It takes courage to demolish a cherished icon, and when that icon is the film The Great Escape, the iconoclast needs steel nerves worthy of the escapers themselves. But that is what Guy Walters achieves in his new study of World War II’s most famous mass breakout, which, far from being a rehash of an oft-told tale, is a clear-eyed inquiry into a myth that does not stand up to examination.
What Walters claims is missing from the film, with its jaunty theme tune and boy-scout characters, is that this was essentially a story of mass murder. His focus is not so much on the heroic ingenuity of the PoWs tunneling themselves out of their camp, but on their ultimate destination. Fifty of the 76 escapees were summarily shot by the Gestapo on Hitler’s orders, and only three (none British) made a successful “home run” to Britain. Was the sacrifice really worth it, Walters asks. His answer is a resounding “No.”
The central figure in Walters’s story is the escape’s inspiring leader, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell (played as “Roger Bartlett” in the film by Richard Attenborough). Bushell was a driven character: charismatic, determined, stubborn, perhaps a little crazy. The son of a mining magnate in South Africa, idolized by his mother, he had an English public school and Cambridge education. He drove fast cars, dated “popsies” and excelled at skiing. Characteristically, he tended to ski over obstacles in his path rather than around them. A skiing accident gashed his face, which lent his appearance a sinister aspect.
Though neglecting his studies for sport, Bushell was no fool; he was proficient in several languages and, despite an indifferent degree, was called to the bar and got several murderers off capital charges. He learned to fly as a hobby, and when war came, found himself commanding a Spitfire squadron. After downing two enemy planes, he was himself shot down over France and captured.
The Real Great Escape
By Guy Walters
Bushell made two initial escapes — on the second occasion, accompanied by a Czech fellow flier, he reached occupied Prague and spent several months hidden by a Czech family. However, in the manhunt that followed the 1942 assassination of SS overlord Reinhard Heydrich, Bushell’s hiding place was betrayed. The Czechs who had sheltered him were shot, and Bushell himself was roughly handled by the Gestapo.
After this experience, he could have had no illusions about the ruthlessness of the Nazis, and his suffering seems to have sharpened his already intense hatred of his tormentors and his desire to escape them.
Arriving at Stalag Luft III, the huge new camp built for allied flying officers in a gloomy Polish forest, Bushell instantly initiated his plan for a mass breakout, starting three simultaneous tunnels nicknamed Tom, Dick and Harry, on the premise that if one failed and another was discovered, then the third would surely succeed. It says much for Bushell’s drive and leadership skills that the vast organization required to dig the tunnels, dispose of the conspicuous yellow sand displaced by the digging, and to manufacture an enormous array of clothes, passes and other documentation for 200 escapees remained secret.
Walters’s description of the build-up to the breakout makes nail-biting reading. Bushell knew he was risking death, and realized that the vast majority of the fellow escapees — most of whom spoke no German and still wore uniforms unconvincingly disguised as civilian clothes — stood no chance of getting away across thick snow. Bushell justified his grand plan, however, by arguing that hunting such a vast number of escapees would divert German resources from the war. Walters shows, though, that the escape did nothing whatever to hinder the German war effort.