Sixty years ago 76 airmen tunnelled out of a Luftwaffe prisoner-of-war camp in the biggest allied POW breakout of World War II. Only three escapees made it home but, of the 73 recaptured, 50 were callously executed by the Gestapo.
This "Great Escape" became the subject of Australian Paul Brickhill's 1951 best seller. In 1963 came the still-popular movie where American actor James Coburn played an atrociously-accented Australian, supposedly (but incorrectly) one of the successful escaping POWs.
Nevertheless Australians (including RAAF Flight Lieutenant Brickhill) were intimately involved in the Great Escape story – not only on (and under) the ground in March, 1944 at Stalag Luft III in Sagan Germany, but more interestingly some 9 months earlier in June 1943 at Oflag VIII B in Eichstaett Germany where 65 allied POWs effected the first mass tunnel escape of the war.
The 65 Eichstaett tunnellers, including seven Australians, were soon recaptured although one digger, Lieutenant Jack Millett, remained on the run for 5 nights. His freedom ended when he encountered two Hitler Youths with Alsatian dogs on a dark, wet, German road.
After serving 14 days detention for having escaped, all 65 POW's were transferred to high-security Oflag IV C – more commonly known as Colditz (itself the subject of several books, a television series and a couple of movies). Colditz, which proved far from escape-proof, was also the ultimate destination for two of the later Great Escapers.
What the little-known Eichstaett "mass escape" had in common with the Great Escape, apart from tunnels and scores of escapees, was the costly, time-consuming trouble caused to the Germans in recapturing so many POWs at large.
Much later in Australia Royal Australian Air Force bomber pilot Lionel Jeffries detailed the reasons for the Great Escape: "Firstly, as officers, we were duty bound to escape if we could, and this is recognised by the Geneva Convention." He explained also that there had been an actual target of 200 escapees "to create maximum disruption to Germany in its then failing condition." In this "war contribution" the POWs had been successful. "It was estimated," Jeffries said, "that some 2 million troops were involved in rounding up the escapees."
In his book The Diggers of Colditz, Eichstaett escaper, and AIF Lieutenant Jack Champ, estimated that there were "nearly a thousand searchers (soldiers and civilians) for every escapee" from Oflag VIII B. He continued: "They were stationed, on roads, tracks, bridges, and in fields…they absolutely saturated the country side." Echoing Lionel Jeffries' sentiments, Champ explained that tunnelling out of a POW camp "hardly seemed to reach a successful conclusion, but the escape proved a tremendous nuisance to the Germans."
"We shifted over 40 tonnes of dirt and rocks without their knowledge; we occupied 60,000 enemy personnel for more than a week, and caused the German Kommandant and his security officer to be sent to the dreaded Russian Front."
He concluded that the POWs' morale was greatly boosted by the belief that in some small way they had "contributed to the Allied war effort as a whole, and the eventual victory."
Champ finally disclosed that the escapees afterwards learned the German High Command was so furious an order was issued that, if any more mass escapes occurred, those rounded up would be shot. Noting how many recaptured Stalag Luft III escapees were "shot dead in cold blood," he described his conclusion as distressing but rather obvious: "It was just our good fortune that we went first."
The Aussie prisoners who remained in Stalag Luft III after the Great Escape included Flight Lieutenant Lionel Jeffries, Warrant Officers Rex Austin and Cal Younger and Pilot Officer Geoffrey Cornish. Some of the Great Escape planning actually took place in Cornish's room. Because of his small size, this 22 year old airman was also one of the tunnellers. Although he was number 8 on the escape list, Cornish withdrew in favour of another officer because his own medical experience was needed in the camp. Cornish became a doctor and pioneer in cardiac rehabilitation after being lectured , inspired and mentored during his post-war medical studies by another former POW, Edward "Weary" Dunlop.