(If the Great Escape, made from the camp’s north wing, is the most celebrated of the escapes, another, in the east wing, is almost as well known.
This was the Wooden Horse escape, in October 1943 – also made into a film in which one Donald MacDonell features briefly. By this stage, he had become camp adjutant, liaising between the Germans and the prisoners, and so was ineligible to escape himself. (“Actually, he was claustrophobic anyway,” remembers his wife, Lois, “so he wouldn’t have been any good in a tunnel!”)
But he took a major part, on the escape committee, in putting the elaborate plan together. For this scheme, the prisoners concocted a passion for gymnastics, and convinced the Germans to permit them to construct a vaulting horse out of old Red Cross crates.
Taken into the exercise yard each day, and dutifully vaulted over by the PoWs, the horse concealed one of a team of three diggers, who day by day over the course of a year eked out a passage under the fence.
The sand from the digging was transferred to the trousers of helpers, who dribbled it out over the prison yard. The Germans knew from the soil being deposited that something was up, but were unable to find out what.
When the bid for freedom came, all three of the diggers escaped and, remarkably, made it back to Britain.)