Stirring lessons from heroes of ‘The Great Escape’
If you go to the Ditsong National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg, you’ll find a diorama of a prisoner of war (PoW) camp - that looks like a mine because of the shaft that runs downwards - at the far end of one of the indoor display halls.
There is a switch on the side. Press it and the shaft lights up. It’s Harry, one of three tunnels - the others were Tom and Dick - that ran down and then across before emerging in the woods beyond the fence that runs around the perimeter of the camp.
The camp was Stalag Luft III, a German PoW camp in Poland.
On Sunday night, 75 years ago, 76 Allied aircrew officers went almost 9m down and out the other side - 73 of them were caught; 50 were then taken and shot by the German Gestapo on Adolf Hitler’s orders - in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention.
Those of us of a certain era and disposition know it as “The Great Escape”, which became immortalised in the classic 1963 film of the same name, starring Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen, among others.
Three South African Air Force officers - Lieutenants Johannes Gouws, Rupert Stevens and Neville McGarr - were the among the 50 shot.
The most important South African connection, though, was Roger Bushell, the South African- born RAF squadron leader known as “Big X”, who had planned the mass escape - which if the original 200 PoWs had made it, would have been the biggest ever, and both a major psychological blow and a massive headache for Nazi Germany in 1944, with just over a year left for World War II to run.
He was murdered, too.
The executions were war crimes.
After the Nazis capitulated, the British took three years to identify the 72 Gestapo members involved.
Eventually, 21 would be hanged.
It’s an event that’s paled into insignificance by the war crimes that have been committed since the end of World War II.
The irony, 75 years later, is that the airmen (for they were all men) didn’t have to escape.
Stalag Luft III was by the standards of the time a very comfortable PoW camp.
As officers, they weren’t forced to work like the other ranks, who did manual labour.
By the standards of PoW camps in the Far East or later in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, conditions were almost halcyon.
Yet they were determined to escape, to get back to Britain - which was difficult - and continue fighting if they could, or join the various resistance movements and fight from there.
As Bushell told them before they began the mammoth 15-month task to dig out the 102m tunnel using hand-made tools: “Everyone here is living on borrowed time. By rights we should all be dead. The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life was to make life hell for the Hun.”
Perhaps that’s the problem with the world. We should be all be fighting oppression. We don’t, because we’re too comfortable - and not directly affected.
More’s the pity.
* Kevin Ritchie is a media consultant. He is a former journalist and newspaper editor.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.