Former marine Monty Halls retraces the routes of great escapes from Nazi territory, meeting surviving escapees and locals who risked their lives to help them.

Type: Documentary

Languages: English

Status: Running

Runtime: 60 minutes

Premier: 2017-09-16

WWII's Great Escapes: The Freedom Trails - Stalag Luft III - Netflix

Stalag Luft III (German: Stammlager Luft III; literally “Main Camp, Air, III”; SL III) was a Luftwaffe-run prisoner of war (POW) camp during World War II, which held captured Western Allied air force personnel. The Stalag was established in March 1942 in the German province of Lower Silesia near the town of Sagan (now Żagań, Poland), 160 kilometres (100 miles) south-east of Berlin. The site was selected because its sandy soil made it difficult for POWs to escape by tunnelling. It is best known for two escape plots by Allied POWs. One in 1943 that became the basis of a fictionalised film, The Wooden Horse (1950), based on a book by escapee Eric Williams. The so-called Great Escape of March 1944, which was conceived by Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, and was authorised by the senior British officer at Stalag Luft III, Herbert Massey. A heavily fictionalised version of the escape was depicted in a film, The Great Escape (1963), which was based on a book by former prisoner Paul Brickhill. The camp was liberated by Soviet forces in January 1945.

WWII's Great Escapes: The Freedom Trails - Tunnel "Harry" completed - Netflix

“Harry” was finally ready in March 1944. By then the Americans, some of whom had worked on “Tom”, had been moved away; despite its portrayal in the Hollywood film, no American participated in the “Great Escape”. Previously, the attempt had been planned for the summer for its good weather, but in early 1944 the Gestapo visited the camp and ordered increased effort to detect escapes. Rather than risk waiting and having their tunnel discovered, Bushell ordered the attempt be made as soon as it was ready. In their plan, of the 600 who had worked on the tunnels only 200 would be able to escape. The prisoners were separated into two groups. The first group of 100, called “serial offenders,” were guaranteed a place and included 30 who spoke German well or had a history of escapes, and an additional 70 considered to have put in the most work on the tunnels. The second group, considered to have much less chance of success, was chosen by drawing lots; called “hard-arsers”, they would have to travel by night as they spoke little or no German and were only equipped with the most basic fake papers and equipment. The prisoners waited about a week for a moonless night, and on Friday 24 March the escape attempt began. As night fell, those allocated a place moved to Hut 104. Unfortunately for the prisoners, the exit trap door of Harry was frozen solid and freeing it delayed the escape for an hour and a half. Then it was discovered that the tunnel had come up short of the nearby forest; at 10.30 p.m. the first man out emerged just short of the tree line close to a guard tower. (According to Alan Burgess, in his book The Longest Tunnel, the tunnel reached the forest, as planned, but the first few trees were too sparse to provide adequate cover). As the temperature was below freezing and there was snow on the ground, a dark trail would be created by crawling to cover. To avoid being seen by the sentries, the escapes were reduced to about ten per hour, rather than the one every minute that had been planned. Word was eventually sent back that no-one issued with a number above 100 would be able to get away before daylight. As they would be shot if caught trying to return to their own barracks, these men changed back into their own uniforms and got some sleep. An air raid then caused the camp's (and the tunnel's) electric lighting to be shut down, slowing the escape even more. At around 1 a.m., the tunnel collapsed and had to be repaired. Despite these problems, 76 men crawled through to freedom, until at 4:55 a.m. on 25 March, the 77th man was spotted emerging by one of the guards. Those already in the trees began running, while a New Zealand Squadron Leader Leonard Henry Trent VC who had just reached the tree line stood up and surrendered. The guards had no idea where the tunnel entrance was, so they began searching the huts, giving men time to burn their fake papers. Hut 104 was one of the last to be searched, and despite using dogs the guards were unable to find the entrance. Finally, German guard Charlie Pilz crawled back through the tunnel but found himself trapped at the camp end; he began calling for help and the prisoners opened the entrance to let him out, finally revealing its location. An early problem for the escapees was that most were unable to find the way into the railway station, until daylight revealed it was in a recess of the side wall to an underground pedestrian tunnel. Consequently, many of them missed their night time trains, and decided either to walk across country or wait on the platform in daylight. Another unanticipated problem was that this was the coldest March for thirty years, with snow up to five feet deep, so the escapees had no option but to leave the cover of woods and fields and stay on the roads.

WWII's Great Escapes: The Freedom Trails - References - Netflix