Anthony Steel in The Wooden Horse, 1950 (Picture: Alamy)

Are these the greatest ever escapes by British prisoners of war?

Learn the real stories behind beloved films such as 'The Great Escape'

Anthony Steel in The Wooden Horse, 1950 (Picture: Alamy)

Films featuring great escapes from prisoner of war camps were once the epitome of the Christmas terrestrial TV schedule before the days of Netflix and Prime, but what were some of the very real, daring escapes of military history?

Having committed no crime other than defending their country, it was the duty of a prisoner of war to try to escape so that they could carry on fighting.

Many British prisoners of war during WWII were captured during the defeats of the early years in France, North Africa, and the Balkans from 1940-42. Most spent the rest of the war in captivity.

The reality was that the conditions of the camps - the brutal forced labour, rationing and psychological trauma often left the prisoners too weak, malnourished and emotionally exhausted to attempt an escape.

Out of the almost 200,000 British prisoners of war that were captured by the Germans and Italians during WWII, only around 1,200 managed to escape.

Each of those escapes took immense courage, we take a look at a selection of the most ingenious and daring.

Strolling out of the Gestapo’s 'inescapable' castle camp

One of the most infamous Nazi Prisoner of War (POW) camps was Oflag IV-C.

Situated inside the walls of a Renaissance castle in Saxony, Germany, the camp housed allied POWs who had repeatedly tried to escape from other camps.

The security at Colditz Castle was dialled up to the max. However, it was not enough to keep British officer Airey Neave behind bars. Captured in Poland after escaping the German POW camp Stalag XX-A, Neave was brought to Colditz Castle. The ‘incorrigible’ British officer practically walked out of the highest security level prison in the whole of Nazi-occupied Europe.

Many French and British prisoners considered it their duty to at least try to escape. The first, however, was Eton educated officer Neave who made a successful ‘home run’ to England where he was recruited by M19, a subsidiary of MI6. Perhaps they were impressed by his ability to sneak incognito past the Gestapo guards in broad daylight.

Neave had the daring idea to dress up as a German guard and make his way out of the prison unhindered. After assembling a Polish soldier’s uniform out of various pieces that he acquired over time, he painted the cap and shirt green to resemble a German officer’s uniform.

In full confidence, he strolled out onto the courtyard of the high-security prison sporting his new attire. However, he did not anticipate that the uniform would look completely different in the sunshine than it did in the dark hallways of the castle. He lit up green like a traffic light signalling to guards to his presence. They pounced on him and threw him in solitary confinement.

With time to mull it over while in solitary, he decided that his initial theatrical escape plan would succeed, however the strategy needed to be changed. A few months' later he acquired an escape buddy by the name of Anthony Luteyn, and some cardboard, cloth and most importantly, some less reflective paint. The new and improved uniform was good enough the fool the Germans this time.

Luteyn and Neave crawled underneath floorboards, making their way straight for the guard's headquarters. Once the coast was clear, they dropped from the ceiling, akin to a scene from Mission Impossible. Strolling around the headquarters pretending to be citizens of the Third Reich, they managed to fool the guards into thinking that they were visiting fellow German officers. When satisfied that the charade was convincing enough, while making sure not to outdo themselves, the pair casually sauntered towards the exit and calmly walked out.

After arriving in Britain, Neave joined the intelligence service and earned the code name ‘Saturday’. After the war ended, the veteran testified in the Nuremberg Trials. He later became a Conservative MP and Margaret Thatcher's right-hand man in Northern Ireland. Tragically, his life was taken by a car bomb planted by the Irish National Liberation Army in 1979.

riginal 1970's version of the "Escape from Colditz" board game featuring a German swastika on the box. On later editions, the swastika was replaced
Original 1970's version of the "Escape from Colditz" board game featuring a German swastika on the box. On later editions, the swastika was replaced with an eagle. (Picture: Alamy)

A modern ‘Trojan Horse’ bolt for freedom

About a hundred miles southeast of Berlin, the Luftwaffe built the Stalag Luft III - an ‘inescapable’ camp to imprison Allied aviators. The camp, that was full of audacious Air Force personnel, saw many attempted escapes. Airmen long for the skies and do not tend to stay bound to the ground for too long, especially if it's enemy ground and there is a war to be fought.

