The Great Escapes: The harsh reality and true heroism behind the Hollywood prison camp epics

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They used Monopoly boards to conceal maps of Nazi Germany, and rubber stamps for travel permits were fashioned from boot heels. Entire camps dedicated themselves to digging tunnels, tailoring disguises and bribing guards for train timetables with one sole aim: escape.

They used Monopoly boards to conceal maps of Nazi Germany, and rubber stamps for travel permits were fashioned from boot heels. Entire camps dedicated themselves to digging tunnels, tailoring disguises and bribing guards for train timetables with one sole aim: escape.

It is a vision of the German prisoner-of-war camps during the Second World War immortalised for post-war generations by such films as The Great Escape, Stalag 17 and The Wooden Horse, with well-spoken British officers and garrulous Americans charming their way to freedom past their dullard captors.

If the telling of acts of defiance such as the escapes from Colditz Castle were left to Hollywood, history would record that Allied prisoners of war enjoyed one long game of cat and mouse with their Nazi guards, planning and plotting in perfect harmony before scurrying through tunnels and taking a short train ride to freedom in Switzerland or Sweden while their colleagues performed Gilbert and Sullivan songs to distract the guards.

Yesterday, more than 50 veterans from the camps gathered at the Imperial War Museum in London to present a very different picture of life in captivity and the sacrifices that were made to return just a handful of the tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war back home.

The gathering coincided with the launch a new exhibition at the museum, Great Escapes, designed to explode the myths of cinematic portrayals of escape efforts made in camps from Italy to Lithuania and underline the extraordinary ingenuity of the soldiers, sailors and airmen whose primary struggle in captivity was often not the pursuit of freedom but the avoidance of starvation.

For millions, Hut Four in Stalag Luft III is better known as the wooden shack where some 80 prisoners crawled their way towards freedom on 24 March 1944 through "Harry", a 104-metre tunnel dug over five months with the aid of 650 servicemen held in the camp's north compound. The mass break-out was the basis for The Great Escape, the 1963 film starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson and Donald Pleasance which has become the most iconic of the escape films.

But for Frank Stone, an 18-year-old Royal Air Force gunner whose Hampden bomber crash-landed in Germany in 1940, Hut Four yesterday represented an austere home whose occupants lived in constant fear of discovery and where boredom as much as duty made escape worth pursuing.

Mr Stone, 82, a retired civil servant from Derby, said: "We really did not have much to do in the camp. It was a very dull life - Stalag Luft III was a bleak place in a pine forest. In winter it was bitterly cold, you had to scrimp together every bit of clothing.

"It was only the escape effort that made life interesting. That's why a lot of us were involved. You were always terrified the Germans were going to burst in and find us. I had to try and disguise all the dirt that was coming out of the tunnel and getting on the floor of the hut. We had to scrub the floorboards to wash it off. The Germans could never understand why we were washing all the time and told us to stop. But we explained that our commanding officer was a Royal Navy man who liked to keep his decks clean. They seemed to accept that."

Located near Sagan, a Polish town incorporated into the Third Reich, Stalag Luft III held 10,000 PoWs at its height and was built to be one of the most escape-proof and well-equipped of the Stammlager Luftwaffe, a network of camps built on the orders of Hermann Goering, the head of the German air force, to house captured airmen.

It was nearly 400 miles from Switzerland and almost 200 miles from the Baltic ports leading to neutral Sweden. Escape was therefore extremely difficult. Of the 10,000 RAF members taken prisoner during the war, only 30 ever escaped back to Britain.

Arthur Cole, 84, another RAF serviceman, who was based in Hut Five and on a reserve list to escape on 24 March, said: "This business of it being our duty to escape has been greatly exaggerated. There were 2,500 men in our compound alone. If we had all tried to escape then it would have been absolute chaos.

"In fact, escaping was banned unless you could come up with a credible plan and it was approved by the X Organisation, the escape committee. So although everybody thought about it, there were only a small number of active plans.

"We tried to amuse ourselves, mostly by playing cards. The Germans made a big fuss about how they had provided a golf course and clubs in this model camp of theirs. It turned out to be two broken putters and holes made from Red Cross tins sunk in sand. There wasn't a blade of grass in the place."

Although the Great Escape film recorded the fact that 50 of the 74 prisoners who were recaptured were executed on the orders of Hitler, many of the veterans gathered yesterday remembered a slower war of attrition designed to break their physical and mental resolve, which has gone largely unrecorded.

From Colditz Castle, the high-security prison where repeat escapees were incarcerated, to the dozens of lesser-known camps dotted around southern Germany and the Baltic countries, German policy was to observe only the most basic standards laid down under the 1929 Geneva Convention, which governed treatment of PoWs.

Rations in most of the camps were meagre, mainly consisting of thin soup. As a result many prisoners relied on Red Cross parcels to maintain their strength.

