I was – it should shock nobody – a big geek in elementary, junior and (most of) senior high school. I read. A lot. I had my library card maxed pretty continuously from when I got one – in 1970, at age six – until I graduated from high school.
Mostly, I was a history buff; I read pretty much every bit of history Jamestown’s library offered. Now, in reading as in everything else in life, I’m not as a rule a systematic guy. My style: I’d pick a subject, and go on a jag of from a week to several months reading about it incessantly (not unlike someone we all know). And those subjects were all over the waterfront.
But there were two threads that made the biggest impression on me, then and now.
One was Ernest Shackleton and the “Endurance” expedition of 1916-1919. Shackelton was a British explorer whose ship, Endurance, was crushed by pack ice during a hard Antarctic winter. He led his men for two solid years, surviving on the pack ice and then, as hope seemed to fade, on a couple of nearly-impossible treks across the superhumanly-turbulent South Atlantic, sailing hundreds of miles without sophisticated navigational gear in what amounted to open boats, in a climate where “dead of winter” and “heat of summer” aren’t really all that different. He made it, saving himself and his entire crew, in a feat that borders on mythic. Whenever life’s gotten difficult – or “difficult” – for me, I’ve looked back on Shackelton’s example, put my chin up, and kept on plodding.
My other big reading jones, from age 11 to maybe 16, was escape stories.
There were many, of course; during World War II, tens of thousands of Allied soldiers were held prisoner in conditions that varied from bad to atrocious, even with the protection of the Geneva Convention; all of them fared better than the Russian POWs (the USSR never signed the Geneva Convention, and neither Germany nor the USSR honored its terms with each others’ prisoners); all fared better than the concentration camp and extermination camp inmates, whose fate is a matter of shameful record.
And their stories – full of ingenuity, wit, hope, and above all endless perseverence in the face of near-impossible (and, in the case of concentration camp inmates, brutal and lethal) odds – inspired me, then and now.
Many of the stories should be household names, taught to students in our history classes as examples of the best of humanity. In 1944, the inmates of the German extermination camp at Sobibor, Poland – perhaps a thousand Jews and Russian POWs, there to work the machinery that consumed over a quarter-million lives, plotted to overwhelm and kill their guards and escape to the woods to try to meet the oncoming Soviets. A few hundred made it to the woods. A few dozen survived the German pursuit and the depredations of Polish civilians (who largely hated Jews more than Nazis). The story was made into a pretty good TV movie, of all things, in the mid-eighties, with Rutger Hauer, Alan Arkin and Joanna Pacula.
There was also the story of British Sergeant-Major John Coward, captured near Dunkirk, who escaped from several camps and infiltrated Auschwitz. He testified at Nuremberg.
But the biggest – and best-known – body of work on POW escapes was by three British authors – Paul Reid, Eric Williams and Paul Brickhill. Their work was closely related.
Brickhill, an Australian fighter pilot captured after being shot down over Tunisia in 1943, wrote Reach For The Sky, the story of Wing Commander Douglas Bader – one of Britain’s top aces in the Battle of Britain, despite having two artificial legs. Bader was the subject of many books. Held at a number of camps, including the infamous castle at Colditz (documented in Reid’s Escape from Colditz, among others), where many “high-value” and “incorrigible” habitual POWs were held, Bader still attemped several escapes, despite his “handicap”.
Williams was a navigator on a British Short “Stirling” bomber shot down early in the war. Held in a camp on the Baltic coast of Poland, he attempted several escapes (memorialized in his book The Tunnel); afterward, transferred to Stalag-Luft III near Zagan, Poland, he carried out one of the most ingenious escapes ever, chronicled in his book The Wooden Horse: he and two other POWs built a wooden vaulting horse; the other inmates carried the horse, the inmates inside, to the same spot in the compound every morning. Camouflaged under the spot was a trap door, which led to a tunnel the men dug, patiently, with kitchen knives and condensed milk cans, every day for months. Finally, Williams and his two compatriots escaped. Improbably, all three made it back to the UK – one (Oliver Philpot) via Switzerland, and Williams and his partner John Phillips via Sweden. All three wrote books – Williams’ is the essential one (and was made into a movie in the UK in 1950, something I expect only Lileks to know…)
Williams’ feat was mentioned in the other major book on the subject, Brickhill’s The Great Escape. Brickhill’s book – a true story – covered perhaps the greatest POW camp break of all time, which took place at the same camp, about a year later. This story isn’t unfamiliar to Americans; it was turned into a major motion picture in the sixties which, if you leave out Steve McQueen’s role completely (Americans were involved in the beginning of the escape, but were transferred to a US-only camp early in the digging), wasn’t all that inaccurate by silver screen standards.
But don’t forget Steve McQueen’s role entirely. It returns in a bit. Sort of.
The escape itself was epic in scale; the idea was to dig three tunnels – “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry” – from the camp, allowing all 1,000+ inmates to escape. It went well beyond digging, though; the inmates – using jury-rigged, extemporized and smuggled materials – had to forge identity papers, create imitation civilian clothing, escape maps, iron rations for carrying on the road, and routes and tactics to get the escapees from the tunnel exit to freedom, for the POWs. (Brickhill was a POW at Stalag III at the time; barred from the escape by his claustrophobia, he particpated in other preparations).
And before any of that was an issue at all, they had to make the tunnels usable. Public TV’s Nova covered an archaological dig on the site of the old camp a few years ago. The soil in that part of Slaskie is thin, runny sand; Brickhill and Williams both spoke of the difficulties of digging through it, but it wasn’t until you saw it on Nova that you caught the full gravity of the engineering challenge it posed. The sand was a thin, yellow slop, resembling a combination of beach sand and diarrhea. The archeaological crew nearly lost a backhoe down a pit, when the side walls gave way; it would have been hard to build a useful sand castle in that slop. And yet, the Brits tunneled thirty feet down, building tunnels two feet wide and over 200 feet long, shored up with smuggled bunk boards and ration tins. They even built a trolley system on crude wooden rails, to ease the load of hauling the tons of sand – which then had to be distributed around the camp (it looked yellow and muddy until the sun could dry it, meaning that the inmates had to devise elaborate ruses to hide the stuff).
In the end, in March of 1944, 241 POWs entered one of the tunnels (one had been discovered, and the other used to hide sand); before the escape was discovered, 76 got out. 73 were recaptured (two Norwegian and one Dutch pilots made it to the UK); of the rest, 50 were murdered on Hitler’s orders.
I remember that story, like Shackleton’s, whenever I think something is impossible, or just too damn hard.
The above is a long, long lead-up to the actual story of this post.
The four great British POW escape books – Escape from Colditz, The Tunnel, The Wooden Horse and finally The Great Escape – all had one name in common; a young British officer, captured in the early days of the war, who attempted escape more than any known man. Steve McQueen’s motorcycle-jumping wise-cracking Yank in the Great Escape movie was said to have been loosely modeled after the real life exploits of Squadron Leader ‘Jimmy’ James, who passed away last week at age 92. S/L James particpated in the Great Escape – he was the thirtieth man through the tunnel on the night of the big break – as well as many earlier and later attempts. None of thsoe attempts got him back to the UK – he was rescued by American soldiers at the end of the war, as SS guards debated executing him and a group of other POWs that were bein held as hostages. But all of which made him a legend among British POWs.
James was one of the few to escape execution after the Great Escape, and joined two others at the notorious death camp at Sachsenhausen, from where he made another daring escape by tunnel, only to be recaptured 10 days later.
Read the whole long, fascinating story.
And if you learn nothing else from his example, learn tenacity.