Channel 4 Commissioning Editor for History Julia Harrington has commissioned Wildfire Television to make Digging the Great Escape (working title), due for transmission on Channel 4 in the autumn. This fascinating programme follows a team of engineers, archaeologists, and serving RAF officers who have assembled on the site of Stalag Luft III, the supposedly escape proof PoW camp, with an extraordinarily ambitious plan: to excavate for the first time ever the remains of "Harry", the tunnel from which 76 allied airmen escaped on the night of 24 March 1944. This was the Great Escape, immortalised by Hollywood, and internationally famous as an extraordinary story of courage and ingenuity.
It took a year to dig the tunnel and for nearly 70 years Harry has remained undisturbed - and with it the final secrets of the remarkable story of the Great Escape.
But how did the POWs do it? How did they actually dig a 100 metre tunnel, seven metres below ground with only rudimentary tools and right under the noses of their German guards? How did they get rid of several tonnes of sand? How did they ventilate and light the tunnel? How did they forge more than 100 documents? What did they do with 90 double bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 3,424 towels, etc that they stole from the camp? And who were these remarkable people?
To find out just how ingenious these men were and how incredibly difficult the whole operation was, a group of present-day RAF airmen (many of whom have seen active service in Iraq and Afghanistan) will replicate some of the key tools, structures and inventions created by the original escapers. The programme also assembles a remarkable cast of surviving veterans of the escape including: Charles Clarke (President of the PoW Association); Frank Stone (resident of hut 104 - from which the tunnel was sprung, and batman to chief tunneller Wally Floody); and Stanley "Gordie" King (the man who operated the tunnel ventilation system on the night of the escape).
The team of experts include: Chief Engineer Lt Col Philip Westwood RE; historian Dr Howard Tuck, one of the world's leading experts on the allied POW experience in WWII; Chief Archaeologist Dr Tony Pollard, one of the world's top battlefield archaeologists; and in charge of experiments is Dr Hugh Hunt (Trinity College, Cambridge), who was recently involved in Channel 4's recent Dambusters: Building the Bouncing Bomb.
Interweaving the thrilling present-day quest with the visceral story of the escape itself and the unfolding story of the excavations and experiments, this film offers a new insight into the Great Escape, and a celebration of the courage and ingenuity of a remarkable group of men.
Commissioning Editor Julia Harrington says, "Putting the engineering and science of the escape attempt centre stage has really paid off - I don't think anyone who watches the documentary will see the story in the same way. The ingenuity and determination of these men was breathtaking."
Executive producer, Simon Raikes says: "The challenge was to illuminate a story that was already well known around the world; somehow to bring something new to a very familiar tale. And until about halfway through the shoot I was terrified that we'd fail. And then the veterans arrived, and the finds began to emerge, and then more finds... and it became incredibly emotional. And all the while, our cameras were rolling."