Digging up a book at Stalag Luft III


Excavating escape tunnel ‘Dick’ at Stalag Luft III

I have only excavated one buried book, in Poland, on the site of one of the most famous events of the Second World War. On the night of the March 24 1944 a group of more than 200 Allied prisoners of war attempted to break out of Stalag Luft III prison camp in Sagan, Silesia (Brickhill 1979). This was the largest escape ever attempted, involving the digging of three massive tunnels, and became known as The Great Escape. The escape was masterminded by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, known as ‘Big X’, and involved a complex organization of tunnel diggers, document forgers, teams to dispose of the excavated earth, technicians to build tunnel props and air pumps, and tailors to turn military uniforms into civilian clothes for disguises.


The route of escape tunnel ‘Harry’, marked on the surface

On the night of the escape 77 men managed to escape from the camp before the alarm was raised. Many of those waiting in the tunnel or in the hut which disguised its entrance heard the alarms and proceeded to destroy or hide their forged documents and disguises (Brickhill 1979: 191). Of the escapers, three made successful ‘home runs’ to neutral countries, while the other 74 were recaptured. Of these, 50 were murdered in cold blood, singly or in pairs, on Hitler’s personal orders.

The wooden huts on the site are now long gone, leaving only the concrete bathroom floors and the brick piers on which the huts once stood. The site of the camp has now returned to its natural, heavily wooded state. In 2003 during the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the escape I was part of a team of investigators led by a television crew who visited the site of the Great Escape to locate and excavate one of the three escape tunnels (Pringle et al. 2007). In the entrance to the tunnel we found a number of artefacts including a makeshift lamp and a home-made rubber passport stamp.


Ceramic bowl with Luftwaffe stamp

In the sandy soil beside one of the brick piers I excavated the damp and friable remains of a small cardboard suitcase. Too badly eroded to be lifted from the soil, I carefully scraped through the black powdery remains of the suitcase lid, revealing the remains of a shirt and jacket both equally degraded by time and moisture into fine fragments. The buttons of both garments had survived, and the jacket buttons proved to be metal military uniform buttons with small squares of beige cloth glued over them – most probably a rough but effective disguise. Also in the suitcase were a rusty set of watercolour paints and a German paperback book.


The watercolour paintbox from the excavated suitcase


The book, a truly astonishing thing to have survived at all, was in fragments no bigger than a fingernail. No more than three or four words could be made out on any one piece, and it was impossible to tell – beyond the language – what book it was. The identity of the owner of the suitcase has never been discovered, so the true story of the paperback book buried in the sandy earth of Stalag Luft III is likely to remain unknown.


Brickhill, P. 1979. The Great Escape. London: Arrow Books.

Pringle, J., Doyle, P. and Babits, L.E. 2007. Multidisciplinary investigations at Stalag Luft III allied prisoner-of-war camp: The site of the 1944 ‘Great Escape’, Zagan, Western Poland. Geoarchaeology 22, 729-46.

  1. It’s a fascinating story. How did you get involved in the project in the first place?

    • Just luck! The project directors were looking for 2 student volunteers, my friend and I were undergraduates and we applied. It was an amazing thing to be a part of, and all three of the Great Escapers who we met are now sadly deceased.

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