The not-so Great Escape

With help from Hollywood, a mass Allied breakout from Stalag Luft III PoW camp has become one of the most feted episodes of the Second World War. But, writes Guy Walters, the reality of events 75 years ago was far less triumphant

Steve McQueen stars in the 1963 film that turned the 'Great Escape' into a symbol of Allied pluck and ingenuity. (Image by Alamy)

The last thing Squadron Leader Len Trent hoped to see when he emerged from the tunnel was a rifle being shakily pointed at him by a German guard. As he slowly crawled out onto the snow, Trent heard a panic-stricken voice bellowing from the woods a few yards away. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” it shouted. It belonged to a fellow squadron leader and escaper called Laurence Reavell-Carter, who was desperate to ensure that Trent didn’t get a bullet through his forehead.

Reavell-Carter’s words did nothing to calm the guard, who immediately fired a round off into the air, shattering the still early hours of a sharply cold morning. Trent jumped out of the tunnel, and raised his arms. There could be no better time than now for him to try out his elementary German.

“Nicht scheissen!” he shouted. “Nicht scheissen!”

The guard looked perplexed – as well he might. For rather than using the German word for ‘shoot’ (‘schiessen’), Trent was instead imploring the guard not to defecate.

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