Stalag Luft III – The Great Escape

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After a short 23km ride from the German munitions factory we parked our motorcycles in front of Stalag Luft III in the city of Żagań, where a WWII prisoner of war camp and now a museum is located. The camp is known for two remarkable prisoner escapes, the most famous one depicted by Hollywood in the movie “The Great Escape”.

Opened in March of 1942, the camp was designed with security in mind and it was no coincidence that it was built on the sandy soil found near Żagań. The sand itself would make any tunnelling attempts impossible due to lack of structure stability. The bright yellow color of the sand allowed guards to notice any digging simply by looking at prisoner clothes and any sand dug up from a tunnel would be clearly seen around the camp. Last but not least, all prisoner barracks were built 60cm above ground so that guards could clearly check underneath for any tunnelling attempts. Ohh, and there were seismographs, too, placed around the area that were supposed to show any tunnelling activity.

All this didn’t stop prisoners of war from continuous escape attempts which was actually seen as their duty and the only way they could continue to fight in captivity. The first successful escape took place in October of 1943 and was known as the Wooden Horse since a gymnasium wooden horse was used to hide diggers while tunnelling through. Three airmen escaped and made their way towards the seaside where they hid on ships for safe passage out of Germany. But the most talked about escape is the one I actually remember from the movie The Great Escape.

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In 1943 Roger Bushel of RAF conceived of a plan to dig 3 tunnels named Tom, Dick, and Harry, one of which was bound not to be discovered and allow up to 200 POW’s to escape. Out of the three tunnels, Tom was discovered by German soldiers hidden in the woods outside observing a weird prisoner behavior, Dick was later slated to become a storage tunnel once diggers ran out of room to store sand for Harry, which was the only tunnel to be completed with an exit outside of the camp’s barbed wire fence. You can read all about this on Wikipedia, but the one thing you won’t read on there is how the captured prisoners came to be punished.

Out of 76 prisoners that initially escaped, 73 were captured. This is because the news of the escape greatly angered Hitler who diverted thousands of soldiers from the battlefield for a giant men hunt. Hitler originally wanted all captured to be shot dead, but he was then persuaded to shoot only 50% of the captured soldiers to show leniency and to not anger foreign nations in his treatment of POW’s. But whoever wrote down the order to shoot 50% did not write down the % sign, and therefore exactly 50 recaptured soldiers were shot! Lives lost because of a bureaucratic mistake.

The tour guide told us this and many more historical facts while walking around the camp. There isn’t much left of the actual barracks used back then. After the war ended people in surrounding cities tore down everything reusable when rebuilding their own towns. The only barrack standing now is an exact replica.
We need to travel back there to see the exit from the tunnel and a memorial in honor of those 50 shot POW’s. We didn’t have enough time to ride our motorcycles to the exact tunnel location which is a couple of kilometers down the road. But I will go back for sure.

Some of the artifacts in the museum show what life at the camp looked like. Most interesting to me were paintings of the prisoners drawn using condensed milk actually meant for coffee. For some reason this one picture of a recaptured and then murdered POW reminded me of Pierce Brosnan.

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