25 Mar 2014

70th anniversary of The Great Escape

9:36 am on 25 March 2014

The 70th anniversary of the Great Escape in 1944, the most famous prison break of World War II, was marked at a ceremony in the Polish town of Zagan on Monday.

Seventy six men broke out of Stalag Luft Three through a tunnel 102m long. But only three made it to safety and 50 of those who were recaptured were executed on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler.

Veterans joined family members from around the world to lay wreaths at the exit of the tunnel in the first formal act of remembrance for the dead.

Three New Zealanders were among those killed, including Flying Officer Porokoru Patapu Pohe, who was known as Jonny.

His great-great-nephew, Keepa Hipango, who's in Zagan, said it was an honour to speak with one of the survivors of the breakout while he was there.

Fifty serving RAF personnel each held a photo of one of the 50 dead at the ceremony in a forest above the tunnel.

Norwegian pilots Per Bergsland and Jens Muller, and Dutch pilot Bram van der Stok - who all died in the 1990s - made it to safety.

The BBC reports a small number of surviving former prisoners of the camp were among those who paid their respects.

Stalag Luft III, which was 100 miles south-east of Berlin on the Polish border, held about 10,000 prisoners at the height of its occupation.

Members of the RAF and other allied forces were among prisoners at the camp.

Three tunnels, codenamed Tom, Dick and Harry, were started in April 1943.

The tunnels were dug to a depth of 28ft (8.5m) and shored up with wooden boards from the prisoners' beds.

The breakout was made on the night of 24 March 1944 through Harry, beneath Hut 104.

The bid for freedom was immortalised in the 1963 film The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough.