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
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.
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
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 campnear 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.
3. Airey Neave and his 'Home Run' from Colditz
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
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
Plans for a glider that was built by prisoners on war held at Colditz Castle (L 34 cm x W 52 cm). The plans are hand drawn at 1 cm to 1 foot scale on pink paper and show three views of the glider – front, plan and side. The plan view shows construction details in one wing and one horizontal stabiliser. The plan is annotated with various measurements and calculations. The plan is currently mounted with a white card mount and framed inside a rectangular glazed pale wood frame. The backboard is secured with framer’s points and framing tape.