Stalag Luft III and Its “Great Escape” Tunnel: An Archaelogical Treasure

The Great Escape Tunnel

Untouched for almost seven decades, the tunnel used in the Great Escape has finally been unearthed. The 111-yard passage nicknamed ‘Harry’ by Allied prisoners was sealed by the Germans after the audacious break-out from the POW camp Stalag Luft III in western Poland. Despite huge interest in the subject, encouraged by the film starring Steve McQueen, the tunnel undisturbed over the decades because it was behind the Iron Curtain and the Soviet had no interest in its significance.

But at last British archaeologists have excavated it and discovered its remarkable secrets. Many of the bed boards which had been joined together to stop it collapsing were still in position. And the ventilation shaft, ingeniously crafted from used powdered milk containers known as Klim Tins, remained in working order.  Scattered throughout the tunnel, which is 30ft below ground, were bits of old metal buckets, hammers and crowbars which were used to hollow out the route.

A total of 600 prisoners worked on three tunnels at the same time. They were nicknamed Tom, Dick and Harry and were just 2 ft. square for most of their length. It was on the night of March 24 and 25, 1944, that 76 Allied airmen escaped through Harry.

Barely a third of the 200 prisoners, many in fake German uniforms and civilian outfits and carrying false identity papers, who were meant to slip away managed to leave before the alarm was raised when escapee number 77 was spotted.

  Tunnel vision: A tunnel reconstruction showing the trolley system.  

Only three made it back to Britain. Another 50 were executed by firing squad on the orders of Adolf Hitler, who was furious after learning of the breach of security.  In all, 90 boards from bunk beds, 62 tables, 34 chairs and 76 benches, as well as thousands of items including knives, spoons, forks, towels and blankets, were squirreled away by the Allied prisoners to aid the escape plan under the noses of their captors.

Although the Hollywood movie suggested otherwise, NO Americans were involved in the operation. Most were British, and the others were from Canada, (all the tunnelers were Canadian personnel with backgrounds in mining) Poland, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa.

The site of the tunnel, recently excavated by British archaeologists      

The latest dig, over three weeks in August, located the entrance to Harry, which was originally concealed under a stove in Hut 104. The team also found another tunnel, called George, whose exact position had not been charted. It was never used as the 2,000 prisoners were forced to march to other camps as the Red Army approached in January 1945.

Watching the excavation was Gordie King, 91, an RAF radio operator, who was 140th in line to use Harry and therefore missed out. ‘This brings back such bitter-sweet memories’, he said as he wiped away tears. ‘I’m amazed by what they’ve found. ’ 

Gordie King, 91, made an emotional return to Stalag Luft III.  

In a related post:  

Many of the recent generations have no true notion of the cost in lives and treasure that were paid for the liberties that we enjoy in this United States.  They also have no idea in respect of the lengths that the “greatest generation” went to in order to preserve those liberties. Below is one true, small and entertaining story regarding those measures that are well worth reading, even if the only thing derived from the story is entertainment.

Escape from WWII POW Camps — starting in 1940, an increasing number of British and Canadian Airmen found themselves as the involuntary guests of the Third Reich, and the Crown was casting about for ways and means to facilitate their escape.

Now obviously, one of the most helpful aids to that end is a useful and accurate map, one showing not only where stuff was, but also showing the locations of ‘safe houses’ where a POW on-the-lam could go for food and shelter.   Paper maps had some real drawbacks — they make a lot of noise when you open and fold them, they wear out rapidly, and if they get wet, they turn into mush. Someone in MI-5 (similar to America’s OSS) got the idea of printing escape maps on silk. It’s durable, can be scrunched-up into tiny wads and, unfolded as many times as needed and, makes no noise whatsoever.

At that time, there was only one manufacturer in Great Britain that had perfected the technology of printing on silk, and that was John Waddington Ltd When approached by the government, the firm was only too happy to do its bit for the war effort. By pure coincidence, Waddington was also the U.K. Licensee for the popular American board game Monopoly. As it happened, ‘games and pastimes’ was a category of item qualified for insertion into ‘CARE packages’, dispatched by the International Red Cross to prisoners of war.

Under the strictest of secrecy, in a securely guarded and inaccessible old workshop on the grounds of Waddington’s, a group of sworn-to-secrecy employees began mass-producing escape maps, keyed to each region of Germany, Italy, and France or wherever Allied POW camps were located. When processed, these maps could be folded into such tiny dots that they would actually fit inside a Monopoly playing piece.

As long as they were at it, the clever workmen at Waddington’s also managed to add:

1 A playing token, containing a small magnetic compass.

  1. A two-part metal file that could easily be screwed together
  2. Useful amounts of genuine high-denomination German, Italian, and French currency, hidden within the piles of Monopoly money!

British and American air crews were advised, before taking off on their first mission, how to identify a ‘rigged’ Monopoly set – by means of a tiny red dot, one cleverly rigged to look like an ordinary printing glitch, located in the corner of the Free Parking square. Of the estimated 35,000 Allied POWS who successfully escaped, an estimated one-third were aided in their flight by the rigged Monopoly sets. Everyone who did so was sworn to secrecy indefinitely, since the British Government might want to use this highly successful ruse in still another, future war.

The story wasn’t declassified until 2007, when the surviving craftsmen from Waddington’s, as well as the firm itself, were finally honored in a public ceremony.

It’s always nice when you can play that ‘Get Out of Jail’ Free’ card!  Some readers of this email are probably too young to have any personal connection to WWII (Sep. ’39 to Aug. ’45), but this is still an interesting bit of history for everyone to know.


