The Great Escape

By Amanda Daniell

In a small German town, about 100 miles southeast of Berlin, lay a camp, but this was no ordinary camp where young children played recreational games during the summer. This was a time when children did not play much at all. The year was 1944 and war was the only game being played. The camp known as Stalag Luft III was the home to hundreds of British, American, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand prisoners of war. However, fate had other ideas. Far below the surface of Stalag Luft III lay “Harry”, which was the key to the escape of seventy-six men on the night of March 25, 1944. Harry was the remarkable tunnel built by the prisoners in Stalag Luft III that led to their great escape.

The 1963 movie The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen and James Garner, was inspired by the book also titled The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill. Brickhill himself was a prisoner at Stalag Luft III and his book is a firsthand account of what happened. The movie, which was filmed twenty years after the actual escape, is remarkably accurate. The only negative about the movie is that because it is approximately two and a half hours long, which is actually quite long for a movie, there is simply not enough time to include everyone and everything that transpired. Therefore, for the sake of the movie, characters were conflated and the story was shortened. There are, in fact several characters in the movie that are meant to represent several real life characters. Brickhill began his story from square one by describing the key characters, how they ended up prisoners of war, and how they got their start as escape artists. However, John Sturges, Director of the film, began his story in 1945 when the prisoners are moved to Stalag Luft III. He jumped right into the digging of the tunnels and the preparation for escape.

Camp Stalag Luft III was erected as “escape proof.” With their previous experience with the prisoners, the Germans took every precaution to see to it that no one escaped from this camp. Woods completely encircled the compound, and just outside the wire the Germans had cut the trees back for about thirty yards so that there would be no cover for an escapee. That also meant that the tunnels they built would have to reach a hundred feet beyond the wire before breaking the surface. The goons, as the Germans were called, installed microphones throughout the camp so that if the prisoners were brave enough to try to dig their way out the guards would hear the activity. They also built the prisoners' huts several feet off the ground to discourage digging. One mistake that many would say the Germans made was “putting all their eggs in one basket” as it is put in the movie. What they did was to move all of the captured “escape artists” to one camp so that they could keep an eye on them. However, it is not hard to see why this arrangement might not have been the best idea. What was unique about this camp was that all the prisoners were airmen. The Germans divided their camps so as to keep airmen and seamen together. The movie did a great job of presenting the camp as accurately as possible.

The movie was also accurate when it came to the digging of the tunnels. There were actually three tunnel locations in the camp. The brilliance of digging three tunnels was that if one was discovered then they could move on to the next tunnel. Ultimately “Harry” was the winner. Tom and Dick were the other tunnels. Harry was built underneath hut 104. The men began digging underneath the stove pipe inside the hut and the concrete base was rebuilt so that it was removable. The stove was never without a fire burning while there was digging going on so as to discourage the goons from growing suspicious. Construction on Harry began in April of 1943, an entire year before the actual escape in March of 1944. Once the diggers dug far enough down, they then began their journey outward. The tunnel itself was quite a masterpiece. Deep below the surface the men had built an air pump that they modeled after a picture they had seen from a smuggled magazine. Several men also stole electrical wire from the Germans so that the tunnel would have electrical lighting. As for Tom and Dick, Dick was to be in the washroom of block 122. Brickhill describes the trap door for Dick as “the most cunning trap door in the history of prison camps” and Tom was to be by the chimney of block 123. One inaccuracy that I did find with the movie was that the prisoners escaped through Dick in the washroom and not Harry. Finally, when it came to tunneling there was one other problem that both the prisoners and the characters in the movie faced: what was to be done with all the dirt that was being tunneled. The solution was to blend it with the soil that was on the surface by casually dumping it in the gardens as they walked by. The men would wear modified trouser pants that allowed them to pull a string around their neck that released the dirt that they were carrying in their trousers to fall inconspicuously out their pants legs. The movie demonstrates this in a much more visual way.

The characters in the movie are condensed which is a shame. However, in reference to the movie, the characters represent a cross section of the participants. There were so many people making that escape possible. In the movie Richard Attenborough played Roger “Big X” Bartlett. The real life character he portrayed was a Roger Bushell, a tempestuous RAF fighter shot down in German territory in 1940. As Paul Brickhill put it “if the Germans had realized what a troublesome man they had caught they would have probably shot him there. It would have paid them.” The nickname “Big X” was reserved for the man in charge of the tunneling operation better known as the “X Organization”. Roger, however, was not the first “Big X” to be appointed. While Roger was being introduced to prison life, a young Jimmy Buckley and company were starting the “X Organization” in which Jimmy became the first “Big X”. Unfortunately after escaping one night he and a Danish RAF pilot were never caught nor seen again. The Danish pilot was found dead at sea a few weeks later and no one ever knew what happened to Jimmy.

