Over the years, I have enjoyed the BBCs History Magazine not only for the breadth of history they cover – from the middle ages to a few years ago, but frequently the different light its writers can shed on things we have just considered as “fact”.
And writer Guy Walters suggests that the escape on the night of March 24th from Stalag Luft III, made popular in the 1963 movie starring Steve McQueen and an all-star cast, was in reality a foolish action that accomplished nothing.
The last thing Squadron Leader Len Trent hoped to see when he emerged from the tunnel was a rifle being shakily pointed at him by a German guard. As he slowly crawled out onto the snow, Trent heard a panic-stricken voice bellowing from the woods a few yards away. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” it shouted. It belonged to a fellow squadron leader and escaper called Laurence Reavell-Carter, who was desperate to ensure that Trent didn’t get a bullet through his forehead.
Reavell-Carter’s words did nothing to calm the guard, who immediately fired a round off into the air, shattering the still early hours of a sharply cold morning. Trent jumped out of the tunnel, and raised his arms. There could be no better time than now for him to try out his elementary German.
“Nicht scheissen!” he shouted. “Nicht scheissen!”
The guard looked perplexed – as well he might. For rather than using the German word for ‘shoot’ (‘schiessen’), Trent was instead imploring the guard not to defecate.
Which I thought was pretty funny. They would be pronounced nearly the same, but mean completely different things. With the “ei” it would be a “long i” and the “ie” a “long e”.
According to the author, the planned mass escape, using 3 tunnels named Tom, Dick and Harry, was not only an individual failure with the recapture of all but a few (and murder by the Gestapo of 50 of the escapees), but actually by the Nazi general alert aided in the capture of many other individual POWs of other camps. And contrary to what the movie alluded, not one German front line troop was diverted.
A background of the organizer, Roger Bushell, was given which helped understand his drive in a mass escape.
Some former prisoners were interviewed, and one said that only about a third of the prisoners ever wanted to escape. For the rest, the barbed wire meant safety. Safe from the more rabid Nazis, and a return to the front lines. One former POW referred to that third as the “tally ho brigade”.
In September 1943 there was a mass breakout by French POWs at a camp in Austria, and that incident caused the Germans to issue a decree that escaping was no longer a “sport”, and that escapees would be subject to being shot on sight.
In fact some of the Germans at the camp even warned Bushell and other prisoners of Stalag Luft III of this danger before the breakout.
I always wondered why the Nazi POW complexes were run by the Luftwaffe. While there were certainly Nazis in the Luftwaffe, it was, I read elsewhere, the least “Nazified” of the armed forces. It was Hermann Göring who started these for downed allied airman.
Can you imagine how much worse it would have been for POWs had they been run by the SS? According to the author, these camps were run by older Luftwaffe officers who viewed their prisoners as “charges”.
It’s a compelling article and rings of truth.