The first successful escape involved Eric Williams, Oliver Philpot, Michael Codner and a wooden horse. Codner was a Lieutenant, Williams and Philpot were Flight Lieutenants and the wooden horse was a gymnastics vaulting horse integral to the success of the operation.

It is important to note that many allied soldiers had unsuccessfully attempted to escape from Stalag Luft III. The Germans were prepared to intercept any attempts. The prisoners' huts were hoisted above the ground and microphones were buried nine feet deep, making tunnelling out of the camp almost impossible.

The team of daring British Aviators would carry the vaulting horse every day to the same spot close to the perimeter of the fence. While one of them performed gymnastic exercises on the wooden horse, another would be underneath it digging towards freedom with metal bowls as shovels, while the third would be on lookout duties.

Built out of plywood from Red Cross parcels, the noise made by the exercising men on top of the horse kept the sound of the digging from being picked up by the microphones, while the horse itself concealed the hole in the ground – the start of a 100ft-long tunnel that was dug over the course of three long and arduous months.

In October 1943, the trio made their escape. On the other side of the tunnel they parted ways, and Williams and Codner reached the port of Szczecin (now Poland) where they stowed away on a Danish ship and made it to Britain.

Armed with fake documents, a compass and a cover story, Philpot made his way to Danzig (now Gdansk) where he boarded a ship heading towards neutral Sweden while disguised as a Norwegian margarine maker. All three men safely made it back to Britain – and achieved the much-coveted ‘home run’.

Philpot’s compass was made by a fellow prisoner from parts of a gramophone, cardboard, a razor blade and phosphorous collected from watches. He later donated it to the Imperial War Museum along with the forged documents that he made while in the camp, as well as the jacket that he wore on the day of the escape.

In 1949, Eric Williams committed the epic tale to paper in a book entitled ‘The Wooden Horse’. The story of one of the most ingenious and bold prison breaks was a hit not just with readers, but also with listeners who got to tune into a six-part dramatized production of the book on BBC Radio. The following year it was made into a box-office hit of a film, The Wooden Horse, starring Leo Genn, David Tomlinson and Anthony Steel.

The success of ‘Wooden Horse’ led to a string of stories about brave POWs being made into films throughout the 1950s including ‘The Great Escape’, ‘The Colditz Story’, ‘The One That Got Away', and ‘The Camp on Blood Island’. Many of these films became instant classics, often gracing our TV screens at Christmas.

Still from 1950 film The Wooden Horse. (Picture: Alamy)
Still from 1950 film The Wooden Horse. (Picture: Alamy)

Escaping through ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’

One of the most famous and audacious mass breakout attempts in military history occurred on March 24, 1944, when 200 Allied soldiers attempted to escape Stalag Luft III.

The largest POW escape during WWII inspired the 1963 film 'The Great Escape', starring Steve McQueen. Although the real-life events did not involve leaping over a barbed wire fence on a motorbike as depicted in a classic scene with McQeen in the movie, they are no less daring and awe-inspiring.

The escape plan was the brainchild of RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell. After embarking on two unsuccessful escape attempts, Bushell ordered for three tunnels to be dug – ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’ in the hope that at least one of them will lead to freedom.

The three tunnels were dug by roughly 1,200 hands – or in other words 600 POWs. The plan was to dig a tunnel long enough so that it would lead far outside the camp into a forest several kilometres away.

'Harry' was dug day and night underneath a burning stove. The stove was left on 24/7 to make sure that the Germans never became suspicious. The potential of fire spreading to the tunnel was a constant threat. Dug 30 meters below the ground, the tunnel was deep enough to be out of reach of any microphones.

The project was of truly monumental proportions. Ladders were built out of 4,000 wooden bed boards to place against the sandy walls to prevent them from collapsing. The sound was muffled with 1,700 blankets pressed against the wall, while 1,400 Red Cross-issued powdered milk cans were made into makeshift shovels. The tunnel even had a trolley system with two junctions named after London’s Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus.

Even though the Allied prisoners kept guard 24/7, alerting each other of incoming Germans with subtle signs such as fiddling with a shoelace or rapidly turning several pages in a book, ‘Tom’ was eventually discovered. Dick was turned into storage, while ‘Harry’ became the tunnel that was supposed to lead to liberty.

