The Greatest Escapes

We have passion for everything escape related, so we decided to take a look at some of the greatest escapes from history for some inspiration and to share some fascinating tales!

Steve McQueen on a motorbike from the movie, the Great Escape

1. Escape From Alcatraz

An image of Alcatraz Island

In 1962 three convicts set out to escape from the notorious Alcatraz prison in San Francisco. Alcatraz was world-famous, not just for the prisoners it contained, but also for the high level of security and the isolation of the facility. It even served as inspiration for Azkaban, the wizard prison in the Harry Potter books. Alcatraz was a former military prison set on an island in the San Francisco bay. The jail was converted to a civilian prison in 1934 after work to further fortify and secure the island.

The idea behind Alcatraz was to house criminals with a history of escaping other prisons. The prison also housed convicts who continued with their criminal activity behind bars (this is why Al Capone was moved to Alcatraz). With the extra security and isolation, it was said to be impossible to escape and perfect for securely keeping prisoners who tended to go wandering.

Despite these inescapable (sorry we couldn’t resist) claims, 36 men attempted to make it off the island prison. Most caught and the rest failed to survive the attempt. That was until 1962, when 3 men successfully made it off the island – but their fate after that is still unknown.

The three were, John Anglin, Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris. Serving time for armed robbery, the trio spent months planning their daring escape. The first task was to use tools that they made themselves to dig through the walls of their cells. They decided the easiest place to dig through would be around the air vents on the back walls from the cells. After breaking through they found that the air vents led to an unused service corridor.

The trio weren’t done here however! Although they’d found a path to escape, the prisoners realised that they would need help to make it to the mainland. They stole over 50 raincoats to make a life raft. The prisoners even managed to develop make-shift life-preserving vests. Another ingenious idea was to create dummy heads to put in their beds and the guards off. Although we’re not sure how convincing these were (see the picture below) you can’t say the escapees didn’t go to any effort. They stole real human hair from the prison barbershop to make them as convincing as possible.

The dummy heads used in the escape from Alcatraz

After leaving their cells, they passed through the service corridor and proceeded to the prison roof. Here, they had hidden the equipment they’d made to aid their escape. Once the escapees had gathered all their resources, they continued along the roof, shimmied down the bakery chimney, and over the prison’s fence to freedom! At the island’s shoreline they inflated their raft and ventured out into the ice-cold water. After this point, nobody is 100% sure what happened to the men.

The FBI still maintains that the prisoners couldn’t have survived. They believe that with cold waters and strong tides, it would have been impossible to cross the bay. The odds were further stacked against them when you consider they had to navigate the sea at night.

The FBI’s informant also stated that once the trio reached land the plan was to steal clothes and a car, yet no such thefts were reported that night. Finally, according to authorities, there was no credible evidence to suggest that the men were still alive whether in the US or overseas.

Fans of the escape believe that not only was it possible for the group to have survived, but evidence exists to prove that they did. Letters sent to the mother of the Anglin brothers every Christmas, hint at the group’s possible survival. There was also several reported sightings of the brothers including recounts of two strange looking women, wearing a lot of make up, attending the funeral of the mother and leaving very soon after.

The mystery behind the escape is worth your time to read deeper into. Whatever became of the trio still provokes a great deal of speculation but what is certain is that this escape remains one of the most ingenious and daring.

2. The Great Escape

A map of the tunnel Harry used in the Great Escape

What list of escapes would be complete without the amazing story of the Great Escape? We’re sure everyone’s familiar with the famous Steve McQueen movie, but some dramatic license was taken by Hollywood, so it’s worth discovering the true story. Although there are no motorbike stunts here, don’t worry! The heroic escape is nearly as thrilling as the film it inspired.

The real escape took place in 1944 from the Stalag Luft III POW camp, located just 35km inside Poland. The location was selected after the Nazi’s believed the sandy soil would make an escape via tunnelling impossible!

However, they didn’t count on the grit and determination of the inmates, particularly English Squadron leader, Roger Bushell. Despite it being “impossible” to dig a tunnel in the sandy soil he devised an incredible plan to escape the Polish camp, they’d dig 3 tunnels, with the hope of evacuating over 200 airmen from the prison in a single night.

Considering the German’s believed a tunnel escape impossible, the 3 tunnel plan was as ambitious as it was ingenious. Why 3 tunnels? Bushel believed that 3 provided the prisoners with a few different protections. Firstly, if one tunnel was found by the guards, they would never suspect that any more tunnels were being dug. It also meant if one tunnel collapsed it wasn’t the end of their escape, they had 2 more to work on!

The tunnels were dug in the utmost secrecy, with each one being given a top-secret code name. The tunnels were christened, quite humorously, “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry” to avoid arousing suspicion. The prisoners took this secrecy so seriously that it was deemed a court-martial offence to use the word tunnel, rather than the names given to them!

What happened to the tunnels? Well, “Tom” was discovered by the German guards and was quickly destroyed before there was a chance to escape. “Dick” was sadly abandoned, after the prison camp started building work on the where the tunnel would surface. However, “Dick” wasn’t dug entirely in vain! It served as the ideal place to hide soil dug up from “Harry” (the final escape tunnel) and doubled up as a workshop to produce tools and equipment for the final escape attempt.

In the end, over 600 people, both inmates and sympathetic guards, were involved in the escape plan. And, after a year of digging, forging and planning, the prisoners decided to escape on the evening of the 24th March 1944.

On the cold Friday evening, only 76 of the planned 200 POW’s managed to escape. Their journey to escape took them along a 335 foot, make-shift railway track (see below) built in the tunnel and towards the escape hatch. To help ensure safety, the tunnel had been reinforced by the wooden bed boards from the prisoner’s rooms, and fresh air was pumped along from the surface.

