The woods that border the Polish town of Zagan are so dense that – were it not for the yellow digger, tents and camera crews that have gathered on their edge – it would be easy to walk by, unaware that the marching rows of conifers hold a secret.
The people and equipment are clustered by a hole, around 40 feet wide and six feet deep, surrounded by piles of excavated sand. Beyond them, a little deeper into the trees, an occasional toppled brick chimney and concrete foundations pushing through the carpet of pine needles offer further clues that Zagan has a unique history.
During the Second World War, the town was Sagan, a Nazi garrison well within Germany and, instead of forest, visitors would have found the guard towers and wire security fence surrounding a prisoner-of-war camp for captured Allied air crew.
This was Stalag Luft III where, on the night of 24–25 March 1944, 76 men embarked on the audacious break-out that is tattooed on our national consciousness thanks to the 1963 Hollywood film The Great Escape.
The escape was led by a fiercely driven RAF officer, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell. His aim was to disrupt massively the German war effort by releasing more than 200 officers into the heart of the Nazi Reich through a tunnel codenamed Harry.
Through the winter of 1943/44, captive Polish stonemasons cut down through the brick and concrete plinth supporting the stove in hut 104, thus thwarting under-hut checks, before tunnellers took the shaft down to a depth of seven metres and then headed horizontally for more than 100 metres, aiming for the woods outside the compound… and, ultimately, freedom.
Harry was lined and shored with 4,000 bed boards, had its own railway and electrical lighting circuit, and the tons of sand that were excavated were scattered around the camp by “penguins”, prisoners with bags of spoil hidden in their trousers.
All this was done by men who worked with improvised or stolen tools under constant fear of discovery or tunnel collapse and in conditions of utter secrecy.
Frank Stone was born in Quarndon, Derbyshire, and is now 89. He knows all about the sand underneath Stalag Luft III; he was one of the penguins distributing tunnel waste around the camp under the noses of the German guards. Stone was an 18-year-old aircraftman on his second-ever combat mission when his Handley Page bomber was shot down in August 1940.
He was sent to Stalag Luft III in 1942 and was v among the first batch of RAF prisoners sent to the newly opened – and supposedly escape-proof – north compound on 1 April 1943: “April Fools’ Day!” he laughs.But he also recalls the seriousness of the prisoners’ intent.
“From the beginning we knew where the tunnel would be. We had pinched a plan of the camp as soon as we marched in. We’d cased the joint and we knew exactly what we were going to do… dig.”
He’s here today, just over 67 years after the escape, to watch a team, led by historian Dr Howard Tuck and Lt Colonel Philip Westwood of the Royal Engineers, attempt to locate and, if possible, reopen the tunnel and send down mini-cameras to check whether any of it survives.
Using ground-penetrating radar they discover the line of Harry under the sand and then dig an entrance shaft parallel to the original, driving a passageway across in attempt to enter the workshop and airpump chamber, which the team hoped might still be intact.
But it hasn’t worked. Even with a team of professional miners, and the best technology, Westwood has been forced to abandon the dig, which at one point threatened to destabilise the area around the tunnel entrance.
Archaeologists and mining engineers are flopped forlornly on the ground, drained by the summer heat, mosquitoes and the relentless task of digging sand so fine that it immediately back-fills any hole they open.
“We failed,” Colonel Westwood admits ruefully. “But there is only one of these in the world and I didn’t want to be the man that destroyed it.”
But in that failure there is success of sorts as the project’s chief archaeologist Tony Pollard points out: “We’ve learned just how difficult it is to build a tunnel in this sand. We’ve had the same problems as them, obviously we can’t step in their shoes – we don’t have Germans breathing down our necks – but that physical labour, you can almost feel you are there.”
Pollard has, at least, uncovered the original entrance to Harry, visible now for the first time since the Germans back-filled the shaft. The soil they used gives the square its darker hue but it’s the circle of rust at the foot of the six-foot-deep hole that confirms this is Harry. It marks the end of an air pipe made from Klim dried milk tins, a poignant symbol of the men’s desire to escape the camp.
As anyone who has seen The Great Escape knows, the exit was short of the wood line, a fact only discovered by the first men out. Nonetheless 76 men escaped before the Germans discovered the tunnel.
Only two Norwegians and one Dutchman made home runs, but over 100,000 Germans were diverted to the hunt. That was the escapers’ real victory and the reason why on recapture 50 PoWs, including Bushell, were executed on Hitler’s direct orders.
Bushell had devised a plan based around three tunnels all hidden in prisoners’ huts: Tom, Dick and Harry. The Germans discovered Tom, Dick was used as storage; which left Harry. Almost exactly a year after he arrived, the tunnel was complete and Frank Stone was 215 on the escape roster. It’s not that moment he recalls today, but what happened subsequently when news of the deaths started to come in.
“We heard rumours and then a list of 39 men who’d been shot was put on the cookhouse noticeboard. A week after, another four names were put up and so it went on until the total of 50. We were very depressed. It was bad time for us. Eerie.”
Stone still has a keen eye and he points out a pile of concrete that was hut 104. “That was my bed space,” he recalls. “They were very long huts, 25 rooms in a hut that ccommodated about 120 men.
“Bushell was a natural leader. He would walk into a room and people would sit up to attention. Not a bombastic fellow, just a natural ability so that people looked up to him and accepted his authority. He was a very clever man.”
After the shootings there could be little doubt about what lay in store for future escapers. Yet they started a fourth tunnel, the little-spoken-of George. Rather than being dug as an escape route this was an insurance policy; the PoWs were digging towards a weapons store in the adjacent German compound so they could arm themselves for a potential last stand.
With typical British black humour the entrance was underneath seat 13 of the camp theatre. And it’s under the theatre that in the last week of Pollard’s excavation Stalag Luft III has surrendered more of its extraordinary secrets: part of a tunnel trolley with two wheels intact, a near-complete air pump and, in the tunnel itself, archaeologists have exposed a fully intact electrical wiring system and more ventilation pipes.
The incredible thing for me,” says a triumphant Pollard, “is what this shows about the resolution and the bravery of the men. And it is exceptionally moving to have Frank here… Well, there aren’t many chances to do that.”
It makes for an emotional moment when Frank Stone steps carefully down into the remains of the theatre to be shown the finds that have been hidden for 70 years. He shakes his head as he remembers the bravery, and the loss.
As we walk back through the woods to the square of earth that marks the only visible remnant of escape tunnel Harry, his thoughts are with the 50 men for whom Harry was the route, not to freedom, but the firing squad.
“It’s very exciting, astounding really, to find the tunnel and the wheels,” he says quietly. “But really, the important thing is the men that went down this tunnel and didn’t come back… the 50. I don’t want them to be forgotten.”
See the team Digging the Great Escape tonight at 9:00pm on Channel 4
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 22 November 2011.