Trinity Fellow Dr Hugh Hunt will recreate the tunnel of the legendary ‘Great Escape’ from a German prisoner-of-war camp to reveal the remarkable engineering by RAF airmen 75 years ago at a commemorative event on Sunday 24 March.
‘The Great Escape’ by Allied airmen from Stalag Luft III PoW camp, immortalised in the 1963 film starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough, will be celebrated at a live show with Dan Snow, featuring interviews with veterans, live music, film screening – and a recreation of how the tunnel was dug.
Dr Hunt, who is Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at Cambridge, and engineering students Kazuo Newcombe and Suhaa Mahmood, along with Dr Hilary Costello, and Cambridge resident John Aldridge, will explain the science and engineering behind the famous escape in a specially recreated tunnel on stage at the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith.
75 years ago, on the moonless night of 24 March, 200 PoW readied to escape from Stalag Luft III via ‘Harry’, the tunnel excavated using a remarkable array of furniture and kitchenware sourced from the camp, including 4,000 bed boards, 90 complete bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 3,424 towels, thousands of knives, spoons and forks, and some 1,400 powdered milk cans for the ventilation system.
Dr Hunt and his team of volunteers have been busy building a life-size tunnel at the Engineering Department this week, in preparation for Sunday’s live demonstration. Dr Hunt said:
It took a year for the RAF airmen to dig the 100 metre-long tunnel, but that was a difficult and dangerous undertaking. Sandy soil is fine if it’s a bit damp, but it dries out very quickly and that’s when the walls cave in. They also had to dispose of a ton of sand for every metre they tunnelled. We aim to show the enormity and complexity of this engineering-related task with a demonstration of the tunnelling action live on stage.
In 1943, RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell conceived the plan for a mass escape from Stalag Luft III’s North Compound, commanding the Escape Committee, and meticulously planning and implementing the digging of three tunnels, Tom, Dick and Harry, as well as the preparation of forged documents, and the acquisition of civilian clothes and train timetables.
Secrecy was paramount: a handful of men worked on the tunnels directly, with many more responsible for moving bin lids or wearing their hat in a particular way if a German guard was coming – but they never knew why.
Of the 73 escapees, all but three were recaptured; 50 men, including Squadron Leader Bushell, were executed by the Gestapo. After the war, several Gestapo officers responsible for the murders were convicted of war crimes.
In 2011, Dr Hunt was among a team of experts who returned to the site of Stalag Luft III, near Zagan in Poland, to excavate the remains of George, a tunnel under construction when the war ended, as well as Harry.
The excavation was broadcast on Channel 4’s ‘Digging the Great Escape’, with Dr Hunt and Dr Costello, then Dr Hunt’s PhD student, designing a 10-metre tunnel dug by modern-day RAF pilots, evaluating shoring methods, building a railway track and crafted digging tools and saws fashioned from bits of gramophone players, bunk beds and kit bags.
Dr Hunt said the process of attempting to tunnel as those RAF officers did taught them the magnitude of the task. ‘It’s simply amazing what they achieved given how difficult it was. But talking to some of the people who were involved, we also got a sense of the bravery, camaraderie and fun of it all – despite the fact that the Germans knew they were tunnelling and were looking everywhere for them. In comparison, we had it easy,’ he said.
What is astounding is the range of skills that the prisoners had to build the tunnels, ventilate and light them, as well as making compasses, radios, forging documents, heat treating metals, you name it. A lot of these skills have direct links back to engineering and that can hopefully get young people thinking about university studies in engineering – rather than getting an economics degree and going to work in the City.
The Great Escape with Dan Snow takes place at the Eventim Apollo Hammersmith on Sunday 24 March at 6pm. The event is being broadcast at cinemas around the UK including the Picturehouse and the Light in Cambridge
All photographs courtesy of the Department of Engineering at Cambridge.