The Great Escape is an interesting artifact of the World War II era.

Image provided by Amazon/Fawcett

You’re probably at least glancingly familiar with this real life account, originally published in the early ‘50s. Author Paul Brickhill, an Australian airman, spent a few years in a German prisoner of war camp, where he abetted one of the most famous prisoner escapes of the war.

The Great Escape picks up its story in 1943, when a large number of international POWs (including many Brits and Americans) were ensconced in a new German POW camp near the Polish border. One of the interesting facts that The Great Escape establishes early on was that escaping a German POW camp wasn’t especially uncommon. Many POWs managed, some multiple times, via a wide array of methods (tunneling, sneaking out in a truck, cutting through a wire).

The problem wasn’t necessarily escaping a prison. It was getting across a friendly border or stowing away on a ship headed out of Axis territory. Lots of prisoners got out of the camps. Many of them were recaptured and sent back.

The Great Escape details a sprawling project to effect a mass breakout from a prison camp in Sagan, Germany, in the latter years of the war. Quarterbacked by Roger Bushell, a charismatic barrister with several previous escapes to his credit, “Project X” involved the construction of three separate tunnels, a meticulous operation to produce counterfeit documents, a mapmaking effort, a garment sweatshop and numerous other activities designed to not only escape the camp, but to improve the escapees’ chances of actually getting out of Nazi-controlled territory.

The engineering feat involved in constructing these tunnels was impressive. The project dug down deeply enough to avoid the numerous methods the Germans had devised to detect tunnels closer to the surface. How the prisoners figured out the logistics and then scavenged the materials needed to dig and reinforce a lengthy tunnel demonstrates a lot of inspired genius. The Great Escape details numerous practical elements, like how to conceal a tunnel entrance or the elaborate methods devised to disperse the sandy soil displaced from digging. The methods the prisoners improvised to carry out tasks such as printing, manipulating fabric or crafting compasses are astounding in their creativity.

A significant part of The Great Escape is the fraught relationship between the prisoners and the camp guards. A few emerged as nasty, ruthless bastards (nicknamed “ferrets”) who dehumanized the prisoners in various ways. But many of the guards (and the camp’s commandant) showed surprising sympathy for the prisoners. These guards may have been Germans, forced by circumstances into their posts, but they weren’t Nazi supporters and often formed strong attachments to their charges. How the prisoners leveraged those connections to wheedle or barter for supplies, document examples, money, information and other necessaries for the escape effort are fascinating.

Brickhill chronicles the ups and downs of Project X. There were numerous setbacks and near misses, where guards nearly discovered various aspects of the operation (which, at its peak, involved hundreds of the camp’s internees). One of the three tunnels was discovered; seeing how the prisoners dealt with that setback and refocused their efforts communicated the determination and level-headedness necessary to pull off such an audacious stunt.

Ultimately, only 76 prisoners escaped through the completed tunnel, barely a third of the total number intended. Brickhill’s account of the actual escape is one of the book’s high points, tense and suspenseful. The fates of most of the escapees don’t exactly amount to a happy ending. The final chapter focuses on post-war efforts to get justice for escapees victimized by the Nazis in violation of the Geneva Convention.

Brickhill was an able narrator. He had an eye for detail and packed them into his account, sometimes to his detriment. The ingenuity of the prisoners and their inventions is fascinating, but the level of detail can occasionally become distracting. Brickhill had a tendency to wander off into those nitty-gritty technical accounts. The frequent use of slang can be an impediment. And one can only assume that the retention of numerous spelling and grammar errors so many decades after initial publication is a deliberate stylistic choice. But even with those occasional drags, the story Brickhill unfolded was compelling and absorbing, providing a glimpse into a world that most readers thankfully will never experience firsthand.

Because of the large cast of characters involved, very few of them get enough time in the spotlight to make a lasting impression. Bushell emerges the most clearly. Brickhill did a nice job of capturing the dynamism and magnetism that were necessary to inspire hundreds of prisoners to pitch in on an effort that ultimately didn’t benefit most of them directly. Brickhill made a convincing case, though, that escapes were the prisoners’ contribution to the fighting. That diverting significant German resources to chasing and recapturing the escapees was as important as any of them actually making their way to freedom. He managed to elicit enough details about the other prisoners to help readers understand the mindset underlying the operation.

At its best, The Great Escape provides a firsthand glimpse into a fascinating chapter of WW II that’s captured imaginations for decades. For history fans, it’s definitely worth reading, but the story of this colorful, real life caper can hold the interest of most readers.

Originally published at on April 9, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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