Skip to comments.The Great Escape
Posted on 07/24/2014 7:34:50 PM PDT by Kaslin
Seventy years agoJuly 23, 1944signs suddenly appeared at prisoner of war camps in Germany: ESCAPE FROM PRISON CAMPS IS NO LONGER A SPORT.
Those signs meant the Gestapo had murdered 50 escapees from Stalag Luft III. A terrific film you might watch this summer, The Great Escape (1963), commemorates that heroic-turned-tragic adventure. Lets review the reality, the movie, and the metaphor.
The reality: A 33-year-old British air force squadron leader, Roger Bushell, organized the great escape. As Big X of the camp escape committee, he proposed that the prisoners dig not one but three tunnelsTom, Dick, and Harryso if prison guards discovered one, others could be continued.
Bushells goal was 200 escapees. When warned that embarrassed Germans would take revenge on those caught after such a large foray, he said, Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time. By rights we should all be dead! It was to fight Nazis to the utmost, he added, that God allowed us this extra ration of life.
Guards discovered one tunnel, but 76 prisoners got out through another. Only three eventually made it to freedom outside Germany, and Bushell was one of the 50 shot, contrary to the Geneva Convention. After the war, 21 Germans eventually paid for this war crime (and others they had committed) by forfeiting their own lives.
The movie: Great characters include Capt. Virgil Hilts, played by Steve McQueen, who tries escape after escape and ends up each time in solitary confinement, tossing a baseball against a wall. The prisoners enjoy camaraderie as they find devious ways to fool their common enemy, the German jailers, and they also sacrifice themselves for each other: Hilts goes out individually and lets himself be caught so he can bring back information that will make possible the large escape.
The philosophical question of the movie comes in dialogue between Roger Bartlett, the character modeled on Roger Bushell, and Group Captain Ramsey, the limping senior British officer at the camp, modeled on Stalag Luft IIIs real-life Herbert Massey, who had lost half his leg. Ramsey asks Bartlett concerning his massive escape plan, Have you thought of what it might cost? Bartlett responds, Ive thought of the humiliation if we just knuckle under and crawl. Surely, you dont advocate that, do you?
Ramsey then points out that Stalag life could be worse: No matter how unsatisfactory this camp may be, the High Command have still left us in the hands of the Luftwaffe. Not the Gestapo and the SS. Bartlett responds, You talk about the High Command and the Luftwaffe, and then you talk about the Gestapo and the SS. To me, theyre the same! the common enemies of everyone who believes in freedom.
Ramsey lets the escape go on, and later tells a survivor reeling from news of the murder of 50, Rogers idea was to get back at the enemy the hardest way he could, mess up the works. He did exactly that. Asked the hard questionDo you think it was worth the price?Ramsey responds, Depends on your point of view.
The metaphor: C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, which he developed as BBC radio talks during World War II, wrote, Enemy-occupied territorythat is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.
Up until World War I, many in England and America were postmillennialists. Viewing Europes material progress and general peace, they thought a great society was comingand Christ would then return and reign. World War I killed most of that sanguinity and a repeat 21 years later wiped clean the rest. Those who read Lewis could readily believe that Satan, by Gods leave, dominates this world like the Nazis for four years ran Europe. The Christian task is to mess up satanic works.
I have no indication that the screenwriter and director of The Great Escape were applying Lewis, but I cannot avoid doing so: We are called to spiritual guerrilla warfare. We may die in the process, but well say to Christ what another captured escapee says to Bartlett a moment before they die: Tunneling kept me alive. Ive never been happier.
The Air Force Museum in Dayton had an exhibit a while ago (may still be there) contrasting life as an prisoner in Germany, versus the same in Japan.
...while Germany wasn’t great, it was VERY PAINFUL to read (and see the display).
I was in Sagan Poland a couple of years ago. They have a small museum there and I believe a replica or rebuilt camp there too. The problem was, I didn’t know it was there at the time, even though I posed on the motorcycle sculpture they had in the town square. I wondered as to what was the reason it was placed there and what was it’s meaning. About a couple of months later I received a MOAA magazine with an article about the camp and then it hit me, it was about the guy who escaped with one. (Steve McQueen portrayed him}
Before the movie was made and when Reagan hosted GE Theater on TV. A depiction was done of this story which featured all Brit cast by GE with that production company.
One of those movies that whenever I come across it playing on the TV, I stop what I’m doing and sit down to watch it.
Still one of my and my kid’s favorite movies.
Thank you for a powerful, little article that is well worth reading.
“The Great Escape” movie doesn’t emphasize one of the main motives for escape: hunger. The book does, but even so, POWs in German-occupied territory weren’t starving in the summer of 1944 the way they were that winter - a particularly cold one - and into 1945, as Allied bombing and ground occupation made Red Cross food deliveries impossible.
The museum mentioned that things got worse for the prisoners in Germany towards the end...as would be expected when the country is losing the war.
The prisoners from the camp of “The Great Escape” were marched out in the winter as the Russian army closed in; many died from the cold or starvation or were killed. At some other camps, the prisoners refused to leave, informing the guards that they were way outnumbered!
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