Half a century ago, Hollywood took the most enduring escape story of the Second World War and created a blockbuster movie. To this day, The Great Escape remains among the top 10 war films viewed in video or online. But is this epic flick of British and American airmen tunnelling out of a German POW camp even close to the truth? Author Ted Barris’s latest book, The Great Escape: A Canadian Story, sets the record straight about who was principally responsible for springing 80 POWs from that famous prison. In this Zoomer exclusive, he describes the pivotal roles ingenious young Canadians played … some paying with their lives.
More than a few times, wartime ground crews watched the Canadian RAF pilot challenge his bomber crewmates. Not to darts at the local pub in Topcliffe, England, where they were stationed during the Second World War. Nor to poker in the officers’ mess. No. Even in November 1940, just a few days before Flight Lt. Tony Pengelly, 20, was shot down over German-occupied Europe where he would eventually join The Great Escape, the RAF bomber pilot raced his comrades on motorcycles across the aerodrome tarmac to sharpen their reflexes. Pengelly loved speed. He thrived on competition. He instilled that in his bomber crew even if only during motorcycle sprints across the airstrip at Topcliffe.
But that – contrary to Hollywood mythology – is about as close to motorcycles as the story of The Great Escape ever got. Of course, the 1963 blockbuster movie, The Great Escape, paints a dazzlingly different story. For a generation, actor Steve McQueen, depicting shot-down U.S. Army Air Force pilot Capt. Virgil Hilts, would have moviegoers believe that at least one American escaped through a tunnel from Stalag Luft III, stole a motorcycle, disguised himself as a German dispatch rider and attempted to leap barbed wire fences into neutral Switzerland as part of the iconic Great Escape scenario.
In fact, there was no motorcycle chase. There was no Capt. Hilts. Stalag Luft III wasn’t anywhere near Switzerland. And Yankee know-how was not a determining factor in engineering The Great Escape. Actually, Tony Pengelly from Weston, Ont., and scores of other Canadians in the North Compound (Americans were in the South Compound) at Stalag Luft III were smack in the middle of this unparalleled escape plan to spring hundreds of Commonwealth airmen into the middle of an over-confident Third Reich and to draw unprecedented manpower away from the German war machine at the height of the war.
“No other escape,” historian Jonathan Vance wrote, “had such an impact,” infuriating Hitler, drawing thousands of German troops away from the frontlines and triggering a secret Gestapo plot for the systematic murder of recaptured POWs, including 50 of the Great Escapers.
It’s also not true that The Great Escape plan was hatched suddenly in 1942 when the Commonwealth air officers landed at Stalag Luft III, about 300 acres of wooden barracks and sand concealed in the middle of a Polish pine forest and protected by 10-foot-high double fencing, machine-gun armed sentry towers, hundführer (dog handlers), the Abwehr (surveillance guards) and even underground microphones to detect tunnellers digging their way to freedom. Tony Pengelly began plotting his escape the moment he was shot down and sent to Stalag Luft I at Barth on the north coast of Germany. In his first year, F/L Pengelly took part in 48 escape attempts.
“[But] at Barth, escaping was strictly private enterprise,” Pengelly said. “A man can’t forge his own identity papers, dig his own tunnel, make his own wire clippers, escape clothes, maps [and] compasses. … From our futility, we knew we would have to organize to be successful.”
In April 1943, their German Luftwaffe guards moved all the Brits, Aussies, Kiwis and Canadians to the North Compound – “putting all the rotten eggs in one basket,” the movie Kommandant says. In doing so, they knowingly or unknowingly assembled the most educated and wire-savvy air force POWs in captivity, including nearly 600 Canadians. Among them, Wally Floody, a former Ontario hard-rock miner, would design tunnels “Tom,” “Dick” and eventually the 400-foot-long “Harry” for the breakout in the spring of 1944. Torontonian John Weir, who had trained himself to survive in the Canadian wilderness, defied the claustrophobia, lack of oxygen, darkness and dampness to excavate tunnels 30 feet underground. Fellow Torontonian George McGill, a champion track athlete and boxer, created sports spectacles to divert German guards’ attention from escape attempts and devised airtight camp security to protect tunnel construction. Meanwhile, Kingsley Brown, with family roots in Nova Scotia, had worked as a journalist and was fluent in German; he lived in the compound library assembling intelligence for forged documents the escapers would use to travel out of Germany.
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