The Great Escape

Let me take you back to a significant year in world history, Buzzkillers. 1963. Many important and famous things happened in that year, and you know about most of them: the Beatles released their first album (Please Please Me) in March, the island prison at Alcatraz in California was closed, Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech during the famous March on Washington in August, and, of course, the Kennedy assassination happened in late November.

You should also know about two other crucial historical events from 1963. The first and most important, of course, was that the Duchess of Buzzkill gave birth in April to none other than your favorite Professor and not-so-humble narrator. The second was the release of the now-classic World War II POW film, The Great Escape, in June. That’s what we’re going to talk about today — that famous story, that famous film, and the famous myths and misunderstandings generated by it.

Buzzkillers of a certain age will get all misty-eyed when they remember growing up on these “war pictures.” They had fantastic all-star casts, snappy dialog that we could all quote as naturally as if we had written it ourselves, and carefully constructed sets and locations that created the visual images we had of World War II must have looked like, and set those images in our minds forever. That’s right, our generation had “memes” long before the millennial generation made the idea of memes a meme in itself.

There’s another reason we’re talking about The Great Escape in December, Buzzkillers. I had my second great dose of the film during the many happy years I lived in England in the early 1990s. Watching The Great Escape on Christmas day is a holiday tradition in the United Kingdom. Joining in on that tradition every year while I was a graduate student brought back priceless memories of my childhood. So it’s with a big shout-out to the many thousands of British Buzzkillers out there that we dig right into the history and mythology of that film.

The Great Escape was a breakout from Stalag Luft III, a special POW camp built in the German province of Lower Silesia, roughly 100 miles southeast of Berlin. Two prominent POW escapes occurred at Stalag Luft III. The first was the famous “Wooden Horse” escape in October 1943. British POWs used a wooden gymnastic vaulting horse as cover for digging a tunnel. Three officers were able to escape through the resulting tunnel and make it back to Britain. This story was later told by one of the escapees, RAF Captain Eric Williams, in his book The Wooden Horse (published in 1949). It was one a great many similar books that I poured over as a young Buzzkiller. It was made into a movie in 1950, again, watched by yours truly.

The other breakout from Stalag Luft III was the uber-famous Great Escape in March 1944. Planned by British Squadron Leader Roger Bushell and other high ranking POWs in the camp, the Great Escape was based around the construction of three tunnels (named Tom, Dick, and Harry) so that if one collapsed or was discovered by the German guards, the Allied prisoners could still escape through the other two.

But the Luftwaffe had chosen the location for Stalag Luft III based on the sandy soil in the region, which would be very difficult to tunnel through. Not only that, secretly disposing of the dug-up sandy dirt was a huge logistical problem, especially since there was it was very difficult to disguise and hide it. And creating enough civilian clothes, documents, passes, and other small details was an enormous problem. So Bushell and his crew were up against some formidable obstacles.

Let’s not forget, Buzzkillers, that the Luftwaffe had specifically built this camp to prevent POWs with escape-mania from doing just that — escaping. And The “wooden horse” breakout had happened the year before in the same camp. So to say that the Germans were on high alert all the time, and that any big escape was highly likely to fail, is a major understatement. But Roger Bushell convinced many of his fellow officers and POWs that, by getting out so many men out of the camp and having them on the run, the Germans would have to divert great numbers of soldiers and enormous resources chasing them. And even if all the escapees were eventually captured, Bushell argued, that diversion alone would hurt the overall German war effort.

On the night of 24/25 March 1944, 76 Allied POWs escaped the camp and tried to make their way to the safety of Allied lines, neutral countries, or even back to Britain itself. Most of the escapees didn’t make it very far. Their forged papers were often incorrect, flawed, or outdated, and were recognized as fakes almost immediately by various authorities at railway stations or roadblocks. Bad weather made the escape attempt harder, as the colors in some of the POWs’ dyed civilian suits began to run in the rain, as well as making it more difficult to travel on foot generally. 73 of the Great Escapers were caught and rounded up within two or three days.

Three POWs were able to make it all the way to freedom. Per Bergsland and Jens Müller, both Norwegian pilots who were serving in the RAF, eventually got to neutral Sweden by boat, having it made it all the way to the Baltic coastline and sneaking on board a freighter. Bram van der Stok, a Dutch pilot in the RAF, made it by hook or by crook all the way to neutral Spain. From there he was able to get back to Britain, where he rejoined the RAF and kept fighting. This, by the way, included taking part in Operation Overlord (the code-name for D-Day and the Battle of Normandy), as well as air raids against German V-1 rocket bases in the Low Countries. He is the most decorated aviator in Dutch history.

But the story of the 73 captured POWs was quite different. Thirteen were returned to the camp, but Hitler himself was informed of the escape, and he ordered 50 of the captured men to be executed. Since these airmen had been captured (and, therefore, had surrendered), their execution was in violation of military tradition, the Geneva Convention, and was considered murder. This disturbing fact is very directed pointed out in the movie.

So how did the story of the Great Escape make it to our movie screens and television sets, and prove so endlessly popular? Paul Brickhill, an Australian fighter pilot who was a prisoner in Stalag Luft III, wrote his account of the breakout and it was published as a book in 1950. Brickhill was involved in planning the escape and served as a decoy for the camp guards, but did not escape himself. Brickhill’s Great Escape memoir became a best-seller and was the basis for the 1963 film.

Although almost all of it was filmed in Germany, the film version of Great Escape was a Hollywood production, directed by John Sturges, . It had an all-star cast of famous British and American actors. Steve McQueen played a fictional American pilot who was obsessed with escaping. James Garner portrayed a Canadian officer and specialist in the “acquisition” of necessary materials. Richard Attenborough was the escape leader “Roger Bartlett” (Roger Bushell). James Donald played the Senior British Officer. The specialist forger who went blind straining his eyes was played by Donald “Take me with you, I can see perfectly” Pleasence. And James Coburn was cast as an Australian combat pilot despite having a hilariously unconvincing Australian accent.

The film tells the basic story of the immense difficulties of planning the escape, digging the tunnels, fooling the Germans, and the actual breakout itself. It does this with almost perfectly-paced drama, great sets and visual production, and good (if sometimes stilted) dialog. And, apart from the standard Hollywood practices of merging historical characters to make the central number of cast members more manageable for viewers and simplifying some of the complications of the story, it’s fairly straight-forward account of the escape.

So far, so good. And you Buzzkillers know that it’s Institute policy that we don’t expect movies to be historically accurate. They’re works of fiction, and the responsibility of writers and directors is to make quality movies. And The Great Escape is definitely that. As with many other iconic history movies (especially World War II movies), however, important historical issues and questions are mythologized, and “facts” are fabricated in The Great Escape. That’s a problem for historians because the public’s perceptions of what actually happened at Stalag Luft III are skewed in the process.

Fortunately, Buzzkill Institute historians have consulted a great range of excellent historical work dealing with World War II in general and The Great Escape in particular. For instance, we have relied heavily on the work of Guy Walters, an expert on the Nazi era and World War II. His book, The Real Great Escape (2013), is the absolute best work on the subject, and is our featured title on the Buzzkill Bookshelf this week. While lots of research by a wide range of military historians has exposed the myths and misconceptions about The Great Escape, Walters brings it all together and provides much new research and analysis. This episode is greatly indebted to his work.

One of the strongest Great Escape myths that has been reinforced by the movie is that Allied prisoners of war, especially officers, had a “sworn duty” to try to escape from POW camps. The Senior British Officer repeatedly states in his meeting with the camp commandant that officers could not “forget their duty” to escape, which certainly gives the impression that the RAF pilots in Stalag Luft III were under more or less constant orders from the British High Command to escape. In fact, there was nothing in British military rules (the famous “King’s Regulations”) that said that captured soldiers were required to escape, or to make their captors’ jobs more difficult by continually trying. (Indeed, American soldiers were not under orders to try to escape from POW camps until the Korean War.) But this myth became so strong that many veteran POWs from World War II mis-remember this as a strict part of their duty.

