WWII Prisoner Escapes Through Toilet

The date is March, 1943, and in a prisoner
of war camp inside occupied Poland, Royal Canadian Air Force pilot William Ash approaches
the camp’s toilet facilities. A single POW leans against the latrine’s doorway,
casually keeping watch on the rest of the camp. The POW nods at Ash as he approaches and allows
him to enter the small, squat latrine. Inside are two rows of toilets, built in the
classic Roman style- nine boxed-in seats ring the sides of the room and consist of nothing
more than concrete boxes with no dividers between them. The wooden seats lead down to a large concrete
pit underneath where hundreds of prisoners relieve themselves into every day. A small hole leads to a huge sewage pit which
is drained every week into the waiting truck of a local farmer who uses the camp’s waste
to fertilize his fields. As Ash enters the building he spots two men
seated at the far seats, who return his nod of greeting. One of them stands and lifts the seat he was
just sitting on, revealing a hole in the concrete that is just barely large enough for a man
to squeeze through. The stench of human waste wafts up from below,
powerful enough to make the men’s eyes tear up as they fight the urge to vomit, yet powering
through the horrid assault on their nostrils, the men climb down into the hole one by one. As they land a few inches of waste water splash
urine and feces all over the men, but they ignore it as they turn their attention to
the task at hand. The men remove a panel that’s been made to
look like a false wall and reveal a small chamber beyond which has been carved from
the frozen soil itself. Using candles made of boot strings and margarine
held in a tin dish, the men join three others who are already waiting there and strip down
to their underwear. One man sits at a bellows made of old leather
kit bags, and as he works it he pushes air through a pipe made of old cans into the tunnel
which the crew has been digging for weeks now. Two men now move down into that tunnel while
the remainder stay behind to handle the soil that the diggers displace in their dig. The entire crew is split up into shifts, with
some men taking turns digging while others man the bellows, dispose of the dirt, or stands
watch above. Disposal of the dirt is accomplished by pushing
the dirt through the sump directly under the toilets above and into the huge sewage pit
beyond. Once a week Polish farmer Franciszek Lewandowski
arrives at the camp and pumps the sewage out for use on his farm, yet Lewandowski has begun
to notice more and more dirt in the waste water. Before he has a chance to complain to the
Nazi guards though another prisoner, Josef Bryks, a young Czechoslovakian, informs Lewandowski
of the escape plan. The Polish farmer is no fan of the Nazis,
especially after their invasion and occupation of his home, and keeps the plan a secret,
doing his part to aid the would-be escapees by dutifully carting away the soil. As the digging team finishes its work for
the day, the third team enters the tunnel and begins the job of shoring up the tunnel
walls and ceiling. The tunneling work, carried out with nothing
more than cut-out aluminum cans, is dangerous work, and the tunnel is under constant threat
of collapse. Each day that the tunnel extends further and
deeper the men require just a little bit more courage to enter the dark tunnel, not knowing
if that’s the day the tunnel will collapse and trap them with little to no hope of rescue. It is the job of the third team then to enter
and shore up the sides and ceiling as best they can, using wooden boards taken from their
barracks and even their bed frames themselves. The boards make for a rudimentary shoring,
but help add a bit of safety to the entire endeavor. As they shore up the freshly dug length of
tunnel, the men also extend the air pipe which brings in oxygen to the tunneling crew. They use powdered milk cans for the job, cutting
them so that they fit end to end. The air they pump is from the latrine itself,
and fetid with the stench of human waste- but it brings life-saving oxygen as the men
dig deeper and further into the earth. To expedite the process of digging, the men
have developed an ingenious system to move freshly dug earth to the latrine sump for
disposal. Two lengths of rope extend down the tunnel,
and at one end is an empty sack. The diggers fill the sack with dirt and then
give the rope a sharp tug, which causes the man at the halfway point to begin hauling
on the rope to bring the dirt out of the tunnel. Once it reaches the midway point, that man
attaches it to the second rope who’s end he has with him, and then gives that rope a sharp
tug. The men at the entrance then drag the sack
from the halfway point all the way to the entrance of the tunnel, where the dirt is
emptied into the latrine sump. The system is rudimentary, and nowhere near
as sophisticated as the homemade railroad tracks and trolleys that the men at the Stalag
Luft 3 prison complex would use to escape and serve as inspiration for the film, The
Great Escape. Yet the process saves countless hours of labor
as it takes a half hour to squeeze down the two foot by two foot tunnel each day. In early March of 1943, the team digging at
the end of the tunnel begin to dig directly upwards. By their calculations they have dug several
hundred feet past the perimeter fencing, a task which required them to not just dig out
from their starting point, but down into the rocky soil to a depth of over a dozen feet
