The greatest escape of all

Hollywood hypes heroism, especially in wartime films. But deep in a forest in Poland, the story of the adventurers behind the real Great Escape lies hidden. Simon Calder tracks down Stalag Luft III

Everything has changed, starting with that most basic of concepts: nationality. Sixty years ago, the town of Sagan was located deep in Germany. Today, it is known as Zagan, and lies firmly within Poland. Few visitors stray into this small, pretty settlement at a crook in the Bobr river. Remnants of imperial architecture, including an elaborate Palace of Culture, whisper of better times before this part of Upper Silesia found itself in the path of military conflict. No doubt some residents of Duns in the Scottish Borders, with which Zagan is twinned, come here on exchange visits. But on a bright, chilly Saturday at the bitter end of September, I appear to be the only tourist in town.

Everything has changed, starting with that most basic of concepts: nationality. Sixty years ago, the town of Sagan was located deep in Germany. Today, it is known as Zagan, and lies firmly within Poland. Few visitors stray into this small, pretty settlement at a crook in the Bobr river. Remnants of imperial architecture, including an elaborate Palace of Culture, whisper of better times before this part of Upper Silesia found itself in the path of military conflict. No doubt some residents of Duns in the Scottish Borders, with which Zagan is twinned, come here on exchange visits. But on a bright, chilly Saturday at the bitter end of September, I appear to be the only tourist in town.

The vacant railway station is absurdly large for its 21st-century schedule. Half a dozen platforms indicate that this was once an important junction on the Prussian railway network, astride the line from Berlin to Breslau - present-day Wroclaw. Today, though, only two trains a day rumble through from the German capital.

South from the station, the countryside has blossomed into a fresh, young forest, but nature has yet to consume one of the strangest stories of the Second World War. That of a group of Allied airmen incarcerated for the duration of the conflict who created an escape route of profound ingenuity and audacity.

Nazi Germany did not ignore every obligation of international treaties. The Luftwaffe prided itself on its treatment of captured officers from Allied air forces and its commanders applied the principles of the Geneva Convention more thoroughly than their counterparts in the army and navy. They were also given responsibility for incarcerating captured aviators. In 1942 a prisoner-of-war camp specifically for officers was built on the southern edge of Sagan. The name of this Stammlager ("permanent camp") was abbreviated to Stalag Luft III. It was a good location: the flat, sandy soil lent itself to the rapid construction of secure quarters; in the unlikely event of a successful escape there were no substantial military or industrial targets nearby; and reaching either of the most accessible neutral countries, Sweden and Switzerland, was difficult and dangerous.

Zagan has seen more than its share of death and despair. Two centuries ago, Napoleon's troops retreated through here after their Russian misadventure. A small military cemetery is filled with those who died during the long retreat. Beyond it, just off a road whose name translates as Allied Airmen Street, you find a monument to more recent casualties. A skeletal stone figure crouches beneath a memorial to the thousands of captives who arrived, suffered and died at Stalag VIIIC - the much larger and more cruelly run camp adjacent to Stalag Luft III. Tens of thousands of Polish and French prisoners were sent here as forced labour, and many of them perished through harsh treatment, disease and the bitter Silesian winters.

Little evidence remains of either camp; the watchtowers, fences and huts were torn down after they were abandoned by the conquering Red Army. Only a few traces of rubble testify to the buildings that last served a useful purpose six decades ago. Even with the help of a map it is difficult to detect where the camp boundary ended - and where Stalag Luft III, the place I sought, began.

This prison was a different breed to the standard POW camp. It was run by the Luftwaffe for the express purpose of preventing Allied airmen playing any further part in the war. The British, Canadian and Polish pilots held captive here had already survived a brush with death; most had crash-landed or parachuted from mortally wounded aircraft. In this war of the air, pilots comprised the most valuable human currency. Naturally, the Luftwaffe did everything it could to stop them getting back into the game.

Today, the site has been repopulated by nature, with a profusion of silver birches standing as straight as sentries. Judging from the empty beer cans and bottles, it serves as a picnic spot for the locals. It is also a stop along a hiking trail laid out by the local council, waymarked with symbols of barbed wire on a background of red.

The small, empty Museum of Martyrology on one side of the site paints a curiously bland picture of life inside the camp. A Lego-style model of Stalag Luft III makes it look positively suburban. Like other camps, it had its own currency - Lagergeld. This was a further counter-escape measure, because any escapee would need German Marks, not funny money.

