Great Escape is one of those movies that has attained ‘cult’ status. With a
star-studded cast including Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard
Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn
and Hannes Messemer, the actors carry the plot. But is the story, as seen on
the silver screen, the ‘real’ story? No, says Guy Walters, the author of The
Real Great Escape (ISBN 978-0-553-82611-1, Bantam Press 2013).
Walters writes that “the Real Great Escape that you hold in your hands is
just as exciting and absorbing as the almost fictional version you currently
have in your head. The only bad news is that nobody escaped on a motorbike.”
Back to the movie, Attenborough played the role of the mastermind, called
Roger Bartlett in the film. A character that was drawn from the real-life
Roger Bushell, and author Walters goes into great detail to make the persona
alive, even down to his relationship with one of the daughters of Earl Howe,
a famous British racing driver who won Le Mans in 1931. I can vouch for the
accuracy, having been shown around the Earl’s study with the Le Mans trophy
in pride of place (a bronze of Boadicea in her chariot) by the current Earl,
his son. These were the landed gentry of the pre-war era.
The book details some of Bushell’s previous attempts at escaping, something
missing from the celluloid version of history. These show something of the
bravery (and sometimes bravado) of this man, who was actually a South
African who flew for the Royal Air Force in Britain.
Examination of the psychological profiles of the POWs are described, with
one group remaining mentally well, mainly by plotting escapes, while others
took to their beds and deteriorated noticeably.
Walters also delves into the minds of the German captors, and the loyalties
of the camp commandants are explored, with some of the Germans serving their
country, without necessarily serving the regime. This was most evident with
commandants who looked at the prison as being a place where Germans and
Allies could learn something from each other. A utopia which could never
I found it interesting that not every one of the POW’s was intent on
tunneling their way to freedom, but quite to the contrary felt that attempts
at escape just made prison life more unbearable, as the German heightened
their surveillance of the POW’s, and privileges were withdrawn.
Walters writes, many regarded “the tunnellers as a breed apart, who were
able to put up with the prospect of being buried alive, intense
claustrophobia, heat, stuffy air, and the smell from the fat lamps.”
A fascinating book with pages of historical data, including the roll-call
and naming those who died in the escape. And which group pulled the trigger.
With several color plates, this is a bargain at B605 at Bookazine in the
Avenue. This book is far more than the movie, looking at the whole spectrum
of life in a Stalag from both sides, rather than the celluloid excitement of
just the tunnel. Guy Walters has definitely chronicled the “real” Great