Thursday, 22 March 2012

Good Luck

'Good luck'


Anyone who has seen the film The Great Escape will remember that pivotal moment when Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) and Flight Lieutenant Andy MacDonald (Gordon Jackson) get on a bus after showing their papers to a suspicious Gestapo agent. Macdonald falls for the same trick he warned his fellow POWs against earlier in the film by replying in English.

The character of Bartlett was modelled on RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, a habitual escaper who spoke good German. In the real ‘Great Escape’ Bushell’s travelling companion was French RAF pilot Lieutenant Bernard Scheidhauer. As the two men approached a Gestapo checkpoint on the edge of the town of Saarbruchen in Germany they were apprehensive, but their papers were perfect and their German good enough. They talked their way through until Scheidhauer who was used to speaking English in the camp fell into the same trap as Macdonald did in the film and answered with ‘Thank you.’ Bushell was unlucky. For him the stakes were high as like Bartlett he had been warned earlier that if he escaped again he would be shot.

Luck and breaks often played a part in evasion in World War 2. However well prepared and trained the men were, their fate often hinged on a chance event or good fortune. An airman in a stricken aircraft had to get firstly get out of it alive, either by baling out or surviving a crash landing. Many had no time, as their aircraft exploded in mid air or when it hit the ground. Some were consumed by fire, or lay pinned to the inside of the fuselage by gravity unable to reach the escape hatch as the aircraft spiralled down.

A few were lucky and blown clear by explosion, having managed to get their parachutes on in time. Those landing safely on the ground by parachute had avoided their canopy catching fire from enemy anti aircraft shrapnel, but may have been injured in the attack on their aircraft or during landing.

Any incapacity reduced the odds of staying free; many had to give themselves up to the enemy. Two of the crew in my current work book surrendered, the Second Pilot because of shrapnel in the stomach, the Flight engineer due to wounds that kept him in a German military hospital for eighteen months.

The next problem for the airman was the location of his landing. If it was Germany the possibilities of getting out were few. Open countryside at night gave a fighting chance of getting away from the area before enemy searches began. In daylight, the odds lengthened dramatically.

For two of my late RAF friends, their outcomes were completely different. Sergeant Ken Harvey was pinned to the side of the fuselage of his diving Lancaster as flames roared towards him. Somehow the pilot managed to gain control for a split second and Harvey fell through the forward escape hatch. With just enough time for his parachute to open he landed in a spinney in France. Perfect cover, except it was in the middle of a German airfield. He lit a cigarette and waited for the soldiers and dogs to arrive.

Sergeant Derrick Allen’s aircraft broke in half whilst spinning earthwards and he fell out hundreds of feet above the ground. His parachute did not open in time and he remembered floating face down, watching the dark mass of earth and trees racing up fast. When he recovered his senses he was hanging from a tree branch virtually uninjured, and found his way back to American lines. One of his crew had fallen a few yards from the wood and died instantly.

The writer of today lives in a totally different world, with challenges that bear no relation to those facing the escapers and evaders years ago. But it’s still a war zone out there, few writers get their big chance without some element of luck, and for many there are false dawns and dashed hopes. However hard they plan, prepare and pitch, the watershed moment can sometimes come with a happening, coincidence or chance introduction they have no control over. The story of how Harry Potter first became published has been reported many times.

Romantic novelist Margaret Kaine became tired of rejections of her manuscript from agents, so sent the first five chapters to a top publishing firm. The head was retiring due to failing eyesight and he came into the office to find his successor inundated with submissions. Margaret’s manuscript was typed in a large font and printed out in clear dot matrix as she didn't have a computer. He picked it up and was able to read it, so to help out, took the manuscript home. The result was a 4-book contract and ‘Ring of Clay’ went on to win two major literary awards. Six novels later, the rest is international history.

‘Good luck’ and ‘Thanks’ for reading.

© Keith Morley


  1. How interesting, and a subject that often comes up. Fate, and how being in the right, or the wrong place, at a certain time decides an outcome.

    It is tough for writers, but as far as I know it's not life or death, like it was for the boys who fought during WW2, I can't imagine the thoughts going through the young mans head, as he sat smoking his cigarette in the field, not knowing, if he would be shot dead.

  2. Couldn't agree more Maria. It all comes into perspective when you compare the two worlds. Writers might like to think about this when their manuscript drops back on the mat again. So much easier to dust yourself down and start again when you take a step back and think about those boys.

    Ken Harvey told me that as he sat in the spinney smoking his cigarette he suddenly felt severe pain in his right little finger for the first time and realised it was badly broken. He'd caught his hand when falling off the fuselage on to the escape hatch. The pilot sacrificed his life to get that manoeuvre out of the aircraft and Ken's fear and shock at the time had blanked out the pain.

    After he was captured, the Germans took him to a building on the airfield where he was put under guard. It must have been some kind of crew mess room because Luftwaffe airmen were there and they chatted to him about England. Many of them had been to universities there so spoke excellent English. Not once was the war mentioned.

  3. Excellent post, Keith. Your blog is shaping up nicely. Quality stuff.

    1. Thanks Skipper. Traffic good today. Five minutes to the Dutch coast.

  4. This is your best blog yet Keith and very interesting. Some troops no doubt carried lucky charms and talismans which helped the morale and some of these even helped to save their lives so were in effect 'lucky'. One I know of had a silver flask in his top pocket which helped avoid injury.
    The big question, why are some lucky and others not. Bobby Charlton felt guilty about surviving the Air crash which killed many of his team-mates but this could help to spur on great deeds. 'Some good I mean to do....' (King Lear.)

  5. Thanks Helen. There are some fascinating stories from aircrew around superstition, lucky charms and talismans. Watch this space.