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How the Great Escape was made possible because of collaboration from German guards

They were the 76 men whose acts of subversion and defiance inspired one of Britain’s most famous films.

In March 1944, prisoners led by RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell escaped from Nazi Germany’s Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp, near Sagan in Nazi-occupied Poland, through a tunnel they had ingeniously dug in secret.

The 1963 film the Great Escape, which stars Steve McQueen, tells how all but three of the men were re-captured soon after fleeing – and 50 of them were subsequently executed.

But a new documentary series on Channel 5 sheds light on how guards at the camp who were disgruntled with the Nazi regime supplied the prisoners in the escape with crucial information about the German war effort, which was then relayed back to the UK in coded letters. 

Among the information obtained was details about Germany’s devastating V2 rocket programme, which had been responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians.  

One of the letters – which was written by escapee Roy Langlois and used signs including punctuation placed after certain letters to convey information – is revealed for the first time in Tuesday’s documentary. 

Historians in the The Great Escape, the first episode of which airs tonight at 9pm, say that the men at Stalag Luft were regarded as second only to the Bletchley Park codebreakers when it came to obtaining information on what was happening inside Germany. 

The show also explains how the astonishing 1944 escape was made possible thanks to extensive collaboration with German guards, who supplied tools and identity documents after being bribed with cigarettes and chocolate. 

They were the 76 men whose acts of subversion and defiance inspired one of Britain’s most famous films. In March 1944, prisoners led by RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell escaped from Nazi Germany’s Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp, near Sagan in Nazi-occupied Poland, through tunnels they had ingeniously dug in secret

The plan to escape from Stalag Luft was conceived by Squadron Leader Bushell in the spring of 1943. It followed dozens of other failed escape attempts made by prisoners.

The men involved in the Great Escape dug not one but three tunnels – which were named Tom, Dick and Harry – so that, if one or two were discovered, they would have a back-up.

In September 1943, Tom – which the men had been focusing on as their main route – was discovered.

Incredibly, despite extensive searches and heightened suspicion that an escape attempt might be imminent, the other two tunnels were found.

A new documentary series on Channel 5 sheds light on how guards at the camp who were disgruntled with the Nazi regime supplied the prisoners in the escape with crucial information about the German war effort, which was then relayed back to the UK in coded letters

One of the letters - which was written by escapee Roy Langlois and used punctuation placed after certain letters to convey information - is revealed for the first time by his daughter in Tuesday's documentary

One of the letters – which was written by escapee Roy Langlois and used punctuation placed after certain letters to convey information – is revealed for the first time by his daughter in Tuesday’s documentary

It meant that, at the beginning of 1944, the RAF men were able to continue work on the other two escape routes.

But whilst they were building the tunnels, some of the men were also working to obtain crucial information.

Historian Simon Pearson tells in tonight’s programme how several guards were ‘anti-Nazi’ and ‘willingly’ supplied Bushell with intelligence.

‘The most notable one was a man called Eberhard Hess,’ he said.

The coded letter revealed in the programme was written by inmate Roy Langlois

The coded letter revealed in the programme was written by inmate Roy Langlois

‘Hess did it for ideological reasons. He disliked the Nazis. He wanted an allied victory.’

Information obtained from Hess was then sent back to soldiers’ families before being relayed to the top-secret department of the War Office called Mi9.

The unit was responsible for helping Allied prisoners to escape, as well as using them to obtain information about what was going on inside Germany.

Historian Dr Helen Fry said: ‘We have all heard of Mi5 and Mi6, but Mi9 was set up in December 1939 to help Allied prisoners of war.

‘Mi9 communicated with prisoners of war in camps in Germany or Italy through coded letters.’

The coded letter revealed in the programme was written by inmate Roy Langlois.

The airman used specially placed punctuation, commas and the underlining of his signature to secretly relay information to Mi9.

His daughter Pippa says: ‘I have here a letter that is undoubtedly written in code by my father, Roy Langlois to his sister in England.

‘I can tell it is a very strange letter by its tone but also by its punctuation because he has put certain words like Rothmans, Players, 500, Guernsey, in inverted commas, which is a very, very strange thing to do.’

