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.

THE GREAT ESCAPERS REUNITE IN LONDON (2004)

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.

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What Might Have Been

It’s no secret that I love alternative histories, not to mention the secret histories of the world, so these next two interviews feel like kindred spirits to me.

DominionFirst up, I recently had the pleasure of interviewing C.J. Sansom, the distinguished Scottish novelist and iconoclast behind the Matthew Shardlake historical thrillers and the very fine spy novel Winter in Madrid. I feel very lucky to have caught him when I did, because his new novel Dominion is spectacular. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either. I had to laugh when the interview was published to see no less than Stephen King broadcast, “That book DOMINION is terrific. And no, this isn’t one of those publisher-sponsored blurbs. I just fell in love with it. Nice and long, too.”

As stated, it’s an alternative history of World War II, but it’s a damned thoughtful one, let me tell you. Sansom pulled off a great trick, as we discuss in “Inventing a New History,” in that he only changed a single fact: instead of the ferocious Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister, the so-called “architect of appeasement,” Lord Halifax, takes the role. By the time we catch up to the “present” in 1952, Great Britain is under German occupation and America has retreated under the cover of isolationism. It’s a great spy novel but it’s also truly creepy at times, throwing out seemingly random facts like the fact that the Holocaust has come and gone, with only whispers that it ever happened at all. I’m told that BBC radio adapted it as a miniseries, so there’s a note to self to go check that out, too.

You can get the most interesting comments in the interview at Kirkus, but I thought it was worth sharing a few conversations that didn’t make it into the feature. It was a bit too much to go into there, but Mr. Sansom definitely had an agenda in writing Dominion.

The author, a trained historian himself, managed to drum up a bit of controversy when the book was released. The minor kerfuffle was over his portrayal of Enoch Powell, which you can read about in the British Press. The underlying theme of the novel, however, is warning against the dangers of nationalism. It’s an issue that Sansom cares about deeply, as it falls right in line with his passionate opposition to the Scottish vote on independence later this year. Here’s what he had to say about the dangers inherent in national idealism.

“The short answer is: look at modern European history,” he explained. “The first danger is the extent to which socially liberally or socially conservative views on issues of personal freedom prevail. Those are the things that most people argue about when they argue about politics. About only a week or two ago, Nichola Sturgeon, who is the deputy leader of the Scottish National Party, said that independence transcends conventional politics. Well, I think it’s very bad to transcend conventional politics, because you’re saying other issues don’t matter; it’s just nationality that matters. I think that’s wrong. It’s also completely unrealistic and myth-making because the issues that one faces in daily life are ones of political economy. Dreams of nationality don’t fill people’s stomachs. It’s also dangerous because nationalism by definition defines itself against an an enemy of ‘other’ There always has to be an enemy. That’s dangerous.”

“If you say nationalism trumps other issues, it’s very easy to stomp down the road to authoritarianism,” he continued. “I’m not saying it always happens, but there is always a risk. Nationalists also wind up anthropomorphizing the nation as just a collection of people who lived in the same place under the same political rule for a few hundred years. Nationalism gives the state a sort of human personality. The national destiny, the national dream, the national feeling. To me, that’s all just so much rubbish.”

Half WorldBack on this side of the pond, I connected with novelist Scott O’Connor about his eerie new novel Half World. It’s about one of the great secret histories of America, delving not only into a series of desperately dark personal journeys but into the connective tissue of American conspiracies, the threads that lead directly from Menlo Park to Dealey Plaza to Jonestown, Abu Gharib and beyond. In my feature “Thought Control” at Kirkus Reviews, we delved into the history of Project MKUltra, the CIA’s decades-long experiment in bioengineering behavior through the use of LSD, behavioral modifications, hypnosis, rape and torture.

