Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Great Escape - Fact & Fiction Part One

Bob Vanderstok (Ian Le Seur)

B A 'Jimmy' James   'IWM'

Sagan 3

It was every serviceman’s duty in World War Two to try and escape from captivity. Conditions inside German Prisoner of War Camps and the daily strain of being behind the wire focused the mind on freedom, or at the very least working with others to effect escape attempts. It would tie up enemy resources in preventing escapes or hunting for escapers who were at large. Allied servicemen clung to the dream of clearing the immediate area, striking out for freedom and reaching safety in a neutral country. In reality the odds against escaping from a camp were low and of reaching safety in a neutral country extremely remote.

‘The Great Escape’ of Allied prisoners of war from German camp Sagan 111 in Silesia has arguably been the most documented POW breakout in history, and the subject of one of Hollywood’s most watched films. MGM’s work was a fitting dedication to the fifty men who were murdered by the Gestapo, and although not an exact portrayal of all events and personnel, it did get close to life in the camp, the true heroes and in many cases actual events. 

Because of the film’s success, actual events in the camp and around The Great Escape have sometimes become clouded, producing popular misconceptions. Additionally some unusual happenings have slipped under the wire with barely a mention. This is the first of two posts taking a random look around fact and fiction:  

1) The film portrays American servicemen involved in the actual tunnel escape. The reality was that Americans had been heavily active with tunnel digging and all aspects of the escape operation until 8 September 1943 when they were re-housed in a new South Compound in the camp (six months before the actual Great Escape).

Dutchman Bob Vanderstok, one of only three escapers to break out and reach safety, described what actually happened and its resultant effect:

‘Without warning it was announced that American prisoners would be transferred to the new south compound. This measure did far more harm to our Big X organisation than they (the Germans) would ever know. Almost half of the Kriegies in the North compound were Americans; consequently half of our best talent was American. The tailor’s ‘shop’ (the tailor who made civilian clothes out of virtually anything), the false paper forgers, the diggers, the stooges, the engineers and the carpenters all lost their best workers. It was a true disaster. We were in the middle of producing clothes and false papers for two hundred escapees. It was not the kind of work which one could recruit new helpers in a short time.’

2) In the film, the ‘covers’ to the tunnel entrances for ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’ are accurately portrayed, except for them being attributed to the wrong named tunnel.

The film shows ‘Tom’ being discovered on 4 July 1943 in one of the huts after a German search , when a ‘ferret’ (specially trained German prison guard to discover escape attempts) accidentally drops a drink of hot coffee onto the tiles around the stove. The liquid disappears between cracks in the tiles because the cover containing the tiles is false and effectively the tunnel ‘cover.’

In reality, Tom was discovered in September 1943, just before the Americans were moved to their new compound in the camp. The tunnel entrance was concealed within a concrete floor in Hut 123 in a small passage near the hut kitchen.  Tunneller Wing Commander Ken Rees describes the set up:

‘Some Polish officers headed by Minskiewitz were the trap experts, par excellence….Tom’s trap was to be situated in a dark corner of the concrete floor just outside the kitchen. The Poles had liberated some cement left behind by careless German workers, and this was used to cast a concrete slab in a wooden mould about twenty four inches square. Minskiewitz chipped out the concrete in a darkened area outside the kitchen in Block 123, the exact size of the slab he had made. He handled the chisel with great precision, and when the block was finished, with two lugs set in its sides, it fitted in the hole perfectly. When it was laid in place, any minute cracks were filled with cement paste and dusted with dirt, it was almost impossible to detect.’

The actual discovery occurred when one of the ferrets (Paul Brickhill refers to him as ‘Herman’) was taking part in a search of Hut 123, jabbing his probe around the concrete floor listening for hollow sounds, when the tip suddenly stuck in the concrete. Startled, the ferret pulled the tip away and a small chip of concrete came away. As he was short sighted he got down on his hands and knees, felt around and made out the faint outline of a trapdoor. Tom was discovered. 

Tom’s stove and tile arrangement in the film was actually used by the escapers in Hut 104 for ‘Harry’,  which the escapers used to finally break out of the camp. The film shows ‘Harry’ as starting in the washhouse. Tunnel ‘Dick’ was in the washhouse of Hut 122 as Ken Rees describes:
‘In the middle of the concrete washroom floor in Block 122 was an iron grating about twenty inches square, into which water flowed from showers and washing clothes. Under the grating was a small chamber about three feet deep with a pipe about a foot from its bottom to carry away the water, which meant that there was always about a foot of water in the chamber. Minskewicz lifted the iron grating, baled out the water and chipped away one blank side… Once again he cast a slab to fit the side he had chipped out, and when this was put in place, the cracks filled with soap and sand, and the chamber filled again with water, it was, we considered, impossible for the ferrets to detect.’