MEMORABILIA for THOSE OLD ENOUGH: Steve Macqueen and The Film “The Great Escape” ….

The Great Escape is a 1963 American epic adventure suspense war film starring Steve McQueenJames Garner and Richard Attenborough and featuring James DonaldCharles BronsonDonald PleasenceJames CoburnHannes MessemerDavid McCallumGordon JacksonJohn Leyton and Angus Lennie. It was filmed in Panavision.

The film is based on Paul Brickhill‘s 1950 non-fiction book of the same name, a firsthand account of the mass escape by British Commonwealth prisoners of war from German POW camp Stalag Luft III in Sagan (now Żagań, Poland), in the Nazi Germany province of Lower Silesia. The film depicts a heavily fictionalized version of the escape, with numerous compromises for its commercial appeal, such as focusing more on American involvement in the escape.

The Great Escape was made by The Mirisch Company, released by United Artists, and produced and directed by John Sturges. The film had its Royal World Premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square in London’s West End on 20 June 1963.[2] The Great Escape emerged as one of the highest-grossing films of the year, winning McQueen the award for Best Actor at the Moscow International Film Festival,[3] and is now considered a classic.[4] The Great Escape is also noted for its motorcycle chase and jump scene, which is considered one of the best stunts ever performed.[5][6][7]


In late 1942, having expended enormous resources on recapturing escaped Allied POWs, the Nazi German armed forces move the most determined to Stalag Luft III, a new, high-security prisoner-of-war camp supervised by Luftwaffe Colonel von Luger. The prisoners’ escape committee, the “X” Organization, led by RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, “Big X”, a former prisoner of the Gestapo, and with the approval of senior British officer Group Captain Ramsey, ‘The SBO’, mount an audacious plan to tunnel out of the camp and break out 250 men, not just to escape, but so that as many troops and resources as possible will be wasted on finding POWs. The men organize into teams, simultaneously working on three tunnels – named “Tom”, “Dick”, and “Harry”American Flight Lieutenant Bob Hendley is “the scrounger” and blackmailer, who finds anything from a camera to identity cards. Australian Flying Officer Sedgwick, “the manufacturer”, makes tools like picks and bellows for pumping air into the tunnels. Flight Lieutenants Danny Velinski and William “Willie” Dickes are “the tunnel kings” in charge of digging. Flight Lieutenant Andy MacDonald, Bartlett’s second-in-command, gathers and provides intelligence. Lieutenant Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt of the Royal Navy devises a method of dispersing soil from the tunnels under the guards’ noses. Flight Lieutenant Griffith is “the tailor”, creating civilian outfits from scavenged cloth. Forgery is handled by Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe, “the forger”. The work noise is covered by the prisoner choir led by Flight Lieutenant Dennis Cavendish, “the surveyor”.

In June 1943, Bartlett asks USAAF Captain Virgil Hilts, ‘The Cooler King’, who is attempting an escape of his own with Scottish RAF Flying Officer Archibald “Archie” Ives, ‘The Mole’, but both are constantly imprisoned in isolation in the “cooler” (solitary confinement block[8]), to help in the escape, by getting out through the barbed wire, scouting the area immediately surrounding the camp and allow himself to be recaptured; Hilts refuses, though he does aid in the digging. Soon, Bartlett orders “Dick” and “Harry” sealed off, as “Tom” is closest to completion. After hoarding potatoes, Hilts, Hendley and Goff, the only other American in the camp, concoct moonshine from a homemade still and celebrate the Fourth of July with the entire camp. While the men celebrate, the guards discover “Tom”. As the mood turns sour at the discovery, a despondent Ives frantically climbs the barbed wire fence and is shot dead. The prisoners switch their efforts to “Harry”, and Hilts agrees to provide reconnaissance from outside the camp. The information he brings back is used to create maps to guide the escapees. Willie discovers Danny intent on breaking out through the fence and Danny reveals he is claustrophobic and unable to return to the tunnel. After Willie promises his support, Danny agrees to try the tunnel again. Blythe discovers that he is going blind due to progressive myopia;[9] Hendley takes it upon himself to be Blythe’s guide in the escape. The last part of the tunnel is completed on the scheduled night, March 24, 1944, and despite mishaps, such as proving to be 20 feet (6 m) short of the woods due to faulty surveying, seventy-six prisoners get away, aided by an air-raid blackout. The escape is discovered when Griffith impatiently exits the tunnel in view of a guard.

All 76 POWs flee through various parts of the Third Reich, but only 3 successfully escape to freedom; Danny and Willie steal a rowboat and proceed downstream to a port, where they board a Swedish merchant ship. Sedgwick steals a bicycle, then rides hidden on a train to France, where French Resistance members befriend him and assist him in reaching Spain. The remaining 73 are recaptured; Cavendish hitchhikes in a truck but is delivered to the authorities. Hendley and Blythe steal a plane to fly over the Swiss border, but the engine fails, and they crash-land. Blythe is shot and mortally wounded and Hendley is recaptured. Hilts steals a motorcycle at a crossroads, jumping a series of barbed-wire fences at the German-Swiss border to escape from German soldiers; he jumps the speeding cycle over the first fence before soldiers shoot out the bike’s tire, sending him sliding into the wire of the second fence where he is recaptured. Ashley-Pitt is killed at a railway station, and MacDonald and Bartlett are recaptured. The Gestapo murder 48 of the prisoners, including Bartlett, MacDonald and Cavendish, on the pretense that they were trying to escape, bringing the total killed to 50 men.

