Stalag Luft III

Stammlager Luft III, more commonly known as Stalag Luft III was a Luftwaffe-run prisoner-of-war camp during World War II captured allied airmen. It was situated in the German Province of Lower Silesia near the town of Sagan (now Żagań in Poland) about 100 miles south east of Berlin.

Stalag Luft III overview

Stalag Luft III: the scene of the real Great Escape

The site was selected because it would be difficult to escape by tunnelling. As many people know, though, the camp is best known for its two prisoner escapes that took place by tunnelling – as portrayed in the films The Great Escape (1963) and The Wooden Horse (1950), and the books by former prisoners Paul Brickhill and Eric Williams from which the films were adapted (very loosely, in the case of The Great Escape).

The camp

Although Stalag Luft III was an officers-only camp, it retained the title “Stalag” instead of the usual name Oflag (Offizier Lager) as the Luftwaffe had their own nomenclature. Later extensions to the camp added compounds for non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Captured Fleet Air Arm crew were considered to be airmen by the Luftwaffe and no differentiation was made. On occasions non-airmen were also held prisoner in the camp.

The first camp compound (East) was finished and opened in March 1942. The first prisoners, or “kriegies”, as they called themselves (from the German “Kriegsgefangener” meaning prisoner-of-war),  at Stalag Luft III were British RAF and Fleet Air Arm officers imprisoned in April 1942.

The Centre compound was opened in April 1942, originally for British sergeants, but by the end of 1942 replaced by Americans. The North Compound for British airmen, where the Great Escape occurred, opened in March 1943.

A South Compound for US personnel was opened in September 1943 and USAAF prisoners began arriving at the camp in significant numbers the following month and the West Compound was opened in July 1944 for US officers.

Each compound consisted of fifteen single story huts. Each 10 × 12 feet bunkroom slept fifteen men in five triple deck bunks. Eventually the camp grew to around 60 acres in size and came to be home for about 2,500 Royal Air Force officers, about 7,500 U.S. Army Air Forces, and about 900 officers from other Allied air forces.

Escape impossible?

Stalag Luft III had a number of features that made escape extremely difficult.

Construction of escape tunnels, in particular, was discouraged by several factors. The barracks housing the prisoners were raised off the ground to help guards detect any tunneling activity.

Secondly, the camp was constructed on a very sandy subsoil. This subsoil was bright yellow, making it easily detected if put on the surface soil (which was a grey dust) and visible on clothing. The loose, collapsible sand also meant the structural integrity of a tunnel would be very poor.

A final defence against tunnel construction was the use of seismograph microphones around the perimeter of the camp to detect any sounds of digging.