Code-named Operation Escape 200, it was better known as The Great Escape. Allied captives, predominantly Royal Air Force officers, planned to spring 200 men from Stalag Luft Ill, a German prison camp near Sagan, Silesia, now in Polish territory. It was an adventure, a game of chance and a golden opportunity to outwit the enemy. But the men who slaved to pull off the most memorable prison breakout ever were to be sorely disappointed. On the night of the escape, 24 March 1944, a conspiracy of events allowed just 76 men to flee the barbed wire and watchtowers of the Stalag. And of those, only three made it to freedom, two Norwegians and a Dutchman. Worst of all, 50 RAF servicemen chosen at random were shot by the Gestapo as a reprisal for the daring plot, to satisfy Hitler's fury. The Nazis committed an atrocity which the men of the Royal Air Force would never forgive and forget. Stalag Luft III was built in 1941 on the orders of Hermann Goring, head of the Luftwaffe, to house the increasing numbers of Allied airmen shot down in raids over Germany. It was a far cry from the concentration camps for which Hitler and his henchmen became famous. Although 12 men were forced to share a room, some days around the clock, they were allowed to play games like rugby and football and enjoyed reasonable rations. The prisoners of war totalling 5,000 were even allowed to build their own theatre where they staged productions twice weekly. It was an indication of the sneaking regard in which Goring held the courageous airmen - as was the treatment dished out to them if they escaped. Until 1944, when the tide of war had turned against Germany, British airmen had to endure only a verbal lashing and a spell in solitary confinement if they were recaptured. They were treated to applause and cheers when they emerged to rejoin their comrades. The RAF men held in Stalag Luft III Shared Rooms similar to this. Stalag Luft III was constructed on sand. It wasn't long before enterprising airmen housed in the officers' compound desperate to escape to Britain and resume the battle against Hitler had dug a maze of different tunnels from inside the complex. The escape committee run by Senior British Officer, Wing Commander Harry 'Wings' Day, a veteran of the Great War was active if something of a shambles. Only when South African Roger Bushell, an experienced escapee, took charge did the plans for The Great Escape take shape. He believed the best way to harry the Germans was to have scores of their internees turned loose at one time. To do it, he hit upon the idea of having three tunnels only for escaping purposes, nicknamed Tom, Dick and Harry. Work started in the summer of 1943 but was dramatically halted when the existence of Tom was discovered in October. It wasn't until January 1944 that work resumed. This time the intention was to complete Harry as quickly as possible. Its entrance in Hut 104 was disguised beneath a heating stove. Digging with usually nothing more than empty tins, a team of two men squeezed into a tiny shaft scooping away the sandy earth and propping up the extending tunnel with wooden supports taken from the prison bunk beds. Engineers among the prisoners designed and made a trolley running on wooden rails large enough to carry a man on which the diggers and their sand were eventually ferried. At first the operation was lit by fat burning lamps. Later however, a supply of electricity was filched from the camp itself by means of some stolen cable. There was also an air pump made of a kit bag and piping constructed of old food tins which provided fresh oxygen to the tunnel while digging was in progress. Equipment needed by tunnel builders who burrowed their way through sandy soil beneath barbed wire fences..A trolley used to move sand from Harry. Beyond the designing and digging, there were teams of prisoners involved in scattering the dug-out sand. One technique was to fill two sausage-like containers with sand to wear down each trouser leg, releasing it slowly during a trudge around the campsite. The sand bags were the ingenious idea of another escape organiser, Captain Peter Fanshawe, taken prisoner during the Norwegian campaign. Nicknamed 'Horn blower' by his comrades, he was dispatched to another camp shortly before the breakout and so, to his immense disappointment, was unable to take part. Following liberation, he was later put in command of the sloop Amethyst during the Korean War and died shortly before the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Great Escape in 1994, aged 82. Those who made friends with camp guards elicited further tools and even cameras for forging the documents that would be needed outside the camp. Yet another group set to work making service suits look like civilians garb using dye concocted of boot polish or ink. More than 500 officers worked frantically on the project, although not everyone in the camp chose to get involved. Many thought the end of the war was imminent and considered that it would be foolhardy to risk lives at this belated stage. They had a point. The notion that the men were