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.

Advertisement

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.

In the confusion that reigned, another escaper, Flight Lieutenant Michael Shand, decided to take full advantage and scampered into the woods. The guard, too slow to react, simply blew his whistle, while doing his best to keep his rifle trained on Trent and Reavell-Carter, as well as two other escapers who had left the tunnel.

For these four men, their attempts to flee the notorious Stalag Luft III prisoner-of-war camp were over almost as soon as they had begun. Their roles in the ‘Great Escape’ had been very small indeed. But while they waited to be taken away for questioning, 76 other escapers were now on the run, doing their best to get back home and rejoin the fight against the Nazis.

The story of what happened on the night of 24/25 March 1944, and in the subsequent weeks 75 years ago, is well known to many. Immortalised by the 1963 film starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough, as well as in countless books and documentaries, the Great Escape has entered into our national wartime mythology, alongside other momentous operations such as Dunkirk and D-Day.

However, in sad and almost unpalatable truth, the Great Escape was anything but great. Instead, it should be seen largely as a failure, a hubristic exercise that needlessly risked young lives, and had the very opposite effect to what was intended. In the words of one prisoner of war (PoW), it was “an act of military madness” that resulted in 50 recaptured escapers being shot, and made not an ounce of difference to the war effort.

As we commemorate those who lost their lives, we should not be afraid to examine why they died, and to look beyond the triumphalism of the movie, and to ask whether the Great Escape was really worth its appallingly high cost.

A jolly public school

Thanks to their depiction in numerous stirring movies, we tend to think of Allied PoWs as robust chaps, escape-hungry heroes always ready to attempt a breakout when given the slightest opportunity. The camps themselves, although looking pretty basic, seem relatively comfortable, and the prevailing atmosphere appears to be one of a jolly British public school transported to a Silesian wood.

The Great Escape should be seen as a hubristic failure that needlessly risked young lives. It made not an ounce of difference to the war effort

Such a portrait is seriously misleading. Camps such as Stalag Luft III – which was established by no less a figure than the head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, to incarcerate downed Allied air force officers – were tough places. Food was minimal and largely unpleasant – a German dish called ‘fish cheese’ was particularly loathed – and conditions in the huts grew increasingly cramped and unhygienic as more prisoners inevitably entered the camp during the later stages of the war. Even in a time far less sensitive to such matters, reports made by inspectors from the Red Cross showed that many prisoners suffered from mental health issues engendered by a sense of failure, boredom, captivity and claustrophobia.

It is tempting to suppose that many PoWs would have wished to escape, but surprisingly it appears that most had no desire to do so whatsoever. Although everybody wanted to be back home, only a third actually wished to mount escape attempts, according to the legendary escaper Jimmy Jones. Why then, in contrast to the movie versions of the camps, was escaping a minority activity?

The truth is that, as well as representing captivity, the barbed wire around the camp also represented safety. If you were locked up in a PoW camp, there was every chance that you were going to survive the war, unlike comrades still flying Lancasters over Berlin. As it was, most captured airmen had survived being shot down, and were not overly eager to get into a bomber or fighter ever again. It was for this reason that many refused to sleep in the top bunk, as regular nightmares about falling from the sky would see the sleeper rolling out and landing in a painful heap in the middle of the night. Why risk your neck trying to escape, only to have to return to life-threatening sorties? Many felt that they had done ‘their bit’. For them, the war really was over.

Besides, contrary to popular misconception, there was no ‘duty’ to escape, but merely to evade being captured. If there was any such duty, then it was more from societal pressure than anything codified. But with the majority of PoWs not wishing to escape, such pressure was not as significant as might be suspected.

PoW camps also offered the chance for self-improvement. The detainees could take degrees, gain accountancy qualifications and learn new languages. As the tide of war started to turn in the Allies’ direction, many looked to their lives after the war, and realised that they could put the years spent behind the wire to good use. Today, of course, we know less about this side of camp life for the simple reason that it is hardly the stuff of great cinema or a thrilling read.

A doughty roisterer

Escaping was seen as the kind of activity enjoyed by what one PoW in Stalag Luft III cynically called the ‘tally-ho brigade’. Today, they might be described as ‘rugger buggers’ or, more flatteringly, ‘alpha males’. Whatever we label them, there is no doubt that these were men who wanted to prove themselves, and by escaping, to have a ‘good war’.

Mass breakouts actually assisted the Nazi war effort, as the heightened security stymied every other person trying to escape the clutches of the Third Reich

Of all those involved in the Great Escape, there can be no doubt that its architect, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, was a prima facie example of a man who had a lot to prove. Born into a wealthy mining family in South Africa, Bushell was a daredevil downhill skier, a flamboyant barrister and a doughty roisterer, who had hung out with a fast and aristocratic set in London after coming down from Cambridge. Bushell was the type of man who definitely wanted to have a good war, and when he was shot down in May 1940 in his Spitfire on his first day of contact with the enemy, he felt – perhaps more than any other in his situation – an acute sense of failure.

For the next two years, Bushell dedicated his life to escaping, and he mounted several daring but unsuccessful attempts from various camps. When he arrived at Stalag Luft III in September 1942, he came with a big reputation both among the PoWs and the Germans. The latter regarded him as a “great criminal”, while many PoWs did not take to his overbearing attitude, which they regarded as arrogant and “lawyerly”.

After so much failure, Bushell was determined to do something big, and the plan to build three tunnels called Tom, Dick and Harry was hatched. Bushell’s rationale to build three was simply based on bluffing the Germans, who might conceivably suspect one tunnel was being built, but never three. And Bushell did not just want a few men to escape. He wanted hundreds to get out, and in doing so, to cause chaos and to hamper the German war effort by tying up men and resources.

