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The movie starts as prisoners arrive at a brand new camp. We get introduced to the purpose of the camp by Kommandant von Luger, who’s played by Hannes Messemer, as he explains it to the Senior British Officer, a Captain Ramsey, played by James Donald. According to von Luger, the camp has been built by the Nazis to hold the worst of the worst. He goes through a list of prisoners and the number of times they’ve tried to escape from other camps.
This is true. The real camp was called Stalag Luft III. Stalag being a term used for German prisoner-of-war camps, and Luft referring to the prison’s use for the Luftwaffe, or the prisoners of the German Air Force. It was first opened in March of 1942. It was built specifically to make escape difficult. Well, I suppose all prisoner of war camps are designed to make escape difficult, but this one had a few things in particular that helped make it tough to escape. For example, all of the housing barracks for the prisoners were about 24 inches off the ground so guards could easily see if tunnels were being built.
Right away in the movie, the prisoners start to test the prison and its guards. There are multiple individual escape attempts on day one, such as those by Captain Virgil Hilts, Steve McQueen’s character, and his cooler-mate, Archibald Ives, who’s played by Angus Lennie who test the limits of the parameter guards.
This isn’t really true, that is to say there weren’t any escape attempts on the first day. But there was a major successful escape that the movie omits.
In truth, it was in the summer of 1943, when the prisoners made their own Trojan Horse. It was a gymnastics horse used for exercise purposes. At least, that was the cover. Constructed out of plywood and just like the ancient Trojans, it was built big enough to hold a few men inside.
Every day for three months, the horse was carried out to the exact same spot near a perimeter fence. While prisoners did gymnastics on the horse above, beneath the horse a tunnel was being dug. There wasn’t a lot of room, so they dug in shifts of one to two at a time.
The three prisoners who did the digging were Lieutenant Michael Codner, Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams, and Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot.
When the end of the day came, the prisoners would put a wood plank on top of the hole and cover it with dirt to hide the entrance to the tunnel. Then, the next day it’d start all over again. In a matter of months, the three prisoners had managed to dig over 100 feet. They used metal rods to poke through the surface of the ground as air holes—something Hollywood might’ve used as inspiration for Captain Hilts and Ives’ escape attempts in the movie.
It was a cool evening in October when the three prisoners who had spent months digging the tunnel made their escape. It was very successful, and all three made their way out of Germany. Williams and Codner made their way back to Britain by way of the port of Stettin and stowing away on a Danish ship. Philpot boarded a train to Danzig as he pretended to be a Norwegian businessman. From there, he stowed away on a Swedish ship and eventually made his own way back to Britain.
Back at camp, in the movie, the prisoners start to form a team behind Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, who is played by Richard Attenborough. According to the movie, Bartlett has the crazy idea of building not one, not two, but three separate tunnels through which 250 prisoners will escape.
In truth the plan was to get 200 prisoners out, not 250 as indicated in the movie. But the idea of building three tunnels was true. And just like in the movie, they were nicknamed Tom, Dick, and Harry. After all, it’s not like the prisoners could go around talking about constructing tunnels. So they used code names. In fact, Roger was so serious about using these names that he threatened court-marshalling for anyone who uttered the word “tunnel”.
As a quick side note, I should probably mention Roger Bartlett wasn’t the real person’s name. In truth, Richard Attenborough’s character was based on the Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Roger Bushell—there was no prisoner named Bartlett. And Bartlett wasn’t the only one. Most of the characters in the film weren’t real, but were based on either one or were an amalgamation of multiple people.
Group Captain Ramsey, who is played by James Donald in the movie, was based on Herbert Massey. Actor Donald Pleasence’s character, Lieutenant Colin Blythe, was based on a man by the name of Tim Walenn. Steve McQueen’s character in the film, Captain Virgil Hilts, was based on three different pilots: David M. Jones, John Dortch Lewis and William Ash.
There’s too many different characters in the film to list here, but most of the people the characters in the film were based on had their names changed in some form or fashion. However, most of them were fairly accurate in their depiction. For example, even though Colin Blythe wasn’t a real person, in the movie Blythe was the forger—as was the man the character was based on, Tim Walenn.