escaping to freedom was quite wrong. They were escaping from the camp into German territory from where it would be a long and dangerous haul home. Nevertheless, when the 330 ft tunnel was completed by 14th March there was no shortage of volunteers to go through it. Bushell selected the first 25 himself. The rest were drawn out of a hat. Astonishingly, guards noticed nothing as the 200 men converged silently on hut 104 before dusk when the doors were locked. Three men went down the tunnel to complete the last two feet of digging. With horror, when they finally pierced the crust of snowy, frozen ground above them, they discovered the tunnel fell 30ft short of the forest which would give them essential cover. It was in clear sight of the watchtowers and their guards. Quickly, the determined bunch devised a rope alarm system, in which a man in the forest would signal the all-clear to the next in line to escape by giving two tugs. The air pump used in the tunnel Harry. Below ground, things were not going well. The electric lights rigged up to aid the men in the tunnel cut out due to an air raid on Berlin. The troops of men sweeping through on the trolley caused landfalls which had to be repaired. In the end, it was decided only 80 men would escape that night before the tunnel had to be sealed. Then disaster struck. A German soldier accidentally happened on the tunnel exit and raised the alarm. Those in the tunnel had to beat a hasty retreat, gorging their rations and burning their papers and money before being discovered. Seventy-six men who had made it to freedom had to scatter at speed. While they were mostly British, the number included some Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Poles, Czechs and Norwegians as well as one Lithuanian and one Greek. Although there was help and support given by Americans in the construction of the tunnels, all were moved to other camps before the date of the escape. In the national alert that followed, most of the escapees were picked up almost immediately. With appalling weather conditions, anyone who remained on the loose soon suffered the effects of exposure. Only three made it to freedom, including Norwegian Jens Muller. He described being on the run in the Third Reich as just as exciting as the film “The Great Escape” but not in that wild cowboy fashion. Fifty officers were chosen by the local Gestapo for execution. With the exception of Bushell, the selection appears to have been made randomly. Bushell, the barrister and bon viveur had been warned that if he broke out again he was a prime target for the Gestapo who were irritated by his escape artistry. His sadly ill-advised response was merely to say: I am not going to be caught. Looking down the entrace of the shaft of Harry. In groups of twos and threes, they were driven into a forest and shot in the back of the head after being invited to leave the car they were travelling in for a 'pinkel pause' or toilet break. Their bodies were cremated and the ashes taken back as an example to the men left in Stalag Luft III. There, news of the merciless killings was greeted with disbelief. A poster went up in the camp stating: “The escape from prison camps is no longer a sport!” It went on: Urgent warning is given against making future escapes! In plain English, stay in the camp where you will be safe! Breaking out of it is now a damned dangerous act. The chances of preserving your life are almost nil! All. .. guards have been given the strictest orders to shoot on sight all suspected persons. For many, it merely hardened the resolve to escape. Of the survivors of The Great Escape, at least two tunnelled out of the next prison camp they were sent to and as punishment for that spent a soul-destroying five months in solitary confinement until the end of the war. The feat of the men was immortalised on film in “The Great Escape” made in 1963 with stars James Garner, Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasance and James Coburn. A warm if glorified account of the breakout, it differed from fact because there were no Americans in the escape itself. However, throughout the Second World War there was no shortage of senseless killings like these which offended against all the common laws of humanity. A German Soldier inspecting the exit of Harry. Alf Toombs was a German prisoner of war for five years after he survived the Normandy barn massacre of British troops shortly before Dunkirk. For the first two and a half years the treatment was really bad. After that we got Red Cross parcels. If it hadn't have been for them, many of us would not be alive today. All we got was a cup of coffee in the morning. For lunch there was a loaf of brown bread between five of us. We had to take it in turns to have the small end of the loaf. We worked until 6pm when we were given soup, usually potato. Once we had conds heads which was disgusting. The cooks were German and they didn't give them much to do. The Poles were very good to us. Women took bits of bread and food to us while we worked. But when we got back we were searched so we had to be careful.