Lost ‘Great Escape’ tunnel found at twin town Zagan

SCOTSMAN''STEVE McQUEEN IN ''THE GREAT ESCAPE"' ''THE KOBAL COLLECTION
SCOTSMAN''STEVE McQUEEN IN ''THE GREAT ESCAPE"' ''THE KOBAL COLLECTION

The discovery of a missing tunnel at Stalag Luft II, on the outskirts of Zagan, the Polish twin town of Duns, has solved a mystery which dates back to 1945.

Last month British archaeologists discovered the tunnel at Stalag Luft III, one of the most infamous German prison camp of the Second World War and unearthed a wealth of escapers’ tools and equipment sealed underground.

circa 1942: Prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III which was run by the Luftwaffe for captured airmen until its liberation on April 29, 1945. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

circa 1942: Prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III which was run by the Luftwaffe for captured airmen until its liberation on April 29, 1945. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The tunnel, named George, was shut down in 1945, when the prisoners of war of Stalag Luft III were led off at gunpoint by their Nazi guards as the advancing Red Army closed in.

Its location at the camp, immortalised in the Hollywood blockbuster The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasance, remained a mystery until experts spent three weeks excavating the relics recently.

The Museum of the Allied Prisoners of War Martyrdom, currently stands on the site of Stalag Luft III and has been visited by many Duns residents on visits to their twin town (including a party from Duns Football Club on their visit to Zagan back in 1997).

The museum, hung with flags from all the nationalities imprisoned there, gives a chilling idea of what conditions were like. There is also an impressive monument to those who died.

George was built by men bitter that they failed to escape through a tunnel named Harry on the night of March 24, 1944, which had been dug by Allied PoWs at the prison. Harry and two other tunnels, named Tom and Dick, were dug beneath the feet of the Germans in what was intended to be the biggest breakout of the war, with more than 200 men set to escape.

In the end, only 80 got out through Harry - four were caught at once, three made it to freedom and the remaining 73 were eventually recaptured. Of these 50 were murdered by the Gestapo.

After the failure of the break-out, prisoners began a fourth tunnel, George, in the theatre of the sprawling camp, which held 10,000 men. The tunnel’s precise location was lost to history until last month.

Now, with the use of ground-scanning radar and the testimony of veterans who helped to construct it, George has yielded a hoard of materials chronicling the life of a PoW. They include yards of wire that inmates stole from the Nazi searchlight power-lines to make electric light in the shaft and tunnel.

Also found were numerous “klim tins” – powdered-milk containers – which were hollowed out and used as fat lamps stuck into the side of the tunnel walls when the electricity failed.

Others were joined together to form tubes along which air was pumped for the men digging at the face. Numerous bedboards were used to shore up the workings, and many jagged hinges, bits of old metal pails, hammers and jemmies, used to scour away the sandy soil of the camp, were also excavated.

Marek Lazarz, director of the museum, said: “It is hardly a treasure in the conventional sense, but it is priceless to us and a time capsule of what life was like back then.

“The finding of George brings to a close the mystery of where the tunnel exactly was. And we now have to change the model in the camp museum, because the tunnel was on the opposite side of the theatre to where we thought it was.

“Speculation remains, however, as to where they intended to go with the tunnel. From the theatre they were digging straight towards a separate part of the camp where the German guards lived.

“One theory is that they wanted to break in and arm themselves – there were real fears as the war drew to a close they would be massacred – and of course they knew by then of the fate of the other prisoners.

“But it could also be that they were headed for a wood that stood between their camp and the German one. From there they might have fancied their chances of escaping deeper into the forest. The tunnel was excavated with great care as it was an archaeological expedition. It has now been sealed again.”

A film crew recorded the efforts of the diggers over three weeks in August and some veterans of the camp returned to give their reminiscences of life behind the wire for a special television programme on George which will be shown at Christmas on Channel 4.

Air Cdre. Charles Clarke, who went into George while he was held in Stalag Luft III and is now president of the Ex-Prisoner of War Association, said that some prisoners left more personal items such as pictures in the tunnels. But the dig did not yield up anything really personal, save for a few tattered bits of uniform.

Mr Lazarz added: “This rounds off the history of the camp. Tom, Dick and Harry have now been reunited with George, and the artefacts found within him will go on display soon.”