'The Great Escape' Remembered

'The Great Escape' Remembered

By Jack Doyle

Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen), Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), and Bob Anthony Hendley (James Garner) in the 1963 film "The Great Escape".


Because we know about the biggest World War II prison break, thanks to Hollywood, but it’s time we knew the real story.

By Jack Doyle

When Royal Air Force gunner Frank Stone, 18, was captured after bailing out of his bomber in 1940, his captors said, “For you, the war is over.” Remembering later in life, Stone grinned and said: “We had other ideas.”

Those “ideas” turned into World War II’s greatest escape attempt. Made famous by the 1963 film starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough, the real story is even more captivating. 

[They said,] ’For you, the war is over.’ We had other ideas.

Stone was among more than 600 Allied soldiers who participated in an effort 70 years ago to escape Stalag Luft III, a prison camp in Zagan, Poland. They got out through one of three tunnels they’d spent several months digging. And while their bid for freedom ended in tragedy, their story is triumphant.

Much of the Great Escape film is based closely on fact. The Allied airmen — mostly Brits but also Czechs, Dutch and Norwegians — considered it their duty to escape. When a notorious “escapologist,” Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, arrived in November 1942, the prisoners had an organizer.

“By rights we should all be dead!” Bushell told fellow prisoners. “The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun. … Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug — Tom, Dick, and Harry. One will succeed!”

Digging through concrete was no mean feat for a team with no shovels who were being watched by suspicious guards.

The operation involved 600 people digging, making clothes, forging papers, distracting guards and sourcing supplies for 200 planned escapees. Men carted out dirt concealed in blankets, and a choir sang to mask the excavation below their feet. Some even made moonshine to keep spirits high.

Captured RAF officers at Stalag Luft 3, 1944. It was from here that 76 POWs made a break for freedom, forming the inspiration for the war film 'The Great Escape'.

Captured RAF officers at Stalag Luft 3, 1944.

Source Hulton Archive/Getty

On March 24, 1944, prisoners made their way through the 336-foot tunnel codenamed “Harry.” But despite careful planning, it was 30 feet short — a horrific truth the men faced as they jumped out 10 yards from tree cover. Inevitably, a guard spotted the escapees, sounded the alarm and dashed the hopes of more than 100 prisoners still waiting to escape. 

Only three prisoners managed to get away in the end. The other 73 were recaptured, and Hitler made an example of more than half of them: fifty, including Bushell, were executed.

The movie version, etched in collective memory, hits surprisingly close to the truth, but there were a few adds that distorted the facts for the sake of entertainment.

For example, the best-remembered scene shows McQueen trying to escape via motorcycle. That scene — pure fiction — was largely the result of McQueen’s desire to do stunts.  

Another departure from reality was the heroic depiction of all the prisoners. In the film, everyone at the camp pitched in, when in fact most of Stalag Luft III’s 10,000 prisoners did not help with the mass escape. The film chose to overlook those who refused to risk their necks. 

And contrary to the film’s rousing conclusion, Americans don’t always save the day. There were some American prisoners at the camp, but the organizers of the escape were all British.

The escape attempt was really a success for the prisoners, because it inspired them to keep fighting.

Another true-life lesson not raised by the film is the importance of nepotism. It saved the life, for example, of Dick Churchill, one of the 23 escapees who returned to the camp. The Germans wrongly assumed he was related to Winston and decided it was safer to let him live.

A final truth lost in the cinematic version is that even tyrants are capable of compassion: Stalag Luft III’s new commandant was so appalled by the executions that he allowed the survivors to erect memorials. 

With only a few veterans left, accounts of the escape are fading. But the men who dug their way out of Stalag Luft III should be relegated neither to history nor Hollywood. The escape may ultimately have been a tragic failure, but it stands as a defining narrative of the grit and fortitude of the Allied men serving in World War II. Their heroism continues to resonate, as reflected in the huge crowds who turned out last month to see a re-enactment of the escape at Stalag Luft III. 

And in the opinion of Jack Lyon and Charles Clarke, two survivors of the prison, their attempt at a “great escape” was indeed a success because it lifted the prisoners’ morale. 

”They felt they could help in some way and, trust me, in prison camps, morale is very important,” Lyon said.