On 31 August 1944, a former conscientious objector turned RAF wireless operator was shot down on his 60th mission and spent the last few months of the war organising plays in Stalag Luft 1. Twenty-one years later, the former prisoner of war Donald Pleasance was to achieve international fame as another POW – this time as the doomed forger Colin Blythe in The Great Escape, which took place 70 years ago this week (read more about the anniversary in The Telegraph).
Another former prisoner of war was future author Paul Brickhill who actually took part and later wrote a book about The Great Escape. , along with one about the RAF Escaping Society. Brickhill was an Australian fighter pilot whose claustrophobia prevented him from helping with the actual tunnelling but who acted as a ‘stooge’ or decoy, guarding the forgers who were busily making false papers for the escapers.
As anyone who has seen the film knows, out of the 76 men who escaped from Stalag Luft III on the night of 24/25 March 1944, only three actually made a ‘home run’ (two Norwegians and a Dutch pilot who all lived until the 1990s), while of the 73 who were recaptured, 50 were murdered by the Gestapo. This British government found out about this in May 1944 (you can read Anthony Eden’s original report to House of Commons in The Times of 20th July 1944) but the full story only became known a few weeks later when the Senior British Officer, Group Captain Herbert Massey was repatriated and was reported in the Times on 24 June 1944.
This was not the only escape attempt Stalag Luft III. Another was made famous by Eric Williams’ book The Wooden Horse. Prisoners used a gymnasium horse to hide a tunnel and three officers successfully escaped. Incidentally one of the prisoners whose vaulting masked the noise of tunnelling was the future star of the Carry On films, Peter Butterworth, though when he auditioned for a part in the film he was rejected as not looking ‘convincingly heroic or athletic’!
Of course, many prisoners didn’t actually engage in escape attempts but simply got on with their lives as best they could. One recent book, The Barbed Wire University recounts the daily lives of POWs: receiving Red Cross parcels, playing sports, putting on plays, reading and even studying for exams (some POWs followed an English literature curriculum set for them by JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis). Another fascinating book on the same subject is A Crowd is not Company by the late broadcaster Robert Kee, originally published as a novel in 1947. Check out also Soldaten, an account of the lives and interests of German POWs in Britain as revealed by their conversations which were secretly recorded by their guards, and Eric Lomax’s moving account of his experience as a prisoner of the Japanese, The Railway Man (released as a film starring Colin Firth).
And finally, see how many of these ‘WWII Prisoner of War films’ you can tick off your ‘seen’ list – if you missed The Great Escape on TV last night, it’s showing again tonight on Channel 5+24 and on Saturday on 5USA.