In the movie, as they begin construction on the tunnels the prisoners come across two issues. The first is to keep the tunnels from collapsing. To stop this, they collect wood from anywhere they can. That’s very true, and just like in the movie it was mostly bed boards that provided the wood they needed to keep the tunnel from collapsing on them.
Another major issue was that the dirt they’re pulling out of the tunnel doesn’t match the top soil. It’ll be way too obvious they’re digging. The man in the movie who has been tasked with figuring out a solution is Lieutenant Eric Ashley-Pitt, who is portrayed on screen by David McCallum. Eric’s solution is to carry the dirt out in tubes inside the prisoner’s pants. Then by pulling a pin inside their pockets, the prisoners can release the dirt and kick it around with their feet.
This is all very true, and it goes back to one of the reasons why the “worst of the worst” were sent to Stalag Luft III. The location for the camp on the eastern side of Germany near Sagan had been chosen because it naturally had a very sandy soil underground, and on top was a very bright yellow color to the surface sand. The Nazis were smart, and took advantage of this natural difference in color and turned it into a design feature of the camp to help aid against tunnels.
But while the Nazis may have been smart, the prisoners were smarter. To help overcome this design feature of Stalag Luft III, the prisoners called on their very own “sand dispersal specialist”. Well, that’s what he became while he was a prisoner at least. In the movie, this is the character of Eric Ashley-Pitt. But as you recall, the film changed the names of the prisoners. In truth, the “sand dispersal specialist” was a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm pilot by the name of Peter Fanshawe.
But Peter’s method of dispersing of the sand was very much the same as the movie indicated. They used a bunch of old socks and made small pouches that they could hide inside prisoner’s pants. Maybe it was in the gardens they were tending, or maybe it was while carrying on a normal conversation. Many of the methods they show in the movie are how they actually were able to get rid of the darker sand from the tunnels and mix it in with the brighter sand.
Around the camp, they called the men who carried the sand “penguins” because they looked like the birds as the sand inside their pants created bulges. After the war, one prisoner estimated there were over 200 prisoners who helped disperse the sand, making well over 25,000 trips.
What the movie doesn’t mention, though, is that the German guards caught onto this method. They became suspicious when a lot of prisoners started wearing greatcoats, which they did to help conceal larger portions of sand. After catching some prisoners with sand, they were tipped off to the fact that something was going on. But they simply couldn’t find the entrance to the tunnels, even though they tried time and time again.
The movie depicts where the tunnel entrances are: Harry’s was a drain in one of the washrooms. Tom was under a stove, and it doesn’t really mention the entrance to Dick. In truth, it was Dick that was in the drain, Harry’s entrance was under the stove and Tom’s entrance was just in a dark corner next to a chimney.
Try as they might, the German’s couldn’t find these entrances.
Something else they don’t mention in the movie are the 19 prisoners the Germans rounded up in an attempt to stop the tunnels from being built. These 19 were picked as top suspects for constructing the tunnels after the guards caught some prisoners with sand. But they didn’t really know who was involved. And, in truth, only six of those 19 were actually building the tunnels.
Still, after Germans started to catch onto the old sock-dumping technique, the prisoners had to find an alternative method to get rid of the sand. This leads to something else the movie doesn’t depict: the closing of one of the tunnels.
The first place they started dumping the sand was in one of the three tunnels. They kept digging Tom and Harry, but the Germans extended the camp to where the exit for Dick was supposed to be. Of course, the Germans didn’t know this—but it still messed with the plans for one of the tunnels. Since they needed a place to throw sand, they scrapped Dick and started filling it up. They also started using it for storage of any contraband. Maps, official papers they were using to create forgeries, German uniforms they’d managed to scrounge, and so on.
Since I mentioned scrounging, there’s something else that the movie didn’t really touch on. In the movie, it’s James Garner’s character, Lieutenant Robert Hendley, who does wonders scrounging whatever the prisoners need. He does a lot of this by making friends with Werner, one of the German guards played by Robert Graf.