Hendley and ten others are returned to the camp. When informed of the dead, Hendley wonders if the cost was worth it, and Ramsey tells him it depends on his point of view. Von Luger is relieved of command as Hilts returns and goes to the cooler, where he plans another escape.


  • Steve McQueen as Captain Virgil Hilts ‘The Cooler King’: one of three Americans in the camp, Hilts irritates guards with frequent escape attempts and an irreverent attitude, to the point that he is regularly confined in isolation in the cooler. He has a habit of bouncing a baseball against the cooler cell wall to entertain himself, as he plans an escape attempt.
  • James Garner as Flight Lieutenant Bob Hendley ‘The Scrounger’: an American serving in an RAF Eagle Squadron. He is responsible for finding materials that will be necessary for the POWs during the escape attempt and on the outside.
  • Richard Attenborough as Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett ‘Big X’: an ambitious RAF officer, who has developed an intense hatred for the Nazis following his stay with the Gestapo. Bartlett, himself a veteran escaper, is the ringleader, ‘Big X’, of the camp escape committee, the “X” Organization, and declares his intention to organize a massive breakout of 250 men is their duty is to harass, confound and confuse the enemy.
  • James Donald as Group Captain Ramsey ‘The SBO’: the Senior British Officer and de facto commanding officer of the prisoners. He serves as an intermediary between the POWs and the Germans. Ramsey is taken aback at Bartlett’s plan, but supports it.
  • Charles Bronson as Flight Lieutenant Danny Welinski ‘Tunnel King’: a Polish refugee who escaped Nazi-held Poland and went to England to join up in the fight against the Nazis. He suffers from claustrophobia and is fearful of tunnel collapses, primarily coming from his previous experience of having dug 17 escape tunnels.
  • Donald Pleasence as Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe ‘The Forger’: a mild-mannered and good-natured master forger with a love of bird-watching who requires paper, inks, a camera and current travel documents.
  • James Coburn as Flying Officer Sedgwick ‘The Manufacturer’: an Australian officer who constructs objects necessary to implement the escape.[note 1]
  • Hannes Messemer as Oberst von Luger “The Kommandant”: the Commandant of the camp and a senior Luftwaffe officer, von Luger is very civil with the POWs, and is openly anti-Nazi, especially embittered with the SS and Gestapo. When the Gestapo orders that Bartlett receive strict confinement, von Luger only makes a passing note of it, and instead shows sympathy for Bartlett.
  • David McCallum as Lieutenant-Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt ‘Dispersal’: a Fleet Air Arm officer who finds an ingenious way to get rid of the dirt being brought up from the tunnels.
  • Gordon Jackson as Flight Lieutenant Andy MacDonald ‘Intelligence’: Bartlett’s second-in-command in planning the escape.
  • John Leyton as Flight Lieutenant Willie Dickes ‘Tunnel King’: Danny’s best friend, who seeks to encourage Danny during his struggles with claustrophobia.
  • Angus Lennie as Flying Officer Archie Ives ‘The Mole : a Scottish airman who has an intense desire to escape, leading him to the precipice of paranoia.
  • Nigel Stock as Flight Lieutenant Dennis Cavendish ‘The Surveyor’: a Flight Lieutenant who has an important duty for the building of the tunnel.
  • Robert Graf as Werner ‘The Ferret’: a young, naive guard, with whom Hendley forms a friendship, which he exploits as a means of obtaining travel documents and other needed items.
  • Jud Taylor as Second Lieutenant Goff: the third American in the camp.
  • Hans Reiser as Kuhn: a Gestapo officer who had Bartlett as a prisoner. An ardent Nazi, he orders von Luger that Bartlett be kept under the most restrictive permanent security confinement, which von Luger only makes a note of. He is critical of the Luftwaffe’s fair treatment of the prisoners, and believes the camp should be brought under the jurisdiction of the Gestapo and SS. Kuhn warns Bartlett that if he escapes again, he will be shot on his next capture.
  • Harry Riebauer as Stabsfeldwebel Strachwitz, the senior NCO amongst the German guards.
  • William Russell as Sorren
  • Robert Freitag as Hauptmann Posen
  • Ulrich Beiger as Preissen: a high-ranking Gestapo official, and an ardent Nazi. He has a condescending attitude and had Bartlett as a prisoner.
  • George Mikell as SD Hauptsturmführer Dietrich: one of the SS officers who had Bartlett as a prisoner.
  • Lawrence Montaigne as Haynes “Diversions”
  • Robert Desmond as Griffith ‘Tailor’
  • Til Kiwe as Frick
  • Heinz Weiss as Kramer
  • Tom Adams as Dai Nimmo ‘Diversions’
  • Karl-Otto Alberty as SD Untersturmführer Steinach: one of the SS officers who had Bartlett as a prisoner.



In 1963, the Mirisch brothers worked with United Artists to adapt Paul Brickhill‘s 1950 book The Great Escape. Brickhill had been a very minor member of the X Organisation at Stalag Luft III, who acted as one of the “stooges” who monitored German movements in the camp. The story had been adapted as a live TV production, screened by NBC as an episode of The Philco Television Playhouse on January 27, 1951.[10] The live broadcast was praised for engineering an ingenious set design for the live broadcast, including creating the illusion of tunnels.[11] The film’s screenplay was adapted by James ClavellW. R. Burnett, and Walter Newman.


