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10 notorious prison breaks

By Jon Watt
Frank Morris, John Anglin, Clarence Anglin
Related articles
Considering that prison breaks often involve freeing dangerous convicts, it's remarkable how they continue to capture our imaginations. Perhaps it's our natural inclination to rebel against the 'system' that makes us view such escapes with romance-tinted glasses.

Prison escapes aren't always about digging tunnels under walls and cutting through barbed wire. Russian gulags had no walls but the freezing miles of arctic tundra, while the US Civil War prisons relied on the distance they were located behind enemy lines to deter escape. Like walls and wire though, they could not stop prisoners attempting to escape.

NZ Men reveals 10 of the most difficult, ingenious and significant real-life prison breaks.

Alcatraz, US
Although now a museum, Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay remains the world's most notorious prison. Official records show that in the 29 years that the prison was operational, 34 inmates tried to escape and none were successful.

Unofficially, however, one of those attempts might just have made it. On 11 June 1962, Frank Morris together with John and Clarence Anglin (pictured), put into action a plan they had been working on for over two years. As the cell block slept, the three placed replica heads in their beds and then crawled through tunnels in the back walls of their cells, which they had dug using series of tools including a drill assembled from a vacuum cleaner motor. They then used the utility corridor to move onto the roof where they cut through a fence, shimmied down a drain pipe and boarded a raft they had constructed earlier.

Despite one of the largest man-hunts in US history, the men have never been found either dead or alive.

Maze prison, Northern Ireland
It wasn't a complicated escape, but the sheer size and brutality of the Maze prison break of 25 September 1983 earns it a place on this list.

At 2.30am, 38 IRA prisoners used guns they had smuggled into the prison to take hostage the guards in Block 7. The attack was quick and brutal — one officer died of a heart attack, two were shot and 20 were injured. The prisoners took the guards' clothes and car keys and then made their way to the loading bay where there was a truck carrying food supplies. Tying the civilian driver's foot to the clutch they forced him to drive them out of the prison. It was 3.50am and all 38 had escaped.

Over the following days, 18 were picked up by the police, the rest were never found.

Camp 303, Siberia
Located 650km south of the Arctic Circle in Siberia, Camp 303 was one of the worst gulags in the Soviet Union. It was here that Polish soldier Slawomir Rawicz made one of the most arduous escapes of all time.

Rawicz had been sentenced to 25 years' hard labour in 1939 but only arrived at the camp in 1940 having been made to walk much of the distance along with thousands of other prisoners. Once there they set about building the camp from scratch, until, in April 1941, Rawicz and six accomplices escaped during a blizzard.

Heading south and making sure to avoid all contact, they scavenged off the land, eventually crossing the border into Mongolia. Once there they were safe from the Russians but not from the environment. Over the next 11 months, as they journeyed over the Gobi desert and Himalayas, three of the group died, leaving just four to crawl their way into British India.

After the war, Rawicz settled in England and wrote an account of his escape entitled 'The Long Walk' which is currently being made into a film directed by Peter Weir.

Libby Prison, US
The Libby Prison break in February 1864 was the biggest escape in US history. In total 109 Union soldiers escaped through a tunnel they had dug in just 17 days.

The initial plan for escape involved just 15 prisoners digging around the clock in shifts of five. Having found a way into the prison basement, known a 'rat hell', via a chimney, the men set about digging a horizontal tunnel eastwards towards a vacant lot on the far side of the prison wall.

Their first attempt came up yards short of the wall and they had to cover over and dig again, eventually emerging hidden on the far side of the wall. The following night 109 men crawled to freedom though only 59 managed to make it back to Union lines.

Stalag Luft III, Poland
Immortalised in the film The Great Escape, the prison break from the air force prisoner-of-war camp at Stalag Luft III in March 1944 is surely the most famous of them all. The tale of the escape was a readymade Hollywood script, with Americans, Brits and a host of other nationalities working together to dig three tunnels out of the escape-proof camp.

Over 600 men were involved in digging the tunnels, disposing of the dirt, scavenging for wood and tools, making the escape kits and creating the diversions — making it the most complicated escape in history. In all, over 200 tonnes of sand were shifted over a 12-month period, requiring the disposal teams to make an estimated 25,000 trips into the yard to get rid of the material.

