Anniversary of the “Great Escape”

On the 65th anniversary of the real Great Escape of British prisoners from the German POW camp Stalag Luft III in Poland, the survivors, well into their eighties, gather to remember, as reported in the Times of London. With details such as the ingenious way they made belt buckles that looked like German belt buckles, and the fact that no Americans were in involved in the escape, let alone Steve McQueen on a motorcycle (though Americans had helped dig the tunnel—see Wikipedia article below), the piece is worth reading. But, this being modern, or should we say postmodern, journalism, the reporter, jumping randomly from tidbit to tidbit, doesn’t bother giving us a coherent summary of what actually happened during the escape. One paragraph could have done it.

Here, from Wikipedia, is the information I was looking for:

Finally, at 5 AM on March 25, the 77th man was seen emerging from the tunnel by one of the guards. Out of the 76 men who had successfully escaped the camp, only three managed to reach allied territory. The remaining 73 were all caught by German units, and 50 of them were executed by the Gestapo on the orders of Hitler.

Writing a simple narrative paragraph like that is beyond the ken of today’s newspaper reporters It’s not that they are unable to do it; it’s that they lack even the concept of doing it.

But all that work and inventiveness, resulting in only three men successfully escaped, 50 executed, and the rest returned to prison!

The Wikipedia article also tells about an earlier remarkable escape from the same prison camp, using a wooden gymnastic horse.

- end of initial entry -

Charles T. writes:

I saw the movie “The Great Escape” as a child. It remains one of my favorites to this day. Despite the fact that their chance of escape and survival was low, they still took the risk. They never gave up. We need to emulate their example.

LA replies:

Thank you for saying this. So many people are ready to give up on the West, without having even tried to defend it.

March 26

Spencer Warren writes:

At the 65th anniversary reunion of the Doolittle Tokyo raiders two years ago, I met Major General Davey Jones, one of the pilots of the sixteen aircraft that made the famous raid. He was shot down eight months later over Bizerte, Tunisia and taken prisoner by the Germans. He wound up in Stalag Luft III and was one of the diggers of the tunnel named “Harry,” until the Americans were transferred to a different camp before the escape. He spent two and a half years in German POW camps until the end of the war.

General Jones, who was the oldest surviving Doolittle raider, died last November aged 94. He will be interred in Arlington National Cemetery this spring.

As recounted in the book on which the movie (in its first half mainly) is based, by POW Paul Brickhill, after the war the British sent Scotland Yard detectives to Poland (where the camp was located) and to Germany to track down the murderers of the fifty escapees. They did find many of the guilty, who were then brought to justice.

In the “Hollywoodization” of the movie, the hunger, boredom and despair that, along with their duty, drove the men to escape is greatly played down.

Gintas writes:

Even better, all the Allied prisoners who kept escaping (and getting caught) were sent to Colditz Castle.

Although it was considered a high security prison, it boasted one of the highest records of successful escape attempts. This could be owing to the general nature of the prisoners that were sent there; most of them had attempted escape previously from other prisons and were transferred to Colditz because the Germans had thought it to be escape-proof. One lavish scheme even included a glider that was kept in a remote portion of the castle’s attic, although it was never used because Germany surrendered to the Allies before the scheduled date of the planned escape.

In other words, the Germans had gathered into one place all the best and most persistent escapers, and they were always scheming. I highly recommend P.R. Reid’s and Henry Chancellor’s books on Colditz. The elan is inspiring.

There is also a book on that wooden gymnastics horse. That was fiendishly clever, because they saved a lot of distance of tunnelling that way.

Ray G. writes:

“The Great Escape”—one of my favorite movies (though I’m not much of a movie buff), perfectly blends a good story, fine characters and a near perfect “look and feel” to create a memorable film.

As noted earlier, the Escape involved British and Commonwealth prisoners (mostly pilots/aviators/airmen) who were given over to the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) to guard. Most of these airmen were captured early in the war and consequently by the time of the escape 1944, had been POWs for four or even five years.

When the film was made, it was decided to add two or three American POWs for the sake of American audiences to better identify with. While the U.S. prisoners (portrayed by Steve McQueen and James Garner) shown are not 100 percent factually correct, it is true that a few American prisoners were kept at Stalag Luft III for a short time, participated in the building of the escape tunnels, but not in the actual escape.

I second what Charles T. said earlier, “The Great Escape” was one of my first “adult” movies that I saw as a child and later read the book in the school’s library. It has stayed with me all these years.

Alan Levine writes:

Since I have some specialized knowledge on this subject, I felt obliged to say something about the anniversary of the Great Escape.

Gintas and Ray G. are generally right, but the movie was “hyped” in other ways. Among other things, they changed the nationalities of the men who actually escaped. In the movie they are British, Polish and Australian. In real life, they were Norwegians and Dutch RAF men. It also showed the only Germans helping the prisoners as doing so because they were blackmailed. In fact, some helped out of anti-Nazi sentiments.

There were many Americans in Stalag Luft III (there is a fine book about them by Arthur Durand), which was the biggest POW camp for Western Allied airmen, but they were mostly in a different compound. Those in the section from which the Great Escape was made were mostly moved out at an early stage of the work on the tunnel, except, if I recall correctly, one man from the Eagle Squadrons.

By the way, there is an excellent British movie, “The Wooden Horse,” about the earlier escape from Stalag Luft III using a wooden vaulting horse as the starting point for a tunnel. It is much more faithful to the facts than the movie version of “The Great Escape.” Unfortunately, it was a black and white movie made in 1950, with actors little known outside Britain. It has not been shown on TV here for at least 20 years.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 25, 2009 07:58 PM | Send

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