Imperial War Museum Duxford To Host Great Escape Reunion

By David Prudames | 15 March 2004
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Shows a black and white photograph of men queuing behind barbed wire at a prisoner of war camp. In the background there is a long shed-like building.

Photo: many prisoners of war thought it their duty to escape and rejoin the war effort. © Imperial War Museum.

Survivors of one of the Second World War’s most enduring and daring escapades will be reunited, for what may be the last time, at the Imperial War Museum Duxford, this weekend.

On the night of March 24 1944, 76 Allied airmen escaped from the infamous Stalag Luft III prison camp in Germany, a feat later immortalised in the ever-popular 1963 film The Great Escape.

The screen classic stars such greats as Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough, but some of the men who did it for real 60 years ago will be signing copies of a new book about their ingenious escape at Duxford on March 20.

"These men were all incredibly brave and their sheer brio and ingenuity is staggering," explained Tracey Woods, Marketing and Public Relations Manager at Duxford.

Shows a photograph of the glass-fronted exterior of the American Air Museum at the Imperial War Museum Duxford.

Photo: the survivors will be getting together at Duxford's American Air Museum. © Imperial War Museum.

"It is a tremendous honour to have them here at Duxford and to be providing the launch venue for this remarkable book. This really does represent a once in a lifetime opportunity to talk to the real people behind one of our wartime stories of heroism and courage."

An Escape Committee, code-named X, was formed at Stalag Luft III in the spring of 1943 and under the leadership of 'Big X', Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, an ambitious plan to get 200 prisoners out of the camp was born.

Well of aware that the odds of so many reaching England were remote, it was Bushell’s intention to cause as much disruption as possible to the German administration. He hoped valuable men and resources would have to be diverted from the general war effort in order to round up the escapees.

Three tunnels, code-named Tom, Dick and Harry, were started in April 1943. They were dug to a depth of nine metres (30 feet) and shored up with wooden boards.

The prisoners stole or adapted what they had to make tools, light the tunnels, secure them, forge documents, make civilian clothing and even their own 'escape' food.

Shows a black and white line drawing of a prisoner of war camp.

Photo: escape plans were detailed and extensive. © Imperial War Museum.

A mere three metres (10 feet) from completion, Tom was discovered, but the prisoners just switched their efforts to Harry and used the partially excavated Dick as a deposit for the sand.

Having taken a year to build, Harry was more than 91 metres (300 feet) long when it was finally completed in March 1944.

Despite the ground being covered in snow and conditions far from ideal, the prisoners feared their tunnel would be discovered so decided to go ahead on March 24.

One by one, they were rounded up, frost-bitten and exhausted, the majority of them caught within 50 miles of the camp. Of the original 76 who made it out, only three reached England. Of the remaining 73, 50 were shot.

Shows a black and white photograph of three uniformed men crouched around a small cooking stove, while another is standing to the right. In the background there are tents with other groups of men gathered around them.

Photo: © Imperial War Museum.

The escape itself was nothing short of miraculous and remains the highest number of RAF prisoners ever to escape en masse.

Organisers are hoping that around nine men, from tunnellers and penguins, those responsible for dispersing soil, to some who actually escaped, will be able to make it to the reunion.

Gathering to reminisce, the group will also launch a new book about the daring escape entitled Lie in the Dark and Listen. The book has been written by Ken 'Shag' Rees, who was caught in the tunnel and was part of the inspiration behind Steve McQueen's character in the film.

By the age of 21 he had flown 56 bombing missions over Germany, taken part in the siege of Malta, been shot down into a Norwegian lake, captured, questioned by the Gestapo and sent to Stalag Luft III.

The book launch will take place in Duxford’s American Air Museum between 10.00 and 16.00 and will enable members of the public to meet the men who made history as well as be among the first to purchase a signed copy.

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