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5 Stories Of Real Life Escape Attempts By Allied Prisoners Of War

It was the duty of all Allied prisoners of war (POWs) to try to escape. If they made it home they could re-join the war and fight again, but even those who didn’t make it back to safety still helped the war effort by occupying large numbers of police and soldiers sent to track them down.

However, for most POWs, there was little opportunity to escape. Of the 170,000 British and Commonwealth prisoners of war in Germany in the Second World War, fewer than 1,200 of them managed to escape successfully and make a 'home run'. Prisoners were hungry, weak and often tired from backbreaking labour. They were guarded twenty-four hours a day. The journey to neutral territory – and then home - was long and dangerous. Few spoke German. But thinking about and planning escapes could provide a welcome distraction from the boredom of camp life.

Here are stories of five of the most famous escape attempts from German POW camps during the Second World War.

  • 1. Oliver Philpot and the Wooden Horse

    Jacket worn by Oliver Philpot during his escape from Stalag Luft III in 1943
    Jacket worn by Oliver Philpot during his escape from Stalag Luft III in 1943
    EPH 6364

    Oliver Philpot was one of three men to make a successful escape from Stalag Luft III  in 1943. Philpot, together with Eric Williams and Michael Codner, used a wooden vaulting horse positioned close to the perimeter fence as a disguise for a tunnel which they were constructing underneath the horse.

    Philpot collected together an escape kit, including this jacket, forged papers  and a compass and maps made in the camp.  After escaping through the tunnel on 29 October, he travelled by train from Sagan to Danzig where he quickly found a ship to take him to neutral Sweden.  He arrived in Stockholm on 4 November. In 1949, Eric Williams wrote a fictionalised account of the escape entitled The Wooden Horse which was made into a successful film the following year.

  • 2. Jimmy James and the Great Escape

    Cap belonging to Pilot Officer Bertram 'Jimmy' James, one of the 76 who successfully escaped through the 'Harry' tunnel during the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III in March 1944.
    Cap belonging to Pilot Officer Bertram 'Jimmy' James, one of the 76 who successfully escaped through the 'Harry' tunnel during the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III in March 1944.
    UNI 8100

    The most famous POW breakout is the 'Great Escape' in March 1944 from Stalag Luft III, a camp which held Allied aircrew. Plans for a mass escape from the camp began in April 1943, headed by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell. Work started on three tunnels called 'Tom', 'Dick' and 'Harry', which would allow 200 men to get out. Although the three tunnel entrances were finished by the end of May, work on 'Harry' and 'Dick' stopped in June so that efforts could concentrate on 'Tom'. In September, 'Tom' was discovered. In January 1944, work on 'Harry' resumed. By 25 March, it was ready.

    That night 80 men climbed out of the 102 metre-long tunnel. Four were caught at the tunnel's mouth when the escape was spotted, 76 got away. Only three made it home. The remainder were all recaptured and 50 of them were murdered on Hitler's orders. Pilot Officer 'Jimmy' James was recaptured within 24 hours and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. He escaped from there on 23 September 1944 but was again recaptured. James was finally liberated in 1945.

    The Great Escape's place in legend was assured by the 1963 film of the same name. The film, however, altered characters and events for dramatic effect.

    See items from The Great Escape in Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies

  • 3. Airey Neave and his 'Home Run' from Colditz

    Photograph of Lieutenant Airey Neave at Colditz Castle, c.1941.
    Photograph of Lieutenant Airey Neave at Colditz Castle, c.1941.
    HU 86547

    Lieutenant Airey Neave was the first British officer to make a successful escape from Colditz, one of the most famous POW camps. Colditz Castle, in eastern Germany, was built high on the slope of a hill and the Germans believed it was escape-proof. Throughout the war, they sent their most difficult POWs there. Airey Neave was sent there in May 1941 after escaping from his previous camp.

    On 5 January 1942, Neave and a Dutch officer managed to get into the German guardhouse. Disguised as German officers, they walked boldly out past sentries through a gate into the dry moat, across a park and over the wall.  Wearing civilian clothes, they crossed into neutral Switzerland. On returning to the UK, Neave was employed by MI9 to help and advise other evaders and escapers, where he was codenamed 'Saturday'.

  • 4. Mike Scott and the Eichstätt tunnel

    Portrait of Lieutenant Mike Scott painted on a bedboard at Oflag VIIC, Colditz
    Portrait of Lieutenant Mike Scott painted on a bedboard at Oflag VIIC, Colditz
    EPH 4528

    Mike Scott was one of 65 officers who escaped from Oflag VIIB, at Eichstätt in Bavaria through a tunnel in June 1943. Plans for a mass breakout had begun in 1942 shortly after the arrival of two British officers, Lieutenant Jock Hamilton-Baillie (known as HB) and Captain Frank Weldon. They had been involved in an escape from their previous camp at Warburg. The plan at Eichstätt was to dig a tunnel starting from under a latrine, passing under a rocky slope and up to a villager's chicken coop about 30 metres away. Tunnelling was difficult because of the rocky ground being excavated. However, the obvious difficulty of digging this terrain also meant that the Germans did not search this area of the camp for possible tunnels. Instead, they focussed their investigations on the other side of the camp, where they had discovered soil deposited by the tunnellers. The tunnel was completed by May and the break out took place on the night of 3-4 June. By dawn, 65 POWs were out. Travelling either in pairs or small groups, most headed for neutral Switzerland, but eventually all were recaptured. After two weeks held in detention, all 65 men were sent to Colditz. Their time on the run had occupied over 50,000 German police, soldiers, home guard and Hitler Youth for a week. 

  • 5. Bill Goldfinch and the Colditz glider

    Plan showing one of the original designs developed by POW Bill Goldfinch for a wooden glider. The glider was to be used in a daring escape from the roof of Colditz Castle.
    Plan showing one of the original designs developed by POW Bill Goldfinch for a wooden glider. The glider was to be used in a daring escape from the roof of Colditz Castle.
    EPH 637

    At the beginning of 1944, POWs held at Colditz Castle, Flight Lieutenant Bill Goldfinch, Lieutenant Tony Rolt and Flight Lieutenant Jack Best came up with an ingenious plan to build a glider. The full-size, two-man glider was constructed secretly in an attic from pieces of wood and mattress covers. It was to be launched from the roof on a trolley attached to a bath full of concrete weights. When the bath was dropped, it was thought that there would be enough thrust to propel the glider some 450 metres to land in a small flat field across the River Mulde. Although only four men at a time could fit into the attic, in all 52 prisoners helped in various ways, either as look-outs or assisting with the construction. When Colditz was liberated in April 1945, the assembled glider was revealed, to the astonishment of those who saw it. It was destroyed just after the end of the war, before it could be put to the test.