Friday, 18 January 2013

The Great Escape - Fact & Fiction Part Two

Richard Attenborough as Roger Bartlett - Mirisch Films

Roger Bushell - wikipedia

Donald Pleasence as 'The Forger' -
Mirisch Films
Alex Cassie - Forging-
Tim Walenn - The Forger - IWM

James Garner as 'The Scrounger' - Mirisch Films

Sagan 111 (IWM HU21013)

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. This would help the war effort in tying up enemy resources to keep prisoners behind the wire and hunting for escapers who were at large. Allied servicemen clung to the dream of breaking free of the immediate camp area and reaching safety in a neutral country. In reality the odds against escaping were low and of reaching a neutral country extremely remote.

Prisoners of War (kriegies) looked for anything to help them get through the long days. In The Great Escape film, education was one of the activities utilised to ‘put the goons to sleep’ whilst the escapers began to tunnel and make other preparations. Roger Bartlett (modelled on Roger Bushell – the actual Big X in Sagan 3) used this strategy as a ‘means to an end’ in the overall escape operation. The reality had some parallels, but Jimmy James said that in the camp, education, study and lectures also helped to pass the time.  

Sagan 111 had a large lending library with books provided by the Red Cross and YMCA. Harvey Vivian was the head of education in the camp. Examinations took place with papers being set by professional bodies and sent in through the Red Cross. Examinations were formally invigilated by other POWs from education backgrounds and lectures took place from qualified academics who were in the camp. Not all kriegies were hell bent on escaping, although Jimmy James observed that continual study within the confines of the camp had a blinkered effect on the person and as soon as the study was over, the kriegie became more acutely aware of the ‘barbed wire and goon boxes’, which in some cases led to temporary insanity.

Donald Pleasence* (Colin Blythe ‘The Forger’ in the film), used a lecture on bird watching as a ‘blind’ to cover the escape organisation’s work on forging documents if a ‘ferret’ (German guard specifically detailed to ferret out escape activity)  was sighted nearby. If there was danger of discovery, all documents were quickly hidden and an innocent lecture was seen to be in progress. Pleasence’s character was a combination of Flt Lt Desmond Plunkett, the map maker and a much younger man Flt Lt Gilbert William ‘Tim’ Walenn who sported a large ‘handlebar’ moustache and was head of the real forgery operation at Sagan 111. He had been a POW since September 1941, and possessed the ideal skills for that line of work, having been a graphic artist designing wallpaper and fabrics in his uncles’ business before moving into banking. The forgery department became known as ‘Dean and Dawson’ after a London travel agency.

The ornithology lecture was confirmed as occurring by escaper Bob Vanderstok, but there were other subjects. Alex Cassie was forced to quickly begin a fake lecture on psychology with the other forgers sitting around pretending to listen when a ferret nicknamed ‘Adolf’ was seen hanging around and looked in one of the hut windows.

*Donald Pleasence had personal experience of the era, as he had been a member of wartime aircrew and a POW. 
Activities in preparation for escapes were carried out with a chain of lookouts known as ‘stooges’ strategically placed and covering all sight lines to spot ferrets, guards and other potential dangers. A sophisticated system of signals to warn of impending danger was passed down the chain to give the operation time to shut down and cover up. This is illustrated in the film and also described by Paul Brickhill:
‘When the stooge in 103 saw a ferret approaching, he opened a window, the man in 109 immediately saw this and put a folded paper against the window. The stooge next to the library caught the signal, knocked on the wall, and the stuff was out of sight in a few seconds.’
Another method of signalling was for a stooge to sit outside a hut with a towel around his neck, which meant all clear. The towel on his knees meant ‘German in sight’ and if he sat on the towel it meant that a ferret was near or a German was approaching the hut.
The scene with James Garner as ‘The Scrounger’ (a representative character, as the camp had a number of such operators) and the ferret Werner was illustrative of a whole raft of incidents involving ferrets and guards who were subject to bribery, blackmail and general softening up by the POWs.

The contents of ‘The Scroungers’ cupboard in his hut was from Red Cross parcels. They were the POWs lifeline, given the inadequate German rations, and contained coffee, biscuits, chocolate and other luxuries that the guards and ferrets could not obtain.  As the numbers of POWs in the camp were high, in addition to their own Red Cross parcels, the escape organisation was able to skim off a selection of goods from others to tempt the enemy; after softening them up with a few regular visits to a hut for a cup of real coffee, a chat and cigarette, plus maybe some chocolate to take away for their families.
The scene in the film portrays this well and although Werner does not succumb to bribery, he has his pocket picked and loses his wallet with papers, Ausweiss and identity card in. He is hardly going to report it, so in desperation returns to ‘The Scrounger’ who promises to help him find the missing wallet - the alternative for Werner is ‘The Russian Front.’ The trade-off is a 35mm camera with a 2.8mm lens and focal plane shutter. Copies of Werner’s documents would be taken by the forgers before they were ‘found.’
In 1943, the course of the war was shifting in the Allies favour. Outside of the German hardliners in the camp, some of the Luftwaffe ferrets and guards had become more pliable. Many were family men themselves and this proved to be a useful line to pursue when gradually trying to befriend them. The escape organisation had a whole network of POWs working on the weaker ferrets and guards, often with individuals being targeted with specifics in mind. Paul Brickhill describes a typical straightforward example:
‘There was a very young Obergefreiter (private) who was persuaded to bring in a pair of pliers and was paid very generously in chocolate. His contact explained apologetically that he had to draw the chocolate from his room mess and had to account for it. Would the Obergefreiter mind signing a receipt for it? Just a formality. Why no, the Obergefreiter wouldn’t really mind at all, pocketed the chocolate and signed on the dotted line.

