Oliver Philpot's family examine the new exhibits with Stalag Luft III veteran Aubrey Niner, right. © Imperial War Museum London.
Items from the escape kit belonging to Oliver Philpot, who in WWII tunnelled beneath the wooden vaulting horse to break for freedom from Stalag Luft III, have gone on show at the Imperial War Museum’s Great Escapes exhibition.
The kit – which includes Philpot’s POW identity tag fashioned into a locket, a compass made from a moulded gramophone record, a jacket and an RAF tie adapted to civilian style by the addition of white stitching – was presented to the exhibition by Philpot’s family as the museum announced that Great Escapes will continue until July 2006.
L-R RAF tie; compass; pocket knife; RAF officer's gloves; lighter; home-made locket hiding POW identity tag. © Imperial War Museum London.
Philpot’s daughter, Diana Henfrey, told the 24 Hour Museum: “My father kept the kit in the attic – it was just part of our household. He was very modest about it.”
In 1943 Philpot - along with Lieutenant Michael Codner and Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams – used bowls to dig a cramped escape tunnel under the noses of German guards. The men were hidden inside a wooden vaulting horse, which was carried every day for over three months by fellow prisoners to the camp’s exercise area near the perimeter fence.
Whilst prisoners diligently practised gymnastics above ground, the three dug a 100-foot long escape tunnel, which they used to break out on the evening of October 29.
L-R Michael Codner; Eric Williams; Oliver Philpot. © Imperial War Museum London.
Philpot, Codner and Williams then fled across Germany equipped with false civilian identity papers. Philpot – posing as a Norwegian margarine manufacturer – travelled alone by train to Danzig before arriving by ship to neutral Sweden a week later.
His wife, Dr Rosl Philpot, described to museum staff how, as she unpacked Philpot’s jacket for the exhibition, she could still smell petrol fumes from the German railway carriage.
Both Williams and Philpot were later to write books about their escape, and their story was adapted for the 1950 hit film The Wooden Horse.
“My father made the cold-blooded decision that if he were to stay in the camp, he would probably be shot,” said Henfrey. “That was his motive for escape.”
Stalag Luft III veteran Aubrey Niner with Oliver Philpot's jacket. © Imperial War Museum London.
Attending the presentation was Stalag Luft III veteran Aubrey Niner, who witnessed the wooden horse escape. “The escapers were older than the rest of us,” Niner told the 24 Hour Museum. “Oliver Philpot was about 26. A lot of us younger prisoners were much less self confident.”
“They were imbued with service life. They’d been in Stalag Luft III for a lot longer, which left them with a ‘this can’t go on’ spirit.”
The previous summer, would-be escapees at Stalag Luft III had started around 40 tunnels, but all had been discovered. “The Germans used seismographs to listen for tunnelling,” said Niner. “But the sound of the men jumping over the horse covered the sounds. It was a very useful by-product.”
Stalag Luft III - Scene of the wooden horse escape © Imperial War Museum London.
Describing camp life, Niner said: “We had been looked after by the Luftwaffe, because they knew there were Luftwaffe prisoners in England. But after they discovered the escape, it was a very tense time. The SS guards arrived. There were three roll calls every day and our shutters were closed all night – and you need air to breathe when you are sleeping ten to a room.”
“But when the news came back to us that they’d succeeded – the first 100% successful escape – it was great.”
Great Escapes had been scheduled to close at the end of July 2005, but has been extended for another year by popular demand. The exhibition highlights the best-known escape stories from the Second World War, including the Great Escape and escape attempts from Colditz.
Visitors can now see Philpot’s kit alongside Williams’ forged identity documents and a replica wooden vaulting horse, then climb inside a scale model to experience Philpot’s hiding place.
Niner, who was freed from Stalag Luft III by Allied forces in 1945, seized the opportunity to look around. “It’s very good,” he joked. “I’ve even crawled through the tunnel.”