THE GREAT ESCAPE


The Great Escape  

Untouched for almost seven decades,  the tunnel used in the Great Escape has finally been unearthed.

The 111-yard passage nicknamed  ‘Harry’ by Allied prisoners was sealed by the Germans after the audacious break-out from the POW camp Stalag Luft III in western   Poland.

Despite huge interest in the subject, encouraged  by the film starring Steve McQueen, the tunnel remained  undisturbed over the decades because it was behind the Iron Curtain  and the Soviet authorities had no interest in its significance.

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But at last British archaeologists have excavated  it, and discovered its remarkable secrets.

Many of the bed boards which had been joined together  to stop it collapsing were still in position. And the ventilation shaft, ingeniously crafted from used powdered milk containers known as Klim Tins, remained in working order.

Scattered throughout the tunnel, which is 30ft below  ground, were bits of old metal buckets, hammers and crowbars which were used to hollow out the route.

A total of 600 prisoners worked on three tunnels  at the same time.  They were nicknamed Tom, Dick and Harry and were just 2 ft square for most of their length. It was on the night of March 24 and 25, 1944, that 76 Allied airmen escaped through Harry.

Barely a third of the 200 prisoners many in fake  German uniforms and civilian outfits and carrying false identity papers, who were meant to slip away managed to leave before the alarm was raised when escapee number 77 was spotted.

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Tunnel vision: the tunnel reconstruction showing  trolley system.

Only three made it back to Britain. Another 50 were executed by firing squad on the orders of Adolf Hitler, who was furious after learning of the breach of security. In all, 90 boards from bunk beds, 62 tables, 34 chairs and 76 benches, as well as thousands of items including knives, spoons, forks, towels and blankets were squirreled away by the Allied prisoners  to aid the escape plan under the noses of their captors.

Although the Hollywood movie suggested otherwise, NO Americans were involved in the operation. Most were British, and the others were from Canada (all the tunnelers were Canadian personnel with backgrounds in mining), Poland, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa.

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The site of the tunnel, recently excavated by British  archaeologists.The  latest dig, over three weeks in August, located the entrance to Harry, which was originally concealed under a stove in Hut 104.

The team also found another tunnel, called George,  whose exact position had not been charted. It was never used as the 2,000 prisoners were forced to march to other camps as the Red Army approached in January 1945.

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