Jail Breaks Philpot Escapes a German POW Stalag Part 1

About the great escape of O. L. S. Philpot from a German prisoner-of-war stalag, history and account of the camp.


Flight Lieutenant O. L. S. Philpot's Escape from German Prisoner-of-War Camp Stalag Luft III-1943

It was not lieutenant Philpot, hero of this story, who thought up the wooden horse escape plan, but his two comrades in the W.W. II prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft III-Lt. R. Michael Codner of the Royal Artillery and Flight Lt. Eric "Bill" Williams, who, like Philpot, were British. Instead of tunneling to safety from the prisoners' huts, it was logical to dig from the prison yard, which was closer to the edge of the compound. But they needed some kind of cover. The answer was a wooden horse, not so grand as the Trojans' but just as effective-a vaulting box, like the ones in high school gyms, ostensibly to be used by the men to keep physically fit. While some men were vaulting over it, others would be under it, digging a path to freedom.

Accordingly, the horse was built, of timber, paneled with wood from Red Cross tea chests, with a top of solid boards padded with bedding. Looking like a sawhorse clothed in wood, it had a base measuring 5 ft. by 3 ft., and it stood 4 1/2 ft. high.

At first the men went through their two-hour vaulting sessions with the horse empty. One prisoner, deliberately awkward, knocked it over a couple of times to show the guards that nothing was going on underneath. The guards were justifiably suspicious, as they were at any peculiar activity engaged in by the men; at night they checked the horse over, breaking the fine black thread the men had booby-trapped it with.

On July 8, 1943, tunneling began. Williams concealed himself in the box; then four men inserted two poles in each end of it and carried it out. While the men, dressed in shorts, vaulted one by one over the box, Williams removed a top layer of gray sand and put it into a cardboard box. Then he dug out yellow sand beneath, put it in bags made of pantlegs, and hung the bags (12 in all) on the roof of the horse. Then he sank a bottomless and topless tea chest 6 in. below the surface to shore up the sides of the shaft, used the chest's lid as a cover, put the gray sand back, and knocked on the horse to be let out. After the horse was returned to the canteen, the men transferred the sand to long, sausagelike bags which hung inside their pants and let it trickle out around the compound yard.

In the next weeks, Codner and Williams took turns digging the shaft deeper and shoring it up below the tea chest with bricks. Then they began the horizontal tunnel, which they carefully lined with bed boards for the first 20 ft. so jolting caused by the vaulting wouldn't cave it in. It took two months to complete the first 40 of the 110 ft. from the entrance point to 10 yd. beyond the barbed wire. By then they were exhausted and started working together; one used a basin to collect the sand, and the other pulled the basin back and bagged it. Since the men were getting bored with vaulting, Philpot was assigned as top-of-the ground organizer to spur them on and lift their flagging spirits.

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