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In 1942 Germany, Allied air force prisoners from England, Australia, Scotland, Canada and America are transferred to a special, maximum security compound, Stalag Luft III. The camp Kommandant, Luftwaffe Col. Von Luger, meets Senior British Officer Capt. Ramsey to warn him that although the newly arriving prisoners are well-known for wreaking havoc throughout the Reich with their constant camp breakouts, they will have no success at Stalag III. Undaunted, Ramsey reminds Von Luger that it is the sworn duty of every officer to attempt escape. Among the new arrivals at the compound are Scottish Flying Officer Archie Ives, American pilot Capt. Virgil Hilts, American R.A.F. Flt. Lt. Robert Hendley, R.A.F. Lt. Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt, Australians Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick and Flt. Lt. Denys Cavendish, Polish R.A.F. Flt. Lt. Danny Velinski and R.A.F. Flt. Lt. Willie Dickes. Within hours of their arrival, Danny and Willie make an escape attempt, trying to blend in with Russian workers while Sedgwick creates a diversion by starting a fight. Although several men successfully hide among piles of tree branches in departing trucks, they are caught at the gate. Meanwhile, Hilts tells Ives that he already has discovered a blind spot between the guard towers, but when he tests his theory by tossing, then trying to retrieve a baseball from the spot, he is stopped by guards and Von Luger sentences him and Ives to twenty days in the isolation block, known as "the cooler." The next day, Hendley, Ashley-Pitt and fellow R.A.F. Flt. Lt. Sandy "Mac" MacDonald are concerned to note the arrival of British Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett under Gestapo and SS escort. When Von Luger protests the security organizations' interference, Gestapo head Kuhn declares that Roger is the suspected ringleader of major POW breakouts and will be executed on his next arrest. Later, Ramsey welcomes Roger and informs him that most of his team of experts is also in the camp. When Roger declares his intention to organize a massive breakout of 250 men, Ramsey is taken aback, but Roger insists that their duty is to harass, confound and confuse the enemy. That night, Roger tells several of his men that the prisoners will take up approved camp activities such as gardening and sports, which will serve as cover while others dig not one, but three underground tunnels to the forest nearby. Amazed by the audacity of the plan, the men are galvanized and each leader of a particular group organizes their work for the next several months: master forger Flt. Lt. Colin Blythe requires paper, inks, a camera and current travel documents; tailor Griffith must turn old uniforms and every bit of cloth into suits and Wehrmacht uniforms; and security head Sorren must set up an impenetrable web of communication on the whereabouts of all camp guards. Hendley, known as a "scrounger," furnishes an odd assortment of necessities through bribery and theft. Mac, head of intelligence, provides Roger with a description of all the wood that can be safely stolen throughout the camp to shore up the tunnel walls. Cavendish, the surveyor, works with "tunneling kings" Danny and Willie, and soon the three tunnels, nicknamed "Tom, Dick and Harry," are begun in the huts closest to the forest edge, with the men digging thirty feet down to mute the activity. Roger soon learns that Hilts and Ives, who became friends while in the cooler, are planning their own breakout, which he allows them to continue to distract Von Luger. Hilts's and Ives's attempt is quickly discovered and the men are returned to the cooler. As the intensive tunneling continues over the next several weeks, the problem of moving and hiding tons of dirt becomes critical. Ashley-Pitt, in charge of dispersal, devises a plan whereby socks of dirt, held closed by pins attached to strings, are placed down a man's pant legs, thus allowing streaming dirt from the pant bottoms to be easily and stealthily spread across the grounds. Soon, the men are gardening with fervor as dirt is continually distributed about the compound. As times passes, the men continue to participate enthusiastically in all sporting and holiday events, choreographed to cover another phase of the tunnel excavation and construction. Having discerned that young German guard Werner, whom the men call "The Ferret," is malleable, Hendley coerces him to secure a number of crucial items and, later, steals his wallet to provide his roommate Blythe with appropriate travel and identity passes to copy. Later, Roger meets with Hilts, who admits that he and Ives are considering another breakout. When Roger suggests that Hilts escape and allow himself to be recaptured to provide them with exclusive details of the layout of the nearby town and train station, Hilts refuses. Although Danny is plagued by numerous cave-ins as the tunnel construction continues, eventually enough wood is gathered to shore up the walls, rail tracks are laid, electric lighting is set up and a relay trolley system is rigged to pull the men and equipment through the lengthening, narrow passageways. Hoping to set the escape date to coincide with the new moon, Roger orders all work halted on tunnels Dick and Harry to concentrate on completing the shortest tunnel, Tom. After hoarding potatoes for months, Hilts, Hendley and Goff, the only other American in the camp, concoct moonshine from a homemade still and on the 4th of July celebrate American Independence Day with the entire camp. While the men celebrate, Von Luger uses the distraction to investigate all of the empty huts