In his book, Paul Brickhill describes so many individuals, and the movie portrays only a small portion of those who were involved. His book describes the lives of the men and their journey from their capture in contrast to the movie which only concerns itself with those who took up residence at Stalag Luft III and who participated in what is known as the Great Escape. Characters such as Ashley Pitt, who was responsible for the dirt, Sedgwick who built the air vent, Willy Williams and Danny who were “tunnel Kings” were all real people as portrayed in the movie. Others such as Captain Hilts, Steve McQueen’s character, and Hendley, James Garner’s character, are meant to represent the Americans who were present at the camp and also aided in the escape. They do not portray any one character. Steve McQueen’s character is also present in the film for entertainment and humor. For the most part every character in the movie represents a real life character but their name just may have been changed slightly. What is true on both accounts was that everyone had a job to do in the camp. There were the “stooges” who were lookouts and had a system that they used to alert the tunnel kings when the goons were nearby. The “tunnel kings” were those who dug the tunnels, and there were the “scroungers” who were responsible for retrieving any kind of equipment or supplies that were needed. There were also “forgers” whose job was to forge all the necessary paperwork that the escapees would need. Finally there were the men who made the escape clothes so that when a prisoner was out he could blend in with his surroundings. The movie did a fine job of demonstrating all of the jobs and responsibilities that went into the “escaping process”.

March 25, 1944, after almost a year of preparation, Harry was ready. Slowly and carefully 76 men equipped with their forged papers, and dressed in civilian garb, made their way to freedom. The movie does well in portraying this. What the movie also portrays is that the tunnel was short by nearly 30 feet and this indeed was true for the real men who had hopes of escaping that night. The movie again did an outstanding job of portraying the events of the escape. When it was discovered that the tunnel was short, Steve McQueen’s character, Hilts, agrees to go first and take with him a rope to signal to the men in the tunnel when it was all clear. The only inaccuracy is that Hilts is a fictional character but there was someone that night who ran a rope to a nearby tree and signaled to the others when it was safe. There were also a lot of air raids on Berlin that night and the camp was left in darkness for a while. This worked to their advantage, allowing dozens to escape. At around five that morning they were caught and the chaos began. The Germans rushed to get everyone inside the camp rounded up and then they began their search for the seventy-six prisoners who had escaped. Thousands of German troops and auxiliaries turned out for the search. I suppose that even though capture was imminent for most, they had done their job of causing the enemy much distress. Out of the seventy-six prisoners who made it out that night only three made it out safely to allied territory. The others were all caught within the next day.

While the movie very accurately represented the actual events leading up to the escape and the actual escape, it fails to exhibit just how much concern it caused the Germans. Under International law, it is the duty of a prisoner to try to escape. There were also many rules according to the Geneva Convention that explained how prisoners of war were to be treated. However, no such rules were followed after this great escape. The movie ends shortly after most of the prisoners are recaptured and does not reveal what happens to many of those who had escaped. The movie has a great chase scene where Steve McQueen is being pursued on a motorbike by the Germans and is ultimately caught and returned to the camp. The movie does reveal the true fate of “Big X”, who is executed at the end of the movie. What the movie does is lend some hope to the viewer by showing a few of the escapees actually making it to allied territory. As for the rest of the men you are left to assume that they were returned to the camp after their capture. Unfortunately the truth is quite to the contrary. The movie ends after the recapture of the prisoners and does not offer much as to what happened to some of the men or what life was like in Stalag Luft III after this event. In fact, news of the escape of 76 men from Stalag Luft III made it all the way to the ears of the Fuehrer, Hitler, who was outraged to such a degree that he decided to violate the Geneva Convention. His order was that upon recapture the men were to be shot, all of them. Ultimately, fearing reprisals on German prisoners of war, Hitler decided that not all of them were to be killed, but more than half were to be executed. In the end, fifty of the seventy-six were “unofficially executed”. The official report read that they were all shot while trying to escape. The British and American forces, knowing otherwise, relieved their soldiers of the duty to escape. Thereafter, at camp Stalag Luft III the tunneling of George, a new tunnel and Harry’s successor, began. Although outraged over the death of their friends the digging continued. George was never needed because an allied victory in Europe came soon after.

Finally I must conclude that The Great Escape is an excellent movie that I would recommend to anyone interested in WWII. It is a great portrayal of the actual events that transpired and is interestingly accurate. The movie is an accurate depiction of the WWII era and the actors display superb acting. However, for anyone who did enjoy the movie but who simply wants to learn more about the events, I would recommend Paul Brickhill’s book also titled The Great Escape. Although the movie is surprisingly accurate, I must say that it is still more Hollywood than history. The movie means to entertain and inform yet the main purpose is to entertain. I admire all the men who were involved in the Great Escape and am truly awed by their creativity and their bravery.