His daughter Pippa says: 'I have here a letter that is undoubtedly written in code by my father, Roy Langlois to his sister in England. 'I can tell it is a very strange letter by its tone but also by its punctuation because he has put certain words like Rothmans, Players, 500, Guernsey, in inverted commas, which is a very, very strange thing to do'

His daughter Pippa says: ‘I have here a letter that is undoubtedly written in code by my father, Roy Langlois to his sister in England. ‘I can tell it is a very strange letter by its tone but also by its punctuation because he has put certain words like Rothmans, Players, 500, Guernsey, in inverted commas, which is a very, very strange thing to do’

Mr Pearson said: ‘Hess supplied information on the German secret weapons programme at Peenemunde, where they were developing the V1s and V2s.

‘Because Hess’s brother was a scientist who had connections with Peenemunde.’

After the activities at Peenemunde were uncovered, the facility, in northern was heavily bombed by Allied pilots.

The highly advanced long-range supersonic V2 rocket was responsible for the deaths of around 9,000 civilians and military personnel.

Among those killed by the German bombing raids were thousands of British civilians, with the first V2 strike hitting in September 1944.

The programme also tells how the prisoners got the help they needed from the guards largely because they were able to bribe them with goods they received in Red Cross parcels which were sent to the prisoners.

Historian Guy Walters says: ‘The prisoners are actually in many ways wealthier than their guards. The prisoners had about 10 cigarettes a day, equivalent, the guards had about two.

The 76 men who fled Stalag Luft made it out of the camp via the tunnel named 'Harry' (pictured)

The 76 men who fled Stalag Luft made it out of the camp via the tunnel named ‘Harry’ (pictured)

‘If cigarettes are the currency, then you have got prisoners being five times richer than the guards.’

By contrast, the Germans’ rations were ‘really quite poor’.

Mr Walters said the parcels also contained ‘goodies’ such as chocolate which, along with the cigarettes, could then be given to the guards in exchange for things they needed to aid their escape.

To aid their escape, the men also made convincing-looking civilian clothes as well as forged identity documents.

A stamp bearing the eagle insignia of the German government – which was used on the documents to make them pass for the real thing – was made using the heel of a shoe.

Historians in the The Great Escape, the first episode of which airs tonight at 9pm, say that the men at Stalag Luft were regarded as second only to the Bletchley Park codebreakers when it came to obtaining information on what was happening inside Germany.  Above: Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, who masterminded the 1944 escape plot

Historians in the The Great Escape, the first episode of which airs tonight at 9pm, say that the men at Stalag Luft were regarded as second only to the Bletchley Park codebreakers when it came to obtaining information on what was happening inside Germany.  Above: Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, who masterminded the 1944 escape plot

In late March 1944, after the tunnel ‘Dick’ had been ruled out for escape because its would-be exit point had been swallowed up in an expansion of the camp, work on the 335ft ‘Harry’ was finally completed.

The tunnel, the entrance to which was hidden under a stove in Stalag Luft’s hut 104, had been constructed with the help of a makeshift air supply built out of discarded food cans.

The men disposed of sand they had dug out of the ground by filling small pouches hidden in their trousers and then depositing it as they walked around outside.

They also wore greatcoats to hide the bulges made by the sand, leading them to be referred to as ‘penguins’. The walls of the tunnels were made from bed boards.

Whilst it had been Bushell’s intention to get more than 200 men out of the camp. On the night of the escape, it was quickly discovered that the tunnel was not long enough to reach the safety of the nearby forest.

The incredible tale of the daring escape from Stalag Luft was told in 1963 film classic The Great Escape

The incredible tale of the daring escape from Stalag Luft was told in 1963 film classic The Great Escape

Instead, it emerged just short of the tree line and close to a guard tower. To lessen the risk of being seen, it was decided that the escapes should be reduced around 10 per hour, instead of one every minute which had been the original plan.

Overall, 76 men made it out of the tunnel and into the forest before the 77th was discovered at just before 5am on March 25. 

However, Hut 104 – the home of the entrance to the escape tunnel – was one of the last to be searched in the resultant sweep of the camp that followed the discovery.

