The Big Question: What's the truth behind the fate that befell the prisoners of Stalag Luft III?

Why are we asking this now?

In January 1945, some 10,000 Allied prisoners of war were evacuated from the prison where the escape made famous in the film The Great Escape had taken place the year before. They were forced on a trek west on Hitler's orders to escape the Russians to the east. This week, veterans of the so-called Long March, and their relatives, are to recreate their ordeal as a training exercise in survival for today's young RAF softies, whom they suspect of being insufficiently schooled in the rigours of getting back to Blighty through a hostile environment in a harsh winter. The escape officer is Dr Howard Tuck, a Cambridge historian, born long after the end of real hostilities.



What's Dr Tuck's battle plan?

To capture the bitter flavour of the decision by senior Nazi officers to round up the Allied prisoners in Stalag Luft III camp in western Silesia, near the present-day Polish town of Zagan, and march them 1,000 miles west out of the clutches of the fast-advancing Red Army with no food, no hats, no gloves, and with winter temperatures approaching -25C. The prisoners' desire to be left in their beds and await Russian liberation was ignored. The German High Command, until now well-disposed towards Allied prisoners, was verging on panic and in no mood to listen.



Did the prisoners appreciate the gesture?

Not much. Hundreds died from frostbite, dysentery and diphtheria on the march. As they passed through the German countryside some villagers offered them bread and water, others threw stones at them. With defeat about to envelop the Reich, their guards fared little better. For many POWs it was an unnecessary privation; the Red Army liberated them anyway in the end after the weary, starving column had been split up and dissipated across Germany. One survivor wrote: "Much has been written about privation. You just followed the footsteps of the man in front of you, and looked after the man behind if you could."



How did they know what was happening?

As the war drew to its close and German camp guards began to sense defeat, they allowed prisoners to listen to the BBC – and listen to it themselves – to learn of the Russian advance through eastern Europe.

Why didn't the Germans leave them to their fate?

Part code of honour among officers, part fear the prisoners would gang up with the Slavic horde from the East. Around 2,000 Allied POWs died in similar forced marches away from camps towards an imagined Western safety.



What was so memorable about Stalag Luft III?

Any cinema goer knows it well, as the setting of two evergreen war films, The Wooden Horse (jolly dashed British) and The Great Escape (Hollywood's doubtful take on history, with its famous scene of Steve McQueen leaping the barbed wire on his motorbike). Established in 1942, the camp was intended as escape-proof detention for captured Allied air force officers. It didn't stop the boys trying. Paul Brickhill, author of the book on which the latter film was based, was a real-life POW in Stalag Luft III, although he admitted himself that he had slightly "novelised" the story.



Why didn't the prisoners just sit out the war in safety?

According to the Geneva Convention (which the Nazis to some extent abided by) it is the duty of every POW to try to escape. Even at Colditz, the last refuge of incorrigible escapees, there were 310 attempts at escape, 32 of them successful. Escape remained largely the province of the officer class; for many enlisted men captured in battle or when their aircraft went down, the greeting "For you the war is over" was music to their ears. They knew that the Germans were a basically civilised lot, and that with luck they would be reasonably treated and, at least, kept alive.



How did the Germans look on escape attempts?

Not unkindly, for a while; it was all part of that military officer-class code of conduct. But Hitler and his henchmen grew weary of having to divert so many resources to recapturing those spirited Allies desperate to get home. After the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III in 1944, hundreds of troops, policemen and members of ther Hitler Youth were deployed to round up the escapees. The Führer, infuriated by the use of so many of his precious and dwindling resources, personally ordered the execution of 50 of the 73 recaptured. Andy Wiseman, one of the Long March veterans, said yesterday: "Until then, escape was a game. You escaped, you got caught, you came back, your friends waved and cheered you up. You went into solitary confinement, you came out, you got more cheers and you planned the next escape."



So what happened that night?

Three tunnels named Tom, Dick and Harry had been dug over many months in conditions of great difficulty. The underlying sand was of an entirely different colour to the topsoil, one of the reasons the Germans chose the location. Great ingenuity was employed in disposing of the soil, almost 100 tons being concealed in trouser legs and carefully shaken around the camp. The prisoners who did this vital work were known as "penguins". More soil was hidden in Red Cross food boxes, and some POWs basked on spread-out blankets knowing they were concealing what amounted to a beach. One tunnel was discovered and another, although 330 feet long, was 10 feet short of the safety of the surrounding woods. Two hundred men were supposed to escape, but the camp guards interrupted the exploit. Seventy-six men got through. Three made it home; of the remainder, 23 were sent to solitary confinement, and 50 were executed, including escape committee leader Squadron Leader Roger Bushell. Until then relations between the POWs and the camp commandant had been almost cordial; he was subsequently court-martialled for allowing the escape attempt to happen.



Did many Allies make it home?

There are no definite figures, but it is estimated that during the course of the war in Europe some 35,000 Allied servicemen, either imprisoned or trapped in enemy territory, made it back to the safety of their own lines, or into neutral territories like Spain, Sweden or Switzerland. While the Germans drove many prisoners west to escape the Russians' advance, they sadly showed no such consideration to the internees of the concentration camps.

Is The Great Escape just a load of old American hokum?

Yes

*Hundreds of captured US airmen were in Stalag Luft III, many of whom helped dig the tunnels, but none was chosen for the escape



* Steve McQueen insisted on a motorcycle, though none was involved in the real breakout



*The escape attempt was hardly glamorous, and it didn't happen in full Technicolor daylight

No

*The film's account of how the tunnels were dug is largely authentic, according to those who were there and advised on the production



*The scene showing a POW machine-gunned as he tried to scale the barbed wire really did happen



*Donald Pleasence, ("The Forger") was indeed shot down, and spent a year in POW camp Stalag Luft 1

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence