Sitting in Aldeburgh plush velvet chairs watching The Great Escape, I realised through a question from Michael sitting next to me, that this is the first time I’ve watched this film realising that this was Richard’s camp, where he lived for 3 years as a POW.
It was a fund raiser for the RAF and Dan Snow (something to do with HistoryHit, evidently very popular) introduced a series of people involved in the Great Escape or the film sandwiched by some women with tree trunk legs dressed up as Army girls calld teh D Day Darlings (Britain’s got Talent evidently) – it was all very static, two dimensional and lacked much substance.Live from the Apollo Hammersmith, there were two intervals, so plenty of time to be entertained by the display I put up of enlarged copies and originals from Richards papers to the Aldeburgh Cinema. It was like saying this is the real life event, before you watch the fiction.
I had an early conversation with a man who’d met Douglas Barder as a boy, and had a connection himself to the RAF. He must have said something along the lines of how devastating the effect of the camp must have been on their lives, because I responded, while it wasn’t a bunch of roses, it did not appear to be a place of great hardship – unlike the Auschwitz or Japanese camps. He wisely responded they were a special bread of men then, they did not reveal or disclose their suffering, but joked jovially about it, dismissing it. I recalled Richard’s description ofwhen he was first caught:
Good weather report but as they neared Tobruk weather worsened. RK went down under cloud to find himself on the top of battle. Took much flack, one engine shot out. Managed to cover 20 miles before making crash landing in the desert. Began to walk to Cairo. No shortage of water as they collected the night dew in their parachutes. Resting up at an old fort (they had one wounded man) saw a German car approaching. RK plotted an ambush, which involved RK giving himself up explaining the wounded man in the ruins. Germans put a gun to his head, and the plan failed. All were now POWs.
First taken to Mousel and interrogated. RK gave rank and number. Escaped but re-captured. Stripped and tied up. Flown to Crete then Athens. Taken to super interrogation unit in Germany. Kept for a month in various conditions, sometimes suffocating heat, sometimes freezing cold. This was mixed with being wined and dined. RK: ‘Eventually they gave up of course’
The films portrayal of the German commandant was one of the authentic elements in the film – for he was a gentleman and sympathetic. This was in line with Richard’s account:
“The German Commandant (Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau) was a marvellous man. Kindly but strict. All respected him. If we said we would or would not do something to him, we kept our word. He did the same. After the war Pricky Day flew out to Germany to read at the German Commandants funeral in 1963.”
Von Lindener, although a staunch supporter of Germany, he was an irrefutable anti-Nazi. He felt obliged to accept a position in the Luftwaffe in 1937 as one of Hermann Göring’s personal staff. He unsuccessfully tried to retire on the grounds of ill health, and his appointment to be the Kommandant of Stalag Luft III at Sagan in the spring of 1942 during World War II therefore represented an opportunity to serve his country without directly serving the regime he so despised. [WIKI]
Film Fiction? Well indeed there were no Americans in the camp, no motor bikes, no escape by airplane, and it was the coldest March on record with snow on the ground, not summer with green grass to have an enjoyable time filming amongst.
Another unanticipated problem was that this was the coldest March for thirty years, with snow up to five feet deep, so the escapees had no option but to leave the cover of woods and fields and stay on the roads. WIKI
A young Attenburgh played Bushell who was positioned as the driven man in charge of escapes and Gorden Jackson presumably Pricky Day, (Although Day did survive).
“Obviously there was an Escape Committee. Pricky Day, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Day) Wing Commander, super chap, was in charge of all the escape side.
The actual version of the location of the tunnel would have been so much more effective and dramatic than the static one in the film (of the German soldier waiting for all the men to emerge from the tunnel.)
The guards had no idea where the tunnel entrance was, so they began searching the huts, giving men time to burn their fake papers. Hut 104 was one of the last to be searched, and despite using dogs the guards were unable to find the entrance. Finally, German guard Charlie Pilz crawled back through the tunnel but found himself trapped at the camp end; he began calling for help and the prisoners opened the entrance to let him out, finally revealing its location. WIKI
And wouldn’t it have been great to have had the whole efficient German Ittinary of what went missing?
90 complete double bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 192 bed covers, 161 pillow cases, 52 twenty-man tables, 10 single tables, 34 chairs, 76 benches, 1,212 bed bolsters, 1,370 beading battens, 1219 knives, 478 spoons, 582 forks, 69 lamps, 246 water cans, 30 shovels, 300 m (1,000 ft) of electric wire, 180 m (600 ft) of rope, and 3,424 towels. 1,700 blankets had been used, along with more than 1,400 Klim (milk) cans
Electric cable had been stolen after being left unattended by German workers; because they had not reported the theft, they were executed by the Gestapo
I wanted to find out the numbers again. No motor bikes, or planes:
Of 76 escapees, 73 were captured. There were three successful escapees – none of them English! Perhaps that was a fact not encouraged.
Per Bergsland, Norwegian pilot of No. 332 Squadron RAF, escapee #44
Jens Müller, Norwegian pilot of No. 331 Squadron RAF, escapee #43
Bram van der Stok, Dutch pilot of No. 41 Squadron RAF, escapee #18
Bergsland and Müller escaped together, and made it to neutral Sweden by train and boat with the help of friendly Swedish sailors. Van der Stok, granted one of the first slots by the Escape Committee due to his language and escape skills, travelled through much of occupied Europe with the help of the French Resistance before finding safety at a British consulate in Spain.
In Richards log book, he laconically describes the bare bones in his neat italic handwriting.
We’d eaten delicious lentil soup washed down with English Champagne, and had a few lamb sandwiches left for the journey home with very forgiving dogs.
The moon was huge, and a diminishing one at that.