24 March 1944

Stammlager Luft III prison in Province of East Silesia, World War II. (Muzeum Obózow Jenieckich W Żaganiu)
Stammlager Luft III prison in Province of East Silesia, World War II. (Muzeum Obózow Jenieckich W Żaganiu)

24 March 1944: At about 2230 hours, the first of 76 Allied prisoners of war interred at Stammlager Luft III (Stalag Luft III) began to escape through a 30-foot-deep (9 meters), 320-foot-long (98 meters) tunnel, code-named “Harry.”

The prison, located just south of Sagan (Żagań) in East Silesia (now a part of Poland) was specially constructed to house captured Royal Air Force and other Allied airmen, and was controlled by the German air force, the Luftwaffe. Prior to this escape, the German captors had discovered at least 98 tunnels at the prison.

A drawing showing the proposed route of one of the escape tunnels, by wartime artist Ley Kenyon, a prisoner-of-war in Stalag Luft III at the time of the Great Escape in March 1944 [Picture: from the original drawings of Ley Kenyon 1943] (GOV.UK)
A drawing showing the proposed route of one of the escape tunnels, by wartime artist Ley Kenyon, a prisoner-of-war in Stalag Luft III at the time of the Great Escape in March 1944 [Picture: from the original drawings of Ley Kenyon 1943] (© Crown copyright)
The weather was the coldest in thirty years and five feet of snow lay on the ground. The last escapee left the tunnel at 0455, 25 March. Of the 76 prisoners who escaped, 73 were soon recaptured, and of those, 50 were murdered by the Gestapo.

Popularly known as “The Great Escape,” this was the subject of a 1950 book, The Great Escape, by Paul Brickhill, who was a POW at the prison. His book was adapted into a very popular motion picture, “The Great Escape,” in 1963.

Squadron Leader Thomas Gresham Kirby-Green, RAF, and Flight Lieutenant Gordon Arthur Kidder, RCAF, were murdered by Gestapo agents near Zlín, Moravia, 29 March 1944. (This photograph may be of a reconstruction by the RAF Special Investigations Branch, circa 1946)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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11 thoughts on “24 March 1944

  1. I’ve got a funny story to share. Unlike the POWs in Germany, the civilian internees in Kobe couldn’t “escape.” They jumped camp to forage for food and buy/trade on the black market, but as one former POW told me, “there was no point in escaping. Japan is an island. You go 50 yards, there’s a Japanese. You go another 100 yards, there’s more Japanese. Obviously, you’re NOT Japanese, so what’s the point.” 😉

    LOVE this site… looking forward to more B-314 Clipper and B-29 days !!! 🙂

  2. This is a “mixed bag” … total elation and admiration for the escapees! What an incredible achievement! On the other hand there is such disgust, revulsion and loathing for the German armed forces for how savagely they treated POW’s; and all their camp inmates actually!

    Such a contrast to the Italian POW’s from the North African campaign (Abyssinia and Ethiopia) in WWII … my uncle had 6-8 of them working om his sugar cane farm in Zululand, South Africa. They lived with the family and had all their meals in the home’s dining room! He said everyone in the local village loved them for the great singing concerts they gave in the village hall!

    My uncle actually employed one of them, A Captain Giovanni Lo Celo after the war as one of his farm managers. Mr. Lo Celo loved Zululand and did not want to go home!

  3. The three who made it to freedom were two Norwegians and a Dutchman who got back to England and carried on the fight. Anyone know their story ?

  4. Those who like this story should also read Moonless Night by Bertram Arthur “Jimmy” James. He was one of the 73 recaptured officers who escaped execution. Along with two other Great Escapers and another British officer he even escaped via tunnel from a concentration camp.

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