E is for Escapes as I remember “Escapes from Prisoner of War camps” when I think of the letter “E” today. As a kid, I read as many books about the Second World War as I could. I particularly loved Paul Brickhill’s “Reach For The Sky” the story of Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader, the legless fighter hero of the Royal Air Force. I was totally impressed that even after he was shot down over France and taken prisoner by the Germans, he continued to harass them in ways he could as he believed it was the duty of every POW to do his best to escape. Bader couldn’t do much because of his disability in the actual digging of tunnels but he was vociferous in what was called “goon baiting.”
As an airman who was shot down to become a POW himself, Brickhill wrote “The Great Escape” which story became perhaps the best known escape attempt of the Second World War. Here, Allied POWS made a break from Stalag Luft III in Poland and in an incident that became notorious, 50 of the recaptured POWs were shot by the Germans. This story, adapted to the big screen became the hit movie ” The Great Escape” starring amongst others James Garner, Richard Attenborough, and Steve McQueen.
The biggest challenge for escaping prisoners of war was to have adequate documentation which could stand scrutiny in the many check points they would come across. It was also imperative that they knew some rudimentary German, Belgian or French, depending on where they were held captive. Some prisoners developed the skill of masterfully forging essential documents like ID cards and the like. Many of these were so well crafted that they passed muster on many occasions and were accepted by the checking German troops.
The escaping prisoners also needed maps to know where they were and the routes to take to get them to the nearest border, usually Switzerland and Spain. They needed clothes that would pass off as civilian wear. These were service uniforms converted by the prisoners themselves. The business of escaping brought out many talents amongst the POWs, some became specialists in forgery, while others drew maps, stitched clothes and taught languages.
The stories of escaping prisoners taught me that the war doesn’t end even when one is held captive. Many brave men died in their attempts to break free. A few got away, many didn’t but their escapes are still part of the war legends.