3) There is a scene where the Fourth of July is celebrated in the compound by the Americans with their own distilled alcohol. RAF escaper Jimmy James described the events:

‘From dawn on the fourth of July the camp began to resound to the beating of drums and the blare of bugles as a bunch of  ‘Red Indians’ followed by an army of ‘Colonists’ emerging howling from their blocks to re-enact the Boston Tea Party with kriegie brew….the Americans were joined by the British and together we marched round the compound and through the barracks, singing and whooping as we celebrated American Independence – to the astonishment of the Germans who could not understand, why the British or for that matter, or for that matter any nation would want to celebrate the loss of colonies.’

This culminated in three Allied ‘High ups’ and a few others being thrown into the fire pool. (As the huts were wooden, a pit was always filled with water in case of fire.)     

4) The film shows the character ‘Ives The Mole’ who is on the point of going ‘wire crazy’ stepping over the warning wire after he learns of ‘Tom’s’ discovery. He attempts to climb the barbed wire fence and is machine gunned from one of the sentry towers (k/a ‘Goon Towers by the POW’s.) As with a number of characters in the film, ‘Ives’ is a compilation of real POWs in Sagan 111. There is a reference to him as ‘Piglet’ which is a link to Flt Lieutenant Henry W "Piglet" Lamond, who was a regular tunneller and escapee but who did not escape in this breakout. Other character traits link in with 'Shag' Rees and 'Red' Noble, the frequent ‘goon baiters’ (antagonising the Germans) who spent many days in the camp ‘cooler’. (solitary confinement – the word ‘cooler’ became used by both prisoners and captors.)

 The actual wire incident did not occur on the fourth of July, but was intended to be representative of a number of similar occurrences, including as Bob Vanderstok recalled, an Irishman called Mcintosh who thought he could make himself invisible, saying that he could climb the fence without being seen by the guards. Despite Kriegies trying to stop him, verbal warnings and three warning shots being fired by the guards, Mcintosh reached the inner fence, climbed to the top and jumped over onto the upper barbed wires of the outer fence before being machine gunned. 

Life in a POW camp was often on the edge.

Sources & Recommended Reading

Moonless Night - B A 'Jimmy' James
The Great Escape - Paul Brickhill
Lie In The Dark And Listen - Ken Rees
War Pilot Of Orange - Bob Vanderstok
Web Site The Great Escape -Rob Davis-

© Keith Morley

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  1. Thank you for sharing Keith, the film is a classic! I have seen it a few times, and when it comes around again, I will view it with a different take...

  2. Thanks Maria. The film is one of my favourites and I remember my father taking me to see it when it was first released. I think it is a fitting tribute to all of the heroes in that camp, and MGM went to great lengths to accurately portray life in the camp and get correct technical advice on all aspects, especially the tunnels. Wally Floody was a Canadian tunneller and took part in actual events, hence the real feel of the place and tunnels. Hollywood just changed certain things for effect and practicality. To use the tunnel in the washhouse as the one for the actual escape made filming easier on the eye (more room for the actors around the tunnel entrance and better dramatic effect). A similiar strategy for the fictional characters who were made up of composites of a number of real ones worked, as it was never intended to be a total replay of real events.
    I think any British TV drama that tackled it now would go for complete accuracy as far as they could though.

    1. I would like to see it dramatised by say the BBC, I reckon they could do it justice, or even a remake of the movie by someone like Spielburg. That would be excellent, don't you think?

    2. I think that the BBC could produce a very good drama of the escape Maria. Even more information has come to light since the original MGM film was made.

  3. An interesting real background to the film which is so well-known provided so ably by Keith. Last May, a grandfather believed to be the last survivor of The Great Escape prisoner-of-war camp marched off this mortal coil aged 92. RAF serviceman Richard Birtle was captured during the trial run for the D-Day landings in Dieppe, France, in August 1942 before being incarcerated in the notorious Stalag III camp. He then teamed up with other prisoners who plotted a daring escape by digging tunnels underneath the camp and worked as a 'penguin' - the men who dispersed soil through their trousers. As Mr Birtle was not an officer he would not be one of the prisoners to escape but still helped construct the tunnels nonetheless.
    The grandfather-of-two only narrowly escaped an SS death squad himself before being liberated by American troops on April 29 1945 after three years being held captive in the camp. Shockingly a line of fellow prisoners were shot in front of him and their skin was horrifically 'used to make lamp shades'. His daughter Veronica takes up the story. “He was a wonderful man who was very kind and extremely generous. He had to endure some real hardship throughout the war and I suppose it is a bit of a miracle that he managed to make it to such a ripe old age. He was in the camp for three years - the Luftwaffe actually got on with the POWs and treated them well. But at some point the SS took over and they brought with them a much more brutal regime. My dad was pretty terrified and they divided the men into two lines before sending them off in different directions. One group were shot dead but my dad was in the other line and thankfully allowed to live.” Following the war Richard returned to his home town of Herne Bay, Kent, and married his childhood sweetheart Audrey, 85, in 1945.The couple opened a fishmongers before they had their only daughter Veronica, in 1947.Richard went on to become a postman before he retired in 1985. He was a chairman of the Herne Bay RAF association and a keen bowls player. It was nice that he lived a full and long life after the War as he certainly played his part in helping to construct the tunnels.
    “Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.”
    (Rabindranath Tagore.)