By now you could probably have guessed there was no real Robert Hendley, although interestingly the actor who portrayed Hendley, James Garner, was himself a scrounger when he served in the Korean War.
Maybe one of the reasons why Hollywood changed the story was because the true story itself is quite unbelievable. In truth, there were a number of prisoners who scrounged items. And the unbelievable part is that there were also many German guards who provided the prisoners with supplies. As it turns out, there were some Germans who were susceptible to bribery, and that’s how the prisoners got maps, railroad times, civilian clothing, and even official papers that the prisoners then forged and duplicated.
So while the movie made it seem like Captain Hilts escaped on his own just so he could scout out the area to build a map when he let himself get caught, that’s not true.
As construction continued on the two remaining tunnels, Dick started to get filled up. They had to find somewhere else to hide the sand coming out of Tom and Harry. At this point it was the winter at the tail end of 1943, and the ground would frequently be covered in snow. That made it impossible to go back to scattering sand on top of the snow.
Instead, they had the idea to hide the sand inside one of the largest buildings on the compound: the theater. They unhinged one of the seats and proceeded to stuff sand under the entire seating area. Problem solved!
There’s a pivotal moment in the movie where the three Americans, Steve McQueen’s Captain Hilts, James Garner’s Hendley and Jud Taylor’s Goff, who celebrate July 4th by making moonshine for the prisoners. Everyone takes a break from tunnel-building as they celebrate. It’s during this celebration that the Germans happen upon the entrance to one of the tunnels: Tom.
While it’s true that the Germans did eventually find Tom, that’s not how it happened.
Outside the camp, World War II was raging and as the United States started to increase it’s activity in the European theater, Germans POW camps started to get more and more Americans. Stalag Luft III was no exception to this, and more and more Americans started pouring into the camp. This meant more prisoners to work on the tunnels, but it didn’t necessarily mean they’d be able to get everyone out. After all, the original plan of 200 was audacious enough.
With an increase of prisoners, this meant they could increase the work on the tunnels. But this would also prove to be their downfall. German guards knew about the “penguins”—prisoners who were carrying sand beneath their pants. They may have changed where they were dumping the sand, but they still had to carry it out from the tunnel.
The prisoners knew to look for the guards, but the Germans tried something different. They hid in the woods outside of the camp to watch where the “penguins” came from. Like a breadcrumb trail, they traced the penguins back to one specific hut. Once they were sure something was going on in this hut, the Germans barged in—this time, they found Tom.
Another aspect that’s not covered in the movie is just how many escape attempts the prisoners were trying. The movie does allude to letting some prisoners try to escape so the Germans didn’t think the prisoners weren’t try to escape. After all, the lack of escape attempts would surely put the Germans on an even higher alert.
But to put this into perspective, when the Germans found the entrance to Tom, that was the 98th tunnel they had discovered at Stalag Luft III since it was opened. Remember that even though the plan was to have 200 men escape at once in what we now know as “The Great Escape”, that was only a fraction of the prisoners in the camp. Needless to say, the prisoners were busy.
In the movie, it’s after Tom is discovered when Archibald Ives, played by Angus Lennie, cracks. He tries to use the commotion of the Germans finding the tunnel as a diversion to scale the barbed wire fence. According to the movie, he didn’t make it.
Sadly, this is true. The character of Archibald Ives was based on a man by the name of Jimmy Kiddel. While the finding of Tom may have differed, we know about the fate of Jimmy from Frank Stone, who was a prisoner at Stalag Luft III in 1943.
Frank said of how Archibald Ives dies in the film, “He was a pal of mine called Jimmy Kiddel. He really was shot like that.”
After Tom was found, the morale among the prisoners understandably was low. They had started with three tunnels and decided to scrap one after the Germans had built over their planned escape. Now they were down to just one tunnel, Harry, left undiscovered.
In the movie, after Tom is found, Richard Attenborough’s character, Roger Bartlett, says, “We dig!”
In truth, the real Roger Bushell ordered work on Harry shut down after Tom was found. They didn’t give up, of course, but they couldn’t risk it being found.
So they waited.
