70 Years After: The Great Escape

There was a great ceremony in Zagan, Poland this week, to mark the 70th anniversary of the escape at Stalag Luft III, the German prisoner of war camp popularized in the 1963 film The Great Escape, which starred Steve McQueen, James Garner, Sir Richard Attenborough and James Coburn, as well as the great Scottish actor Angus Lennie as Sir Archibald Ives, who keeps McQueen company in “The Cooler.” At the ceremony on Monday, members of the Royal Air Force carried pictures of the original prisoners. One speaker properly said, “They were not prisoners of war. They were prisoners at war.”

50 soldiers set out from the site of Stalag Luft III to a war cemetery to honor the 70th anniversary of The Great Escape.

50 soldiers set out from the site of Stalag Luft III to a war cemetery to honor the 70th anniversary of The Great Escape.

Strangely enough, I have some personal experience with these men. In May of 2004, I was living on the South Bank in London. That morning, we heard on the radio that six former prisoners at the camp were going to reunite for a private event at the Imperial War Museum that afternoon. Using nothing more than a business card that identified me as a writer, I talked my way into the event, which was incredible. I got to meet two of the surviving escapees, squadron leader Bertram “Jimmy” James and flight lieutenant Sydney Dowse, both of whom since passed away in 2008.

It was also thrilling for me that several actors from the film adaptation were there as well, including John Leyton, George Mikell, Tom Adams and Angus Lennie. I got to spend a good half-hour with Angus talking about the making of the film, the London stage, and working with actors like Alec Guinness. “People in my business have great strength,” he said. “I used to go and see the films and think I could do that. How could I do that? I was just a little boy who wanted to sing and dance. I think it was determination, too. At the age of 16, I was in London performing. If you did that today, you’d end up sleeping on the Strand.”

James Garner and the late Donald Pleasance in a publicity still from The Great Escape (1963).

James Garner and the late Donald Pleasance in a publicity still from The Great Escape (1963).

I also spoke briefly with Tim Carroll, author of The Great Escape From Stalag Luft III about the connections between the film and the real-life events of the escape. “There’s a moment in the film that captures the experience for me, and it’s the moment just as Donald Pleasance, playing the forger, is killed by the Germans,” he said. “He says to James Garner, ‘Thanks for saving me.’ That’s what these men cared about.”

In honor of the anniversary, I thought it was worth reprinting my original story. Enjoy.


Trolley Escape

Jimmy James and Sydney Dowse with a recreation of one of the escape trolleys used to flee from Stalag Luft III.

“For you, the war is over,” said Nazis to Allied aircrew that were shot down over Europe in World War II and captured. That was not good enough for the prisoners of Stalag Luft III, a POW camp 100 miles southeast of Berlin run by the Luftwaffe. Dozens of prisoners spent eleven months excavating three escape tunnels, “Tom, Dick and Harry,” with bed boards and stolen materials while others forged fake identification and scrapped together civilian clothing.

The March 24, 1944 escape of 76 prisoners is one of the best-known episodes of World War II and was fictionalized in the 1963 film, “The Great Escape.” The 60th anniversary of the escape was marked by a reunion on March 16 at the Imperial War Museum in London. Attending the event were two escapees who made it out of the tunnel, Squadron Leader Bertram “Jimmy” James, 89, and Flight Lieutenant Sydney Dowse, 84. Fourteen other veterans attending included Flight Lieutenant Alex Cassie, a skilled artist who played a crucial role as a forger of documents and Flight Lieutenant Ken Rees, who was caught in the tunnel when the Germans discovered it and inspired Steve McQueen’s role in the film as “The Cooler King.”

The unprecedented escape was a major disgrace for the Nazis and led to tragedy for many of the escapees. Out of the 76 men who left the tunnel, only three made it to safety and 50 of the recaptured prisoners were murdered by the Gestapo on Hitler’s direct orders.

Read more about The Great Escape after the jump.

“People ask all the time, was it was worth it? It was war and we had to expect trouble from the Germans but you know, only about one percent of all the men in the camps escaped. The Germans had never done anything like that previously but it was war so we had to expect the unexpected,” said James.

It was twelve days before the Germans recaptured Sydney Dowse, a Spitfire pilot who was in charge of a digging team and was one of the first to leave the 350-foot tunnel. He described his exhilaration at getting out.

“The night we came out of the tunnel? It was a terrific night and the stars were shining. You kind of came out of the tunnel and took a good deep breath. Of course, you didn’t want to spend too much time there,” Dowse laughed.

Great Escape PosterIn a collision of fiction and fact, four cast members from “The Great Escape” were on hand to greet the men whom they had portrayed on film. They were John Leyton, who portrayed tunneller William Dickes, George Mikell who played a German guard, Tom Adams who handled diversions, and perhaps most famously Scottish actor Angus Lennie. Lennie portrayed Flying Officer Archibald Ives, who spent much of the film in “The Cooler” with Steve McQueen.

“It’s a privilege that we were invited along with all the veterans,” Lennie said. “I enjoyed the part and it really made such a difference in my life. I got on well with Steve. It sounds strange now to say but I was a bit of loner then and Steve was, too. Even though I’ve gone on to do all sorts of other things, “The Great Escape” really was my greatest opportunity in films. We really tried to play it with respect to the gentlemen who are here today.”

The film is a staple on both British and American television and led to stardom for McQueen as well as James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and British actors Sir Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasance.

Most of the characters in the film are composites of multiple airmen from the real escape and John Leyton got to meet Sydney Dowse, one of the men on whom his character is based, for the first time. In the film, he had most of his scenes with Charles Bronson down in the tunnel.

“It was a real tunnel with three sides most of the time,” Leyton remembered. “It really did collapse on me several times and it took five people to dig me out. The amazing thing is that the real tunnel was 350 feet long but it was only two feet square. The film is actually very accurate right up to the part where you see Steve (McQueen) on the motorcycle.”

Leyton remembered McQueen’s discomfort among the numerous actors involved in the film.

Steve McQueen“Steve was fine but I know there were times when he felt he didn’t have a role,” Leyton said. “Richard Attenborough was in charge and James Garner was the Scrounger and Charlie (Bronson) and I were digging and you had Donald Pleasance off forging documents. I think sometimes he felt like, what am I doing here? Of course now it is 60 years on from the real thing and it’s been 42 years since we did the film, which is amazing.”

The event also launched a new book by Tim Carroll as well as a new documentary about the excavation of one of the three tunnels dug at Stalag Luft III.

“The film distills in a dramatic and brief episode much of the experience of being in World War II. The Germans offered the chance to sit out the war quietly but of course, these men did not sit out the war quietly. They used all the facilities given to them by the Germans to escape. It was more important for them to die in freedom than to live in captivity,” Carroll said.

“Jimmy” James said that escape was the only option for the men of Stalag Luft III.

“We had so much talent and experience together in one compound that there was no other option,” James said. “We had to do something. I never thought about it being such a thing 60 years ago and I certainly never would have expected to be here today. I was just a guy who wanted to get home.”

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