He came to regret it. Later he brought in passes, money, files, maps, tools and even some German uniform buttons and badges. It was much better than having his receipt handed over to the Lageroffizier and getting a bullet for trading with the enemy.’
The escape organisation obtained numerous items and information this way, including the geography around the camp, train times, places to avoid – even details of planned searches of huts.
One incident not included in the film was the 1943 Christmas/New Year’s Eve* agreement brokered with the Camp Commandant to give the POWs and  guards more freedom over the festive days in return for a promise that there would be no attempts to escape.  *Accounts vary as being Christmas or New Years Eve, but it is likely to have been the former. For the kriegies, snow, frozen ground and sub-zero temperatures made escape virtually impossible anyway and there was a temporary lull in activities. Various versions describe what happened that evening.    
Jimmy James reported that eighty seven per cent camp distilled alcohol (often made with raisins from Red Cross parcels) was offered to the guards. One collapsed unconscious and got dragged across the compound by the two dogs in his charge; whilst another fell out of a ‘goon tower.’

Ken Rees says he remembered little about it, as it took him three days to recover, whilst Bob Vanderstok said that many guests could not attend his planned ‘banquet’ because of starting early at the various ‘bars’ that had been set up in some of the huts:

‘Some guards lingered after appel and in many places were invited to the banquet, but the ferrets did not participate……It wasn’t long after dinner that we heard an excellent duet of Lili Marlene outside our window. When I looked to see who had done us the honour, I saw that…one of our Dutch roommates and a guard had performed the lovely serenade. Both were beyond the stage of normal comprehension.’
In the South Compound an American walked over the warning wire and started to climb the fence under one of the sentry towers. He was heard singing ‘Silent Night’ in the tower with the guard before climbing down the ladder, making his way to the main gate on the outside of the fence and asking permission to enter. The guards who had also ‘lost their edge’ were taken aback as they had been told there would be no escape attempts and must not shoot. They opened the gate as they thought he had come to give them cigarettes. The incident was hurriedly resolved by Colonel ‘Bub’ Clark who was an American assigned to RAF 31st Fighter Group at Tangmere and the first US POW to arrive at Sagan 111. He had watched events develop, intervened apologised to the Germans and escorted the American away.

These were rare moments where the war was pushed aside for a few hours. Matters had got out of hand that night as a number of American and British POWs had also climbed the wire fences separating their compounds, prompting the Camp Commandant Colonel Friedrich-Wilhelm Von Lindeiner in his letter of 27th December to Senior Officers, RAF Group Captain Herbert Massey and US Colonel Charles Goodrich to remove the concessions granted over the Christmas period and prohibit the possession and use of drinks containing alcohol immediately.
Near the end of the film, fifty of the captured escapers are taken in three Lorries to separate locations and machine gunned. The reality was that under Gestapo orders they were taken out singly or in small groups from various locations and shot. The differences between fact and fiction here are unimportant – fifty unarmed men were murdered for doing their duty in trying to escape.  


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. I can't imagine being imprisoned and your last sentence really hits home 'The differences between fact and fiction here are unimportant - fifty unarmed men were murdered for doing their duty in trying to escape.' So brave.

  2. Thanks Sally. We take so much for granted today. Jimmy James said once in his usual modest way - 'I was just a young man who wanted to get home.'

  3. Another good post Keith... ;-)

  4. This was an interesting post from Keith, as we think we know all about the iconic film but this gave the background to it. Look forward to the next entry. Two more behind the scenes items. Remember Steve McQueen and his motorbike-we were willing him to escape the ‘goons’ and several times we believed he actually was going to succeed. Also the constant ‘thud’ of the baseball against the walls as he was thrown back into solitary confinement yet again after another run-in with the captors. During the filming according to Lord Attenborough’s most recent book ‘Entirely Up To You, Darling’ a memoir of his life in films with Diana Hawkins, McQueen took him on several break-neck and petrifying rides around on this motorbike……scaring the life out of all who dared climb on. He did all of his own stunts in the film with the bike and we were all mortified when he was finally ensnared in the barbed or razor wire like a fish helpless in a net. James Garner who played the Scrounger actually was in the National Guard serving seven months in the United States. He then went to Korea for 14 months in the Regular Army, serving in the 5th Regimental Combat Team in the Korean War. He was wounded twice, firstly in the face and hand from shrapnel fire from a mortar round, and secondly on April 23, 1951 in the buttocks from friendly fire from U.S. fighter jets as he dived headfirst into a foxhole. Garner was awarded the Purple Heart in Korea for the first injury. For the second wound, he received a second Purple Heart (eligibility requirement: "As the result of friendly fire while actively engaging the enemy"), although Garner received the medal in 1983, 32 years after his injury. Garner was a self-described "scrounger" for his company in Korea, the role he played in The Great Escape. A case of art imitating life and vice versa.
    “It is vain for the coward to flee; death follows close behind; it is only by defying it that the brave escape.”

    1. Based on documentaries, the motorcycle jump over the barbed wire fence was performed by Bud Ekins, a friend of McQueen's.

  5. The weather was also dramatically different. Bright sunshine constantly represented in the film, but the reality was snow when the escape took place, which made things even more difficult.

    1. Yes it certainly did Dan. The foot slog of the so called 'hard arsers' across the snow covered country was grim. Even though the thaw had started to set in, the conditions and intense cold were instrumental in slowing the escapers down and sapping their strength and morale.