In the 1963 film The Great Escape, directed by John Sturges, is based on the true story of how the Allied servicemen escaped Stalag Luft III and is perhaps one of the most audacious prisoners of war break out in the history of World War II. It was based on the 1950s book of the same name written by Paul Brickhill on his firsthand account of when the British Commonwealth POWs escaped from the German POW camp in Zagan, Poland. Did you know the Germans had their own version of The Great Escape when they attempted to escape captivity on Island Farm.
By 1944, Hitler’s whole Third Reich thing began to collapse right before his eyes as the Allied forces pressed in from the East, West and South. As the number of captured Germans skyrocketed, Britain needed more places to house these POWs that were just about spilling over the fences of the camps they had so far.
Before the Nazis were captured, Camp 198 on Island Farm, situated just outside of Bridgend in South Wales, was originally built as a temporary home for women who were hired at the local munition factory. During D-Day, it housed American troops as they prepared for the invasion of Europe. Soon, the War Office declared Camp 198 a prison exclusively for German officers. In November of that same year, the first batch of the POWs arrived at the local train station, singing as they marched toward their new home as if they were going to summer camp. Actually, they had a lot to be happy about. The Germans knew they would be well treated in the camp and their war was over, they would survive the war and live to go home, unlike millions of their comrades.
Escaping the Barbed Fence
All soldiers held as POWs have a duty to escape and some Germans in the camp took that seriously. Soon enough, they began digging their tunnels. It was a common thing during the war that prisoners would dig more than one tunnel simultaneously so that they had Plan B or maybe C in case one of them was discovered, and that’s what the Germans did. One of the tunnels was discovered in January 1945, and the camp guards, perhaps not aware of the golden tunnel prison rule, did not attempt to search for more.
The second tunnel was undetected. The prisoners started the entrance of this tunnel under a bed in Hut 9, which was around four to five feet deep and three feet wide. It ran under the concrete path for around 30 to 40 feet, extending into a field beyond the barbed-wired walls of the camp.
They had to make makeshift digging tools to start with. And so they got their bunk beds and took the pieces of wood from the bed legs. To not raise any suspicion and for the guards to not notice the inconsistent height of their beds, they cut all of them to the same height. A choir was formed in an adjacent hut and asked them to sing to drown out the sound once they started digging.
The soil beneath their hut was made of clay and was harder to dig into. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why the tunnel was not too deep. Now, the next problem was where to hide the bright orange clay that they were taking out as they dug deep. Their solution was to build a fake wall inside Hut 9 and blend it into the surrounding brickwork. They would form the excavated clay into balls and hide them in the cavity behind their false wall through a fake air vent. It wasn’t until the 1980s that this was discovered when their made-up wall collapsed and spilled the balls of clay out.
Once the tunnel was too deep for the Germans to breathe properly, they provided ventilation below by connecting together cans of condensed milk that served as a tube that ran down into the tunnel. They also created a makeshift bellow that one of them was tasked to operate. The POWs also managed to sneak electric lighting into their escape hole that came from the main supply. This was the same thing that they used to warn their fellow prisoners during the escape: lights off in the tunnel meant the coast was not clear.
To make sure that their tunnel would go past the fence, a prisoner would go at the end of the tunnel and poke a hole through until it reached the soil above. He would then blow a cloud of cigarette smoke through that hole so the prisoners above could see and confirm if the smoke was already coming beyond the fence or not.
The last thing that they needed to secure was their fake identity papers if ever they successfully escaped. They decided they would pose as Norwegian engineers. As their target day approached, they provided each of their small groups with an improvised compass, a map, and food supplies.
The Great Escape Attempt
The night of March 10, 1945, approached, and the Germans were ready to crawl into their freedom route. They lined up the tunnel with clothes to make sure they would not exit covered in mud. The choir adjacent broke into a song like they were in some musical film to distract the prison guards. They also made sure that the guard dogs wouldn’t trace their smell by spreading curry powder on the ground.
Seventy men painstakingly crawled and successfully made it to the other side of the fence before one of the British guards noticed the fewer POWs and sounded the alarm at 4 am. Fourteen of the escapees were immediately recaptured. The others were rounded up within a few miles away. There were some who made it as far as Birmingham, Swansea, and even Southampton, but in the end, all the 70 escapees were captured, and back in prison they went.
After three weeks, all German officers were transferred out as they waited for their trial at Nuremberg. As for the camp, it was closed in 1948 after all the prisoners went back to Germany. In the 1990s, it was finally demolished, although Hut 9 was left out.