Steve McQueen (left) with Wally Floody, a former Canadian POW who was part of the real Great Escape and acted as a technical advisor in production of the film

Steve McQueen‘s Virgil Hilts, “The Cooler King”, was based on at least three pilots, David M. Jones, John Dortch Lewis,[12] and William Ash.[13][14][15] McQueen has been credited with the most significant performance. Critic Leonard Maltin wrote that “the large, international cast is superb, but the standout is McQueen; it’s easy to see why this cemented his status as a superstar”.[16] This film established his box-office clout.

Richard Attenborough‘s Sqn Ldr Roger Bartlett RAF, “Big X”, was based on Roger Bushell, the South African-born British POW who was the mastermind of the real Great Escape.[17] This was the film that first brought Attenborough to common notice in the United States. During the Second World War, Attenborough served in the Royal Air Force. He volunteered to fly with the Film Unit and after further training (where he sustained permanent ear damage) he qualified as a sergeant. He flew on several missions over Europe, filming from the rear gunner’s position to record the outcome of Bomber Command sorties. (Richard Harris was originally announced for the role.)[18]

Group Captain Ramsey RAF, “the SBO”, was based on Group Captain Herbert Massey, a WWI veteran who had volunteered in WWII. He is played by James Donald. Massey walked with a limp, and in the movie Ramsey walks with a cane. Massey had suffered severe wounds to the same leg in both wars. There would be no escape for him, but as Senior British Officer he had to know what was going on. Group Captain Massey was a veteran escaper himself and had been in trouble with the Gestapo. His experience allowed him to offer sound advice to the X-Organisation.[19] Another officer who is likely to have inspired the character of Ramsey was Wing Commander Harry Day.

Flt Lt Colin Blythe RAF, “The Forger”, was based on Tim Walenn and played by Donald Pleasence.[20] Pleasence himself had served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. He was shot down and spent a year in German prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft I.

Charles Bronson had been a gunner in the USAAF and had been wounded, but he had not been shot down. Like his character, Danny Valinski, he suffered from claustrophobia because of his childhood work in a mine.

James Garner had been a soldier in the Korean War and was twice wounded. He was a scrounger during that time, as is his character Flt Lt Hendley.[21]

Hannes Messemer‘s Commandant, “Colonel von Luger”, was based on Oberst Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau.[22] He had been a POW in Russia during World War II and had escaped by walking hundreds of miles to the German border.[23] He was wounded by Russian fire, but was not captured by the Russians. He surrendered to British forces and then spent two years in a POW facility in London known as the London Cage.

Angus Lennie‘s Flying Officer Archibald Ives, “The Mole”, was based on Jimmy Kiddel, who was shot dead while trying to scale the fence.[24]

The film is accurate in showing that only three escapees made home runs, although the people who made them differed from those in the film. The escape of Danny and Willie in the film is based on two Norwegians who escaped by boat to Sweden, Per Bergsland and Jens Müller. The successful escape of James Coburn‘s Australian character, Sedgwick (the manufacturer), via Spain was based on Dutchman Bram van der Stok. Coburn, an American, was cast in the role of Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick who was an amalgamation of Flt Lt Albert Hake, an Australian serving in the RAF, the camp’s compass maker, and Johnny Travis, the real manufacturer.

Tilman ‘Til Kiwe’ Kiver played the German guard “Frick”, who discovers the escape. Kiwe had been a German paratrooper officer who was captured and held prisoner at a POW camp in Colorado. He made several escape attempts, dyeing his uniform and carrying forged papers. He was captured in the St. Louis train station during one escape attempt. He won the Knight’s Cross before his capture and was the cast member who had actually performed many of the exploits shown in the film.


The film was made on location in Germany at the Bavaria Film Studio in the Munich suburb of Geiselgasteig in rural Bavaria, where sets for the barrack interiors and tunnels were constructed. The camp was built in a clearing of the Perlacher Forst (Perlacher Forest) near the studio.[25][26] The German town near the real camp was Sagan (now Żagań, Poland); it was renamed Neustadt in the film.[26] Many scenes were filmed in and around the town of Füssen in Bavaria, including its railway station. The nearby district of Pfronten,[27] with its distinctive St. Nikolaus Church and scenic background, also appears often in the film.[26] The first scenes involving the railway were filmed on the Munich–Holzkirchen line at Großhesselohe station (“Neustadt” station in the movie) and near Deisenhofen. Hendley and Bylthe’s escape from the train was shot on the Munich–Mühldorf railway east of Markt Schwaben. The station where Bartlett, MacDonald and Ashley-Pitt arrive is Füssen station, whereas the scene of Sedgwick (whose theft of a bike was shot in Markt Schwaben) boarding a train was created in Pfronten-Ried station on the Ausserfern Railway.[28][29] The castle Hendley and Blythe fly by while attempting to escape is Neuschwanstein Castle.[30]

The motorcycle used by McQueen and Ekins.

