THE WOODEN vaulting horse built by Roger Maw in the German prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft III is one of the enduring icons of the Second World War. The horse was used to facilitate and disguise the digging of a tunnel close to the camp's perimeter fence through which three of Maw's fellow prisoners - Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpott, Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams and Lieutenant Michael Codner - escaped in October 1943. Eric Williams's account of the escape was published in 1949 and made into a film, directed by Jack Lee and starring Anthony Steele, in the following year.
Maw had been a prisoner at Stalag Luft III for a year when Philpott, Williams and Codner approached him to help in their tunnelling scheme. He had been shot down in the Western Desert in August 1942 while leading a bombing attack on Tobruk by 108 Squadron. By then he had been a serving officer with the RAF for 15 years, serving in India and as an instructor at No 3 Flying School before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Stalag Luft III, 100 miles south-east of Berlin, held nearly 4,000 Allied air force prisoners, and was a notoriously secure camp. The 'wooden horse' scheme was particularly daring as, in the previous summer, the Germans had discovered between 45 and 60 tunnels started by prisoners directly under their barrack blocks.
The camp's carpenter had initially been invited to make the horse. He declined, and when Williams visited Maw in his room - the special privilege of a wing commander - to ask him to join the scheme, he found him constructing an under-floor air-conditioning system made up of a plywood fan linked by a belt and pulley to a hand-wound gramophone player.
In his room Maw had concealed his own set of tools. He built the vaulting horse hollow, to hold a maximum of three men; it was light but strong, constructed out of pieces of wood stolen on the camp and three-ply from Canadian Red Cross boxes, measured 5ft by 3ft at the base and was 4ft 6in tall. Starting on 8 July 1943, the horse was carried - with one of the tunnellers concealed inside - on to the parade ground by four men and placed on an open piece of ground close to the wire, overlooked by a raised sentry box.
Before and during a carefully staged vaulting class, the concealed man would open up the trap at the head of the tunnel and dig away at the soil, filling 12 bags (made from trouser-legs cut off below the knee) with sand and hanging them inside the horse. He then closed the trap, covering it over to match the surrounding surface, before squeezing into one end of the horse, and being carried off to the canteen building where the horse was housed. The sand was disposed of largely over the canteen roof and in a space under the barber's shop in the canteen. The total length of the tunnel was 100ft, with an exit 15ft outside the perimeter wire.
On 29 October Codner was sealed into the tunnel in the early afternoon, while Williams and Philpott were filled in by a third prisoner on a second journey by the horse three hours' later. At 6pm the three men completed the tunnel and made good their escape.
After the war Maw left the RAF and returned to his native Lincolnshire, where he farmed at Welton before retiring to Walesby.
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