Saturday, March 24, 2012

The real Great Escape

Only we Brits - and, specifically, the English - could choose the title music from a film about a wartime failure as a means of bolstering support for our frequently beleaguered national football team.

But whenever England play, there they are, up in the stands with their big bass drum, tuba and trumpets, 'entertaining' fellow supporters with their oh-so ironic rendition of Elmer Bernstein's theme from The Great Escape.

You'd have thought - or, at least, hoped - that by now someone would have tapped the self-proclaimed 'Official England Supporters Band' on the collective shoulder and reminded them that the music they are playing comes from a movie about the attempted mass exodus by 200 downed Allied airmen from a seemingly escape-proof German prisoner-of-war camp, which ended pretty badly for all but three escapees.

The other aspect of this well-intentioned but witless irony is that England's performances, especially in tournaments, are as predictable as the fact that when there's a bank holiday in Britain one of the broadcasters will trot out John Sturges' 1963 film. Is there any living person in the United Kingdom today who has never seen it? I somehow doubt it.

The Great Escape, like The Dambusters, 633 Squadron and countless others, is a stirring tale of wartime derring-do and stiff upper lips, of the kind Britain took great pleasure in glorying to ensure no one ever forgets that without such lantern-jawed bravery, Harry Hun would never have been defeated and Europe would be still under the jackboot's murderous grip today. On top of all that, The Great Escape formed a barrage of war movies in the 1960s and 70s - like The Dirty Dozen and the brilliant crime caper Kelly's Heroes - which brimmed with the biggest Hollywood stars of the day.

Here, Steve McQueen headlined as the über-cool Hilts (who can't keep himself out of the solitary confinement 'Cooler') along with James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence and, naturally, Charles Bronson in his usual role of humourless Pole.

Although based on a book by Paul Brickhill, an Australian Spitfire pilot who had been a prisoner at Stalag Luft III, The Great Escape bears very little resemblance to the actual events which took place on the night of March 24-25, 1944. For a start, there were no Americans involved in the real escape. This is something of a handicap when you're trying to get backing for a Hollywood movie losely adapted from real events. And at no time did any of the Stalag Luft III PoWs attempt to ride their way to Swiss neutrality by vaulting a motorbike over a barbed-wire frontier fence. Not that Hilts actually succeeds in doing so.

In reality, the real escape was an even more daring challenge. Stalag Luft III was regarded by the German hierarchy as a state-of-the art facility. Built under Luftwaffe chief Herman Göring's direction, it was located near the town of Sagan, in what is now Poland, on the basis that the ground underneath it would be unsuitable for tunneling. Such was the Germans' hubris about keeping prisoners locked in that the camp enjoyed a relatively convivial atmosphere, run by the German air force, rather than other more brutal environments controlled by German army units. The guards were mostly older conscripts or injured combatants, and prisoners enjoyed reasonably good treatment, from food to accommodation. However, this 'soft' reputation didn't make it any less a prison, or diminish the intentions of those incarcerated within it to break out.

In the spring of 1943, an RAF officer, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell (who became Richard Attenborough's Roger Bartlett in the movie) called together an escape committee and determined that "Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels" should be built in the hope of freeing as many Allied pilots back into the war effort.

For almost a year the prisoners dug their tunnels 30 feet below the ground - deeper than escape tunnels in other camps - finding novel ways of making the excavated earth disappear throughout the camp grounds. That didn't stop the Germans from rumbling that something was up, but they never found out exactly what. Even deporting suspected ringleaders to other camps didn't to deter the nightly digging.

With German suspicions growing at the beginning of 1944, as soon as the final tunnel was ready and a moon-free night would be on offer to provide cover, 200 selected prisoners out of the 600 involved in the tunneling made their break for freedom.

In the end 76 actually made their way successfully out of the tunnels, a 77th prisoner being spotted by guards who raised the alarm. By then, the others were already on their way through snow on one of the coldest nights in that part of Europe for more than three decades. Panic stations raised,  the Germans dispatched all available forces to recapture the escapees. Three did, however, get away - two Norwegians and a Dutchman. But such was the bruise left by the other 73 breaking free that Hitler ordered each of the recaptured prisoners to executed, despite protestations from senior officers reminding him of the Geneva Convention. In the end, 50 were shot as a punishment and a warning to other Allied PoWs.

The repercussions from the real Great Escape were felt long after the war ended in 1945. German officers involved in the 50 executions were eventually called to account during the Nuremberg war crimes trials. The harsh reality is that this event will just be one of thousands of incidents that took place during World War Two that have never and will never be immortalised in film.

Not that you can really think of The Great Escape as the immortalisation of actual events. It's an entertaining two-and-a-half hours of Boy's Own hokum with which to fill up a dreary Easter Monday afternoon. And it made a superstar out of Steve McQueen, forever associating his name and reputation with the essence of 'cool'.

The real events, however, on March 24, 1944, were certainly less than cool - part desperation, part heroic, part stupidity. All of which is easy to say as someone who has rarely been in a pub lock-in, let alone incarceration.

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