The motorcycle chase scenes with the barbed wire fences were shot on meadows outside Füssen, and the “barbed wire” that Hilts crashes into before being recaptured was simulated by strips of rubber tied around barbless wire, constructed by the cast and crew in their spare time.[31] Insurance concerns prevented McQueen from performing the film’s notable motorcycle leap, which was done by his friend and fellow cycle enthusiast Bud Ekins, who resembled McQueen from a distance.[32] When Johnny Carson later tried to congratulate McQueen for the jump during a broadcast of The Tonight Show, McQueen said, “It wasn’t me. That was Bud Ekins.” Other parts of the chase were done by McQueen, playing both Hilts and the soldiers chasing him, because of his skill on a motorcycle.[33] The motorcycle was a Triumph TR6 Trophy which was painted to look like a German machine. The restored machine is currently on display at Triumph‘s factory at Hinckley, England.[34]


The film’s iconic music was composed by Elmer Bernstein, who gave each major character their own musical motif based on the Great Escape’s main theme.[35] Its enduring popularity helped Bernstein live off the score’s royalties for the rest of his life.[36] Critics have said the film score succeeds because it uses rousing militaristic motifs with interludes of warmer softer themes that humanizes the prisoners and endears them to audiences; the music also captures the bravery and defiance of the POWs.[37] The main title’s patriotic march has since become popular in Britain, particularly with sports such as fans of the England national football team.[38] However, in 2016, the sons of Elmer Bernstein openly criticized the use of the Great Escape theme by the Vote Leave campaign in the UK Brexit referendum, saying “Our father would never have allowed UKIP to use his music” because he would have strongly opposed the party.[39]

Intrada Records (release)

In 2011 Intrada, a company specializing in film soundtracks, released a digitized re-mastered version of the full film score based on the original 1/4″ two-track stereo sessions and original 1/2″ three-channel stereo masters.[40]

Disc one[edit]

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
No. Title Length
1. “Main Title” 2:30
2. “At First Glance” 3:07
3. “Premature Plans” 2:28
4. “If At Once” 2:31
5. “Forked” 1:28
6. “Cooler” 1:59
7. “Mole” 1:28
8. “”X”/Tonight We Dig” 1:30
9. “The Scrounger/Blythe” 3:50
10. “Water Faucet” 1:23
11. “Interruptus” 1:33
12. “The Plan/The Sad Ives” 1:43
13. “Green Thumbs” 2:28
14. “Hilts And Ives” 0:38
15. “Cave In” 2:01
16. “Restless Men” 1:56
17. “Booze” 1:47
18. “”Yankee Doodle”” 0:55
19. “Discovery” 3:40
Total length: 57:35

Disc two[edit]

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Continued)
No. Title Length
1. “Various Troubles” 3:52
2. “Panic” 2:05
3. “Pin Trick” 0:59
4. “Hendley’s Risk” 1:43
5. “Released Again/Escape Time” 5:25
6. “20 Feet Short” 3:06
7. “Foul Up” 2:37
8. “At The Station” 1:33
9. “On The Road” 3:27
10. “The Chase/First Casualty” 6:49
11. “Flight Plan” 2:09
12. “More Action/Hilts Captured” 6:07
13. “Road’s End” 2:06
14. “Betrayal” 2:20
15. “Three Gone/Home Again” 3:13
16. “Finale/The Cast” 2:47
Total length: 1:18:58

Disc three[edit]

Original 1963 United Artists Score Album
No. Title Length
1. “Main Title” 2:07
2. “Premature Plans” 2:08
3. “Cooler And Mole” 2:26
4. “Blythe” 2:13
5. “Discovery” 2:54
6. “Various Troubles” 2:40
7. “On The Road” 2:54
8. “Betrayal” 2:05
9. “Hendley’s Risk” 2:24
10. “Road’s End” 2:00
11. “More Action” 1:57
12. “The Chase” 2:49
13. “Finale” 3:14
Total length: 49:11

Historical accuracy[edit]

Model of the set used to film The Great Escape. It depicts a smaller version of a single compound in Stalag Luft III. The model is now at the museum near where the prison camp was located.

End of the real “Harry” tunnel (on the other side of the road) showing how it does not reach the cover of the trees

The film was largely fictional, with changes made to increase its drama and appeal to an American audience, and to serve as vehicle for its box-office stars. Many details of the actual escape attempt were changed for the film, including the roles of American personnel in both the planning and the escape. While the characters are fictitious, they are based on real men, in most cases being composites of several people. The screenwriters significantly increased the involvement of American POWs; a few American officers in the camp initially helped dig the tunnels and worked on the early plans. However, they were moved away seven months before the escape, which ended their involvement.[41][42] The real escape was by largely British and other Allied personnel, with the exception of American Johnnie Dodge, who was a British officer.[30]

The film omits the crucial role that Canadians played in building the tunnels and in the escape itself. Of the 1,800 or so POWs, 600 were involved in preparations: 150 of those were Canadian. Wally Floody, an RCAF pilot and former miner who was the real-life “tunnel king”, was engaged as a technical advisor for the film.[43]

When Ramsey first meets Von Luger, Luger warns him that although the newly arriving prisoners are well-known for wreaking havoc throughout the Reich with their constant camp breakouts, they will have no success at the new camp. Undaunted, Ramsey tells Von Luger that it is the sworn duty of every officer to attempt escape. In reality, there was no requirement in the King’s Regulations, or in any form of international convention.[44]

The film shows the tunnel codenamed Tom with its entrance under a stove and Harry’s in a drain sump in a washroom. In reality, Dick’s entrance was the drain sump, Harry’s was under the stove, and Tom’s was in a darkened corner next to a stove chimney.[45]

Ex-POWs asked film-makers to exclude details about the help they received from their home countries, such as maps, papers, and tools hidden in gift packages, lest it jeopardise future POW escapes. The film-makers complied.[46]

The film omits to mention that many Germans willingly helped in the escape itself. The film suggests that the forgers were able to make near-exact replicas of just about any pass that was used in Nazi Germany. In reality, the forgers received a great deal of assistance from Germans who lived many hundreds of miles away on the other side of the country. Several German guards, who were openly anti-Nazi, also willingly gave the prisoners items and assistance of any kind to aid their escape.[44]

The need for such accuracy produced much eyestrain, but unlike in the film, there were no cases of blindness. Some, such as Frank Knight, gave up forging because of the strain, but he certainly did not suffer the same ocular fate as the character of Colin Blythe in the film.[44] In fact, no one in the film says that Colin Blythe’s blindness is the result of eyestrain. He identifies his problem as “progressive myopia“, suggesting that he has not only heard of the condition but has also been diagnosed.