It is this notion of opening a ‘front within Germany’ that is one of the most pernicious myths of the Great Escape. In fact, mass breakouts actually assisted the Nazi war effort, as the ensuing general alert and heightened security stymied every other person trying to escape from the clutches of the Third Reich. When 43 Allied PoWs escaped from another camp in 1943 (see box right) the ensuing search netted not only all the escapers, but 14,000 other escaping PoWs, foreign workers and convicts. By mounting a great escape, Bushell would be placing at risk every enemy of the Nazis who was on the run.

In addition, the idea that the Germans would tie up valuable frontline troops to hunt for escapers holds no water, as the majority of the hunters were policemen, reserve troops in barracks, and even forestry workers. It made no difference to any Allied soldier facing frontline German troops whether there was a great escape happening within the Third Reich or not.

Ironically, when the Germans guarding the PoWs in Stalag Luft III got wind of a mass breakout, they actually warned Bushell and his comrades that such an action would be counter-productive. One German officer even recommended that they escape in pairs or in threes, to avoid causing the heightened security that would only make successful escapes less likely.

The game’s up

There was another elemental problem – the fact that escaping was highly dangerous. Shortly before the Great Escape, PoWs all over the Third Reich were issued with notices that stipulated that “escaping has ceased to be a sport”, and that escapers were liable to be shot on sight. Again, the Germans warned Bushell and his men that such warnings were not bluff, but they were not heeded.

Of course, doing what the enemy tells you to do is hardly the stuff of heroism, but the dynamic in many PoW camps was more akin to the relationship between schoolmasters and pupils. The comparatively elderly officers in charge of the camps saw the PoWs as their charges, and felt a huge sense of responsibility and duty of care to keep their ‘boys’ from falling into hands of the more extremist and murderous elements of the Nazi machine. Besides, by the beginning of 1944, it was quite clear to the PoW population which way the war was going. Recently-downed airmen were able to reveal that the invasion was imminent, and that it was better to sit tight.

But still Bushell pressed on, and when the escape did take place in March 1944, all kinds of things went wrong. Escapers forgot to pull each other through the tunnel on specially built trolleys, some had panic attacks, and their lightweight clothing was entirely inappropriate for the freezing conditions. Some of those lucky enough to have overcoats forgot to remove labels identifying them as coming from London tailors. Forged passes contained elementary errors.

It is hardly surprising that the vast majority of the escapers were captured within 48 hours, and had only made it a few miserable miles away from the camp. Only three men – two Norwegians and a Dutchman – reached Britain. Those who were immediately sent back to Stalag Luft III were the lucky ones, because they never fell into the hands of the Gestapo, who murdered 50 of the Great Escapers – on Hitler’s orders – as a punishment. That number included Roger Bushell, who was shot in the back of the head while he was urinating on the side of the road.

Decades later, shortly before he died, one former PoW at the camp admitted to me that the whole enterprise may have been ill-judged. “I sometimes think it wasn’t worth it,” he said. “Fifty men’s lives it cost to tie up those Germans. Inevitably, they would have lost the war – and 50 people would have been alive today.” A former German officer at the camp was even more damning, stating after the war that the breakout was a “silly idea”.

With such a high human price, dismissing the Great Escape as “silly” does seem disrespectful. After all, these were young men who simply wanted to do their ‘bit’, no matter how small, and they certainly did not deserve their deaths. Perhaps calling the escape ‘great’ helped their relatives in making sense of the sacrifices their loved ones had made. But with the passage of 75 years, the time is surely right to give the event a cooler appraisal.


WW2 captives on the run

1

Szubin, March 1943

No home run for Allied fliers

Forty-three Allied airmen, under the command of the indefatigable escaper Harry ‘Wings’ Day, tunnelled out of Oflag XXI-B near Szubin, 150 miles north-west of Warsaw. Not one of the escapers made a ‘home run’ to Britain, and all were recaptured, along with a further 809 PoWs on the run from other camps, 8,281 absconding foreign workers, and 4,825 others wanted by the police. Wings Day was transferred to Stalag Luft III, where he helped Roger Bushell mastermind the Great Escape. Despite later being imprisoned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Day survived the war.

2

Eichstätt, June 1943

A fleeting taste of freedom

On the night of 3–4 June, 65 Allied PoWs escaped from Oflag VII-B in Bavaria through a tunnel that had been tortuously dug through rocky ground. Led by Jock Hamilton-Baillie, the aim was for the men to escape 150 miles south-west to safe and neutral Switzerland. Not one man made it, and all were recaptured within a fortnight. As was the case in Stalag Luft III the following year, the Eichstätt tunnel featured electric lighting and a trolley system.

3

Edelbach, September 1943

A mass French breakout

On 17–18 September, French PoWs at Oflag XVII-A at Edelbach in northeastern Austria mounted an escape that made the Great Escape look relatively paltry. A total of 132 officers escaped through a 300ft tunnel that had been dug using spades and wheelbarrows that had actually been supplied by the Germans for the PoWs to dig slit trenches to protect themselves from air raids. Only two made it to France – which was, of course, still occupied. It was after this escape that the Germans issued the notice warning PoWs that escaping was no longer a “sport”.


Guy Walters is an author, historian and journalist. His books include The Real Great Escape (Bantam Press, 2013) For more on the Second World War, go to: historyextra.com/period/second-world-war

Advertisement

This article was first published in the April 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine