MHM examines five of the most daring prisoner-of-war escapes throughout history.
5. Stalag Luft III
Escape Date: 29 October 1943
When Oliver Philpot, Eric Williams, and Richard Codner found themselves imprisoned at Stalag Luft III, the main obstacle they faced in planning their escape was the tell-tale yellow dust which would cover anyone who dug down even a few inches below the surface. To get round this, the men constructed a large pommel horse capable of concealing three men inside. They would take it in turns hiding in the horse, which would be placed gradually nearer the fence each day, digging the tunnel towards the fence with a bowl as the other men practised their gymnastics above. The noise of the digging was hidden by the sounds of the troops practising their stride swings and the yellow dust was disposed of in flower beds and toilets. Their efforts finally paid off and they escaped through the tunnel, returning to Britain through Sweden with false identities.
Less than a year later, the ‘Great Escape’ would take place at the same prison.
4. Colditz Castle
Escape Date: 5 January 1942
Airey Neave failed his first attempted escape from Colditz dressed in a less-than-credible makeshift German uniform. The second time around he learned from his mistakes.
Along with Dutch officer Anthony Luteyn, Neave – more convincingly disguised – made off through a trap door during a theatre production. This led out of the prison, where the pair made their way by train and on foot to the border of Switzerland. Neave travelled through France, Spain, and Gibraltar, finally arriving in England in April 1942 where he was awarded the Military Cross.
3. Lake Superior
Escape Date: 21 January 1941
After a series of failed escape attempts from UK camps, Franz von Werra was transferred to Lake Ontario. With the help of others prisoners he began plotting his escape into America, which at the time was still neutral.
As the prison train he was on made its way from Montreal, von Werra jumped out of a window and ended up near Smith’s Falls, Ontario, 30 miles from the St Lawrence River. The seven others who attempted to escape were almost immediately recaptured. But not von Werra.
He endured a hazardous trip across the frozen St Lawrence River, over the border and into Ogdensburg, New York. He turned himself in to the police, who charged him with illegal entry into the country. With the help of the German vice-consul, he got across the border to Mexico and made his way back to Germany in stages through Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona, and Rome. He was welcomed back in Germany as a hero on 18 April 1941.
Escape Date: 12 December 1899
A 25-year-old Winston Churchill was captured by a Boer kommando force a er his train crashed into a boulder in 1899. A er a long journey under armed guard, Churchill arrived at his prison – a converted school – in Pretoria.
He had only been in captivity for about four weeks when he made his escape. While the guards were getting the prisoners ready for transfer to a more secure prison, Churchill hopped over the neighbouring property and slid away.
By day he hid and ate the food he had been able to steal. By night he walked the city streets trying to locate the eastward-heading railway line, drinking from streams and getting rides on goods trains.
A combination of courage and good luck allowed young Winston to arrive safely at Mozambique.
1. Konigstein Castle
Escape Date: 17 April 1942
Locked down at the 800-year-old supposedly inescapable stronghold Konigstein Castle, 63-year-old French General Henri Giraud planned a two-year escape plan involving German lessons, twine, and a Tyrolean hat.
Having convinced his guards to teach him German – in preparation for his post-escape travels through Germany – Giraud managed to connect with his family by embedding coded messages in his letters home, informing them of his plan. Using twine, bed sheets, and smuggled copper wire, he created a 150 rope which he used to scale down the wall of the castle. Finally, he shaved off his moustache and donned a Tyrolean hat he had acquired through friends, and made good his escape across Germany to the Swiss border.
The article was featured in issue 48 of Military History Monthly.