As the war wore on and Nazi fortunes waned, life inside the fence worsened. For some prisoners, reaching the outside - even though it was still enemy territory - became an obsession; the brief for their captors was to prevent escapes at any cost. The ensuing game of cat-and-mouse was portrayed in the 1963 film The Great Escape. Two standard techniques for escaping - climbing the fence, or walking out in disguise - were rendered impossible by the meticulous precautions of the guards. That left tunnelling, a possibility that the prison staff were well aware of. The huts were built over 300 feet from the perimeter fence, considered to be an impossibly long distance for men to dig unaided. Yet this and many other problems were solved dramatically in an escape bid run as the military operation it was.

The man in charge was Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, a Spitfire pilot who had been shot down over France in 1940. He commanded the Luft III Escape Organisation, and managed a ragged group of officers to prepare a break-out attempt.

The first problem was how to dig a 350ft-long tunnel with bare hands and only the most basic of tools, under the noses of hundreds of well-armed guards who were intent on stopping any jailbreak. The whole complex was designed to defy escape. Huts were raised above ground level, so that any attempts to dig would be detected. But the stoves that heated the huts were set on concrete plinths, which was where the tunnelling was focused.

The first stage was to dig a vertical shaft, 30 feet down, which was considered deep enough to avoid disturbing the surface. From here, the tunnellers dug north, their work illuminated by lanterns fuelled by animal fat. The lack of oxygen would have rendered digging almost impossible; so an elaborate air pump was expertly constructed from material scavenged from within the prison, keeping the flame and the tunneller alive. Bed boards were used to shore up the tunnel.

The further they dug, the trickier became the task of disposing of the spoil hacked out of the ground. The debris was carried out in wagons on a makeshift railway, with blankets used to deaden the noise. The sand - which weighed in at an estimated 200 tons once the tunnel was complete - was spirited away, concealed in the prisoners' trousers until it could be safely jettisoned.

DIY does not come more heroic than this. After 11 months, during which the tide of the war had turned firmly to the Allies, the tunnel had reached beyond the perimeter fence. It was time to leave. The survival kits were assigned: forged papers, food rations and sketch maps. Compasses were fashioned from magnetised fragments of razor blades.

On the night of 24 March 1944, dozens of airmen squeezed into the tunnel, scurried urgently north and clambered out into an icy night. By the time 76 had escaped, a sentry discovered the tunnel exit; four prisoners were arrested before they could flee.

Sixty years on, visitors can at last appreciate the scale of their heroism. This year, the course of the tunnel has been marked along the ground, with a section of fence to show where the perimeter lay. At the far end, memorial stones mark the tunnel exit. But most of those who emerged into that bitter night faced death, not liberty.

Hollywood and history deviate at the moment of escape. In the movie, Steve McQueen performs implausible stunts to try to evade capture. In reality, many of the 76 were rounded up within a few miles of Stalag Luft III. Only three made it home.

Hitler was furious when he learned of the escape. He dealt brutally with the staff of the camp, and ordered all the airmen who were recaptured to be executed. His officers - some of whom were themselves plotting the assassination of the Führer - persuaded him to spare some, but he decreed that 50 must be shot.

In January and February 1945 as the Red Army closed in, the Wehrmacht ordered the camp records to be burned. The museum includes a whip said to have been used by the guards supervising the destruction, and also contains elaborate sketches of the tunnel made by Flight Lieutenant Ley Kenyon, which have miraculously survived and depict an inspired operation. The escape from Stalag Luft III has become a part of modern British folklore - to the point where, last year, the UK's biggest travel agency, Lunn Poly, used the music from "The Great Escape" in an ad campaign that featured holidaymakers on a break for freedom. "Everyone's getting away", it promised.

If only. Upper Silesia in the gloom of autumn stops well short of being an idyll, but is a powerful monument to the human spirit. As the day dissolved, I stood in silence, awed by creativity and courage of men who craved freedom.

SURVIVAL TIPS

GETTING THERE

The easiest way to reach Zagan is to fly to Schönefeld airport in east Berlin on easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com) from Luton or Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted. Trains connect the airport with Ostbahnhof, from where there are two services a day to Zagan. The timings are tricky (departures are mid-morning and mid-evening), but other public transport is thin on the ground.

EXPLORING

The Museum of Martyrology is open 10am-4pm daily (until 5pm at weekends); admission is by donation. The memorial site is open to visitors at all times, but be warned that the heathland nearby is used by the Polish Army for training.

ESCAPE PLANS

The "Great Escapes" exhibition will open at the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth Road, London SE1 (020-7416 5320; www.iwm.org.uk), next Thursday, 14 October. It opens 10am-6pm daily; admission to the main collection is free, while the exhibition has an admission charge of £6 (children free).

An initiative based in Calgary, Canada, aims to remember the 50 airmen killed by the Nazis. See www.thegreatescapememorialproject.com

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