Seventy years ago was a busy time at Stalag III, a German POW camp near the town of Sagan. 76 Allied pows escaped the camp in the largest mass escape of Allied prisoners during the War. The plan of the escape was conceived by RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, the officer in charge of the camp escape committee. He announced his plan to the committee in the Spring of 1943 beginning with these words:
Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time. By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun.
The plan involved three tunnels, Tom, Dick and Harry. More than 600 POWs were involved in the construction. In the midst of the construction of the tunnels, the American POWs were moved to another compound and, contra Hollywood, no Americans as a result participated in the actual escape, although they had helped with the construction of the tunnels prior to their move.
On March 24, 1944, a moonless night, 76 men made good their escape. The Germans realized what was going on when the 77th man was seen climbing out of the tunnel. 73 of the prisoners were eventually recaptured, with three making good their escape. Hitler was enraged by the escapes and ordered the execution of the escapees. German officers up to and including Reichsfuhrer Herman Goering were appalled, arguing that such executions would violate the Geneva Convention. Hitler eventually compromised with fifty of the recaptured escapees murdered by the SS, including Squadron Leader Bushell. It should be noted that the German officers at Stalag III strictly observed the Geneva Convention, and one can imagine their feelings at having their military honor stained by the SS. Indeed a later camp commandant, Oberst Franz Braune, allowed a memorial to the murdered men to be erected by the prisoners and he contributed to it. (In regard to the East Front both sides waged a war of extermination with prisoners starved to death and murdered by the hundreds of thousands.)
The skill and ingenuity of the men who made The Great Escape deserve to be remembered and honored as a testament to the desire of the human spirit to be free, even when the body in which it is contained is a prisoner.