Tunnels dug by British prisoners during the Second World War and made famous in the 1963 Hollywood film The Great Escape have been explored for the first time since they were used almost 70 years ago.
A team of archaeologists, engineers and former and current RAF servicemen spent several weeks replicating the audacious breakout by digging a tunnel similar to those used by Allied forces to break out of the supposedly escape-proof Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp. Their exploits will feature in a Channel 4 documentary.
The original escape, which inspired several films including The Wooden Horse, saw scores of Allied servicemen burrow beneath their prison in narrow and claustrophobic tunnels over the course a year.
On a cold night in March 1944, after a series of failed attempts, the prisoners finally made a bid for freedom. Dozens were captured immediately or caught later attempting to flee the country. Around 50 of those recaptured were executed, in contravention of international law.
The escapees' artefacts, which had lain buried in the tunnels for more than 70 years, were recovered by the archaeologists.
The four tunnels were given nicknames – Tom, Dick, Harry and George – by the PoW escape committees. One of the most important finds – a home-made radio –was unearthed in the partially completed George tunnel. An attempt last August to re-excavate Harry – the most famous of the four tunnels and the route for the main escape effort – was abandoned when it became apparent that it could collapse.
There is also a suggestion the Nazis – who immediately filled the tunnel when it was discovered – had packed it with explosives.
Other objects found included ventilation pipes made from empty tin cans and part of the "railway" track used by the prisoners to travel along the tunnels as they dug.
Channel 4's team – made up of engineers, historians archaeologists and current and former RAF airmen – also re-created many of the ingenious devices and processes used in the escape. These included making compasses from gramophone styluses and treading tonnes of sand from the tunnels into the earth around the camp – all done under the noses of German guards.
Several surviving Second World War airmen joined the project. Air Commodore Charles Clarke, 88, from 619 Squadron, said it was an "emotional" moment revisiting the site: "I've been back a number of times, but it's always emotional. We had doubts in our own mind as to whether it was right to open the tunnels up."
Despite The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen, taking many liberties with the truth, Mr Clarke is full of admiration for it. "People often ask me about it. Of course, there weren't as many peaked caps and not as much saluting – and obviously the motorcyclist [McQueen's famous fence-jumping stunt] wasn't there. But, without the film, who would remember the 50 who were murdered?"
Digging the Great Escape will be broadcast on Channel 4 next month