The film depicts the escape taking place in ideal weather conditions, whereas at the time much was done in freezing temperatures, and snow lay thick on the ground.[44] In reality there were no escapes by aircraft or motorcycle: McQueen requested the motorcycle sequence, which shows off his skills as a keen motorcyclist. He did the stunt riding himself (except for the final jump, done by Bud Ekins).[47]

In the film, Hilts incapacitates, or otherwise kills, a German soldier for his motorcycle, Ashley-Pitt kills Kuhn, a Gestapo officer, when he recognizes Bartlett waiting to pass through a Gestapo checkpoint at a railway station and Hendley knocks out a German guard at the airfield. No German personnel were killed or injured by the escapers.

The movie shows three truckloads of recaptured POWs splitting off in three directions. One truck contains 20 of the prisoners who are invited to stretch their legs in a field, whereupon they are all machine gunned in a single massacre, with the implication that the other two have the same manner; in reality, the POWs were shot individually or in pairs. The majority of the POWs were killed by pistol shots taken by Gestapo officers; however, at least ten of them were killed in a manner redolent of the film’s depiction: Humphreys, Dutchy Swain, Chaz Hall, Brian Evans, Wally Valenta, George McGill, Pat Langford, Edgar Humphreys, Adam Kolanowski, Bob Stewart and Henry “Hank” Birkland.[48][49][50][51][52][53][44]

In addition, the film depicts the three prisoners who escape to freedom as British, Polish, and Australian; in reality, they were Norwegian (Jens Müller and Per Bergsland) and Dutch (Bram van der Stok).[54]

In 2009, seven POWs returned to Stalag Luft III for the 65th anniversary of the escape[55] and watched the film. According to the veterans, many details of the first half depicting life in the camp were authentic, e.g. the death of Ives, who tries to scale the fence, and the actual digging of the tunnels.

The film has kept the memory of the 50 executed airmen alive for decades and has made their story known worldwide, if in a distorted form.[30] British author Guy Walters notes that a pivotal scene in the film where MacDonald blunders by replying in English to a suspicious Gestapo officer saying, “Good luck”, is now so strongly imprinted that historians have accepted it as a real event, and that it was Bushell’s partner Bernard Scheidhauer who made the error. However, Walters points out that an historical account says that one of the two men said “yes” in English in response to a Kripo man’s questions without any mention of “good luck” and notes that as Scheidhauser was French, and Bushell’s first language was English, it seems likely that if a slip did take place, it was made by Bushell himself, and says the “good luck” scene should be regarded as fiction, and furthermore, a slur upon the Frenchman.[44]


The Great Escape grossed $11.7 million at the box office,[56] after a budget of $4 million.[57] It became one of the highest-grossing films of 1963, despite heavy competition. In the years since its release, its audience has broadened, cementing its status as a cinema classic.[4] It was entered into the 3rd Moscow International Film Festival, where McQueen won the Silver Prize for Best Actor.[58]



Critical and public response has mostly been enthusiastic, with a “Certified Fresh” 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[59] In 1963, The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote: “But for much longer than is artful or essential, The Great Escape grinds out its tormenting story without a peek beneath the surface of any man, without a real sense of human involvement. It’s a strictly mechanical adventure with make-believe men.”[60] British film critic Leslie Halliwell described it as “pretty good but overlong POW adventure with a tragic ending”.[61] The Time magazine reviewer wrote in 1963: “The use of colour photography is unnecessary and jarring, but little else is wrong with this film. With accurate casting, a swift screenplay, and authentic German settings, Producer-Director John Sturges has created classic cinema of action. There is no sermonizing, no soul probing, no sex. The Great Escape is simply great escapism”.[62]

Modern appraisals[edit]

In a 2006 poll in the United Kingdom, regarding the family film that television viewers would most want to see on Christmas Day, The Great Escape came in third, and was first among the choices of male viewers.[63]

In an article for the British Film Institute, “10 great prisoner of war films,” updated in August 2018, Samuel Wigley wrote that watching films like The Great Escape and the 1955 British film The Colditz Story, “for all their moments of terror and tragedy, is to delight in captivity in times of war as a wonderful game for boys, an endless Houdini challenge to slip through the enemy’s fingers. Often based on true stories of escape, they have the viewer marvelling at the ingenuity and seemingly unbreakable spirit of imprisoned soldiers.” He described The Great Escape as “the epitome of the war-is-fun action film,” which became “a fixture of family TV viewing…”.[64]

Awards and nominations[edit]


On 24 March 2014, the 70th anniversary of the escape, the RAF staged a commemoration of the escape attempt, with 50 serving personnel each carrying a photograph of one of the shot men.[65]

On 24 March 2019, the RAF held another event for the 75th anniversary of the escape. There was a screening of the film at London’s Eventim Hammersmith Apollo, hosted by Dan Snow. The film was simulcast with other cinemas throughout the UK.[66]


A fictional, made-for-television sequel, The Great Escape II: The Untold Story, was released in 1988, with different actors, directed by Jud Taylor (who played 2nd Lt. Goff in the 1963 film).[67] The film is not a true sequel, as it dramatizes the escape itself just as the original film does, although mostly using the real names of the individuals involved (whereas the original film fictionalized them and used composite characters). It depicts the search for the culprits responsible for the murder of the 50 Allied officers. Donald Pleasence appears in a supporting role as a member of the SS.[68]

In popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]
  1. ^ In the film, while asking for an air pump, Bartlett refers to Sedgewick as “Bluey”. “Bluey” is an affectionate term for a person with red hair, found in Australian slang in the first half of the twentieth century. The consequence of Bartlett’s use of the term, though made in support of the character, was too subtle for wider audiences, and the credit of “Louis” is translated in the subtitles for DVD and appears for Sedgewick on many lists.
  1. ^ Balio, Tino (1987). United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry. University of Wisconsin Press. p. 174. ISBN 978-0-299-11440-4.
  2. ^ “The Great Escape, premiere”. The Times. London. June 20, 1963. p. 2.
  3. ^ “1963 year”Moscow International Film Festival. Archived from the original on December 3, 2017. Retrieved December 3, 2017.
  4. Jump up to:a b Eder, Bruce (2009). “Review: The Great Escape”AllMovie. Macrovision Corporation. Retrieved October 14, 2009.
  5. ^ Adams, Derek. “The Great Escape”Time OutArchived from the original on December 3, 2017. Retrieved December 3, 2017.
  6. ^ Kim, Wook (February 16, 2012). “Top 10 Memorable Movie Motorcycles – The Great Escape”TIMEArchived from the original on December 3, 2017. Retrieved December 3, 2017.
  7. ^ McKay, Sinclair (December 24, 2014). “The Great Escape: 50th anniversary”The Daily TelegraphArchived from the original on December 3, 2017. Retrieved December 3, 2017.
  8. ^ “Inside Tunnel “HarryNova: Great Escape. PBS Online. Retrieved February 2, 2020.
  9. ^ “Progressive (High) Myopia”American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology & Strabismus“Progressive myopia,” also known as degenerative myopia, is a specific condition that often begins in childhood.
  10. ^ “The Great Escape”Internet Movie Database.
  11. ^ Wade, Robert J. (April 1951). “The Great Escape”Radio Age. Vol. 10 no. 3. pp. 16–17.
  12. ^ Kaufman, Michael T. (August 13, 1999). “John D. Lewis, 84, Pilot in ‘The Great EscapeThe New York Times. Retrieved March 15, 2015.
  13. ^ Bishop, Patrick (August 30, 2015). “William Ash: The cooler king”BBC News. Retrieved August 30, 2015.
  14. ^ Foley, Brendan (April 29, 2014). “Bill Ash obituary”The Guardian. London. Retrieved August 30, 2015.
  15. ^ “William Ash – obituary”The Daily Telegraph. London. April 30, 2014. Retrieved August 30, 2015.
  16. ^ Maltin, Leonard (1999). Leonard Maltin’s Family Film Guide. New York: Signet. p. 225. ISBN 978-0-451-19714-6.
  17. ^ Whalley, Kirsty (November 10, 2008). “Escape artist’s inspiring exploits”This is Local London. Newsquest Media Group / A Gannett Company. Retrieved September 25, 2009.
  18. ^ Scheuer, Philip K. (March 2, 1962). “Mutiny’ Director Find Make Deals: Bogarde in ‘Living Room’; Du Pont Scion Plans Three”. Los Angeles Times. p. C13.
  19. ^ Gill, Anton (2002). The Great Escape. London: Review. p. 96. ISBN 978-0-7553-1038-8.
  20. ^ Vance 2000, p. 44: “Now sporting a huge, bushy moustache … he set to work arranging the operations of the forgery department”
  21. ^ DVD extra.
  22. ^ Carroll, Tim (2004). The Great Escapers. Mainstream Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84018-904-9.
  23. ^ Rubin, Steven Jay (July 25, 2011). Combat Films: American Realism, 1945–2010(2nd ed.). ISBN 978-0-7864-8613-7. Retrieved November 17, 2016 – via Google Books.
  24. ^ Hall, Allan (March 24, 2009). “British veterans mark Great Escape anniversary”The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on February 20, 2010. Retrieved October 26,2009.
  25. ^ Riml, Walter (2013). Behind the scenes… The Great Escape. Helma Turk & Dr. Christian Riml. pp. 28, 44ff. Retrieved March 15, 2015.
  26. Jump up to:a b c Whistance, Don J. (2014). “The Great Escape Locations Site” Retrieved March 15, 2015.
  27. ^ Riml (2013), p.110ff.
  28. ^ Riml (2013), p.58ff.
  29. ^ Biemann, Joachim (August 10, 2014). “The Great Escape”Eisenbahn im Film – Rail Movies (in German). Retrieved April 11, 2021.
  30. Jump up to:a b c Warren, Jane (August 7, 2008). “The Truth About The Great Escape”Daily Express. Retrieved November 17, 2016.
  31. ^ Rufford, Nick (February 13, 2009). “Video: The Great Escape, re-enacted”The Times. Archived from the original on May 29, 2010. Retrieved October 20, 2009.
  32. ^ Rubin, Steve (1993). Return to ‘The Great Escape’ (Documentary). MGM Home Entertainment.
  33. ^ Stone, Matt (2007). McQueen’s Machines: The Cars and Bikes of a Hollywood Icon. Minneapolis, Minnesota: MBI Publishing Company. pp. 77–78. ISBN 978-0-7603-3895-7There’s a chase sequence in there where the Germans were after [McQueen], and he was so much a better rider than they were, that he just ran away from them. And you weren’t going to slow him down. So they put a German uniform on him, and he chased himself!
  34. ^ “Great Escape motorcycle goes on show”BBC News. November 2017.
  35. ^ “Elmer Bernstein”The Daily Telegraph. August 20, 2004. Retrieved January 25, 2021.
  36. ^ “Elmer Bernstein: The Great Escape”Classic FMGlobal. August 23, 2014. Retrieved January 25, 2021.
  37. ^ Lawson, Matt; MacDonald, Laurence E. (2018). 100 Greatest Film Scores. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 115. ISBN 978-1-53810-368-5.
  38. ^ Wright, Joe (June 10, 2014). “Why England’s band play the theme from ‘The Great Escape’ movie”Goal. Retrieved January 25, 2021.
  39. ^ Thorpe, Vanessa (May 28, 2016). “UKIP’s use of Great Escape theme tune grates with composer’s sons”The Guardian. Retrieved January 25, 2021.
  40. ^ “THE GREAT ESCAPE (3 CD)”Intrada. Retrieved January 25, 2021.
  41. ^ Wolter, Tim (2001). POW baseball in World War II. McFarland. pp. 24–25. ISBN 978-0-7864-1186-3.
  42. ^ Brickhill, PaulThe Great Escape
  43. ^ “Canadians and the Great Escape”Canada at War. July 11, 2009. Retrieved March 15,2015.
  44. Jump up to:a b c d e f Walters, Guy (2013). The Real Great Escape. Mainstream Publishing. ISBN 978-0-593-07190-8.
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  46. ^ The Great Escape: Heroes Underground documentary, available on The Great EscapeDVD Special Edition.
  47. ^ Brissette, Pete (July 15, 2005). “Steve McQueen 40 Summers Ago…” Retrieved March 15, 2015.
  48. ^ Andrews (1976), p.49
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  54. ^ Hansen, Magne; Carlsen, Marianne Rustad (February 26, 2014). “Hollywood droppet nordmenn” [Hollywood dropped Norwegians]. NRK (in Norwegian). Retrieved March 15,2015.
  55. ^ Paterson, Tony (March 25, 2009). “Veterans of the Great Escape visit old Stalag”The Independent. London. ISSN 0951-9467OCLC 185201487. Retrieved March 15, 2015.
  56. ^ “The Great Escape – Box Office Data”The Numbers. Retrieved March 15, 2015.
  57. ^ Lovell, Glenn (2008). Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges. University of Wisconsin Press. p. 224.
  58. ^ “3rd Moscow International Film Festival (1963)”MIFF. Archived from the original on January 16, 2013. Retrieved November 25, 2012.
  59. ^ “The Great Escape”Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved March 15, 2015.
  60. ^ Crowther, Bosley (August 8, 1963). “P.O.W.’s in ‘Great Escape’:Inmates of Nazi Camp Are Stereotypical – Steve McQueen Leads Snarling Tunnelers”The New York Times. Retrieved November 3, 2008.
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  63. ^ “TV classics are recipe for Christmas Day delight”Freeview. December 11, 2006. Archived from the original on January 26, 2010. Retrieved September 5, 2009.
  64. ^ “10 great prisoner-of-war films”British Film Institute. Retrieved January 8, 2020.
  65. ^ Hall, Robert (March 24, 2014). The Great Escape’ commemorated in Poland”BBC News. Retrieved March 15, 2015.
  66. ^ “The Great Escape with Dan Snow”RAF Benevolent Fund. November 20, 2018. Archived from the original on March 22, 2019.
  67. ^ “The Great Escape II: The Untold Story (TV Movie 1988)”IMDb. November 6, 1988. Retrieved September 24, 2015.
  68. Jump up to:a b c d Nixon, Rob (2008). “Pop Culture 101: The Great Escape”Turner Classic Movies. Turner Entertainment Networks, Inc. Retrieved November 2, 2011.
  69. ^ “Cheesoid (Full) – Mitchell and Webb”YouTube. May 29, 2009. Retrieved March 15,2015.
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Filed under architects & architecture, art & allure bewitching, ethnicity, historical interpretation, Hitler, landscape wondrous, life stories, patriotism, performance, security, self-reflexivity, the imaginary and the real, travelogue, unusual people, vengeance, war crimes, war reportage, world events & processes, World War II

