Everyone knows the story of The Great Escape. Forever enshrined in cinematic history, the iconic movie tells the tale of a group of prisoners-of-war digging a tunnel underneath their containment camp and escaping their German captors. But is that really the true story? History tells us a different tale.
As author Ted Barris states, “Hollywood never lets facts get in the way of a good story.” The fact of the matter is that many of the key players in the true story of The Great Escape —the diggers, scroungers, forgers and stooges—were Canadian.
This is Ted Barris’ third time at the Ottawa Writers Festival and, as soon as he begins speaking, I can see why he has been invited to return. The energy and passion with which he talks about history—about this story in particular and the men who conspired to make it happen—is contagious. He talks about the men as if they are close family members, his voice soft with compassion as he speaks their names; Roger Bushell, Wally Floody, Gordon Kidder, Johnny Weir, Tony Pengelly, Kingsley Brown, Frank Sorenson and Don McKim—to name but a few. And he has become like family to them too; in 2011, Barris was awarded a Minister of Veteran’s Affairs Commendation, chosen and honoured by the veterans themselves.
The setting of this remarkable story is Stalag Luft III, a German POW camp in Sagan, Poland. The Germans thought that housing all their worst flight-risk prisoners in one place would be a good idea, and the resulting compound was built with escape deterrence in mind. The barracks were raised up off the ground on stilts so that the patrolling Luftwaffe guards could look under the buildings to make sure the prisoners weren’t tunnelling beneath them.
Microphones were buried in the ground around the barracks so that any sounds could be detected. What the Germans didn’t take into account, however, was that by putting their most troublesome, inventive and brilliant prisoners in one place, they were forming a dream team of escape artists.
Just one year after it was built, Stalag Luft III housed 5,000 Commonwealth airmen. In the story of the Great Escape, approximately 2,000 of these men would play some part. The sheer scale of effort and hard work that went into the planning of that single night in 1944 is astounding. The men who were involved covered every detail meticulously; from the forged work permits with near-authentic stamps created by carving into wooden boot heels, to the cardboard suitcases and dyed and modified prison uniforms to make them appear like civilians.
The ingenuity of the men, and their unrelenting commitment to their cause, meant that on the night of March 24, 1944 — 71 years ago today — 80 of the prisoners crawled through one of the four tunnels they had dug, 360 foot long ‘Harry’, and were able to escape the camp. However, the ending is not happy but tragic. Upon finding out about the escape, Hitler ordered the capture and execution of every man who had fled.
In the end, because there were German POWs held by Allied Forces and the Germans feared retaliation, 50 of the 80 escapees were murdered. They were shot, cremated, and buried in a corner of the compound that they had spent so long planning to be free from.
The Great Escape is a story of teamwork, companionship, and the ability to never give up hope, even in the bleakest and most hopeless of situations. At the site of the former Stalag Luft III camp , the barracks, guard towers, and wire fencing may be gone but the memory of The Great Escape—and the men who took part in it—are commemorated by a monument often wreathed in flowers.
The previously untold stories, now forever remembered in the work of Barris. Not Hollywood, but history.