My father-in-law recently sent along a link to this fascinating story from a few months back.
The famous Steve McQueen movie, The Great Escape, was based on the true story of the daring escape attempt made by prisoners of the Stalag Luft III POW camp during WWII. In real life, the men dug three tunnels–nicknamed Tom, Dick, and Harry, 30 feet under the camp in an attempt to break out. The tunnels were made with homemade tools and crafty ingeniousness. The men would put the excavated sand in bags they hung around their necks and under their trousers and then pull a string to open the bags and release the dirt nonchalantly when they played soccer.
It was the 100 ft long Harry tunnel that became the stuff of legend on the night of March 24, 1944, when 76 Allied prisoners escaped from the camp. But only 3 of the escapees made it to freedom. The rest were rounded up; 23 were brought back to camp, and 50 were executed by the Germans.
The Germans thought the mass execution would crush any further thoughts of escape, but instead, the men got right back to work on a fourth tunnel named George. The tunnel, which was just recently discovered nearly 70 years after it was built, was not an escape tunnel but instead led to a German stash of arms–the men planned to grab the guns and then fight their way out.
The team that uncovered the George tunnel was greatly impressed by its construction and what they found inside it:
Down a single step lay the tunnel itself, intricately shored with bed boards, wired for light and equipped with the trademark trolley system used to shift both sand and men quickly and silently through the tunnels. It looked like a miniature railway with trolleys running on tracks linked by rope and pulled along by men at either end.
‘George turned out to be an absolute gem,’ explained Dr Pollard. ‘We found the shaft and excavated the tunnel which ran the entire length of the theatre. It was incredibly well preserved, with timber-lined walls, electrical wiring and homemade junction boxes, and was tall enough to walk through at a stoop. The craftsmanship is phenomenal. You can even see the groove on the top of the manhole cover, where it would swivel and slot into the floorboard above.
…The massive collection of artefacts found inside the tunnel included trenching tools; a fat-burning lamp crafted from a Klim tin; solder made from the silver foil of cigarette packets for the wiring system; a belt buckle and briefcase handle from the escapers’ fake uniforms as well as a German gun near hut 104. They also uncovered the axle and wheels from one of the tunnel trolleys, identical to the one used in Harry, and the remains of an air pump; a kind of hand-operated bellows which drew fresh air from the surface down a duct to the tunnel.
But the piece de resistance was a clandestine PoW radio crafted from a biscuit box and cannibalised from two radios smuggled into the camp.
Says camp survivor Frank Stone, 89 : “I hope that what has been revealed will remind everybody what we went through and how we met the challenges. It was a privilege to be involved.”