Iconic escape stories

Our new exhibition, Great Escapes explores the human spirit during captivity during the Second World War and features some incredible and iconic escape attempts that were made from the Prisoner of War (POW) camps.

The front cover of a beige card file with red edging, with the words M.I.9.BULLETIN typed in capital letters on the front, and the words "Most Secret" in red

Bulletin for MI9, catalogue reference: WO208 – 3268

The exhibition also features never previously displayed records from MI9 – the highly secretive British government agency set up in 1939 to help military personnel evade and escape capture – sending hidden escape aids to POW camps, creating escape routes and interviewing the few POWs who successfully escaped.

Here are some highlights of the escape stories included in the exhibition:

1. Bertram ‘Jimmy’ James

Jimmy James makes several escape attempts as a POW, most famously in the ‘Great Escape’ from Stalag Luft III – where he is one of hundreds of men, organised by the camp’s escape committee, involved in digging three tunnels, creating disguises, forging IDs and making 4,000 maps. Jimmy is responsible for depositing sand from the tunnels under the seats of the camp theatre.

2. Airey Neave

On 5 January 1942, 24-year-old Airey Neave knocks through the stage floor of the camp theatre and drops into the guard room beneath it. Wearing a fake German uniform and carrying forged papers and a compass, he walks out of the Colditz, the high-security POW camp, thought, wrongly, to be escape-proof. Airey was the first British officer to successfully escape Colditz.

A white paper with a printed map of Airey Neave's escape from Colditz into woods

Airey Neave Plan of Woods. Catalogue reference: WO208-3308

3. Oliver Philpot

On 29 October 1943, a hollow gymnastics vaulting horse made from Red Cross boxes is carried out to the exercise yard at Stalag Luft III camp by a few POWs. Squeezed inside are Oliver Philpot alongside Eric Williams and Michael Codner. They break the surface of the ground into a tunnel they’ve dug over the last 114 days. After escaping through the tunnel, they take cover in a pine wood then separate and Oliver, disguised as a Norwegian salesman, makes his way north to freedom.

A beige paper with a drawing of a man hiding within a gymnastic wooden horse, with the words 'Rough sketch of the horse' - Xray view of the horse being brought in with worker and 12 full sandbags

Sketch of wooden horse used in escape from Stalag Luft III. Catalogue reference: WO373-95 (44)

4. Peter Butterworth

Peter Butterworth, a Lieutenant in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy is shot down over the Netherlands in 1941. In Stalag Luft III, he is admired for his sense of humour and helps establish the camp theatre, channelling his energy into directing, designing and performing on stage in shows including ‘Twinkle Twinkle Mr Star’ and ‘Escape’. The performances helpfully act as a cover for the sound of escape tunnels being dug.

A Prisoner of War record card for Peter Butterworth with typed completions and a thumbnail picture of him in the bottom right.

A POW Record Card for Peter Butterworth. Catalogue reference: WO 416-53-114

5. Steffi Ehlert

Steffi Ehlert is one of 70 German officers who escaped Camp 198 in Bridgend in Wales, on the night of 10 March 1945, through a secret tunnel in what was the biggest mass escape in the UK during the war.


You can visit the free exhibition at The National Archives from 2 February to 21 July 2024, Tuesday to Sunday. Plan your visit.

Read about some of the fascinating survival stories featured in the exhibition.

Return to the homepage for the Great Escapes season.