in order to avoid the seismic sensors that the Germans have installed to detect digging. Once well out of the fence, the tunnel begins
to angle upwards again and now the men are digging straight up. One of them takes a long stick and pushes
it into the ceiling above, feeling resistance for two feet before the stick gives way to
the topside- the tunnel is finished, and to avoid detection the last two feet of the tunnel
will be dug up on the day of their escape. Now the men prepare for their breakout. While the dig teams were working for weeks
on the tunnel, Brysk, the young Czech, has been helping secure fake papers for the escapees. To do this he managed to talk his way into
being part of a detail that is taken every week under guard to a produce store in town. There the prisoner detail buys a few luxuries
for the POWs such as chocolates, cigarettes, and the sort- they pay for this from the meager
wages paid to them by the German government under its obligations to pay POWs for their
labor via the Geneva Convention. At the store a young Polish girl, Stefania
Maludzinska, works behind the counter, and it isn’t long before she’s swooning at Bryks’
charms. She has been helping to smuggle letters to
Bryks’ family members for months, but now the escapees need her help in far more dangerous
work. Stefania has friends who work at town hall,
and she has them steal official German forms that will serve as a template for the forged
identity papers needed by the escapees. The identity papers will ID the escapees as
Polish citizens after their escape, allowing them to bypass security checkpoints and hide
their identities as POWs. Yet for the papers to look legitimate there
is one more thing that is needed: a photograph of each of the escapees to adorn their fake
papers. To get these photographs, Stefania takes the
biggest risk of her life and helps secure a small camera and film from a Polish laborer
who used to be a teacher before the German invasion. Now he is forced to do hard labor and work
rebuilding the same roads the Germans themselves bombed in the invasion, and helping the prisoners
escape will be his small measure of revenge against the Nazis. The camera and the film is smuggled into the
camp via a seventeen year old boy who routinely brings in a shipment of the prisoner’s daily
allowance of bread, all hidden safely amongst the loafs. After the prisoners take their photos the
film is then smuggled out through the same young teenage boy, who develops the photos
himself in a makeshift photo lab inside his parents’ tiny apartment. All of these brave Polish civilians assisting
the escapees are taking huge risks, and discovery of their involvement would certainly lead
to a quick execution. The date for the breakout is set to be March
5th, as those amongst the prisoners with meteorological knowledge estimate that this will be the next
moonless night. In order to have the best chance of escape,
the men must move under the cover of deepest darkness, and with no moon in the sky they
stand a good chance of being unseen by the perimeter sentries. The men decide that immediately after the
five pm roll call, a group of them will head straight to the tunnel and wall themselves
in, until after lock-up at nine pm when the rest of the group will sneak out of their
bunks and make their way into the tunnel. A mathematician amongst them calculates that
the tunnel will be able to support up to thirty three men for six hours before the oxygen
runs out and the men asphyxiate- the figures and the math both are rough, but it’s the
best the men have to go on. At five PM on March 5th, the guards line up
the POWs and conduct their daily count. Satisfied that all men are accounted for,
they are left alone for recreation time. Eight hundred men move to the recreation ground
where a rugby match has been staged in order to help cover the escape attempt. The men plotting their escape conceal clean
clothes under coats, their pockets stuffed with a concoction termed “the mixture”,
a high energy food made by the prisoners. In each of their pockets are also their identification
papers, a map of the region, and a homemade compass. Overhead gray clouds build up and cold gusts
of wind force the German guards to seek what shelter they can inside their guard towers. The men head to the latrine in pairs, and
once inside ditch their overcoats and make their way into the filth below. As the night goes on the men are relieved
to discover that the calculations for oxygen supply were correct, and at last nine pm rolls
around along with the final group to enter the escape tunnel. The men break through the last two feet of
dirt at the end of the tunnel and crawl out into freedom, grateful to leave the smelly,
stinking tunnel behind at last. The men break up into groups and head in different
directions so as not to draw attention to themselves, posing as travelers. Unfortunately within the end of the week,
all thirty six escapees would be recaptured by the Germans, with many sent off to new
prison camps. Though the escape ultimately failed, it proved
to be one of the most daring and smelliest escapes of World War II, inspiring many heroic
attempts by other Allied soldiers throughout the rest of the conflict. Think you could’ve stomached digging through
a giant sewer to get to safety? Let us know in the comments! And as always if you enjoyed this video don’t
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