June 22, 2012 9:39:40 AM
In 1963 the movie The Great Escape presented the story of courageous Allied POWs tunneling out of their German camp. It's an exciting movie, rightly celebrating the courage and ingenuity of the men. It was based on a book of the same title, published in 1951 by Paul Brickhill, who was a prisoner in the camp, although he wasn't among those who escaped. According to historian Guy Walters, Brickhill told a good story, but did not have access to all the documents which have been made available since the war, and he was also telling an appealing commercial yarn. Then the movie told its own version, and you can imagine how true to the facts it is. (Can it disappoint anyone to know that there was not a real-life counterpart to Steve McQueen jumping barbed-wire fences on his motorcycle?). Walters has now brought out The Real Great Escape: Roger Bushell and the Most Daring POW Breakout of the Second World War (Bantam Press). People who know the film will recognize many of the episodes (and may, like me, hear Elmer Bernstein's rousing score playing in their heads), but Walters's book has a different tone. Yes, the escapees were resourceful and courageous, but they were misguided, making an ill-judged sacrifice that did little good. The numbers tell some of the story: 76 men escaped from the tunnel, fifty were shot by the Gestapo, and only three (two Norwegians and a Dutchman) eventually made it home. The rest of the story is told by the circumstances Walters describes, in a strongly-referenced and convincing book that has had the benefit of newly released documents, and the rest of the story is not so much inspiring as it is simply sad.
Central to the story is Squadron Leader Roger Bushell (played as Roger Bartlett by Richard Attenborough in the film). He was a born leader, charismatic and driven, and sometimes overenthusiastic about his projects. He was the son of a mining tycoon in South America, and he was idolized by his mother. His education in an English public school and at Cambridge was indifferent (he would rather play sports), but he went on to the bar and was starting to make a significant name for himself as a barrister. He was a fast driver, he enjoyed women, he excelled at skiing, and no one could accuse him of excess caution. He learned to fly for the thrill of it, and when the war came, he became commander of a squadron of spitfires. In May 1940, he led them for his first mission, had a few minutes of combat, and then was shot down near Boulogne.
Bushell made two escapes from his initial camps. On the second one, he got as far as Prague, and a Czech family took him in, but during the manhunt in reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich he was discovered. He was beat up and the Czechs who had hidden him were shot. If he previously had illusions about Nazi ruthlessness, he could not have had them as he entered his third camp, Stalag Luft III, built within the gloomy Polish pine forest. He immediately started working on not just breaking out of the camp, but having a mass breakout. The conspirators started digging, and not just one tunnel but three; the idea was that if one sophisticated tunnel was discovered, the Germans would think that there was no other to worry about.
The problems of engineering and stealth were considerable, and Walters describes many of the techniques depicted in the movie, such as hiding soil dug out of the tunnels by transporting it in covert bags within the trousers of men who could walk somewhere and open the bags furtively. There was a tailor shop to make civilian-looking clothes out of uniforms and blankets, but the results were not nearly as successful as the movie shows, and the escapees on the outside found that their outfits drew attention. There was an expert forgery department, although no one went blind from making the minute designs on passes. This was an enormous military operation, preparing 200 people for an escape, and it remained secret up to the time of the escape itself; it is a credit to Bushell's leadership that all the plans leading up to the escape were carried out brilliantly.
The movie gets things wrong; you don't expect MGM to have made a documentary, but Walters gives us explanations of important points the movie left off. One is that the prisoners (or Kriegies as they called themselves, short for the German for POW) were helped extensively by German collaboration. "It is quite possible," Walters writes, "to regard the Great Escape as the greatest-ever example of Anglo-German cooperation." There were guards on duty who deeply disliked the Nazis, and with caution extended willing aid to the Kriegies. Others could be easily bought off. At the time of the planning for the escape (1943 - 4), the Germans were in trouble with logistics and resources, but the prisoners in Stalag Luft III were still getting Red Cross parcels, and were comparatively rich in cigarettes, bacon, canned meat, chocolate, and so on. The disparity in wealth meant that guards could be bribed, and if they were bribed, then they could be blackmailed. Naturally the movie makes nothing of the possible homosexual infatuation by a German for a Kriegie which could have led to more aid. Most of the passes and documents used by the escapers were not forgeries, but were handed over by the guards. The commandant of the camp, Colonel von Lindeiner, had refused to join the Nazi party and disliked it, but he was not allowed to retire from the military. He took his job seriously, and he believed that the 12,600 prisoners under his charge in the camp needed to have their hard circumstances softened as much as possible, convinced that if he treated them well enough, they would not be trying to escape.
Many of the prisoners were relatively content with their lot; having been shot down, for instance, they were not interested in taking the further risk of attempting to escape. Despite the legends, there was no "duty to escape" expected of any prisoner of war. Bushell and those with him, however, were determined to hope beyond hope. The commandant, their German collaborators, and even some allied officers gave explicit warnings that while minor escapes were expected, a large escape would be disastrous for any who were caught and were turned over to the Gestapo. Bushell disregarded the warnings, and he also knew of the risk; the escapees didn't look right in their newly civilian outfits and few could speak German. There was, too, a strong animus in German civilians against the pilots that had brought disaster to so many German cities. Bushell theorized, however, that a huge escape would tie up German resources and thus contribute to the war effort; Walters shows he was wrong in this as well.
While it may be unfair to judge Bushell in hindsight, it is true that everything he was warned about going wrong indeed went wrong, and it is true that the escape was a failure and that things would have been better for all if he had not provoked it. The escape of such a number of prisoners drew Hitler's attention, and under his order, the Gestapo was to murder most of the escapers, giving in each instance the excuse that each escapee, having been captured and often in handcuffs, was shot in the act of making a break for it. The stupid, rubber-stamp explanation was identical even though (the movie gets this wrong) independent Gestapo officers at different places and times were responsible for carrying out the murders.
Walters's book will be far less influential than the film, but it is an engrossing history and a realistic reassessment. It's a good thing we have the movie, one of the best war movies ever made. It is going to be the way the world remembers the Great Escape, a stirring if inaccurate entertainment that has itself sparked new legends about how the "real" escape happened. To paraphrase another movie classic, when the legend becomes fact, film the legend.