life-threatening trip to Rouen, where he was taken in by the French Resistance. He did not speak a word of French, so had to pretend to be a worker who was deaf and not able to talk. That was enough to fool the Germans into taking him in a convoy to Paris. He then moved to a small village north of Paris, where he remained until the area was liberated.
(bbc)

'Great Escape' war veteran Bertram James dies
World War II veteran Bertram "Jimmy" James who participated in the prison camp break away immortalised in the film The Great Escape has died at 92. Sqn Ldr James was one of 76 men who broke loose from a Nazi POW camp in 1944 in Poland. Military historian Howard Tuck said the ex-RAF Squadron Leader had been "the country's greatest living war hero". Sqn Ldr James took part in 13 escape efforts from prisoner camps during the war.
(bbc)

The Escape Artist - He had no idea how he would ever get home
The Nazis had by then invaded the Low Countries. Allied planes tore through the clouds, coming and going from bombing raids on Third Reich, dodging antiaircraft fire. In 4 years, hundreds of Allied aircrafts would go down over Belgium. Those airmen who survived cut themselves loose from their chutes, knowing that that their fate now lay in their ability to vanish. British gunner Jack Newton ran away from his Wellington bomber and hid in a cornfield. Instead of being swept up by German military police, he was taken in by Belgians. He was fed, camouflaged in civilian garments and passed on through a secret network of safe houses of the Belgian Resistance movement.
(nytimes)

WWII pilot Mick Shand survived "the Great Escape" from Stalag Luft III
Flight Lieutenant Mick Shand was a fighter pilot at Stalag Luft III at Sagan and survived "the Great Escape" - the last to emerge from the tunnel before it was detected, he was recaptured after 4 days on the run. Shand and Len Trent planned to travel to Czechoslovakia in the hope of getting to Switzerland - as they had no great expectation of getting to England. The two men moved down the 100-metre tunnel, codenamed "Harry", after midnight on March 24/25 1944. Postponements meant that it was nearly 5am when they reached the exit. Shand was the 76th to emerge from the tunnel and was running to the woods when a guard spotted Trent coming out.
(telegraph.co.uk)

How board game freed World War II POWs from Nazi camps
Park Place, Boardwalk, and a hidden map with a secret escape route? For Allied WWII POWs, Monopoly games came with real-life "get out of jail free" cards. The British secret service thought up a plan to smuggle escape gear to captured Allied soldiers in Nazi Germany. The original notion was simple: Find a way to sneak items into POW camps. But maps are hard to smuggle: They fall apart when wet, and make a lot of noise. Allied officials turned to an unlikely source for help: silk. To produce these silent maps, the Brits turned to John Waddington Ltd. company. Happy coincidence: He was known for being the licensed manufacturer of Monopoly outside the US.
(cnn)

RAF 'Great Escape' veteran talks to Flight on video interview
Royal Air Force Vickers Wellington officer pilot Bertram 'Jimmy' James was the 35th man out of the 76 who escaped from the Stalag Luft III on 24 march 1944 - a mass escape made famous by the inaccurate 1963 film The Great Escape. When news of the escape of 76 RAF officers reached Adolf Hitler he ordered that all those who were re-captured should be shot. In the end, following the advice of the Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler, who suggested that to execute all of the escapers would harm Nazi Germany's relations with the neutral countries, this number was reduced to 50. James was also sentenced to death and sent to the Sachsenhausen, but he survived.
(flightglobal)

POW camp Stalag Luft III in Zagan had over 100 tunnels
In the film of The Great Escape, the prisoners of war dug 3 tunnels, but archeologists at the camp have now discovered that the inmates dug a total of more than 100. The underground workings at Stalag Luft III in Zagan remained undiscovered for more than 60 years. The scale of the earthworks are testimony to the audacity of the POWs, who faced possible execution by firing squad if discovered. Of the 76 PoWs who escaped in March 1944, only 3 reached allied territory. The remainder were recaptured and 50 were executed by the Gestapo. Archeologists from used ground-penetrating radar to find the location of hut 122, containing the entrance shaft.
(timesonline)

