THE GREAT ESCAPES ; the Harsh Reality and True Heroism Behind the Hollywood Prison Camp Epics

By Milmo, Cahal | The Independent (London, England), October 13, 2004 | Go to article overview
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THE GREAT ESCAPES ; the Harsh Reality and True Heroism Behind the Hollywood Prison Camp Epics

Milmo, Cahal, The Independent (London, England)

They used Monopoly boards to conceal maps of Nazi Germany, and rubber stamps for travel permits were fashioned from boot heels. Entire camps dedicated themselves to digging tunnels, tailoring disguises and bribing guards for train timetables with one sole aim: escape.

It is a vision of the German prisoner-of-war camps during the Second World War immortalised for post-war generations by such films as The Great Escape, Stalag 17 and The Wooden Horse, with well- spoken British officers and garrulous Americans charming their way to freedom past their dullard captors.

If the telling of acts of defiance such as the escapes from Colditz Castle were left to Hollywood, history would record that Allied prisoners of war enjoyed one long game of cat and mouse with their Nazi guards, planning and plotting in perfect harmony before scurrying through tunnels and taking a short train ride to freedom in Switzerland or Sweden while their colleagues performed Gilbert and Sullivan songs to distract the guards.

Yesterday, more than 50 veterans from the camps gathered at the Imperial War Museum in London to present a very different picture of life in captivity and the sacrifices that were made to return just a handful of the tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war back home.

The gathering coincided with the launch a new exhibition at the museum, Great Escapes, designed to explode the myths of cinematic portrayals of escape efforts made in camps from Italy to Lithuania and underline the extraordinary ingenuity of the soldiers, sailors and airmen whose primary struggle in captivity was often not the pursuit of freedom but the avoidance of starvation.

For millions, Hut Four in Stalag Luft III is better known as the wooden shack where some 80 prisoners crawled their way towards freedom on 24 March 1944 through "Harry", a 104-metre tunnel dug over five months with the aid of 650 servicemen held in the camp's north compound. The mass break-out was the basis for The Great Escape, the 1963 film starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson and Donald Pleasance which has become the most iconic of the escape films.

But for Frank Stone, an 18-year-old Royal Air Force gunner whose Hampden bomber crash-landed in Germany in 1940, Hut Four yesterday represented an austere home whose occupants lived in constant fear of discovery and where boredom as much as duty made escape worth pursuing.

Mr Stone, 82, a retired civil servant from Derby, said: "We really did not have much to do in the camp. It was a very dull life - Stalag Luft III was a bleak place in a pine forest. In winter it was bitterly cold, you had to scrimp together every bit of clothing.

"It was only the escape effort that made life interesting. That's why a lot of us were involved. You were always terrified the Germans were going to burst in and find us. I had to try and disguise all the dirt that was coming out of the tunnel and getting on the floor of the hut. We had to scrub the floorboards to wash it off. The Germans could never understand why we were washing all the time and told us to stop. But we explained that our commanding officer was a Royal Navy man who liked to keep his decks clean. They seemed to accept that."

Located near Sagan, a Polish town incorporated into the Third Reich, Stalag Luft III held 10,000 PoWs at its height and was built to be one of the most escape-proof and well-equipped of the Stammlager Luftwaffe, a network of camps built on the orders of Hermann Goering, the head of the German air force, to house captured airmen.

It was nearly 400 miles from Switzerland and almost 200 miles from the Baltic ports leading to neutral Sweden. Escape was therefore extremely difficult. Of the 10,000 RAF members taken prisoner during the war, only 30 ever escaped back to Britain.

Arthur Cole, 84, another RAF serviceman, who was based in Hut Five and on a reserve list to escape on 24 March, said: "This business of it being our duty to escape has been greatly exaggerated.

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