Their exploits were made legendary in the Hollywood classic The Great Escape.
And now one former Yorkshire student is part of a re-enactment of the daring escape plan of the inmates of Stalag Luft III for the small screen later this year.
Channel Four and Wildfire TV have decided to resurrect these World War Two heroics in a documentary entitled “Digging the Great Escape”. It involves six RAF officers who try and re-enact the plan formulated by the PoWs at the supposedly inescapable camp.
The team were flown to Stalag Luft III, situated in Zagan, Poland, for two weeks where they were given the roles of several of the prisoners made famous in the 1963 film and had to re-enact their experiences.
One of the officers involved in the programme was Leeds University history graduate Flight Lieutenant Jim Smith, currently serving as an intelligence officer with 47 Squadron based at RAF Brize Norton.
Flight Lieutenant Smith, 30, who received his commission in 2003 and has served in Afghanistan and Libya, said: “It was very much a microcosm of what I have experienced in operations. Aspects of it do relate to modern warfare and the method and the grind of doing the forgeries is similar to intelligence.”
The difficulty of the tasks that “The Forger”, the prisoner who was in charge of photo reconnaissance in the 1963 film, completed was made clear when Jim began to re-create the prisoner’s work.
“It was difficult as I’m not an artist and, as an intelligence officer, my role harks back to the film as the guy there was involved in photo reconnaissance,” he said.
“We had to make a hectograph and, through not having the right tools, I had to make everything myself. We needed to get the right tools and paper and I had to use an old 1930’s camera which was much more difficult and meant I had to carry out the development of the pictures and other tasks like that.
“The tunnel building was very difficult. We are professional soldiers while those guys would have been tradesmen before the war.”
For the 65th anniversary of the escape in 2009, several of the former inmates had returned to what remains of the camp and some of the original prisoners were involved in the programme to advise the officers on the tasks, including digging the famous tunnels.
Jim told how the four veterans in the programme helped them. “They would fill in a lot of the details in about how they did it and how they would procure the kit,” he said.
“Doing it in secret would have been extremely difficult. The procurement of all the goods would have been hard and the tasks were difficult especially if you didn’t know what we were meant to be doing.”
Stalag Luft III had over 2,000 allied prisoners from places including Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Scandinavia and one American. Some of those prisoners included seasoned escapees who had previous experience in tunnelling, forgery, intelligence and manufacturing equipment and tools.
The original escape took place in 1944 and involved three tunnels: Tom, Dick and Harry. Tom was discovered by the Germans and destroyed. Another, Dick, was mothballed and used for storage. Harry, based in Hut 104, was used in the infamous escape and saw 76 inmates successfully leave before it was discovered.
Of the 76 who escaped, only three made it back home. The other 73 were caught, often hundreds of miles from the camp, and, apart from 23 who were returned to the camp, most were executed under orders from Hitler himself.
The escape was an incredible feat of engineering for the situation the prisoners found themselves in. During the course of the escape it is estimated that 4,000 bed boards, 90 double bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 62 tables, 34 chairs, 76 benches, 1,370 beading battens, 2000 bits of cutlery, 1,000 ft of electric wire, 600 ft of rope, and 3,424 towels were all used by the prisoners. They made German uniforms and clothing and forged documents and maps. The tunnels were lit by electricity, ventilated, contained a mini railway and ran seven metres underground between the huts and the forest outside the camp.