The plan to dig down to the workshop at the starting point of the tunnel known as Harry, where the wartime fliers began their effort to tunnel beneath the barbed wire, was aborted when engineers failed repeatedly to prevent tons of sand from collapsing their own access tunnel.
“The tunnel known as Harry” was one of the incredible constructions by the prisoners of Stalag Luft III, the escape tunnels, laboriously and ingeniously built, that would be immortalised in the movie, The Great Escape. But this story did not need a movie for immortality – it was extraordinary enough in reality. And now a geoarchaeological project, led by Hugh Hunt, a Cambridge University engineering professor, has shed further light on just how extraordinary it was.
The prisoner of war camp was built, intentionally, on the sandy soils of the forests of today’s western Poland, along the banks of the Bóbr river. Intentionally, because the river valley is filled with sandy sediments deposited from melt waters of the Ice Age glaciers and carried by the ancestral Bóbr. And sand is difficult to tunnel through. Very difficult.
An earlier geoarchaeological expedition to the site of Stalag Luft III was reported in a fascinating article by Peter Doyle and his colleagues that includes a geological assessment of these soils. The following illustration of the sands is taken from their work:
A thin grey organic soil is underlain by glacio-fluvial cross-bedded sands, yellow and reddish-yellow in colour. As the authors point out, this in itself was a problem for the would-be escapers – the excavated sand from the tunnels was immediately visible if deposited against the darker topsoil.
There were numerous tunnelling attempts made at Stalag Luft III, each tunnel given a name, but the events captured in The Great Escape related to Harry. Harry was 330ft long, made from 4,000 bed boards and dug with thousands of pieces of cutlery. The ingenuity and engineering were astonishing – and, as Hunt discovered, impossible to reproduce without unacceptable danger. The movie was based on the book of the same name by Paul Brickhill, whose illustration of the project was reproduced in the article by Peter Doyle and his colleagues:
The escape would end in tragedy for all but three of the 76 prisoners who emerged from the tunnel on that March night in 1944. “Following the escape, it is estimated that 5 million Germans were mobilized to recapture them. Of the 76 that escaped, 3 eventually reached Allied territory, but the remainder were recaptured, and 50 of them were executed by the Gestapo.”
One of the remarkable details of Hugh Hunt’s recent project was that one of the team was Frank Stone. Now 89, Frank was waiting his turn to enter the tunnel that night when the escape was discovered. As reported in the Daily Mail, he demonstrated the use of the trolleys made to move men quickly down the tunnels:
Hunt’s work was the subject of a recent documentary on British TV, and compellingly described in the following piece from The New York Times:
Latter-Day Dig of ‘Great Escape’ Tunnels Humbles Modern Engineers
By JOHN F. BURNS
CAMBRIDGE, England — For scale, they were no match for the Great Pyramids of Giza or the Panama Canal. The labor took months rather than years and a work force of barely 100 men. As for materials, there were none, beyond what the captured Royal Air Force fliers who built them could scavenge, scrounge or improvise.
But by the measures of ingenuity, courage and persistence, the tunnels built almost 70 years ago in sandy scrubland near the small town of Zagan, 130 miles southeast of Berlin in what was then Hitler’s Germany and is today western Poland, were a legendary feat of engineering, although on a miniature scale.
Chronicled by the 1963 movie “The Great Escape,” the tunnel building is one of World War II’s great stories. In the decades since, the legend of the allied fliers’ mass breakout on the night of March 24, 1944, together with the ingenious planning and the Nazi retribution that followed — 73 of the 76 escapers recaptured, and 50 of them summarily executed on Hitler’s orders — has, in a way, eclipsed reality.
In an effort to establish more clearly how the escape was accomplished — and, in a sense, to reclaim the narrative of the breakout — British-based engineers, battlefield archaeologists and historians traveled into the pine forest outside Zagan last summer to unearth the secrets buried there for a television documentary by Wildfire Television in London that was broadcast in late 2011 in Britain. They were accompanied by modern-day Royal Air Force pilots, as well as veterans of wartime bombing raids, now in their 80s, who helped build the tunnels at the encampment known as Stalag Luft III.
