On the night of 24/25 March 1944, seventy-six Allied prisoners of war escaped by tunnel from Stalag Luft III, the German camp for captured British, Commonwealth and American air force officers at Sagan, in what is now Poland.
The audacious escape and its tragic aftermath, in which fifty of those recaptured were shot in cold blood by the Gestapo, have been described in several books, feature films and documentaries since Paul Brickhill’s classic account, The Great Escape, appeared in 1949. However, although some six hundred men were involved in the planning and execution of the escape, only a select few have been mentioned by name in any of the accounts and each new account makes the same omissions and repeats the same mistakes as the last.
Charles Rollings has started his new account from scratch, basing it on the records of the escape itself and of the postwar hunt for murderers held in the National Archives, the Imperial War Museum and the United States Air Force Academy. In these documents he has discovered much that has been overlooked by previous historians.
He has supplemented the official records with information gleaned from interviews and correspondence, conducted since 1979, with more than a hundred former Stalag Luft III prisoners, including prominent members of the escape organization, as well as accounts by former German staff members, from the Commandant himself down to the security staff and mail censors.
Unlike most previous historians of the escape, he has visited many of the locations in Germany, Poland and France where the escapers were recaptured and found new information and remarkable photographs in local archives.
The account he presents, based on previously ignored material and many years’ research, and for the first time tying the evidence from the postwar war crimes trials in with the actual narrative of the escape, differs in many ways from the standard version of events, and will surprise – and possibly even shock – those who thought they knew the full story of ‘The Great Escape’.
His narrative concludes with a survey of the ‘The Great Escape’ in print, film and documentary and the myths they have fostered, and is hit off with several useful appendices and more than two hundred drawings, maps and photographs, many never previously made public.
This new account will appeal to all those fascinated with ‘The Great Escape’, as well as the descendants of the British, Commonwealth, American and Allied prisoners who were held in Stalag Luft III.