Stalag Luft III was a prisoner of war camp build specially for Allied airmen in the vicinity of Zagan in Poland. The camp was build in 1942 neighbouring Stalag Luft VIIIC in the east, and it was the last camp build in this region. Stalag is short for Stammlager (base camp) or Kriegsgefangenen Mannschafts Stammlager in full, and Luft is short for Luftwaffe which means Air force.
According to the Geneva convention prisoners of war were treated humane but could be used as workforce. By giving the airmen a military rank the RAF made sure their personnel was treated better if captured and did not have to work for the Germans and so all RAF airmen were commissioned officers or non commissioned officers.
From the start in 1942 the majority of the inmates were airmen from the British RAF, American USAAF flyers soon followed in 1943. As the RAF recruited foreign airmen into their ranks, Stalag Luft III housed more and more nationalities as well. The camp saw Polish, French, Belgian, Dutch, Norwegian, South Africa, Czech and other airmen in its barracks.
The camp was famous for its high number of escape attempts. The prisoners of war formed a secret committee called “X” inside the camp to plan, organize and control the escapes. Led by Major Roger Bushell they dug tunnels leading them under the fence and out of the camp into the woods. They build a modern Trojan horse, a gymnastic vaulting horse build from Red Cross parcels wood which was a diversion, from the inside they dug a tunnel. They walked out of the camp with two fake German guards toward the shower compartments of the neighbouring camp for a delousing treatment and so on. Mostly only two or three could stay away out of German captivity, sometimes the escapees were divided, some send to concentration camp Sachsenhausen or Castle Colditz were high ranking officers were kept.
As mentioned the airmen received Red Cross parcels for the Germans could not provide enough food each day for the inmates. This gave the opportunity for smuggling extra items into the camp like maps, tools, information, compasses and so on. While the houses in the camp were build above ground to discourage digging of tunnels. Even this could not stop the men from trying to escape the camp. The camp housed 800 guard but they were not fit for active duty, too old or too young to fight at the front.
The Great escape
Simultaneously the airmen dug 4 tunnels, Tom, Dick, George and Harry. Tom was discovered and Dick was a tunnel between barracks, not leading outside the camp. The great escape took place on the night of 24 March 1943. 76 prisoners escaped through a 110 meter long tunnel named Harry. Unfortunately the tunnel fell short and did not end in the woods, but managed to cross the fence. After the alarm was raised and the hunt on the airmen seized only 3 escapees managed to stay out of German clutches, the other 73 were caught again and brought back to the camp. Two Norwegian and a Dutchman stayed out of captivity.
Hitler personally ordered the infamous “Sagan Befehl”. Ordering all 73 to be put to death. It is said that due to the interference of Herman Göring this number was reduced to 50. Field Marshal Keitel, Major-General Westhoff and Major-General Graevenitz all argued against this order for it was in conflict with the Geneva convention. A memorial for these fifty can be found a bit further in the woods.
Stalag Luft III
As said the camp housed 800 guards. Beside these there were about 2500 Royal Air Force officers, 7500 Unites States Army Air Force airmen and some 900 officers from other Allied forces at its peak. It was commanded by Kommadant Oberst Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau together with Major Gustav Simoleit. It was build on 60 hectares of land complete with library, school, kitchen, water reservoir and theatre.
Stalag Luft III was set free on the 27th of January in 1945 by the arrival of the Russian army. Just before midnight the day before the inmates marches out of the gate with their German guards, destination the city of Spremberg.
Beside the marked tunnels like Harry and Dick there is not much left of the former prison camp. There are some leftovers to be found as shown on the photo’s, they come with information signs so you have a better idea of the remains you are looking at and the layout of the campsite. There are no real clear paths leading to the object but it is not too hard to find them. There is no fence around the perimeter therefore it is always open. Nearby is a museum on the camp with a mock up of tunnel Harry, we did not visit it though, it was closed when we arrived. At the beginning of the woods you can find a memorial for “The Fifty” next to a Russian war cemetery.
Mind your step though, lots of debris can cause a nasty fall and there are some pit at the site.