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
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 Bartlett Saarbruchen in 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 Germany he had been warned earlier that if he escaped again he would be shot. Bartlett
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
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. Germany
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
as flames roared towards him. Somehow the pilot managed to gain control for a split second and Lancaster fell through the forward escape hatch. With just enough time for his parachute to open he landed in a spinney in Harvey . 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. France
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