Thursday 19 April 2018

Last Night's TV: Digging the Great Escape

Josephine Moulds enjoyed Channel 4's documentary about the daring escape from a WWII Prisoner of War camp

The story of the escape from Stalag Luft III is almost unfathomable to modern ears in peace time. Under the noses of Nazi guards, with no tools, allied airmen dug their way out of a supposedly escape-proof camp.

Their tunnels, one which reached a length of 100 metres, were equipped with electric lighting and ventilated by a hand operated pump. But the escape had to take them further than beyond the barbed wire, and men in the camp also forged documents, again with home-made tools, to escape across Europe.

While we know the story well from Steve McQueen's exploits in The Great Escape, this thrilling documentary from Channel 4 went some way to explaining the minutiae of this extraordinary operation.

That said, the archaeological strand of the programme was desperately dull. It takes a lot to make archaeology exciting, and all the jazzy music in the world could not liven up scenes of diggers scraping over faint outlines of what may or may not have been the shaft of a tunnel.

Happily, the producers had also tasked a team of RAF men to try and re-enact the escape, equipped only with the few objects the Prisoners of War had. Of course, the PoWs had done the hard work, coming up with ingenious ideas, using milk cans as ventilation shafts, fashioning glue from tree sap, and a saw from the spring inside a gramophone.

Even then, today’s airmen struggled to replicate the operation and their difficulties showed just how remarkable it was that 76 men managed to escape on the night of 24 March 1944.

But the real gems came from the Prisoners of War themselves. Frank Stone, a spry 89-year-old, remembered the camp. “It was surrounded by pine trees,” he said. “I hate the smell of pine even today.”

He came along to see how the RAF team had got along with building the equipment used in the escape, and took a ride on the trolley they build to travel the tunnels. “Home James!” he cried.

Of course, he wasn’t among the escapees. A staggering 73 of the 76 men who got out that night were recaptured and 50 of them executed on orders from Hitler himself. But this remarkable operation was not completely in vain, as the Nazis wasted precious time pursuing the escapees.

This programme shows the effort that went in to achieving that goal. And it can’t help but make you wonder if they were made of sterner stuff in those days

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