The Great Escape: A Canadian Story
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.
But how would the escape committee ever get hold of original visas, worker passes and identification papers? Enter the scrounger. Not James Garner, the American in the RAF, as the Hollywood movie suggests, but 26-year-old bomber pilot, Barry Davidson from Alberta. As a teenager, he’d talked his way into flying lessons at the Calgary Municipal Airport. With his pilot’s licence, he wrote to Chiang Kai-shek, who needed pilots for his Chinese Nationalist air force, to hire Davidson; the great general gratefully declined. Davidson was shot down and captured near Paris in 1940; because he “got claustrophobic digging in the tunnels” at Stalg Luft III, he turned to the procurement of documents from unsuspecting German prison guards. Pengelly described their fine art of fleecing. First, either Pengelly or Davidson would “borrow” the best contents from Red Cross parcels regularly sent to the POWs. He’d strike up a conversation, share a few snapshots of family with a friendly guard. Then when the Canadian knew his prey was about to take a leave, he would offer the bait-covered hook.
“How would you like to take some coffee home?” he’d ask the guard.
The German would jump at the chance. The Canadians knew the average German hadn’t tasted real coffee since 1936. “And some chocolate for your boy?”
The gift might draw the offer of a favour from the guard, such as, “Can I bring you anything from outside?”
“Yes, if you wouldn’t mind,” Pengelly or Davidson would say. “I’d like a hundred toothpicks.” Something inconsequential would be sufficient the first time, but it was oil for the machine. The process would be repeated until, having broken the rules a few times, the guard could be blackmailed into providing a camera, film or the short-term loan of ID papers or travel pass.
“It was the psychology of binding a man with a thread,” Pengelly said, “and gradually strengthening the thread until it was far easier to submit to our bondage than to rebel.” He could then take the product of the “tamed” guard to his forgery team (nearly 150 artists, cartoonists, calligraphers, draftsmen, mapmakers and printers) to build an inventory of faked documents, so that an escaper could pass unnoticed through a train station, a checkpoint or maybe even an international border. That was, of course, if the escaper didn’t have to say anything.
As Tony Pengelly had learned early in his imprisonment, successful escape was an enterprise achieved only by collective effort and attempted only when conditions were as close to perfect as possible. The escape committee reached those conditions the night of March 24-25, 1944, when 80 Commonwealth air force officers wriggled through nearly 400 feet of Tunnel “Harry” in just under eight hours, emerging and scattering unnoticed across the Polish countryside. Among them, Kidder, McGill and eight other Canadians escaped temporarily. Pengelly stayed behind to ensure that each escaper had the correct forged documents. Bartlett had passed his position on the escape list to a Norwegian more fluent in more languages than he. Meanwhile, Weir had been transferred from Stalag Luft III for medical treatment of burns, while Floody and Brown were purged to another camp just days before the escape. It saved their lives.
In the movie The Great Escape, at the climax of the motorcycle chase, a platoon of Germans overtakes Steve McQueen’s character in barbed wire near the Swiss border and harmlessly throws him in “the cooler” back at the POW camp. In truth, as many as 70,000 German troops and civilians were required to recapture all but three of the Great Escapers. Of the 77 Commonwealth air force officers who were tracked down, Hitler had 50 executed, including Kidder and McGill and four other Canadian escapers.
Those Canadian air officers, like others involved in The Real Great Escape, faced a deadlier fate than Hollywood scriptwriters, stuntmen or special effects editors were prepared to depict. Fortunately for history, however, Pengelly, Davidson, Bartlett and many other kriegies made it home to tell it the way it was.