In one camp, the men were made to puncture each tin with a hammer to ensure they could not be strung together as air ducts in tunnels. The measure meant that the food in the tins often rotted before it could be consumed.

One veteran, incarcerated in Lithuania towards the end of the war, said: "I used to wake up with stomach cramps because of the cold and hunger. I got dysentery because what food we did get was filthy. I'm afraid it wasn't all putting on plays and hiding soil in the vegetable patches. It was a grim existence."

Then as the Nazi regime began to lose the war, the PoWs became an increased burden. In January 1945, the occupants of Stalag Luft III were forced to walk 60 miles in three days, killing several dozen prisoners.

John Leakey, 83, an RAF gunner, was in the same Hampden bomber as Mr Stone when it crashed, and pulled his comrade from the burning wreckage of the plane as its ammunition began to explode. Until yesterday, they had not met since that night after being sent to different camps.

Mr Leakey, originally from Kennington, close to the Imperial War Museum in south London, explained how the two men ended up with very different experiences as prisoners after he escaped by disguising himself as a French enforced labourer.

He said: "I managed to break away during a route march and when we were recaptured I persuaded the Germans I was a French worker. They took me in and shared their food. To me it was fantastic - cheese, bread, meat, vegetables. It made me realise how pitiful what we were given to eat in the camps had been."

Despite the often severe conditions, the exhibition, to run from 14 October until 31 July, pays tribute to the creativity of the prisoners in their efforts to burrow, bluff and even fly their way to liberty.

At the start of the war, British intelligence set up a new branch, MI9, dedicated to teaching servicemen to escape and aiding their efforts once in Nazi custody. Purpose-built aids, such as the famous Monopoly boards or gramophone records stuffed with Reichsmarks, were smuggled into the camps in non-Red Cross parcels. But it was left to the prisoners to produce the tools and disguises necessary to escape, famously turning khaki uniforms into three-piece suits and blankets into Wehrmacht battle dress.

Others went further. As well as saws and planes fashioned by Colditz prisoners, the exhibition features a replica of the full-size glider built by four men over 10 months in 1944. The plan was to launch the aircraft from the roof of the impregnable castle across the river flowing 200ft below but was not put to the test before the war ended. Tests carried out in 1999 found that it would have worked.

But while Hollywood has preferred to focus on the derring-do of the escapees, others yesterday pointed to the creativity which went into maintaining sanity during the months of incarceration.

In Stalag IVB, a camp deep in Germany surrounded by sandy soil which was impossible to tunnel under, a group of prisoners set up the Mulberg Motor Club in 1943. The main activity of the "club" was producing a hand-drawn and hand-written magazine, Flywheel, describing vehicles, both real and imaginary. In all 10 issues of the publication were produced, featuring remarkably detailed ink illustrations of cars, motorbikes and even caravans drawn from memory.

Thomas Swallow, 86, who was captured near Tobruk in 1942, was the co-editor. He said: "It was virtually impossible to escape from the camp so we made our own entertainment. There was a passion for motorbikes and motorcars so we set up the club We used to get two hundred men at the meetings. It was our way of saying to the Germans, we can beat you. We had classes for everything imaginable - musical appreciation, business methods. We even had German lessons."


If Aubrey Niner, now 82, had shown an aptitude for gymnastics before the outbreak of the Second World War, it was to become an essential pastime once he arrived through the gates of Stalag Luft III.

The RAF pilot was one of the team of "gymnasts" whose job it was to disguise one of the most audacious escapes of the war. Prisoners used a wooden vaulting horse to disguise a trapdoor about 30 metres from the outer fence of the camp, billed as the most secure in Germany. While the gymnasts performed their somersaults, a man concealed inside dug the tunnel. The escape was immortalised in the film The Wooden Horse.

But Mr Niner said the reality was hard graft combined with significant risk-taking. He said: "We jumped over that horse day after day for three months. The horse was incredibly heavy but the men carrying it had to make it look like it barely weighed anything.

"I think the reason it succeeded was precisely because it was so brazenly cheeky."


Kenneth Lockwood bridles at any attempt to describe the escape efforts of himself and his fellow detainees in Colditz Castle as "glamorous". Now 86, the former stockbroker, a Territorial Army officer in the Queen's Royal Regiment who was captured in Belgium in 1940, helped to co-ordinate multiple escape plans from the German fortress.

Thirty-two Allied servicemen escaped from Colditz; the highest tally for any PoW camp. But Mr Lockwood believes the greatest challenge they faced was mental rather than physical. He said: "The most important thing you missed was your freedom. Our outside world was a courtyard the size of a tennis court surrounded by tall towers. There were 300 of us around this area. You really had to learn to be tolerant and accept each other.

"The food was foul. All we were given was a thin soup with turnips and swede. To this day I can eat neither. If it wasn't for the Red Cross parcels, I wouldn't be here today."