It gave the other collaborators time to burn their fake documents. When Hut 104 was finally searched, the entrance to the tunnel was only found after a German guard had tried to crawl back through the escape route from outside and gotten stuck.

The plan to escape from Stalag Luft was conceived by Squadron Leader Bushell in the spring of 1943. It followed dozens of other failed escape attempts made by prisoners

The plan to escape from Stalag Luft was conceived by Squadron Leader Bushell in the spring of 1943. It followed dozens of other failed escape attempts made by prisoners

The tunnel, the entrance to which was hidden under a stove in Stalag Luft's hut 104, had been constructed with the help of a makeshift air supply built out of discarded food cans. This was then fed with oxygen by this homemade pump, which is seen being examined by a German soldier

The tunnel, the entrance to which was hidden under a stove in Stalag Luft’s hut 104, had been constructed with the help of a makeshift air supply built out of discarded food cans. This was then fed with oxygen by this homemade pump, which is seen being examined by a German soldier

Overall, 76 men made it out of the tunnel and into the forest before the 77th was discovered at just before 5am on March 25. Above: A German soldier examining Harry

Overall, 76 men made it out of the tunnel and into the forest before the 77th was discovered at just before 5am on March 25. Above: A German soldier examining Harry

After he called for help, the prisoners opened the entrance to let him out.

Of the 76, 73 were quickly captured. Whilst 17 were returned to Stalag Luft, 50 were executed, including Bushell.

Langlois was one of the men who were captured after being spotted by the guards. He was one of the ‘lucky’ men who were not executed. 

Instead, he spent more than three weeks in solitary confinement at Stalag Luft and remained a prisoner for the rest of the war.  

None of the three men who successfully made it to freedom were British. They were Norwegians Per Bergsland and Jens E. Muller and Dutch flight lieutenant Bram van der Stok.

Deadly toll of escapees executed… and how WWII’s greatest PoW story got a Hollywood makeover

In the spring of 1943, RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell conceived a plan for a major escape from the German Stalag Luft III Camp near Sagan, now Żagań in Poland.

With the escape planned for the night of March 24, 1944, the PoWs built three 30ft deep tunnels, named Tom, Dick and Harry, so that if one was discovered by the German guards, they would not suspect that work was underway on two more.

Bushell intended to get more than 200 men through the tunnels, each wearing civilian clothes and possessing a complete range of forged papers and escape equipment.

In the spring of 1943, RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell conceived a plan for a major escape from the German Stalag Luft III Camp near Sagan, now Żagań in Poland 

In the spring of 1943, RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell conceived a plan for a major escape from the German Stalag Luft III Camp near Sagan, now Żagań in Poland 

To hide the earth dug from the tunnels, the prisoners attached pouches of the sand inside their trousers so that as they walked around, it would scatter.

The prisoners wore greatcoats to conceal the bulges made by the sand and were referred to as ‘penguins’ because of their supposed resemblance to the animal.

When the attempt began, it was discovered that Harry had come up short and instead of reaching into a nearby forest, the first man in fact emerged just short of the tree line, close to a guard tower. 

Plans for one man to leave every minute was reduced to 10 per hour.

The Great Escape starred Steve McQueen (pictured above) as Captain Virgil Hilts

The Great Escape starred Steve McQueen (pictured above) as Captain Virgil Hilts

In total, 76 men crawled through to initial freedom, but the 77th was spotted by a guard. In the hunt for the entrance one guard Charlie Pilz crawled through the tunnel but after becoming trapped at the other end called for help. 

The prisoners opened the entrance, revealing the location.

Of the escapees, three made it to safety, 73 were captured, and 50 of them executed.

… and the Hollywood film

The 1963 film The Great Escape was based on real events and, although some characters were fictitious, many were based on real people, or amalgams of several of those involved.

The film starred Steve McQueen as Captain Virgil Hilts, James Garner as Flight Lieutenant Robert Hendley and Richard Attenborough as Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, and was based on a book of the same name by Paul Brickhill.

Contrary to the film, no American PoWs were involved in the escape attempt, and there were no escapes by motorcycle or aircraft.

Hilts’ dash for the border by motorcycle was added by request of McQueen, who did the stunt riding himself except for the final jump.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk