A story enthralled me so much when I was a child, it stays with me to this day. It was an adventure, a tragedy, a drama, a history lesson, and an inspirational tale. And it is all true.
On March 24, 1944, The Great Escape happened in the midst of World War II. The Nazis had captured various British and Commonwealth Airmen over the course of the war, and they had built an “escape proof” Prisoner of War camp to house the most troublesome of the lot. Stalag Luft III was thought to be the answer to these constant, pesky, breaks for freedom. But it did not work out that way. The prisoners banded together and committed the largest break-out ever. And then chaos happened.
Paul Brickhill was an Australian prisoner in the camp and participated in the planning. Years after the war, he wrote The Great Escape, chronicling how the deed was performed, and the troubling aftermath. While he is not a renowned wordsmith or have an elegant style, he tells the journey very authentically with much research on even the most minute of details. The sheer volume of topics Brickhill must cover to accurately convey the time and place and thinking is mind-blowing. Brickhill wrote other books about the war (The Dam Busters is another classic) and had a long career as a journalist. He passed away in 1991 at 74 years of age.
The book was an instant hit and several years later spawned a massive hollywood film in 1963. While purists take issue the liberties taken with the actual facts, the more realistic parts of the movie still bring chills to historians. The inclusion of Americans in the escape is still a sore point, and Steve McQueen’s character is a major irritant. Don’t ask devotees about the infamous motorcycle chase, it was painful and awful. But I still have it on dvd and the extras are fabulous.
What Brickhill captures so well, and the movie tries somewhat to, is the real story. Stalag Luft III was the place to put these malcontents. And the lead one was Roger Bushell, the genius mastermind behind every aspect of the plan, Big X in the organization. Bushell engineered the social network of the camp towards the one everlasting goal, the mass escape of hundreds of POWs. Teams were assembled, lookouts assigned, systems devised, and scams developed in order to obtain freedom. Passports and identity papers were forged by artists. Makeshift tools were manufactured to dig the tunnels, with the airpump alone being undeniable genius. The trick of getting rid of the tons of excess sands from the tunnels alone necessitated the invention of the famous “trouser bags”. Bushell complicated things even more by having three tunnels under construction simultaneously. This was astonishingly difficult to pull off, since escapes were always one tunnel with four men getting out. The tunnels, codenamed Tom, Dick and Harry, were excavated during the year it took to plan The Great Escape. Unfortunately, Tom was discovered by the guards, which cast a gloom over the men for awhile.
Finally The Great Escape happened. Everything was ready and the chance of another setback was ever present. The last machination to cause problems was a miscalculation of the tree line. Harry fell short by quite a distance. The plan went ahead but they were discovered partway through.
At this point, Hitler becomes directly involved. He was angry beyond words at the POWs actions and decided to retaliate. He ordered all the escapees to be executed. Some aides calmed him down and the order was changed. A massive manhunt through Fortress Europe was enacted. Bushell never planned to get even a handful of Airmen home, it was mostly a contribution to the war effort by tying up valuable resources searching for them. Bushell did not know that D-Day was only months away, heralding the end of the war. Maybe his effort helped to distract them. I certainly think so. But the order was still present. And the men were gradually being caught.
Only about eighty men got out of the tunnel that night.
Three managed to reclaim their freedom.
Fifty were executed.
Selected specifically, the men were driven into the countryside and shot. Bushell was among them. The next of kin were told they tried escaping again. No one believed them. The other POWs who were recaptured were sent to other camps, never knowing the fate of the fifty till after the war.
One of the more notorious POWs was known as the Artful Dodger, having multiple escapes under his belt. He was placed in charge of the manhunt for the assassins, and over time, found them all. Many officers involved were found guilty and executed at the Nuremberg Trials. The darkness at the finale of the book showing us these events are only matched for me by The Diary of Anne Frank. Very unsettling. This was depicted very well in The Great Escape Part 2, a 1988 TV miniseries starring Christopher Reeve.
This story has always brought out an interesting moral dilemma inside me. I have always been against capital punishment. I am immensely happy Canada outlawed it decades ago. The concept that the government would kill a citizen, even one who had committed a heinous crime, struck me as a massive overreach of their powers. What if they were wrong? All parts of it disturbed me.
But the fifty are executed. Millions more died in World War II. Anne Frank was killed. This part of me against capital punishment would fall to the wayside, wanting justice for all these deaths, all this tragedy. No reason, no logic, nothing could have been given for this barbaric behavior. I read The Great Escape for the first time when I was ten and it was my initial exposure to the Holocaust. It may have only been fifty murdered, compared to the millions over the course of the war, but it was people I “knew.” Someone had to pay. To this day, The Great Escape still reminds me of this moral conundrum. Many stories are meant to disturb, and the ending to this one does still. My feelings about this upheaval were crystallized even more by the thought-provoking 1961 movie Judgement at Nuremberg, starring Spencer Tracy. You will learn alot about yourself by watching this classic. History that will make you think.
The adventure and the galvanizing journey these men endure is inspiring. Their remedies to numerous obstacles will uplift you. The historical minutia will fascinate you. And the deaths of the fifty will resonate with you.
To The Fifty
P.S. The Great Escape was written by Paul Brickhill and is 265 pages in Hardcover. It was published in 1951 by Faber and Faber Limited. All images copyright Faber and Faber Limited 2011.
P.P.S. The Great Escape movie was released in 1963 and starred Steve McQueen and James Garner.