The “duty” to escape was more of an informal tradition, but it certainly wasn’t followed by everyone. It’s clear from the scholarly research done on Stalag Luft III that roughly 60% of the POWs not only refused to participate in escape attempts, some even tried to tell the guards where the tunnels were being dug. Among other things, these POWs didn’t want to suffer the repercussions of being caught escaping. POW life was difficult enough as it was, and escaping wasn’t worth the risk.

Still, escape leader Roger Bushell and his close comrades were determined to escape, and Bushell famously kept urging that an escape would cause disruption in the German war effort. The Nazis would spend so much time rounding up escaped POWs, that any massive escape attempt would be the same as opening up a new front inside Germany. This, he argued, would help win the war.

Not only was this not true, it had exactly the opposite effect. In the first place, it was relatively easy to capture the Stalag Luft III escapees. Most didn’t get very far at all, and local army and police units caught them fairly easily and quickly because of the poor documentation they had with them. We now know that no extra German forces or resources were turned away from pressing war tasks and diverted to capturing POWs. The standard German police and military infrastructure in that region worked. Secondly, the alert to be on the lookout for POWs from Stalag Luft III, and the man-hunts raised to capture the Allied prisoners, ended up capturing a lot of other POWs, escaped prisoners from civilian jails, foreign workers who had escaped their employers, and other criminals. If anything, the Great Escape made the German security net tighter and made it even more difficult for others held against their will by the Nazis to escape.

And this is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the mythology of The Great Escape — the idea that mass escape attempts were an effective form of attack against the enemy because of the disruption they caused. The strength with which this myth is held tends to whitewash the real moral qualms that military leaders had long had about encouraging things that would almost certainly fail and lead to more death. The top ranks of military brass in Britain had known since World War I that mass POW escape attempts were usually fruitless, very counter-productive in terms of tying up enemy men and resources, and ultimately resulted in more deaths of Allied personnel. Consequently, they did not encourage such wide-eyed escape plans in World War II. But some zealous junior officers, such as Roger Bushell, tragically convinced by their own misconceptions about how extensive the impact of escape attempts (even failed ones) could be, were able to convince many others that they must try to escape as part of continuing to fight the war.

All of this myth-busting is, of course, not intended to ridicule or disrespect the real bravery and fantastic heroism of those who fought in World War II and those who POWs who tried to escape. Unless we’ve been in that type of situation, none of us should pass judgement on the decisions they made or the actions they took. Neither should we pass judgement on the POWs who refused to take part in suicidal escape attempts. Buzzkill Institute historians are in no position to diagnose Roger Bushell as crazy and dangerous, nor should we tar non-escapees with the brush of cowardice.

I think we can all agree, however, that we must try to analyze the realities of war, and the immense difficulties in making decisions about what risks to take during war, as soberly as possible. We should do so without resorting to easy conclusions based what we think happened because of what we’ve seen in Hollywood movies.

But I’m like everyone one else of my generation, Buzzkillers. My dad gave me books like The Wooden Horse and The Great Escape, and I devoured them. I watched the movies, especially Great Escape. I used to play “war” with my friends, yelling out things like, “take that, you rotten Gerrys,” while pretending to machine gun Wehrmacht troops who were massing in our neighbors’ back yard. And we all took turns “playing Steve McQueen” on his motorcycle, evading squadrons of Germans, by pedalling our bikes as vigorously as we could and jumping them over obstacles.

That’s the kind of especially strong grip that films like The Great Escape film had the imagination of young boys. And that’s the thing we’re trying to stress here about history and movies. We can appreciate movies as entertainment and works of art. But when it comes to history and warfare, we need to have our big boy pants on and be clear-eyed and clear-headed when we examine the history of war. This is especially true when we as citizens use our conceptions about the history and conduct of warfare in making political and electoral decisions about these terrible things.

So it’s with this in mind that I’ll be doing what my dad did, showing The Great Escape to my 13-year-old son this Christmas. And he’ll no doubt love it. But I’m also going to give him a moralizing speech along the lines of what I just said about perceptions of the history of warfare. I’ll be trying to plant a seed of critical inquiry in his young mind, trusting that he and his generation will think twice, and will eventually examine the nature of war in a serious, adult, and non-romantic manner. I hope it works.

Buzzkill Bookshelf


Posted in

Leave a Comment