Sunday, 18 August 2013

Stalug Luft 111 - The Escape Organisation

Stalag Luft 111 - IWM

Stalag Luft 111 is arguably the most well-known Allied POW camp of World War 2. Its association with The Great Escape is the primary reason for this, but it also has a well-documented history from official files, diaries, memoirs and eyewitness accounts.
The camp was heavily guarded, well secured and located deep in occupied territory, which made it very difficult for escapers to reach safety once they had had broken out. The sandy soil below ground level made cave-ins a frequent possibility during tunnelling attempts and the earth was a different colour to that of the compound. One positive was that initial digging although still difficult, could be quicker and less labour intensive because of the constitution of the soil.
These fundamental issues have been covered in literature and film and they did not deter tunnelling attempts. Between sixty and seventy were attempted in the camp during the war, the other famous one being ‘The Wooden Horse’ escape with Eric Williams, Oliver Philpott and Codner.  A three hundred foot tunnel, plus a hundred footer for sand and storage was also dug, which the Germans discovered in October 1942. Three Flight Lieutenants dug their way out in the summer of 1942 soon after the camp opened, managing to escape and reach the port of Stettin (boats from neutral Sweden docked there) before being caught.
Stalag Luft 111 was a huge camp and much larger than most. It had a good escape organisation under Lieutenant Commander James Buckley, but in November 1942, he and other known 'trouble makers' were sent by the Germans to Oflag XXIB in an effort to deter and disrupt further attempts to break out of the camp. Squadron Leader Roger Bushell who had arrived at the camp only weeks earlier became ‘ Big X’ the head of all escape matters. It was Bushell who hatched the plan for a mass escape and was instrumental in racking up the infrastructure to implement it.
Other camps had a basic front end organisation of a Senior Officer and Escape Committee and something of the ‘setup below, but the escape organisation of Stalag Luft 111 under Bushell was remarkable and took on new levels. It is best illustrated in the flow chart below, which has been constructed from original documents (National Archives) and literary sources.
It must also be remembered that the personnel instrumental in organising and operating ‘the model’ were skilled military officers with time to think about things over the long days and nights. A number were habitual escapers; already in the mind-set and were an invaluable asset.
A series of short posts will extract and examine component parts of the organisation, how it fitted together, who was involved and in some instances what happened. On the full model, the Senior British/American Officer was the figurehead and point of contact with the German camp hierarchy. He had the final word on main issues around escape matters. The two leads immediately below him were the Camp Intelligence Officer and Big X - everything initially came through there.
National Archives WO 208 series
MI9 Escape & Evasion 1939-1945 M. R. D. Foot & J.M. Langley
©Keith Morley


  1. A detailed post Keith, giving an incite into the workings of this well known POW camp, the term 'habitual escaper' is an interesting one. I can't imagine tunnelling away night and day...

    1. Thanks Maria.
      Habitual escapers tried to get away via any means they could. Apart from being involved in tunnelling operations, a typical habitual escaper would have tried a number of methods including (assuming they had been sanctioned by 'X' or the appropriate Allied officer in charge:
      Getting away from a working party which had been escorted under guard outside the camp
      Swapping uniforms and clothes with someone who was already on a working party daily and then trying to get out(Under the Geneva Convention Officers were not required to work)This often involved getting into another prisoner compound.
      Dressing up in a false German military uniform (made and forged in the camp)
      Hanging underneath or hiding in vehicles which had visited the camp.
      Any opportunity they could seize to try and escape.

      John Fancy was arguably the most prolific tunneller of World War 2. His book 'Tunnelling To Freedom' is a good read.

  2. I wonder what Big X actaully means? It's interesting to see the organisational chart, it makes it more businesslike rather than the film versions.

    1. I guess Sally, that in modern terms 'X' was the job title for the Escape Committee Chair of a POW camp. Big-X was a term attached to Roger Bushell in Stalag Luft 111 because of the esteem in which he was held in by the other prisoners and also the size of the escape operation he had masterminded.