Escape from Auschwitz: Alfred Wetzlers flight told for first time in English   (Article no longer available from the original source)
A first-hand account of how a Alfred Wetzler managed to escape from Nazi Germany's most notorious death camp and help save more than 120,000 Jews is to be told for the first time to an English-speaking audience. Alfred Wetzler was one of the tiny number of people to escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was in the spring of 1944 that he and Rudolf Vrba managed to escape, initially by hiding under a woodpile for 4 days in the camp until the search was called off. The two men had also smuggled out evidence: a ground plan of the camp, details of the gas chambers, crematoriums and a label from a canister of Zyklon gas.
(independent.co.uk)

Ian Tapson helped plan, build tunnels for Great Escape in WW2
Ian Tapson, one of the last survivors of a team of World War II soldiers who executed a breakout from a German POW camp immortalized in the film The Great Escape, has died at 84. He was a lieutenant in the South African air force flying Kittyhawk fighter-bombers when his plane was crippled by anti-aircraft fire over Tunisia. He was captured and sent to Stalag III POW camp at Sagan, Silesia. Roger Bushell, a squadron leader, decided to organize a mass escape by tunneling. The team members were all volunteers, and Tapson was one of them. Before an alarm was raised, 76 men escaped, but only 3 reached safety. 50 of those recaptured were shot by the Gestapo.
(nytimes.com)

Davies-Scourfield fled 'escape-proof' Nazi camp in fake German uniform
Brig. Grismond "Gris" Davies-Scourfield, who won a Military Cross for his part in the Allied defense of Calais during World War II and later escaped from the Nazis holding him POW in the Colditz Castle, has died at age 88. He was a platoon commander in the King's Royal Rifle Corps in May 1940 when Allied forces clashed with the Germans at Calais. Captured by the Germans, he spent months in POW camps. In 1941, he escaped from a camp near Posen, but he was arrested early the next year, and was taken to Colditz Castle, which was turned it into an allegedly "escape-proof" camp by the Nazis.
(timesonline.co.uk)

Great World War II escapes, New Zealand style
A new book, Escape, documents New Zealand soldiers' bids for freedom after they were captured during the Second World War. "The audacity of some of the adventures was typically Kiwi," editor Matthew Wright said. The stories were collected from various sources that were either rare or out of print and put together so they could reach a wider audience. He selected stories that covered different escape methods throughout the chronology of the war.
(nzherald)

Polish man in nazi uniform led a woman's mother on escape   (Article no longer available from the original source)
Disguised as a nazi officer, a polish man led a broward woman's mother on an escape from auschwitz. And finally, the woman and the hero meet. It took Jerzy Bielecki months to gather enough stolen articles of clothing -- handouts collected from a friend who worked in the laundry room at Auschwitz -- to piece together a Nazi uniform. Bielecki dressed in the convincing uniform of clothing scraps, told guards he needed to move another prisoner, then walked out with the prisoner.
(miami)

Bestseller for Auschwitz escaper Rudi Vrba - Died 3 months ago
Author of book "I Escaped from Auschwitz", Rudi Vrba, died 3 months ago without knowing that his book would become Britain's No.1 bestseller. The book details how hundreds of prisoners before him attempted escape but were captured, tortured or killed. Vrba served as a registrar in the death camp so he knew the procedure for capturing escapees and so he was able to elude them. His documentation of the events in the camp were the first such to serve as proof when there had been only speculations before that.
(nerve.in)

War escapers and evaders reunited
The Allied forces' heroic escapers and evaders will be back behind barbed wire in a World War II prisoner of war (PoW) camp in North Yorkshire. The largest reunion of those involved in the escape lines during the conflict is taking place at Malton's Eden Camp museum. The award-winning museum is an original PoW camp built in 1942. Civilians who helped Allied forces escape from Nazi-occupied Europe will also be there. The reunion is organised annually by the WWII Escape Lines Memorial Society (ELMS), which aims to help the men and women who risked their lives for escapers and evaders in the cause of freedom.
(bbc)

