The Great Escape was a 'futile suicide mission' says new book

Jan 25, 2013

Escape immortalised by Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough was a disaster, costing 50 lives

THE GREAT ESCAPE, a mass breakout of Allied airmen from the Stalag Luft III prisoner-of-war camp in 1944, is remembered as the "epitome of British heroism". But a new book says it was, in fact, a "futile suicide mission" that caused the pointless death of 50 men.

The attempt to get 200 Allied airmen out of the Luftwaffe-run prison camp via a tunnel dug under the perimeter fence, was immortalised in the 1963 movie starring Steve McQueen. The famous scene in which the actor jumps the barbed wire on a motorbike is known to be fiction, but the image of the escape as a moment of British heroism to match the Dambuster raids, has been more durable.
When a Scottish worker cut through the fence at an Algerian gas plant and trekked through the desert for 20 hours to escape being taken hostage by al-Qaeda militants last week, he told journalists it "was like The Great Escape".

In an article in the Daily Mail, Guy Walters, the author of a new book called The Real Great Escape, says the original escape does not deserve its heroic reputation. Fifty men were killed by the Gestapo during the escape and only three – a Dutchman and two Norwegians – made it back to Britain.

Walters says "there was no point" in the men risking their lives, because by the time the breakout took place on 24 March, 1944, the war was "clearly going Britain's way". The author says the breakout was "an act of military madness" that merely satisfied the ego of the man who devised it, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell (played by Richard Attenborough in the film).

The breakout went wrong from the start, says Walters. Some men had bouts of claustrophobia in the tunnels, others forgot to pull their fellow escapees behind them using special trolleys. It took two hours to open the exit trapdoor which had swollen with damp and the tunnel did not reach the woods, forcing men to "emerge in the open".

Of the 76 airmen who made it outside the camp, nearly all were recaptured within 48 hours, writes Walters and most were killed by the Gestapo.

Unlike in the movie – where a large group of men are ordered out of a truck and shot by a machine-gun – the captured escapees were disposed of "singly or in small groups", says Walters. The Gestapo officers who carried out the killings later insisted they were "merely following orders".
A former Stalag Luft III prisoner told Walters recently: "I sometimes think it wasn't worth it. Inevitably, they [the Germans] would have lost the war — and 50 people would have been alive today."

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