The tunnel and railway track from the Great Escape

Unfortunately, the escape didn’t go as smoothly as planned and ran into several problems. First, the tunnel was dug slightly short of the forest they had planned to emerge into, this meant that it was easy for guards to spot prisoners coming out of the hole. The cold weather on the night also meant that the escape hatch had been frozen solid, and escapees spent half an hour trying to get it to force it open. There was further delay when a nearby air-raid cut all the power to the tunnel.

At 4:55 am the 77th prisoner to escape was spotted by the guards emerging from the tunnel, starting a camp-wide search for the entrance. With the guards on high alert, any other prisoners were prevented from escaping. A countrywide search mission was assembled to track down the 76 who had successfully escaped the camp and sadly proved extremely successful. Only 3 prisoners managed to escape into freedom, with the other 73 being found by German forces.

50 of the prisoners involved in the escape were shot by the Gestapo under direct orders from Hitler, a breach of the Geneva convention. The remaining survivors were returned to other POW camps, or even to concentration camps.

The story is fascinating and as we’ve only been able to cover it briefly we recommend reading about it in the book “The Great Escape”, the film of the same name is worth a watch but it’s worth remembering that Hollywood took a few liberties with the tale.

Worth a Read:

The Great Escape

3. Geronimo

  • Year: 1885
  • Location: US/Mexico Border, Arizona
  • Escapees: £14 Million

Geronimo was a native American warrior and shaman who was famous for his attacks on Mexican and American settlements. He spent much of his life defending native American lands from both Mexico and the United States and was captured many times. However, his most incredible feat occurred when he was 60.

On 17th May 1885, Geronimo fled the San Carlos reservation in Arizona with several of his followers. Originally around 300 US troops were involved in trying to finding the Apache. Geronimo’s group used their freedom to conduct raids on civilians, including other Native Americas, stealing horses from other settlements across a wide area. The Apache also led the group from Mexico back over the border into the US and conducted “breakouts” on their reservation to release more of his kin.

At beginning of 1886 Geronimo’s camp was discovered, his horses were captured and any supplies stolen. He agreed to surrender on the 29th March, 1886. However, after being informed that he was to be killed by the US troops he escaped yet again with 37 of his followers.

By the Summer of 1886, Geronimo and the 37 others were being pursued by 5000 US soldiers (around a quarter of the enlisted army) and over 3000 Mexican soldiers. For over 5 months Geronimo and his troop evaded capture, travelling through the mountains and canyons between the US and Mexico. In September, Geronimo decided to surrender after it became too hard to live on the run against the resources of the US army, turning himself in near Skelton Canyon.

Geronimo and is warriors just before their capture

He spent the last 23 years of his life as a prisoner of war and wrote an autobiography covering his life, after approval from Theodore Roosevelt. The fact that he managed to evade capture for over 5 months with 8000 soldiers looking for him is incredible and earns him a well-earned mention in this list.

4. Napoleon

  • Date: 26th February, 1815
  • Location: Elba, Italy
  • Escapees: 1

The famous French general and emperor was known to have one or two tricks up his sleeve on the battlefield, but one of his best-laid plans was his escape from exile on the Island of Elba.

After defeat in the war of 6 coalitions, Napoleon abdicated in 1814. He negotiated his imprisonment and in typical Napoleon fashion, arranging to be emperor of the island of Elba, just off the coast of Italy. He kept himself busy and transformed the picturesque island, renewing its mines, reforming the economic system, and generating a small army. However despite this, and the fact that Elba seems a lovely place to be imprisoned, he focused his energies on escaping after learning the British planned to move him to the island of St. Helena, even further away from the continent.

On top of this, he was refused the money offered to him during his abdication which meant he was very close to living in poverty. Seeing an opportunity on the 26th February 1815, he assembled a small fleet of ships and hatched a plan to escape. He painted his vessel, the “Inconstant”, in British colours to avoid capture and set sail with about 1,150 soldiers for mainland France. Evading the fleet of French and British ships around the island, he landed in Golfe-Juan near Cannes.

Napoleon had one goal from here, and set off immediately for Paris. Louis XVIII (the man named ruler after Napoleon) panicked and ordered that Napoleon be captured before reaching the French capital. However, Louis severely underestimated Napoleon. Napoleon was first met by the 5th Infantry Regiment at Grenoble, where he and his troops fired no shot in their defence and persuaded the enemy  regiment to join the cause. In Laffrey, 6000 troops were stationed to stop Napoleon however again he evaded capture. Legend says he stepped in front of his army opened his coat and shouted “If any of you will shoot his Emperor, here I am”, it was met by shouts of “Vive L’Empreuer”. Unbelievably they joined his army and Napoleon marched, now unopposed and with a much larger force than before, all the way to Paris.

Louis XVIII (Napoleon’s successor) fled, and the diminutive general regained power. By June he was as powerful as ever and had 200 000 troops at his disposal. His second reign came to a halt after being defeated by Wellington and Prince Blucher of Prussia at the famous battle of Waterloo.

There are 2 amazing parts to this escape, that he was able to leave Elba in the first place despite being surrounded by ships, and that he was able to use his charisma and standing with the French people to not only avoid a battle but to convert the soldiers to his side.

I think you’ll agree that these escapes are fascinating stories from history that show incredible courage and ingenuity. Sadly most of the escapes were short-lived, and despite their best efforts most were unable to evade capture afterwards.

If you’ve been inspired or excited by any of these stories then take a look at our Live Escape Rooms! Fortunately, they only require an hour of your time and it’s much less likely that you’ll be recaptured!

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