Unfortunately, the clever operation that took years of arduous labour and intricate planning was botched when the tunnel surfaced just outside the perimeter of the camp rather than in the woods as was planned. Still, 76 out of the planned 200 prisoners managed to escape. All but three, however, were later caught.

The magnitude of the scheme enraged the Führer. Hitler's wrath led to orders to bypass the Geneva Convention that safeguards the rights and safety of POWs and kill the escapees. The Gestapo drove 50 prisoners, including Bushell to a remote location and shot them.

After the war, the British brought the 18 Nazis that committed the murder to justice through a military tribunal in 1947 – 13 of them were executed.  

Model of Stalag Luft III Great Escape Camp in museum at site in Zagan, Poland
Model of Stalag Luft III Great Escape Camp in museum at site in Zagan, Poland. (Picture: Alamy)

Determined to be home for Christmas

Temporary Captain Pat Reid was captured during the Battle of France. He arrived in prison camp Oflag VII-C on 5 June 1940. Within days of arriving at the Bavarian camp, he was determined to make it home by Christmas. So, he began digging his way to freedom.

After several months, he completed a tunnel with fellow prisoners that lead to a shed outside the camp. He was captured on his way to Yougoslavia and sent to Colditz Castle – the destination for ‘troublesome’ POWs.

And yet again he began devising an escape plan straight away. He bribed a friendly German guard to look the other way. Along with 12 other prisoners, Reid crawled through a sewer pipe leading through the canteen to the outer courtyard. Covered in sewage, Reid and his fellow escapees were met on the other side by German guards. While the bribe-taking guard seemed friendly, the two-faced Nazi reported the daring Brits to his superiors.

After time in solitary confinement surviving on nothing but bread and water, Reid became the ‘Escape Officer’ of the British resistance at Colditz Castle, overseeing all the escape plans. With his vast experience, Reid helped many British POWs escape. After two years at Colditz, he finally took his own chance to escape.

Along with Lieutenant Commander William L. Stephens RNVR, Major Ronald Littledale and Flight Lieutenant Howard Wardle, Reid used his knowledge of the castle to devise a failproof escape. The group hid in a storage cellar under the Commandant's HQ, before crawling through a narrow air shaft. Luckily, the meagre prisoner’s rationing meant that all four of them could easily fit through the shaft which led to a moat. There was no water in the moat and they could easily climb out of it in the darkness of night.

It took the third-time successful escapee five days to reach Switzerland. For the rest of the war, Reid worked with other arriving escapees gathering intelligence for the MI6. As this was top secret at the time, officially he served as Assistant Military Attaché and later was promoted to Temporary Major. He finally made it home for Christmas, but only after the war was won.

Flying to freedom?

While it is true that most mass prison break attempts involved digging tunnels, one escape plan envisioned taking to the skies.

Colditz Castle, infamous for holding Allied officers under the strictest ‘inescapable’ conditions, was mentioned earlier, full of aviators. Two of the most daring were called Bill Goldfinch and Jack Best and their plan involved doing what pilots do best – flying.

Every escape attempt was brave, but none were quite as inventive and bold as this one. The pair build a two-man wooden glider out of bed and floorboards. The castle sits high atop a hill overlooking the Saxony countryside. According to the Goldfinch and Best plan, if they got the wind just right, they would be able to soar out of the castle in their glider across the Mulde River and out of reach of the German guards.

The pilots hid their model behind a fake wall that they built from the same material that the rudimentary plane was manufactured from. The plan was to fly the plane out of the attic of the castle and the hope was that the height of the building would give them enough gliding distance to get away.

However, this wooden bird was never destined to spread its wings. The operation came to a halt when the prisoners of war were released as the end of the war was declared before they needed to carry out the plans, and Goldfinch and Best walked out with the other Allied officers.

Although technically this ambitious plan never came to fruition, it perhaps deserves to be on the list because 55 years later, it was proven that it would have worked. In 2000, a replica of the glider was flown at RAF Oldham. It was constructed for a documentary titled ‘Escape from Colditz’. Both Best and Goldfinch were able to watch their escape plan successfully carried out on screen.