Poland

The Great Escape: Stalag Luft III in Żagań

29 Jun 2017

Found some 170km southwest of Poznań, and 160km northwest of Wrocław, the town of Żagań was the site of one of the most celebrated prison breakouts of all time.

Immortalised in the 1963 Hollywood blockbuster The Great Escape, the daring break from the Nazi prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft III has since been ingrained into English and Commonwealth culture. Opened in 1942 outside the German town of Sagan (now Polish 'Żagań'), the camp was designed to hold thousands of captured allied airmen, including the most persistent escapees inside the Reich’s network of prisons. Undeterred by tight security a hardcore band of 250 POWs, led by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, planned to tunnel out of the complex before setting off independently for neutral territory. Even though the chances of success were slim, Bushell hoped that the very notion of 250 allied airmen loose inside the Third Reich would be enough to create an internal security headache, hence diverting important Nazi military resources.

Having assembled a team of forgers, craftsmen, tailors and engineers, Bushell’s ‘escape committee’ spent months building a trio of tunnels, all the time averting detection in what was to become a game of cat and mouse with the camp guards. Using improvised materials as diverse as tables, water cans and spoons, the men created tunnels that were a triumph of ingenuity. Prisoners moved underground on trolleys, having entered through a concealed access point in a shower drain. The tunnels were fitted with electric light, ventilated by air pumps and shored up using approximately 4,000 bed boards stolen from around the camp.

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