Despite a series of setbacks on the night of the escape, 76 airmen made it out though only three made it to freedom — the others were captured by the Germans who promptly executed 50.

Leads Prison, Italy
Locked up in Venice's Leads Prison on a charge of adultery in 1753, legendary lover Giacomo Casanova had no intention of serving all five years of his sentence, and promptly set about planning his escape.

For a man who had spent a lifetime escaping from wrathful husbands, it was simply another challenge to overcome. Having found a metal bar in courtyard he spent months digging a way out of his room and into the adjoining cell which housed a renegade priest.

Borrowing the same metal bar, the priest in turn dug through the ceiling of his cell, allowing the two convicts access to the eaves of the building. They then pried open the prison's lead roof and climbed down the outside of the building, finally breaking open one last door which led them onto street level. There, they jumped into a gondola and disappeared into the city's waterways.

John Connally Unit, US (Texas Seven)
On 13 December 2000, America watched in horror as news broke of a brutal prison break from the John Connally maximum security unit near Kenedy, Texas.

Taking advantage of a mid-afternoon lull in security that they had witnessed, seven convicts violently overpowered 15 guards, civilian maintenance contractors and innocent inmates. They quickly stripped them of clothes, identifications and credit cards, and even impersonated the guards on their radios to avert suspicion, before using a prison maintenance truck to escape through the rear gate.

The escapees were dubbed The Texas Seven. Once free, they went on a crime spree across the area, stealing cash, guns, killing a police officer and earning themselves a place on the America's Most Wanted TV programme — which led to their eventual capture after over a month on the run. Five of the gang are now on death row, one has already been executed, while the seventh committed suicide when captured.

Hoi Het, Laos
Unlike some of the other escapees on this list, Dieter Dengler is not a household name, but the German-American Navy pilot does have the honour of being the only American serviceman to have successfully escaped from a prison camp in the Vietnam War.

When his plane was shot down over Laos on 1966, Dengler was taken to the Hoi Het PoW camp. Having already escaped and been recaptured on his journey to the camp, Dengler wasted no time in organising his second bid for freedom.

Along with two other US airmen, he slipped his bonds, shot down three guards with their own guns and escaped into the trees. When he was finally spotted by a US plane having wandered lost in the dense jungle for 23 days, he was emaciated, malnourished, riddled with parasites and the sole survivor of the break out.

The Tower of London, UK
There have been a number of escapes from London's most famous jail over its 1,000-year history, but none are quite so daring as that of John Gerard, a Jesuit priest who virtually tightrope-walked to freedom in 1597.

Sentenced to death for his Catholic beliefs under the rule Queen Elizabeth I, Gerard had been meticulously planning his escape from the moment he had arrived in the Tower. Having communicated his plan to friends on the outside using notes penned in invisible ink, Gerard managed to engineer a visit to a fellow prisoner being held in the Salt Tower which overlooked the river.

Together, the men broke out onto the roof of the tower and from there managed to throw a rope across the moat to a boat waiting for them on the Thames. The men, including a guard who had helped them, then traversed down the swaying rope to freedom. Gerard eventually escaped to the continent where he lived out his days in Rome.

Le Santé, France
The greatest escape artist of them all has to be the bank robber and kidnapper Jacques Mesrine. Dashing and daring, Mesrine is still celebrated in his native France as their Robin Hood — robbing from the rich and powerful, and giving to the homeless.

Over a 10-year period, Mesrine planned and executed numerous elaborate escapes from prisons in Canada and France, but his most infamous break out came in 1979 from the maximum security prison at La Santé in Paris.

Despite an anonymous call warning the governor of the prison that his star convict planned to escape in the coming days, Mesrine and his cellmate managed to use guns which had been smuggled into the prison to hold up their guards and lock them in their cell.

Then, having forced a group of workmen to turn their ladder against the outside wall, they used grappling hooks and rope to lower themselves down the outer wall. The greatest escape in French history had taken just 25 minutes. Mesrine's freedom was short-lived however, and six months later he was surrounded in his car and shot dead by police.

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