What has been known as the ‘best’ prison break of all time?

Answer by Subash Raj:

The story of Tom, Dick & Harry: An audacious, well thought out and near-perfect escape from one of the most secure prison camps in Nazi Germany tops the list for me.
Why was this escape was one of the best?
A very high security prison: One of the sole purposes of the prison was to have prisoners who had attempted to escape from other prison camps across Nazi Germany. The heavy security measure (which is described later in the answer) made the escape from the prison nearly impossible.
Deep in Nazi territory: The prison wasn't located anywhere even remotely close to neutral countries. It was built up deep in Nazi territory near the town of Żagań, in what is now, Poland. So, even if you managed to escape, you would still be very much inside Nazi Germany – with prison clothes, no maps, not enough knowledge of German language and Nazis everywhere looking for you.
200 – the number who were originally scheduled to escape: This was going to be an unprecedented escape which carried huge risks, required trust amongst the PoWs and a complete team effort.
Now, let us go into details a bit.
What were the security measures?
1. The barracks were raised above the ground: Tunneling through the camps was one of the most sought out ways to escape for most prisoners of war during the second world war. Hence, to prevent that, the barracks were raised above the ground level.
Pic: Steve McQueen in the film adaptation of the escape. You can see the barracks are raised above the ground.
2. The soil factor: On the top was a grey layer of dust, but the soil underneath was bright yellow. So if you're digging a tunnel, you would need to dump the dug yellow sand somewhere, right? But, if the guards spot the yellow sand over grey sand, they would immediately know what you were up to. The soil was also of a 'collapsible nature'. So, the chances of a dug tunnel being caved in was very high and in fact, happened as well.
3. The clearing outside the camp gates: The camp was located around pine forest. There was open land between the gates and the place where the forest began. If you're seen in that area, orders were to shoot you down. Good luck with that.
4. The guard towers: They surrounded the camp all over and overlooked the camp 24 hours. Each of these towers had a machine gun as well as a searchlight.
5. The sound detectors: These were placed all around the camp under the ground to detect any kind of tunneling activity.
Pic: A model of the Stalag III Camp
How did they do it?
The Escape Committee: Unlike individual escapes, this was a massive plan and it involved lot of prisoners. And to direct it well, an 'Escape Committee' was formed which was headed by Roger Bushell, who was known within the camp as 'Big X'.
The Tunneling: There were 15 huts in total where the prisoners were living. Each of these huts had a kitchen which included a heating stove and a washroom. Both the washroom and the stove were built on a concrete base which went straight to the ground. The prisoners decided to dig through these down into the ground, so that the tunneling activity is not seen if the guards take a peek underneath the huts.
Tom, Dick and Harry: They simply couldn't risk a tunnel being found which could be completely demoralizing as a lot of other activities were being done simultaneously. But, a tunnel was the only way to get out of the camp. So, they decided to build three of them simultaneously to increase their chances of escape and they called them Tom, Dick and Harry. The entrance to the tunnel were made in such a way that they could be concealed easily in case of a surprise check. They also decided that they would go 25 feet vertically down before digging horizontally in order to stay away from the sound detectors. Directly below the tunnel entrance was a small chamber which was used to temporarily store the sand which was dug recently and to place the air pump (described later).
Getting rid of the sand dug out of tunnels: A team of 50 PoWs was assembled for this task and they were called "Penguins", probably, because of the way they had to walk with bags of sand concealed under their clothes. The bags were made of towels issued by the Nazis and were modified in a shape similar to a pair of socks. They were placed in such a way, that by releasing a clip, the sand would drip down from this bag under their trousers and into the ground, where another prisoner, working on his "garden" would camouflage the sand delivered by the 'Penguins'. It was estimated that around 1 ton of sand had to be dispersed for every  1 m of tunnel and around 230 tons were dumped in total.
Pic: An overview of tunnel 'Harry' which was used for final escape.
Air, Air, Air: Besides the need to breathe, the tunnel needed the small lamps which gave the much needed light but also consumed oxygen. The problem of ventilation inside the tunnel was solved by joining together 'Klim' milk powder cans, which were being issued by the Red Cross, and making them into pipes. An indigenous pump was also constructed to facilitate ventilation inside the tunnel. 
Pic: 'Klim' cans joined together to form ventilation pipes
Pic: The air pump that was devised to pump air into the tunnels using the Klim cans.
The need to prevent tunnels from caving in: Because the tunnels were being dug at a depth of 25 feet it was essential to support the tunnel structure from being caved in by the solid earth above. This was done by creating a wooden structure inside the tunnel by using wooden boards from the beds present inside the huts.
Pic: A recreation of tunnel 'Harry'. You can se the wooden boards used to keep the tunnel from collapsing.
Security for Tom, Dick and Harry: Securing the tunnels was paramount and there was an officer assigned for this activity. He and his team graded the camp guards based on their – "keenness". Some guards who were poking around near the tunnel could be easily distracted by asking them for a cup of coffee, but some weren't. There was a system of signals conceived to indicate any kind of threat which could hamper the digging process.
Dean & Dawson Travel Agency: Alex Cassie was one of the forgers who worked on preparing – fake identity cards, letters written in German and official documents, compasses and rail timetables (obtained by bribing prison guards using Red Cross supplies). There were six of them and they called themselves 'Dean & Dawson' based on a famous London based travel agency.
Pic: An image of fake documents issued to the prisoners. The stamps were prepared using the heels of boots used by prisoners.
The Tailoring Department: A team of prisoners was responsible for stitching civilian clothes for prisoners who were planning to escape. They altered existing uniforms, blankets etc. and turned them into civilian clothes.
The Escape
Moonless night: They chose 23-25th March 1944 as the possible options for the best cover under darkness. There were lesser trains on Sunday (26th) and hence, they decided to escape on the 24th of March.
The chosen 200: Roger 'Big X' Bushell chose the first 25 based on their language skills and those who had played important roles in the lead up to the escape. The remaining were chosen based on a lucky draw.
It's a go!!!: Starting from 2200 hrs, the prisoners started on their way out. The activity had to be stopped for an hour around midnight because of an air raid by the RAF.  The 77th person was seen by a guard while trying to come out of the tunnel and was shot down. The seventy six, who managed to escape, made their way into the woods and eventually, inside Nazi Occupied Territory.
What happened afterwards
Of the 76 who made it out, 23 were captured and were sent back to the camp.
50 others were also captured and Hitler ordered the Gestapo and the SS to execute them in cold blood. Roger Bushell was one of them.
Three of them eventually managed to reach neutral countries and survived the war.
If you made it to the end, thank you for reading such a long answer and let us make a promise to one another – no matter how hard the circumstances, we are never going to give up !!

References & further reading:

What has been known as the 'best' prison break of all time?


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