Months later, in January of 1944, things had settled down enough to where they felt it was safe to start working on Harry again. This isn’t depicted in the movie, either, but the date of the escape changed. After starting up work on Harry again, their target was to escape in the summer of 1944 when the weather was nicer, making it easier to cross German territories.
But soon after work resumed on the tunnel, the German Gestapo paid an unexpected visit to Stalag Luft III. They put more pressure on the Germans running the camp, and as a result the guards started looking for escape attempts more actively. To counter this, Roger decided to move the escape attempt up—after all, there was no guarantee they wouldn’t find the last tunnel.
Rather than the summer, the new date was in March of 1944. While work on the tunnel was being completed, Roger had to something Richard Attenborough’s version of the character does in the movie. Decide who goes and who stays.
It couldn’t have been easy.
The system he devised was to break up into two groups. The first group of 100 were people those who were planning the escape thought had the best chance. They included prisoners who spoke fluent German, had a history of escapes and weren’t likely to survive in the prison or those who everyone considered had worked the most on the tunnels.
The second group of 100 were luck of the draw. They drew lots to determine these 100, and included people who couldn’t speak German at all—those who everyone expected didn’t have much of a chance.
Still, some chance is better than none.
By the time Harry was ready, over 600 prisoners had worked on the three tunnels. But only 200 would be offered the chance to use them.
The movie makes it seem like they had to go on a specific day because of their forged paperwork.
That’s not really true. After the tunnel was completed and everything was ready to go, they had to wait for a moonless night. The darkness would help them make their escape. They ended up waiting for a week until, on Friday, March 24th, 1944, the night came.
Harry’s entrance was under Hut 104, so as the sun began to set the lucky 200 prisoners who would make their escape started to make their way to the hut without being seen by guards. Right away, they hit a snag. The entrance to the tunnel was frozen shut. It took them about an hour and a half before they could get the tunnel opened up.
In the movie, when they are about to escape it’s Steve McQueen’s character who breaks the ground on the exit. He pulls down a bunch of grass before realizing they’ve made a big mistake—the tunnel is too short!
This is very true. The tunnel was completed, but they didn’t make a hole on the other end until they were ready for escape. So it was when everyone was getting into one end of the tunnel when they realized on the other end that they were too short. The plan was to have the tunnel come out inside nearby woods, but they were just short of the tree line.
So just like in the movie, this put a damper on their escape plans. Instead of being able to stream 200 people through the tunnel like clockwork, they had to time their escape one at a time. They were only able to get about ten people out per hour. There’s no way they’d get 200 people out before daybreak.
Then, just like in the movie, an Allied air raid hit and the camp went dark to avoid being seen by the bombers. While the darkness helped them from being seen, the movie accurately depicts the fact that the tunnel had electric light bulbs. So when the camp went dark, so did the tunnel. To compound matters more, at about 1:00 a.m., the tunnel collapsed. So the escape was delayed as the collapsed portion was frantically repaired.
In the movie, there’s a man who is seen escaping from the tunnel by a guard and that’s how the escape is discovered.
Although the movie doesn’t make a point of counting how many made it out of the tunnel, the way in which the tunnel was discovered is true.
The escape that began around 10:00 p.m. the night before continued until 4:55 a.m. when a German guard noticed something moving outside the camp. On closer inspection, he saw a man coming out of the tunnel. Although the guards didn’t know it at the time, that was the 77th man to have escaped from the tunnel.
The tunnel was discovered, but the Germans still didn’t know where the tunnel entrance was. It was a German guard who crawled through the tunnel’s exit that ended up helping them find the entrance. Well, he ended up getting stuck and when he couldn’t make his way through he started calling for help. The prisoners knew their gig was up and felt they’d be punished even more if they didn’t help so they showed the Germans where the entrance was.
Still, 76 of the 200 men had made it out. The race was on to make their way to freedom.
In the movie, there’s an all-out search that starts once the Germans realize the extent of the escape. They start scouring the countryside as they’re looking for the escaped prisoners.
This is very much true. The prisoners from Stalag Luft III certainly didn’t know it at the time, but the mere scale of the escape threw a major wrench in the Nazi war effort at a critical time.