The team’s task was to employ “reverse engineering” by uncovering the tunnels and what remained of the tunnelers’ jury-rigged equipment to replicate the wartime fliers’ ingenuity. Ultimately, the team members were stunned that, even without the menace of the ever-watchful Nazi camp guards, they were unable to match their wartime counterparts fully, particularly in the most crucial skill, digging a tunnel 30 feet below the camp surface without repeated collapses of the sandy soil above.
For years, veterans and others have pored over the camp’s ruins, laying memorial stones amid the outcroppings of broken brick and concrete scattered among the pine trees, all that remains of the 60-acre site built by the Germans to house 10,000 captured fliers. But no group matched the expertise of the 2011 team, which went determined to lay bare what Hugh Hunt, a Cambridge University engineering professor, described as “the final secrets of a remarkable story.”
A maverick Australian affectionately nicknamed Dr. Screwloose by his colleagues, Dr. Hunt went to Poland as a consultant to the current R.A.F. pilots, including some with combat experience over Iraq and Afghanistan. Their task was to use insights gleaned from the digs at the sites of wartime tunnels known as Harry and George to build a new 35-foot tunnel they called Roger, after Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, the principal organizer of the 1944 escape and one of those executed by the Nazis.
“What those men did at Stalag Luft III was an astonishing feat of improvisational engineering,” Dr. Hunt, 50, said in an interview at Cambridge’s Trinity College. “Their resourcefulness was beyond belief. It wasn’t a case of one man’s genius, more the accomplishment of a team, one man’s skills complementing another’s. And they had one precious resource, time. If you have time, somebody will eventually come up with something, and the others will say, ‘Let’s give it a go.’ ”
Like others who joined in the expedition to Zagan, Dr. Hunt has little quarrel with the escape story as told in the film version, which was based on Paul Brickhill’s book of the same name, partly because the tunnelers’ real-life drama required little embellishment. The wartime camp, for one thing, did not have a Virgil Hilts, the irrepressible American flier played by Steve McQueen, and there was no climactic sequence like his flight from German troops on a stolen BMW motorcycle and entanglement in a border fence, one of cinema’s great chase sequences.
The plan to dig down to the workshop at the starting point of the tunnel known as Harry, where the wartime fliers began their effort to tunnel beneath the barbed wire, was aborted when engineers failed repeatedly to prevent tons of sand from collapsing their own access tunnel. But Dr. Hunt and his team struck gold in the excavation of George, a tunnel built under the camp auditorium after the escape and designed to give inmates a place to hide as Nazi control east of Berlin collapsed before advancing Soviet troops.
Their dig yielded a set of rusting trolley wheels, the metal scavenged from remnants of a campsite stove and a coil spring taken from prison gramophones; wood paneling for the tunnel’s roof and sidewalls, fashioned from the prisoners’ bed boards; and a ventilation pump with a bellows and piping made from a prisoner’s kitbag, ice hockey sticks and tins of powdered milk. The pièce de résistance was a rusting radio made from a biscuit box, the wiring stolen from the prisoners’ huts and batteries scrounged from German guards.
The contemporary Royal Air Force fliers built Roger, the replica tunnel, but in a trench just beneath the surface; anything deeper was deemed too dangerous. With Dr. Hunt, they fashioned a trolley system, given its first run in the new tunnel by Frank Stone, 89, a camp veteran involved in preparing the 1944 escape plan. The 2011 team also built a replica of the original tunnelers’ ventilation system, with facsimiles of wartime milk tins and a World War II kitbag.
Mr. Stone, maker of the biscuit-tin radio found in the excavated remains of tunnel George, was one of those still waiting for his turn to escape when a German guard spotted one flier scrambling from the tunnel exit into the pine trees. He remained a prisoner until the camp was liberated in 1945, with a lifetime to grieve for the men who made it, if only briefly, to freedom. “People say to me, ‘How unlucky you were,’ ” he told the documentary makers. “But I say, no, I was lucky to have taken part in it at all.”
[Memorials images Lech Muszynski/European Press Photo Agency and http://www.raf.mod.uk/project104/gallery/stalagluftiiigallery.cfm?viewmedia=3]