“What we know is true is a very small percentage compared to the theories out there about the program,” O’Connor explained. “A quick Google search will implicate MK Ultra in just about any act of public violence in the past 50 years. The records were only destroyed because the agnecy knew that public hearings were coming. The political climate was changing because of Watergate and Vietnam and they knew they were going to be called to be counted. In the mid-70s, there were a couple of hearings in which they disclosed assassination attempts and coups. It was pretty shocking, especially at the time. The idea that this was the project that they destroyed records over is terrifying. I mean, they didn’t destroy the records about trying to kill Castro, which was a pretty shocking revelation in 1975, but this had to be buried. It really makes you wonder how bad it got. As a novelist, you now have something to write about because it gives you a place to fill in the gaps and imagine what might have happened there.”

Sleep tight.

Louis Prima Played It Pretty For the People

Author’s note: sometimes you don’t want good stories to disappear. This was one of my first magazine features, and because it’s of a historical nature, I think it holds up. It was also a lot of fun to write, and some of the original voices in the story, like sax man Sam Butera, have left us. Anyway, every so often, you may see me resurrect an old story for my entertainment, and for yours. A slightly alternative version of this story originally appeared in the late Atomic Magazine. Ladies and gentlemen, Louis Prima.

To his guys, he was simply, “The Chief,” or “The Boss.”  To throngs of admiring women, he was a magnetic, charismatic star with a dazzling and disarming smile.  For musicians he was their sensational trumpet player as well as the bandleader who knew how to bring out the best playing they had in them.  For children, he remains forever the voice of “King Louie,” from Disney’s The Jungle Book.  To a legion of music lovers worldwide, he is the indomitable, gravel-voiced giant of swing that is the one and only Louis Prima.

Atomic Louis Prima One

For Prima fans, a large chunk of the musician’s formidable output has been widely unavailable until now.  Louis’ widow, Gia Prima, has recently re-released nine albums that were originally available on Prima’s own Prima 1 Magnagroove label.

“It was a long, hard battle but I’m so proud of them.  I think they look beautiful and they sound wonderful,” said Prima of the process of re-releasing the records.

Featuring original album covers and remastered recordings, the discs cover the years from 1962 to 1975.  They include such rare albums as Prima Show at the Casbar and King of Clubs that have been out of print since the early sixties as well as regional favorites like Just A Gigalo and The New Sounds of the Louis Prima Show, which sold almost exclusively at live gigs in Las Vegas and New Orleans.

“You close your eyes and it’s like a time machine taking you back to a Las Vegas of long ago,” said New Orleans radio host Ron Cannatella, who has consulted with the Prima estate on the re-releases.  “It’s really like being in the audience.  You can hear the clinking of the glasses and the crowd really getting into it.”

Louis & KeelyThrough three-quarters of a century, King Louie’s finger-snapping, foot-stomping brand of New Orleans-flavored jazz continues to reign over fans, critics and other artists.  His music could fill three lifetimes and has deeply entrenched itself into the fabric of American life.  He was a crack big band leader who went on to form the hottest combo in the world.  In his later years he became a children’s favorite but never stopped experimenting with style and substance until he passed on into legend with his death in 1978.  Since then, he has passed his unique combination of deft musicianship and daft humor onto a broad spectrum of artists ranging from ridiculous remakes to smoking tributes from the neo-swing set.

Prima is also the bridge between two other monoliths of 20th century American music.  Alongside him is Louis Armstrong, a more serious horn blower, but one who came out of the same New Orleans tradition that Prima was born into.  After Prima comes Frank Sinatra, who took Prima’s reconstruction of the lounge act and forged his own famous “Rat Pack.”

Louis Prima would be a legend if all he had ever done was to compose the now-classic “Sing, Sing, Sing,” around 1935.  The big band anthem became hugely successful for the famous rearrangement performed by the Benny Goodman Orchestra and was the first song to be put into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Lucky for all of us, on December 26, 1954, the stars aligned and Louis Prima struck gold again on the night the Witnesses were born. (Keep swingin’ with Louis Prima after the jump).

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