Friday, March 24, 2023

The Not-So-Great Escape

By Terrie Todd

Bob Crane as Colonel Robert E. Hogan

Maybe, like me, you’re old enough to remember Hogan’s Heroes or you’ve seen reruns of the  World War II TV series that ran for six seasons from 1965-1971—longer than the actual war. I personally recall having quite a crush on actor Bob Crane, who played the lead character Colonel Robert E. Hogan. The show made a joke of life in a POW camp, painting the Nazis as bumbling idiots under whose watch the brilliant prisoners were free to come and go through their secret tunnel. Perhaps the show was exactly what its audience members needed a mere twenty years after WWII changed their lives. Now that I’m old enough to know better, I can’t help wondering what actual former POWs thought of the show. Sadly, actor Bob Crane died by homicide at the age of 49 in 1978.

Steve McQueen in The Great Escape
Have you seen the 1963 World War II movie The Great Escape, starring the handsome Steve McQueen in his defining role? The movie is loosely based on a novel by Australian Author Paul Brickhill. Brickhill loosely based his novel on actual events. No Hollywood ending awaited the 76 real-life men who broke out of Stalag Luft III. In addition to other liberties, the screenwriters significantly increased the involvement of American POWs and omitted the crucial role that Canadians played in building the tunnels and in the escape itself.

Photo Credit: American Air Museum

The real-life story contains little glory or comedy, but it certainly proved the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Allied prisoners who were “guests” of Stalag Luft III near Sagen, Germany. The camp was designed especially for airmen who were known to have escaped other camps. The Nazis raised prisoners’ huts off the ground so guards could see any activity occurring beneath. They buried microphones nine feet underground along the camp’s perimeter fencing. They built the entire camp atop yellow sand that would prove tough to tunnel through and difficult to conceal.

I can’t help thinking the imprisoned Allied airmen loved nothing better than a challenge. According to the Geneva Convention rules, ten days in solitary confinement was the consequence of attempting escape and the men figured it was worth it. Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, a Royal Air Force pilot who’d been shot down over France during the evacuation of Dunkirk, led the secret operation. In the spring of 1943, Bushell and over 600 prisoners of war began building three tunnels with the code names Tom, Dick, and Harry. The plan called for each tunnel to stretch more than 300 feet to the protective cover of the forest outside the camp’s perimeter fence.

Scavenging materials, bribing guards, and plain-old resourcefulness all played a part. The men used tin cans to dig, made candles from fat skimmed off greasy soup (using their pajama cords for wicking), built ladders from bed frames, and even strung electric lights in their tunnels using stolen wire. Their clever lookout system used subtle signs such as fiddling with a shoelace or turning the page of a book to warn of an approaching guard.

The Nazis celebrated when they discovered “Tom,” unaware that two other tunnels existed. Eventually, the airmen decided to use “Dick” to store their contraband supplies and focused on the completion of “Harry.” With its elaborate pulley system, the prisoners could pull one man at a time through the tunnel to freedom. They planned to move 200 men on the night of March 24, 1944—more than a year after tunneling had begun. Or so they thought.

When the first man, British bomber pilot Johnny Bull, reached the end of the tunnel and made his way to the surface, he discovered their miscalculation. Although he was outside the fence, he was still a few feet from the safety of the forest. This meant the next man had to wait for an “all-clear” tug of the rope, which greatly reduced the number of men who could attempt escape.

By 5:00 the next morning, one of the Nazi guards discovered the tunnel. Seventy-six prisoners had broken out of their supposed escape-proof camp. A massive manhunt ensued throughout the countryside. After two weeks, they’d re-captured 73 of the escapees. Only three got away—a Dutchman who made it to Gibraltar by rail and foot, and two Norwegians who stowed away on a freighter to Sweden. Hitler ordered the execution of 50 of the recaptured prisoners, one of whom was Roger Bushell. He was killed by the Gestapo at the age of 33. In 1947, a military tribunal found 18 Nazis guilty of war crimes for shooting the escapees. Thirteen of them were executed.

Squadron Leader Roger Bushell

Terrie Todd is the award-winning author of six historical and split-time novels set in Canada, as well as one nonfiction book, Out of My Mind: A Decade of Faith and Humor. Terrie lives with her husband, Jon, in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada where they raised their three children. They are grandparents to five boys.



On the cusp of World War II, a seventeen-year-old farm girl finds herself alone and carrying a heavy secret. Never telling a soul, Cornelia pours out the painful events in her diary. Decades later, Cornelia’s granddaughter, Benita, is in the midst of her own crisis, experiencing several losses in the same week, including the grandmother she adored. On the brink of divorce, she discovers Cornelia’s diary. Now the secrets of her grandmother’s past lead Benita on an unexpected journey of healing, discovery, and faith. The Silver Suitcase Kindle eBook is on sale for $1.99 for the month of March 2023.


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  1. Thank you for posting today. What a sad story of the attempted escape. The atrocities of WWII should never be forgotten. Your book sounds like a great one!!

  2. We knew a man who was in the POW camp based on the Great Escape. He had interesting stories to tell. The scene where the German's move the stove and descended into the tunnel and the prisoners pour scalding hot water from the stove on them really happened. Our friend said every man got thirty days in the cooler. The war was over before his turn came up. Great post

  3. I went to the WWII museum in Berlin. So many instances of ingenuity to save others. false seats in cars, false suitcases, the courage and determination is inspiring.! I'm reading The Hiding Place with my daughter now.