Escape maps and stamps for PoWs were hidden in prunes
An extraordinary collection of materials used to help prisoners of war and French Resistance fighters in occupied Europe is to go under the hammer. It includes two prunes of the original thousands used by the Special Operations Executive, Churchill's secret army of undercover agents, to smuggle miniature documents into PoW camps. The documents included intricate maps of continental railway networks, allowing PoWs to plan their escape. There were also accurate forgeries of official German rubber document stamps and elaborate plates used to forge "camp money" used by PoW officers to buy a limited range of goods.
(telegraph.co.uk)

Auschwitz escapee who provided the first eyewitness evidence
Rudolf Vrba, who as a young man escaped from Auschwitz and provided the first eyewitness evidence not only of the magnitude of the tragedy unfolding at the death camp but also of the exact mechanics of Nazi mass extermination, died. His greatest importance is as an author of diagrams of gas chambers and crematories. With specificity gained from camp tasks that gave him unusual access to various corners of Auschwitz, Dr. Vrba told the unknown truth about it. The report became known as the Auschwitz Protocol. When parts of it were released in the summer of 1944, the US government endorsed it as true.
(nytimes)

Eric Foster escaped 7 times from World War II POW camps
A Second World War pilot who escaped 7 times from POW camps has passed away at the age 102. Friends said Sqn Ldr Eric Foster was part of the inspiration behind Steve McQueen's character in the film The Great Escape. As a flight lieutenant with 38 Bomber Squadron, Mr Foster was shot down over Paris while flying a Wellington bomber in 1940 and captured by German troops. Over the next four years he escaped seven times from prisoner of war camps, sometimes in a German officer uniform. At Spangenberg Castle, which was surrounded by a moat, he sneaked out disguised as a member of the Hitler Youth.
(telegraph.co.uk)

Of the 91,000 POWs only 737 managed to rejoin their own forces   (Article no longer available from the original source)
After many weeks in captivity and more than a month of wandering the Italian countryside during WWII, J. L. Weaver and a companion made it back across Allied lines in 1943. Weaver`s story is remarkable because of the 91,000 men confined in Europe during WWII, only 737 managed to rejoin their own forces. While flying from North Africa to Naples, on his eighth mission, Weaver`s plane was struck by flak. Later Weaver met a man named Roger Miller, a P-38 pilot from the 71 st Squadron. They noticed that most of POWs were in poor health or had lost their mental faculties, they were determined not to end up like the prisoners around them.
(nwanews)

Auschwitz escapee and leader of Belgian Resistance - William Herskovic
William Herskovic escaped from Auschwitz and helped inspire Belgium's resistance to the Nazis during the Second World War. Three months after being sent to Auschwitz, Herskovic escaped by cutting through a chain-link fence with two other prisoners. The three hopped a train to Breslau, but a local rabbi threw them out when they tried to tell him about the horrors at Auschwitz. In his prewar home of Antwerp, Herskovic delivered one of the earliest firsthand accounts of the atrocities of the Holocaust. The resistance swiftly mobilized, placing bricks on railway tracks to stop a train bound for the camps.
(signonsandiego)

WW2 POW reveals nasty side of the French Resistance   (Article no longer available from the original source)
Jack Fairweather temporary worked with the French Resistance, earning one of France`s highest honors. He was part of the June 6 D-day landing in Normandy. On the second day he was taken as a POW, but his POW train was bombed by the Allies, and he escaped. He was soon picked up by French resistance fighters. "The leader of the group was an outlaw of sorts named Lecoz. The guy was pretty much out for himself. Anyone that got in his way he'd have them either executed or beaten to death." After liberating the small French town of Loshes Lecoz rounded up many of the residents and executed them for no reason other than he found them undesirables.
(aiipowmia)

WWII POW Honored Posthumously For Escape
During WWII, historians said less than one out of 100 prisoners of war managed to escape from their captors. In 1943, Weaver was piloting his plane over Naples when it was hit by enemy fire. "They were in the life raft for 48 hours until they were picked up by Italians," said family friend Val Periman. Weaver said he was on a train being transferred to a POW camp when he used a pick handle to pry the bars off the boxcar. "They didn't know how far it was down to the bottom, but they jumped and they were expecting rifles to get them," said Periman. Weaver said that for 34 days he and another survivor walked the hills and rejoined their troop.
(thehometownchannel)


See also:
German POWs
WW2 POWs
WWII Memorabilia, Militaria.