and the entrance to "Tom" is discovered. Ives, overcome by despair at the discovery, stumbles toward the barbed wire fence, blindly intent on escaping, and is shot dead by a guard. That afternoon, Hilts tells Roger that he will escape that night and make the reconnaissance mission. Soon after, Hilts is returned to the camp and placed in the cooler. Work continues on the next shortest tunnel, Harry, and Roger again sets the escape night to coincide with the next new moon. After drawing lots, the men go through "dress rehearsal" to practice their identities as German soldiers or businessmen. As the date looms closer, Blythe realizes that his long-distance eyesight has begun to fail rapidly due to the strain. A couple of nights before the escape attempt, Willie discovers Danny intent on breaking out through the fence and his friend confesses that he is secretly claustrophobic and unable to return to the tunnel. After Willie promises his support, Danny agrees to try the tunnel again. The night before the escape, Roger informs Blythe that he is aware of his near blindness and cannot allow Blythe to go. Pointing out that Roger is as much of a hazard because of his notoriety as the helpless Blythe, Hendley insists on managing Blythe's departure and Roger reluctantly consents. On the day of the escape, Hilts is released from the cooler and reports to Mac, who informs him that he will be directing each of the men as they exit the tunnel into the forest. After bidding Ramsey farewell, Roger, Mac and Ashley-Pitt enter the tunnel, only to run into a panicked Danny who has bolted, unable to endure the small space. Roger lets Danny and Willie return to the hut and then proceeds to the tunnel's end. There, Hilts pushes up the last few inches of earth to the outside and discovers, to his horror, that the exit falls some twenty feet short of the forest edge and is in full view of a patrolling guard. Realizing that the travel permits and documents are all dated for that day, Roger frantically wonders what to do, when Hilts volunteers to hide in the forest and, using a rope, to signal each man when it is safe to exit. The plan proceeds slowly, and just as Willie convinces Danny to return to the tunnel, an air raid occurs, extinguishing all the lights in the compound. Although Danny panics in the darkness, Willie keeps him under control and Roger encourages as many men to flee under cover of darkness as possible, including Hendley and Blythe. After the all-clear, Roger, Mac and Sedgwick escape but the next man out trips, alerting the guards. When the next man waiting in the tunnel grows impatient at not receiving the signal to exit, he climbs out right at the foot of the guard. Hilts flees, but the remaining men are stopped in the hut and at the tunnel exit. The next morning Von Luger learns that seventy-six men have escaped and confronts Ramsey. At the town of Neustadt, Roger, Mac, Ashley-Pitt, Hendley and Blythe catch the next train, which is also boarded by Gestapo agents. Fearing scrutiny, Hendley and Blythe jump from the train as the others continue without incident to the next town. Meanwhile several others, having caught earlier trains, struggle to get out of Germany: Sedgwick bicycles toward the French border; Hilts steals a Wehrmacht motorcycle and uniform and heads to Switzerland; Cavendish hitchhikes on a delivery truck; and Danny and Willie row a small boat down a river. At the next town, Roger, Mac and Ashley-Pitt disembark from the train, but when Ashley-Pitt observes that an SS agent seems to recognize Roger, he attacks the agent and is shot running away, allowing Roger and Mac time to evade detection. Shortly afterward, Cavendish is picked up by German soldiers and taken for interrogation by Kuhn, and discovers several of the others have already been recaptured. Out in the country, Hendley and Blythe come across a small airfield and steal a German fighter plane, which they pilot toward Switzerland until the engine gives out and they crash-land in a field. Unable to see the German soldiers who are approaching, Blythe walks directly toward them without raising his hands and is shot as Hendley rushes to his side and is arrested. Near the Swiss border, Hilts is confronted by German soldiers and leads them on a long cross-country chase on the motorbike. At the border, which is marked by a sprawling double set of wooden and barbed wire fences, Hilts jumps the speeding cycle over the first fence before soldiers shoot out the bike's tire, sending him sliding into barbed wire. Sometime later, in a French village, Resistance members befriend Sedgwick and assist him in reaching Spain, while Danny and Willie have rowed to a neutral port, where they board a docked Allied freighter. Still in Germany, as Mac is boarding a bus, he is tripped up by a Gestapo agent speaking English, an amateurish mistake that he had tried to warn his men to avoid. He and Roger then dash through the village, only to be arrested by Kuhn's men and placed with Cavendish and the others. The next morning, the men are told they will be returned to Stalag III, but when the truck in which they are riding stops for a break, the prisoners are killed by a barrage of machine gun fire. Back at the compound, Von Luger informs Ramsey of the deaths and that eleven other escapees will be returned to the camp. Hendley and a small group arrive later and when informed of the dead, Hendley wonders if the high cost was worth it, but Ramsey declares that Roger's intended mission to harass the enemy was a great success. The SS arrive to replace Von Luger as Hilts is returned and, after Goff hands him his baseball glove and ball, he assumes his familiar spot in the cooler.