Thursday, July 1, 2021

A Fascinating POW Escape from Germany

by Cindy K. Stewart

Many of you are familiar with the movie "The Great Escape," depicting a major attempt by American and British soldiers to escape from a POW camp in Germany. Although the movie is based on a true story, elements are fictionalized for the sake of the film.

Stalag Luft III. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum© IWM HU 21018

The escape I'm sharing today took place in 1943, months before the Great Escape but in the same prisoner of war camp, Luft Stalag III. The plan was simple - dig a tunnel from the exercise yard to the outside of the camp rather than from the barracks or other structures, which were far from the fences. Three British officers, Lieutenant Michael Codner, Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams, and Canadian Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot, with the help of many other POWs, put the escape plan into action. 

Life in Luft Stalag III. Public Domain.

The POWs built a large wooden horse from crates used to transport Red Cross packages. They added four handles and carried the horse out to the exercise yard each day under the guise of practicing their vaulting skills. In the beginning, the Germans thoroughly inspected the horse and didn't find anything suspicious. 

Lt. Codner and Lt. Williams took turns hiding inside the horse before it was hauled outside. After it was put in place, the man inside began digging a tunnel. He scooped dirt into sacks and hung them inside the horse. At the end of practice, the digger placed a wooden cover over the hole and spread a layer of topsoil on top. Then the prisoners carried the horse back to the barracks. To throw the Germans off, sometimes no one would hide inside, and the POWs "would knock the horse over to demonstrate that nothing was going on underneath." 

British Prisoners of War Tend Their Garden at Stalag Luft III.
Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. © IWM HU 20930

Lt. Philpot's job was to arrange for men to carry the horse outside, practice vaulting (for many hours), and dispose of the dirt at the end of each day. The yellow sand, which the diggers encountered a few feet below ground, had to be mixed into the soil of the prisoner's garden and the topsoil of the yard without detection by the guards. As they worked, Codner and Williams suffered from stale and unhealthy air due to the build-up of carbon dioxide in the tunnel. Eventually they used a pipe to poke air holes to the surface only a few feet above them. The finished tunnel was less than three feet wide and three feet high.

Drawings of the Wooden Horse Escape on display at the Museum of Allied Forces Prisoners of War Martyrdom, Sagan, Poland

After three months, on October 29, 1943, Codner, Williams, and Philpot escaped from the completed tunnel dressed as French laborers. After they were in the tunnel, a fourth POW hid inside the horse "to cover the entrance one last time." The escapees waited until dusk to exit the other end of the tunnel and slip into the woods. Philpot split from the others and traveled by train to Danzig in Poland. His false papers, created in the prison camp, satisfied the inspectors who checked his documents along the way.

Codner and Williams made it to Stettin on the north coast of Germany, hid in the bilge of a ship heading to Copenhagen, Denmark, and then were smuggled on a fishing boat to neutral Sweden. Philpot located a sympathetic Swedish captain in the port of Danzig, Poland, who agreed to take him to Sweden. The captain bribed the German inspectors who checked departing ships and delivered the POW safely to Sweden a few days before Codner and Williams. The three soldiers reunited at the British consulate and were sent by plane back to their home base in England.

The Swedish merchant vessel Aralizz that Philpott smuggled himself onto in Danzig Harbor
Courtesy of Creative Commons via Wikipedia



Strange and Ocscure Stories of World War II by Don Aines. Skyhorse Publishing, 2020.


Cindy Stewart, a high school social studies teacher, church pianist, and inspirational historical romance author, writes stories of hope and love. Her first manuscript was a 2020 finalist for the Georgia Romance Writers Maggie Award of Excellence, placed second in the 2019 North Texas Romance Writers Great Expectations contest, semi-finaled in the American Christian Fiction Writer’s Genesis contest, and won ACFW’s First Impressions contest in the historical category. Cindy is passionate about revealing God’s handiwork in history. She resides in North Georgia with her college sweetheart and husband of forty years. Their married daughter, son-in-law, and four adorable grandchildren live only an hour away. Cindy’s currently writing two fiction series set in WWII Europe.


  1. Replies
    1. Yes, especially when only three POWs made it during the Great Escape!

  2. wow what an interesting post. thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks for posting! Very clever of them to do that!

    1. Thank you, Connie. It's always great to hear from you. :)

  4. What a fascinating story. Our men were creative and determined to get home to their families. So good to know this story and many more from that time. Thanks for the research in finding it.

    1. Thank you, Martha! More escape stories to come. :) Praying for Rex.