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The incredible story of how POWs played golf at the ‘Great Escape' prison camp

·5 mins

Beyond the towering rolls of barbed wire, the world was on fire — continents ravaged, a death toll spiraling into the millions. Inside the fence, captured allied soldiers practiced their putting. It was the Nazi Germany prisoner-of-war (POW) camp from which arguably history’s most famous break-out was sprung, yet less well-documented is that before — and even after — ‘The Great Escape,’ Stalag Luft III was home to one of the most improvised and ingenious sports clubs ever created. Eighty years ago, golf went to war.

Established in the Spring of 1942, three years into the Second World War, Stalag Luft III was a camp run by the German air force, the Luftwaffe, around 130 miles (209 kilometers) southeast of Berlin near the town of Zagan, in what is now Poland. Initially intended to hold British Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots, the remote camp would later detain a mass of United States Army Air Force personnel and an assortment of pilots from other Allied nations, ranging from Norway to New Zealand. Constantly expanding, the base held just shy of 11,000 prisoners at its peak.

In comparison to other POW camps under German control, captives at Stalag Luft III received ’excellent’ treatment for the majority of the war, according to a 1944 US Military Intelligence Service (MIS) report. Camp guards — either those deemed too old for combat or young men recuperating from long service or injury — mostly adhered to Geneva Convention rules. The air force POWs’ status as officers further helped their cause, and meant they were never required to work, though they did assume many daily chores.

Yet camp life was by no means a stress-free sojourn from the front line. With many prisoners captured within the first years of the war, boredom and restlessness were endemic. Dementia set in for some prisoners, who were then removed by guards and later reported to have ‘died of pneumonia,’ wrote John Strege in his 2005 book on golf during the conflict, ‘When War Played Through.’ Mental anguish frequently spliced with the physical pain of near-constant hunger, with captives forced to self-ration a combination of small Red Cross parcels — containing canned food, powdered milk and other items — and camp meals, formed mostly of stodgy bread and thin broth.

Much of this history was preserved by a captured RAF pilot who detailed the camp experience in letters home during his confinement. For historians, this individual is very much ’the main character’ of this story. The camp was encircled by barbed wire fences and a series of watchtowers manned by armed guards.

Prisoners did have some powerful weapons to call on in their battle against boredom, and many of them centered around sport. Boasting what a report described as ’the best organized recreational program’ of any American camp in Germany, captives had access to an athletics field, volleyball courts, and a pool — albeit filthy and technically on reserve for fighting fires — that could be swum in. The wealth of sporting options, including fencing and basketball, was supplemented by an impressive arts program, with prisoner-organized musicals and orchestral performances arranged in makeshift theaters.

Yet curiously omitted from the report is any reference to arguably the camp’s most passionate pastime, born in early 1943 when a captured RAF pilot discovered an iron golf club in a Red Cross parcel. Short and with a hickory shaft, it was far from standard — but its new owner was enchanted. The sound of club striking ball from between the barracks may as well have been a dinner bell for avid golfer Ward-Thomas, who — soon followed by other prisoners — approached the pilot for a piece of the action. The camp’s first golfer would share his club, but never his ball, and so the great ball production line began. Taking anywhere up to six hours, the increasingly elaborate crafting process became something of a ‘contest’ between captives.

Eventually, iron clubs arrived, sent by a pen-pal. Before that, clubs were made by POWs through similar feats of ingenuity. Equipment sorted, the golf club was founded mere weeks later. At the inaugural tournament, prisoners simply competed to get their ball nearest to a designated tree, but later a nine-hole, par-29 course was constructed. Shots often sailed out of bounds into the ‘forbidden zone’ just inside the barbed wire fence, throwing up a potentially life-threatening dilemma: lose a ball that took six hours to craft, or risk getting shot as an assumed escapee by a guard?

A solution eventually arose when the Germans provided their golfing prisoners with white coats to be worn when retrieving balls, reducing — if not completely erasing — fears of being shot during a round. Players occasionally shot at their captors, however, with stray balls careening through the windows of a guard kitchen and an occupied toilet. Neither incident drew major repercussions, with the golfers simply asked to move their tees.

The article continues with the discussion of the escape attempts from the camp and the ultimate fate of the golfers. Golf continued at Stalag Luft III until the prisoners were forced to march to other POW camps due to the approaching Soviet army. Many prisoners were later liberated, including the RAF pilot who went on to pursue a career in sports journalism.