Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Great Escape: more than just a movie

Today marks the anniversary of The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III, a prisoner of war camp during World War III. Stalag Luft III was located in the German province of Lower Silesia near Sagan (now Zagan, Poland). It housed captured air force servicemen and is best known for two prisoner escapes that took place by tunneling. The most well-known is The Great Escape in 1944. The escape was made famous by the book (1950) written by Paul Brickhill and the movie (1963) starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, David McCallum, and Charles Bronson.

 In the spring of 1943, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, RAF conceived a plan for a major escape from the camp. He was able to instill a passionate determination into every man for their full energy into the escape. The plan included the digging of multiple tunnels in case the German guards discovered one of them. He proposed to get 200 men out with civilian clothes and forged papers. More than 600 prisoners were involved in the construction of the tunnels. One tunnel, “Tom” began in a darkened corner next to a stove chimney. Another tunnel, “Dick,” had an entrance which was carefully hidden in a drain stump in a washroom. The third tunnel, “Harry,” began under a stove. Each tunnel was dug long enough to end up deep into the forest next to the camp. The tunnels were ready by early 1944.

They wanted for a moonless night for a cover of complete darkness. Friday, March 24, the escape attempt began. The first 100 men were known as “serial offenders,” those who could speak German, had a history of escapes plus 70 men who worked on the tunnels. The second 100 men were known as “hard-assers” because they were considered to have little chance of success because they were required to travel by night and spoke little or no German. The escape only allowed 10 men per hour. Of the 200 plan escapees, 76 managed to escape.73 were eventually recaptured with 3 being completely successful. These men were Per Bergsland, Norwegian pilot of No. 332 Squadron, RAF, Jens Muller, Norwegian pilot of No. 331 Squadron, RAF, and Bram van der Stok, Dutch pilot of No. 41 Squadron, RAF.

The 73 men who were recaptured faced fierce punishment. Hitler order their executions as an example to other prisoners. Several officers of the camp argued against the executions as a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Hitler relented and ordered the execution of more than half of the recaptured escapees. 50 men would be executed including the mastermind, Roger Bushell. Brickhill, who would later write about the escape, was an Australian born Spitfire pilot. He was known as a “stooge” during the escape. He was part of a relay team who alerted prisoners that German search teams had entered the camp. Brickhill suffered from claustrophobia and was unable to travel the tunnel. He would claim that this phobia probably saved his life. He would write the book which would bring the incident to wide public attention.

Memorial markers are placed at the entrances and exits of each tunnel as well as a memorial remembering the 50 men who lost their lives. While the film, “The Great Escape” took many compromises for commercial appeal, it was based on real events and some of the characters’ names were fictitious but amalgams of the real men involved in the escape attempt. Everyone remembers the big events of World War II. Let’s remember these men’s attempt at freedom for their courage and bravery, especially the fifty men who lost their lives.