To Fight Another Day: PoWs and their ingenious escapes (Column: Bookends XLIV)

By Vikas Datta (09:54)

War or military fiction has been an integral part of literature across cultures – be the epics of Homer or Virgil, or closer to home, the great fratricidal war in the Mahabharata, or earlier, the tantalising reference to the Battle of the Ten Kings in the Rig Veda.
One of its most engrossing sub-genres – the prisoner of war (PoW) account – is just barely a century old but, in its limited existence, has earned quite a bit of fame – think of “The Colditz Story”, “King Rat”, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, “The Great Escape”, “Von Ryan’s Express”, “Faith of My Fathers” and the films they inspired.

If you think why they only date from the Second World War and after, taking PoWs is a far recent phenomenon than we think. It was only from the Napoleonic wars that captured soldiers could hope to be just imprisoned till cessation of hostilities, than the earlier fate of immediate slaughter or a lingering death as a slave. Humane treatment of PoWs only got its direct detailed look in the 1929 Geneva Convention.

PoWs in World War II still faced a wide spectrum of ill treatment – and the related literature, even of the Allied side, reflects this. Allied prisoners, apart from the Soviets, in German hands, faced a relatively easier time than their counterparts captured by the Japanese, who viewed surrender as dishonourable, and treated them most brutally.

In the first case the constant effort was escape, while in the second, it was to somehow carry on existence with escape anyway markedly difficult through the impassable, unhealthy jungle all around and then the impossibility of hiding among Asians. This wasn’t a problem for escaping prisoners in Europe, where there was possible aid from resistance movements, not to mention neutral territory like Sweden or Switzerland to head to.

Anyone interested in the topic couldn’t do worse than to start with the anecdotal, almost comic “The Colditz Story” (1952) by P.R. “Pat” Reid, the Ranchi-born son of an ICS officer, or “They Have Their Exits” by Airey Neave (later a Conservative MP until his assassination by the Irish terrorists in 1979), about the enterprising inmates of the supposedly-escape proof Colditz Castle in the heart of Nazi Germany.

Working on irrefutable logic that prisoners creating trouble in other camps by multiple attempts to escape should be segregated elsewhere, the German High Command had the unintended aim of getting some of the best brains – British and Commonwealth, French, Belgians, Dutch, and Poles, and after 1944, Americans – together to devise more successful escape plans. Both Reid, who was the coordinating “Escape Officer” after an unsuccessful escape attempt, and Neave were among those who successfully escaped and made their way back to England to continue the fight and have penned most readable accounts of their exploits.

Another classic of the genre is Eric Williams “The Wooden Horse” (1949).

Moved to “escape-resistant” Stalag Luft III camp for airmen, after an unsuccessful attempt from an earlier camp along with army Lt. Michael Codner (recounted in his own “The Tunnel” (1951), Flight Lt. Williams hit on a new plan to deal with problems of the distant perimeter fence, differing soils and the seismographs used by the Germans to detect tunneling – the vaulting horse.

This enabled the diggers to work closer to the fence while the thumps of the gymnasts nullified the sensors. Williams, Codner, and Oliver Philpot successfully escaped in October 1943 and made their way home through Sweden.

Williams wrote about his exploits as “Goon in the Block” (1945) but four years later rewrote it as a much longer and detailed but third-person narrative while changing his name to Peter Howard, Codner’s to John Clinton and Philpot’s to Philip Rowe.

In his most engrossing and absorbing account, Williams captures the varied mood – from resigned acceptance to constant defiance – and idiosyncrasies of the prisoners (eg. the one who likes to ‘torture’ himself by reading women authors, the one running an imaginary farm), the train of thought that leads him to his idea, the escape itself and the difficult way to the Baltic, and contacting the local resistance to get them aboard a Swedish freighter.

It was another compound of Stalag Luft III from where the mass escape of 76 Allied airmen, recounted by Australian fighter pilot Paul Brickhill in “The Great Escape” (1963) (subsequently a successful multi-starrer film), took place in early 1944.

Brickhill, who was part of the preparations but not the actual breakout due to his claustrophobia, paints a vivid picture of the attempt – the three tunnels named ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’, and the colourful band of escapers led by RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell and his team of forgers, map-makers and tailors.

The attempt did not end very happily – 73 were recaptured, of whom 50 were gunned down in cold blood by the Gestapo.

And then there were PoWs like the “Count of Auschwitz”, but this tale of a most intrepid soldier who continued his war even while in captivity, will have to wait for another time!

(14.12.2014 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

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