Page 55

Old Trafford, in Manchester, is well known for its cricket, but they also play soccer there. It’s October 2001 and England are playing Greece in the last game of their World Cup qualification campaign. They need a draw to go through, but trail 2:1 and the game is very nearly over. In stoppage time, the Greeks concede a free kick 30 yards from goal. Cometh the hour, cometh the man… David Beckham places the ball carefully, and then, with characteristic style, he curls it around the defensive wall, beyond the despairing keeper and into the corner of the net. Its 2:2 and England are going to the World Cup. At this, 65,000 ecstatic England fans do something as inevitable as it is understandable: they break into a spontaneous a cappella version of Elmer Bernstein’s stirring theme to The Great Escape, punching the air for emphasis as they sing. Why, you may ask - for over half a century, The Great Escape has been deeply embedded in the English psyche; it serves as a short hand for courage in the face of adversity and victory against the odds. It’s also comforting because it brings to mind, in a nostalgic and harmless way, what it means to be English, or British, when so much is now uncertain. They all have a brilliant Australian storyteller by the name of Paul Chester Brickhill to thank for this. Paul Brickhill was a Melbourne-born journalist who worked successfully on a newspaper in Sydney. In January 1941, Brickhill volunteered for the Royal Australian Air Force and two years later he was flying Spitfires with the RAF in Tunisia. In March 1943, Flying Officer Brickhill was shot down, taken Prisoner of War and transported to Stalag Luft III, the “escape-proof” camp at Sagan in Silesia. He was one of over 800 Australian Air Force prisoners held by the Germans during the war. While there, Brickhill was recruited by the “X” Organisation orchestrating the mass break-out from the camp. The Australian suffered from claustrophobia, which prevented him from tunnelling or escaping himself, and was instead employed co-ordinating a team of look-outs or “Stooges”. Brickhill’s real value, however, was as the historian of the extraordinary events unfolding above and below ground. His journalist’s eye for detail and descriptive powers were brought to bear; and like a bard in ancient times, he wandered about the camp committing to memory the experiences and impressions he could not yet commit to paper. Squadron Leader Roger Joyce Bushell was a man you don’t meet every day. Born in South Africa, Bushell was a charismatic and successful lawyer who before the war flew with the socially exclusive Auxiliary Air Force. In May 1940, his Spitfire was shot down over Dunkirk and he was captured. Bushell made two unsuccessful bids for freedom; and after the latter attempt, he witnessed the brutality of the Nazis first hand, when a family sheltering him in Czechoslovakia was betrayed to the Gestapo and executed. Bushell’s interrogation was harsh and he arrived at Stalag Luft III knowing that if he escaped again, and was recaptured, he, too, would be executed. Those that knew him saw that Bushell had changed: he appeared driven, brooding and even a little sinister. Brickhill for his part remembered him as: ‘…a big, tempestuous man, with broad shoulders and the most chilling pale-blue eyes I ever saw.’ Although he was a marked man, Bushell, hated Nazism and was determined to hit back hard. He was a natural leader and as “Big X” he now harnessed the talents of the most committed and enterprising officers to an escape attempt more ambitious than any seen before. Bushell’s aim was to humiliate the Germans by getting over 200 POWS out of the high-security camp. He also intended to cause as much disruption in the Third Reich as possible, forcing the enemy to divert valuable resources to hunting for the escapees. The facts of The Great Escape are well known. For over a year, 600 British, Commonwealth, European and American officers worked on the project and three tunnels, code-named ‘Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry” were dug using improvised tools. The tunnels,

PETER DEVITT, CURATOR ROYAL AIR FORCE MUSEUM

each 30 feet deep, were served by underground railways, illuminated by electric lights and ventilated by simple but effective air pumps. Some 200 tons of bright yellow sand were removed from the tunnels and dispersed via the trouser legs of men codenamed “Penguins”. Although only tunnel “Harry” was completed, it represented an extraordinary engineering achievement extending nearly 350 feet. Recognising this, the “X” Organisation commissioned Flight Lieutenant Bennett Ley Kenyon, a talented artist from London, to produce a visual record of the digging. The drawings he executed underground are proudly held by the Royal Air Force Museum. As “Harry“ was inching towards the perimeter wire, a team of forgers was busy producing 400 high-quality fake passes, while other specialists were manufacturing 1,000 maps and 250 compasses. At the same time, a tailoring concern was turning battle dress and blankets into convincing German uniforms and civilian clothing. Individual guards were selected to be bribed or blackmailed into providing items the POWS couldn’t make themselves; and one or two anti-Nazi guards were identified who bravely offered to help. All the while, a sophisticated security network, employing 300 “Stooges”, kept the whole operation secret. Even today, the ambition, ingenuity and sheer audacity of the Great Escape remains impressive. On the night of 24/25 March 1944, 76 captive air force officers escaped from Stalag Luft III through Tunnel “Harry”. All were volunteers and most were chosen by lot. Within a few days, 73 had been recaptured and 50 of the men, representing 12 nations, were coldly murdered by the Gestapo in defiance of the Geneva Convention. This was done on Hitler’s express order because the Fuhrer had taken the mass-escape very personally. The elaborate provocation Roger Bushell had masterminded caused the Nazi mask to slip exposing the savage nature of the regime. Bushell was counted among the dead. Only three of the escapees - Norwegians Sergeant Per Bergsland and Second Lieutenant Jens Muller and Flight Lieutenant Bram van der Stock from the Netherlands - managed to evade capture and make “Home Runs” back to Britain. News of the murders soon filtered out and after the war, most of the guilty were brought to justice. Brickhill covered the Nuremburg Trials as a reporter and, in 1950, his book The Great Escape was published to popular and critical acclaim, selling five million copies. It was translated into 12 languages and is still in print. In 1963, John Sturges’ star-studded Hollywood film brought Brickhill’s inspirational story to a worldwide audience. Notwithstanding Steve McQueen’s fictitious motorcycle chase and James Coburn’s memorable Australian accent, the film is surprisingly accurate. The Great Escape is still shown on TV in Britain over Christmas and the theme tune was adopted by football crowds at some point in the 1980s. As an aside, Paul Brickhill also wrote The Dam Busters, his account of 617 Squadron’s astonishing attacks on the Ruhr hydro-electric dams, and Reach for the Sky, the biography of the brave and controversial, fighter ace, Group Captain Douglas Bader. Both books were also hugely popular and both in turn became successful feature films. It is interesting to speculate what the impact on British and Commonwealth culture would have been if Brickhill had not been claustrophobic, and had been able to escape through the tunnel into the hands of the Gestapo executioners. The Great Escape is an inspirational story about people from all over the world fighting together against tyranny, and refusing to give into that tyranny. It means as much today as it ever did.  n

Profile for The Last Post Magazine

The Last Post Magazine Anzac Day 2019  

In 2019 TLP editor Greg T Ross visited Japan under the Japan-Australia Grassroots Exchange Programme. To commemorate the visit and the prog...

The Last Post Magazine Anzac Day 2019  

In 2019 TLP editor Greg T Ross visited Japan under the Japan-Australia Grassroots Exchange Programme. To commemorate the visit and the prog...

Advertisement