The 5 Most Badass Prison Escapes in the History of War
You take a capable, well-trained soldier with an iron will, and put him in desperate circumstances with equally desperate captors in a POW camp. The prisoner wants out at all costs. The captors want to hold him at all costs.
The result is often stories that seem too insane to be true. Yet...
Three Men and a Pommel Horse
One of the most absurdly complex and overall ludicrous prison escape attempts in history is thanks to a pair of British pilots named Oliver Philpot and Eric Williams, who wound up in a Nazi prison camp along with another British soldier named Richard Codner. Philpot and Williams had been shot down during a bombing run, but it isn't exactly clear how Codner wound up there. Though, from listening to the guy, it is quite possible he voluntarily entered the prison just to see if he could break out. In his own words, "I enjoyed myself when we were escaping. We were really living then. I think it's only when you're being hunted that you really live... I liked being hunted..."
It wasn't the guards, guard dogs, or barbwire fences at Stalag Luft III that were the biggest problem inmates faced: it was the dirt. On top was dusty grey, but not far underneath was sandy yellow. Any yellow dirt that turned up in the prison meant a tunnel was being dug. Tunnels, like the three used in the Great Escape were being dug all the time, but most of these were discovered because of the amount of time and yellow dirt required to dig from one of the prison buildings.
There had to be a way around it. Together, the three men built a really big pommel horse (the rail with a pair of handles, like gymnasts use), capable of holding up to three men uncomfortably inside. Then they convinced the guards that they, and many other inmates, just loved the hell out of gymnastics. To make it convincing, they practiced for hours each day, despite the fact their rations, while adequate, weren't exactly chalk full of protein.
The men took turns hiding inside the horse; inmates carried it in and out to the yard, placing it in the same spot by the fence every day (Closer to fence = less dirt). From inside, a digger took the top layer of grey dust and placed it in a box. Bowls were used for shovels. So as not to leave a gaping hole in the yard, a board was placed over the hole and covered with the grey dust from the box. Guards walked right over it, and didn't notice.
The yellow dirt, meanwhile, was brought inside the prison with the digger, where it was disposed of in gardens, rooftops, and the toilet, Shawshank-style. The noise from digging, which would be picked up by microphones placed along the fence line, was attributed to the gymnasts leaping around the yard.
Just me and my leotards, no digging going on here...
Almost four months and many sweaty testicles later, the tunnel was ready. The three men punched through, assumed fake identities, and travelled across Europe, eventually making it to Britain via Sweden. As for the pommel horse and all those gymnasts back in the camp...we're sure they bear no hard feelings for leaving them there to rot.
Airey Neave: Master of Half-Assed Disguise
Airey Neave was a British soldier who was wounded and captured by the Germans in World War II. He immediately picked up escaping as a hobby and at his second prison camp, Stalag XX-A, he escaped with a friend and nearly made it into Russian territory in Poland before being picked up and turned over to the Gestapo, better known as the biggest assholes of the war. For his transgression, Neave was sent to where all problematic POWs go: Oflag IV-C, the castle of Colditz.
Hermann Goering, the second biggest douche in Germany in the 1940s, declared Colditz "escape proof." Several prisoners, including Neave, set out to prove him wrong using various batshit insane methods.
One prisoner was sewn into a mattress in order to be smuggled out. Two others built an entire glider out of scavenged wood. Tunnels were also popular, but like each of these attempts, ultimately big fat failures (to be fair, the glider just didn't get finished in time).
Neave, perhaps wisely, settled on a subtler concept of escape. Finagling a Polish army tunic and cap, he painted them to look more like the Germans' uniforms. Then he proceeded to walk out the front door. Unfortunately, search lights reacted with the paint he'd used, making it shine a bright green.
Failure did not deter him. He tried the exact same plan five months later, this time using cardboard, cloth, and some more paint to make a more authentic-looking uniform. He and another prisoner, Anthony Luteyn, who had his own costume, just needed an opportunity.
That opportunity came in the form of an all-inmate stage show that was being put on at the prison (no, really). The two slipped under the stage, into a room that connected to a corridor which lead, not to freedom, but to the one place no prisoner wants to wind up: the guardhouse.
Wearing British uniforms over fake German uniforms over civilian clothing, the two lowered themselves into the room, ditched the British uniforms, entered the guardhouse, and pretended like they owned the place. Nobody noticed.
Having rehearsed their exit, they paused at the door leading out of the prison, exchanged a few remarks in German, and even put on their gloves before calmly leaving. The guards were completely fooled into thinking Neave and Luteyn were visiting officers. After passing through the courtyard and through the moat, they ditched their "German" uniforms and became two Dutch workers with papers, which were also fakes that gave them permission to travel from Leipzig to Ulm.
When they tried to buy train tickets for somewhere else, the police arrested them, later bringing Neaves and Luteyn to the foreign workers office because they really thought they were Dutch workers who had gotten confused; the duo split the moment the nice policemen weren't looking. Even when the Hitler Youth stopped them, Neaves and Luteyn remained composed and told another lie: They were Germans, from the north, of course. After this, Neaves and Luteyn kept to the country and travelled on foot. Hungry and a little frostbitten, they made it into Switzerland.
Neaves would eventually get back to Britain, where he would work to reinforce escape lines in Europe for other POWs. Later, he joined the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, where, in a freaking sweet turn of events, Neaves would personally serve Hermann Goering his indictment for being an absolute and total asshole.
Douglas Bader: The Nazis' Favorite Prisoner
Over the French coast, British fighter pilot Doug Bader and the RAF spotted a dozen German planes in formation. Bader crazily tried to deal with them on his own, nearly colliding with a couple in the process. His haphazard tactics got him separated from his comrades and eventually shot down.
The Germans captured him not long after that, and were astonished to discover Bader had no legs. He'd lost them while trying to perform an aerial stunt before the war had broken out. It wasn't his fault, though; his friends had dared him.
The Germans were actually pretty nice to Bader, finding him a curiosity. Only hours had past and his capturers were chatting him up and letting him sit in a BF 109 plane, though they politely declined to let Bader take it for a spin when he asked. When the Germans learned that Bader's artificial legs had been lost when he bailed out, they searched for his wrecked plane, found one of the legs, fixed it up, and returned it to Bader--yes, these are the Nazis we're talking about here.
That was after the complimentary fruit basket
They even contacted the British and allowed for a replacement for the other prosthetic to be airdropped. The British dropped him in a new leg, then used this temporary safe passage agreement to complete a bombing run.
Legs restored, Bader began a long campaign of being a complete pain in the ass to the Germans. While still recovering in the camp's hospital, he climbed out a window using a blanket and walked about 100 miles toward the coast before being recaptured, which didn't deter him at all. Bader made so many escape attempts that the Germans actually threatened to take his legs away if it didn't stop.
They should have taken his legs away. After a lovely dinner with his captors, Bader and some other POWs made yet another break for it.
He saw notzing.
And they might have escaped, if not for Bader's immense popularity. A Luftwaffe officer, a fan apparently, went to Bader's room at the camp, probably for an autograph. He discovered the room empty and raised the alarm. After three days, Bader and his crew were eventually captured again.
He was undeterred. Even after being put into a more secure prison that was literally a castle, he continued to seek out ways to defy the Nazis, becoming involved in more escape attempts for other prisoners and efforts to embarrass the officers running the place. Spoiling his next attempt at freedom were the Americans, who finally liberated the prison. When Bader emerged, he asked to be taken to the American airfield, where they kept the fighter planes. He wanted "to have (one) last crack at the Germans."
Thanks for the legs, suckers!
Henri Giraud is a Patient Man
Henri Giraud was a 63 year-old French General with a bad leg who fought in Both World Wars. After slowing the German advance in the Netherlands, Giraud went to the Ardennes to stop more Nazis, but got captured instead. He was taken to Konigstein Castle, a fortress that had never been conquered or broken out of during its roughly 800 year-long existence. It was used for officers and other influential prisoners in both world wars, contained a garrison, and had been updated for every technological leap of mankind. Plus, it sits on a really high mountain.
