25 November 2014

The Great Escape

Winds were gusting at 94 kilometers/hour last night.  Signs were blown away, my neighbour's roof has a bare spot were some shingles should be, and the power was flickering at our house.  'An excellent night to hazard the drive to listen to a speaker at the library' said her foolhardy husband.

Ted Barris is a professor of journalism at Centennial College and what lucky students they are to have such a passionate man head their class.

For almost two hours, Barris had an entire room captivated by his telling of an historically significant event that, thanks to Hollywood, many of us were led to believe was masterminded by Americans.  In fact, Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, James Garner, etc...were portraying Canadian officers.

'On the night of March 24, 1944, eighty airmen crawled through a 400-foot-long tunnel, code-named "Harry," and dashed from Stalag Luft III, the infamous WWII German POW camp.  It became known as The Great Escape.  The breakout took a year to plan, involved 2,000 POWs, and prompted a massive manhunt across occupied Europe.  All but three escapers were recaptured; on Hitler's orders fifty were murdered.'

Mr Barris interviewed the widows and relatives of the key players and the book features many photographs and letters previously stored in suitcases and closets.  Pointing out a letter one officer sent to his wife asking for yet another pair of pyjamas made us laugh when Barris asked the men in the group how many pairs of pyjamas they would go through in one year.  The men digging the tunnel were taking off their uniforms so they wouldn't be caught outside full of yellow dust from the sand.  Instead, they dug in the nude or wearing pyjamas which could be hidden easily.  Another letter asked for as many gramophone needles as could be spared.  The Germans prided themselves on allowing cultural activities and a gramophone was allowed so the prisoners could enjoy music; the needles were being used for something completely different.

The ingenious resourcefulness of this group of men is astounding and we have to remember that many of them were in their early to mid-twenties.  An air duct along the tunnel was constructed by soldering together KLIM cans stolen from the garbage heap.  KLIM spelled backwards is milk and the alternative was a powder to which water was added.  Stamps to be used on forged travel documents were carved into the heels of boots.  It seems there was nothing these men couldn't create.

Afterwards, most of us in the room lined up to buy a book and meet the author and I am so glad that we ventured out on such an awful night.  The Great Escape: The Untold Story would make a WWII enthusiast or Canadian history buff quite happy this Christmas.


  1. Shame on us for stealing your heroes! I've started reading more history because of passionate writers -- it has to be such an added bonus to hear them talk about their work.

    1. Mr Barris started off his talk by asking if there were any Americans in the room - which, as you can imagine, made everyone laugh. With a population ten times smaller than that of the States we need every single one of our hero stories to stay true blue!

  2. I love the movie, but as an Australian, I remember that James Coburn's Australian accent in the movie is laughable. It is good to hear the true story.

    1. Why, oh why, do directors allow actors make a complete mess of accents? Actually, there was a Commonwealth barracks so it just may be that Coburn's character was indeed an Australian, but surely there must have been a native actor who could have fit the bill!