Thanks to the Allies eventually winning the war, we have access to a lot of documentation from the Third Reich that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Because of this we know it took a combination of police, Hitler Youth and soldiers—there were thousands called on to help find the prisoners.
This happened at the tail end of March of 1944, just a couple months before the Allies invaded on D-Day in June. While the Nazis may not have known exactly when the Allies would strike, they knew the Allies were planning a major invasion of some sort. So the diversion of thousands of troops and police away from the Nazis preparing beaches or countryside for a potential invasion was huge.
Of course, we’ll never know exactly what sort of impact this had on the outcome. We only know what the eventual outcome was.
According to the movie, over 50 of the escaped prisoners eventually get rounded up. They’re put into trucks and sent back to camp. On the way, the camera focuses on Roger Bartlett, the mastermind behind the escape, as he expresses that even though they failed he’s happy with everything. Just as the truck pulls off for a rest stop, Roger says, “I’ve never been happier.”
Then, as Roger and the rest of the prisoners are stretching their legs they turn around at the sound of the Germans setting up a machine gun. All 50 are slaughtered.
I’d really like to say this isn’t true. The only thing that isn’t true about this is how it happened. The movie sped up the timeline to make it seem like it happened right after they were caught.
In truth, the news of the escape traveled to Hitler soon after it happened. He was livid. Of the 76 men who escaped, 73 of them were caught again. They were returned to camp and Hitler wanted to murder them all—to teach a lesson to other prisoners. But he didn’t stop there. Hitler wanted Commandant von Lindeiner, the man who designed Stalag Luft III, to be executed as well. And the camp’s security officer. And all of the guards on duty at the time. Hitler wanted to kill them all!
It was Hermann Göring talked Hitler out of the murderous idea. He convinced Hitler it would violate the Geneva Conventions, which is interesting considering the other murderous acts Nazis are known for doing throughout the war. Still, Hitler decided not to kill them all.
Of course, Commandant von Lindeiner was replaced.
On April 6th, 1944, the new camp Commandant, Erich Cordes, announced to the Senior British Officer at the camp that 41 of the prisoners were shot while resisting arrest. Nine more were also murdered for similar reasons. 50 of the 73 of the prisoners who had been re-captured were dead a few days after the escape. Of the remaining escapees, 17 stayed at Stalag Luft III for the duration of the war. Four were sent to a concentration camp in Sachsenhausen where, a few months later, they tunneled out of that camp. But they were caught and returned. The final two sent to another camp to the south, Oflag IV-C Colditz.
In the end, the movie accurately depicts the result of The Great Escape. The original plan was to have 200 people escape, but only 76 made it out. Of those 76, only three actually avoided being recaptured and made it back to Britain.
The final scene in the movie is Steve McQueen, Captain Hilts, being thrown back into the cooler for his part in the escape. It’s something we see happen a lot in the movie as Hilts earns the nickname “The Cooler King”.
As we learned earlier, Captain Hilts was an amalgamation of three people. But one of those men was William Ash, and William was the original “Cooler King”. He wasn’t a biker—that whole scene at the end where Steve McQueen runs into the barbed wire fence before getting caught was made up for the movie, it was something Steve McQueen wanted to add because of his love of riding—but William was even more feisty than Captain Hilts on screen and was sent to the cooler countless times for the dozens of escape attempts on his record.
After the escape, the Germans took an inventory of the camp. Again, because of access to Third Reich documentation we’re able to know what this inventory turned up. Over 4,000 bed boards were missing. 90 bunk beds had simply disappeared along with 1,212 bed bolsters, 635 mattresses, 192 sheets, 1,700 blankets, and 161 pillow cases. But that wasn’t all that had disappeared.
52 large 20-man wooden tables, 10 single tables, 34 chairs, 76 benches, 1,370 beading battens, 1,219 knives, 478 spoons, 582 forks, 69 lamps, 246 water cans, 3,424 towels, 600 feet of rope and over 1,000 feet of electric wiring.
For all of this? The Gestapo executed the guards who had not reported the disappearances. And from then on, prisoners were only given nine boards for their bed—and the guards made a point of counting them daily.