March 24, 1944: The Great Escape

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Seventy years ago was a busy time at Stalag III, a German POW camp near the town of Sagan.  76 Allied pows escaped the camp in the largest mass escape of Allied prisoners during the War.  The plan of the escape was conceived by RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, the officer in charge of the camp escape committee.  He announced his plan to the committee in the Spring of 1943 beginning with these words:

Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time. By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun.

The plan involved three tunnels, Tom, Dick and Harry.  More than 600 POWs were involved in the construction.  In the midst of the construction of the tunnels, the American POWs were moved to another compound and, contra Hollywood, no Americans as a result participated in the actual escape, although they had helped with the construction of the tunnels prior to their move.

On March 24, 1944, a moonless night, 76 men made good their escape.  The Germans realized what was going on when the 77th man was seen climbing out of the tunnel.  73 of the prisoners were eventually recaptured, with three making good their escape.  Hitler was enraged by the escapes and ordered the execution of the escapees.  German officers up to and including Reichsfuhrer Herman Goering were appalled, arguing that such executions would violate the Geneva Convention.    Hitler eventually compromised with fifty of the recaptured escapees murdered by the SS, including Squadron Leader Bushell.  It should be noted that the German officers at Stalag III strictly observed the Geneva Convention, and one can imagine their feelings at having their military honor stained by the SS.  Indeed a later camp commandant, Oberst Franz Braune, allowed a memorial to the murdered men to be erected by the prisoners and he contributed to it. (In regard to the East Front both sides waged a war of extermination with prisoners starved to death and murdered by the hundreds of thousands.)

The skill and ingenuity of the men who made The Great Escape deserve to be remembered and honored as a testament to the desire of the human spirit to be free, even when the body in which it is contained is a prisoner.

Squadron Leader Roger Bushell

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  1. Freedom is from God, not from man. Freedom is from God, not from the state. The state is constituted to protect the freedom endowed by God. Yet, the atheist wants religion without God. Freedom without God. The state without God. Concentration camps without God. Death without God.
    It seems that the escapees who were executed escaped with God. The face of the man in the picture says it all.

  2. We shipped thousands of German prisoners to the U.S. and had them bring the crops in, fix roads and the like. Apparently, we shipped so many to work the Kansas wheatfields that the Wehrmacht soldiers eventually learned about it, and called being captured by our guys “going to Kansas.”

    I remember reading the account of one captured German who said they were taken to harvest a wheatfield and were greeted by the proprietor, an elderly first generation German immigrant who greeted them in Deutsch and told them that if they worked hard, they’d get the world’s best apple pie as a reward, courtesy of his wife. The POW admitted that his entire crew busted their butts and were quite well rewarded.

    The Western Front was indeed a good deal more civilized than the primal struggle in the East. I think the Germans were more than a little flummoxed at times by the number of Yanks with German surnames, and even fluency in their language.

  3. Add to this the almost-comic reverse-Hogan’s Heroes’ story of the Great Papago Park Escape, Dec. 23, 1944-Jan. 27, 194. About 25 German prisoners eluded their US guards at a site not far from today’s SF Giants and Oakland A’s spring-training ballparks. Many of the men were former U-boat personnel, meaning the smartest and perhaps most mentally disciplined captured personnel in US control, somewhat factoring into some of their ingenuity in fashioning a tunnel in order to effect their escape.

    However, from there, it was all downhill for the escapees. Some had made pontoon inflatable rafts to “float down the Salt/Gila Rivers to Mexico”—-ingenious, but over-thought-out and useless—because the Salt River, both then and now, is usually a laughable trickle, unless there are extended rain storms. Some others were caught in the open desert by Papago Indian scouts, who were way better than any Untersee Boot Lieutenant at doing what they do in the desert than a U-booter could ever hope to do. The same with another group who were hiding in a canal (near a water source: even in winter the desert is usually bone dry), and some cowboys reported them to the authorities who rounded them up.

    But decorated former Kapitan Jurgen Wattenberg held out the longest, hiding in a rock cleft on the side of Camelback Mountain (only about a one- or two-mile walk from the compound) until after some weeks his rations began to run out. At this point, hedecided to walk down the mountain into downtown Phoenix, and rented an overnight stay at a men’s rooming house, relying on his excellent command of English.
    Excellent, except for one thing: (1) it was too good which first drew some attention; (2) and then, his fatal move, he asked the night hotel clerk, “When will the bus for ‘Tuck-son’ leave in the morning?” Umm, well I can never pronounce German cities’ names like a native, even after years of studying German. He was arrested after being on the lam for about 35 days.
    Maybe a lesson also to conclude from the story is this: really, really intelligent people can’t account for the vagaries, in this case of the desert southwest: Cold at night well beyond their expectations; absolutely no water, even in winter; and vast denuded distances where you can be seen by eagle-eyed Papago and Pima Indian natives, as well as cowboys, all of whom know their land—well the way a U-booter knows the sea.
    The almost funny thing to conclude the story: the Germans were sure the Americans were going to shoot them all when they brought them back in, knowing about hearsay reports of Nazi executions of US prisoners. Their punishment: being put on bread-and-water diets for a few days.

  4. There were six kiwi airmen who escaped in the breakout. They were all recaptured, and four of them were executed.
    I have a feeling that my uncle, Joe Murphy, who was a navigator on a Lancaster bomber spent some time in this prison camp, but I’m not sure.

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