The Nazis and Konigstein did not know who they were fucking with. During the First World War, Giraud had been wounded and captured by the Germans in North Africa. Within two months, he escaped and made it back to France.
"Let's do it again, I want to try to beat my time."
Giraud's ingenious plan would take two years to put together.
First, he addressed the part of prison escape that every other escapee forgets--what you'll do once you're outside the walls. The prison was right there in Germany, after all, and he didn't even know the language. So, he convinced his captors to start classes in how to learn German.
Next, he needed to coordinate with somebody on the outside. His letters to and from his wife were read and censored by the guards, but they somehow developed a system of embedding coded messages that the captors never picked up on. Next, he got ahold of a map and memorized every detail of the surrounding geography.
All right, now there's just the matter of the, uh, 150-foot drop outside the prison walls that had made escape utterly impossible for the last eight centuries.
He and a friend came up with some twine, thin stuff like they use to bind packages. They twisted it together, bit by bit, until they had 150 feet of it. It took a year.
Last, he got himself a Tyrolean hat.
Somehow crucial in all of this
With some supplies gathered, Giraud made his escape down the 150-foot wall of Konigstein in broad daylight (guards patrolled at night). Upon reaching the ground, he changed into different clothes, shaved his moustache, and put on some glasses (thus making the one photo the Germans had completely useless for the search).
Speaking the German the guards had taught him, and wearing the right hat, he blended in perfectly with the German-speaking, hat-wearing populace, and eventually made it back to friendly territory after several close calls. Hitler was apparently furious. Not only had a potentially dangerous foe returned to the allies, but the duration of the escape included April 20th, better known as Hitler's birthday.
James Nicholas "Nick" Rowe Survives Viet Cong, Hippies
Nick Roe was a legendary Green Beret of the Vietnam War, who invented the SERE army course, which entails survival, evasion, resistance, and escape in POW situations.
During the war, Rowe and his team fell into an ambush and were captured, after some heavy fighting, by the Viet Cong. Rowe and his comrades were separated, taken to a camp, and placed in wooden cages smaller than your closet. For the next five years, they would endure torture, disease, malnutrition, humiliation, and the very constant threat of death.
Aside from being in one of the worst places imaginable, Rowe had another problem. He was the intelligence officer for his unit, which meant he knew important stuff like the location and numbers of America's soldiers. Wisely, Rowe told the Viet Cong that he was only an engineer who'd been drafted and didn't know shit about the war. To "verify" the story, the Viet Cong doled out some torture.
When Rowe wouldn't break, they gave him an engineering problem to solve, which, being awesome, he did. He was in the clear until some hippies decided they'd save the world by visiting North Vietnam.
The activists were on a mission to visit POWs so they could tell America the North Vietnamese took good care of prisoners (and therefore the war should end?). They handed over a list of the soldiers they wanted to see and Rowe was among them. Why this list also included the fact that Nick was part of the Special Forces, and an intelligence officer to boot, is anyone's guess.
Thanks for that...
The Viet Cong were pissed. All of the info Rowe had was now way out of date and therefore useless. And he still wouldn't tell them anything anyway! In retaliation, he was staked out in a swamp, naked, where mosquitoes feasted on every inch of his body for days. Rowe's repeated escape attempts weren't winning him any points either. He'd even gotten away at one point, but returned when Viet Cong, shouting into the jungle, said they would kill one of Rowe's comrades.
Finally, his captors scheduled an execution date. Away from the camp, in the forest, the execution was about to take place when several American helicopters flew by. Using the small distraction, Nick beat down his armed guards with a flying 360 spin kick (probably), and ran into a nearby clearing, where one of the helicopter pilots overhead noticed him and landed for the rescue.
He went home to a well-earned retirement, or would have if he wasn't Colonel James Nicholas Rowe. This Green Beret stayed with the army, trained others to survive the POW experience, and fought terrorism till his last breath.
Just looking at his picture makes you more of a man.
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For more prison stories that seem to awesome to be real, check out 6 Insane Prison Escapes That Actually Happened and 5 People Who Changed the World From Inside of Prison.
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