3 responses to “Stalag Luft III and Its “Great Escape” Tunnel: An Archaelogical Treasure

  1. EMAIL COMMENT from MO MARIKAR of Kandy & Trinity College … from USA, 28 August 2022:
    “I remember the movie with Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough. The latter was a favorite. I recall queuing up at the Laza theater Rs 1.20 line……….. Oh those were the days.”

  2. “But heady and lofty days Mo; no dark tunnels” — Michael the Thuppahiyaaaaaa.

    • Mo Marikar

      In the late sixties and early seventies, I was the proverbial ostrich with my head buried in the sand, not realizing the tremors of unhappiness of a class of liberal Arts graduates who wanted to neutralize anyone over forty, thereby opening better job opportunities.

      And then bang! The University campuses of Ceylon were shutdown by the insurgency. My teacher, ASP Shanmugam, faced the insurgents at Kadugannawa and the insurgents weren’t able to get to Kandy, my home town.

      I left Ceylon in 1977 for GWU to teach and study for the Masters.

      The communications from classmates about having to be part of the diaspora leaving everything behind was numbing.

      2022 and the revelations about the politicians selling their souls to appoint a president who barely got 30,000 votes in Colombo revealed the value of a supposed $300,000 inducement per MP.

      A bag of Silver didn’t help Judas Iscariot.

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