The Great Escapes of World War II
The Great Escapes of World War II (1997) Produced and directed by Robert Kirk, this documentary has two volumes:
- Vol. 1: Escape from Stalag Luft III, Sagan, March 1944 This documentary begins with an explanation of the British escape ethos: that it was a game, sport, or school prank that POWs played on their captors, and that the British never expected to be harmed past what Geneva 1929 specified, perhaps some time in solitary confinement upon recapture but nothing more. Thus, the British POWs in Germany had no fear of escaping and spent a great deal of time working on detailed plans to escape on grand scales. Such was the case in Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Silesia (now Zagan, Poland), a huge Luftwaffe camp for Allied fliers that in 1943 held over 10,000 POWs including a growing number of Americans. The German Air Force believed that Stalag Luft III was escape proof; they knew the British preferred tunneling, and they knew that beneath the surface soft yellow sand would damage any chance tunnelers had to dig out properly. The German camp authorities were wrong.
In April 1943, the British prisoners, along with the Americans in the compound, had organized this camp with precision. Special emphasis was accorded the escape or “X” organization headed by Roger Bushell who decided to dig three tunnels at once -- code named Tom, Dick, and Harry -- in order to get 200 officers out at the same time. It was a daring plan. By accident, the Germans discovered the first, nearly completed, tunnel and destroyed it. Bushell’s men then turned to Harry, the longest effort, using the other remaining tunnel as a storage space for the sand.
On March 24, 1944, the X Committee selected thirty officers and then drew lots for the next 170 escapers. The escape began well, but several difficulties, including cave-ins here and there, slowed down the movement from entry to escape hole at the tunnel’s end. Nevertheless, 76 British and Commonwealth officers escaped Stalag Luft III. Although most were recaptured in short order, three officers actually returned to England, a Dutch pilot and two Norwegians. Of the recaptured RAF officers, the Gestapo executed fifty on orders from SS headquarters in Berlin, and several were sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp for the rest of the war.
- Vol. 2: Escape from Arizona Although the title of this documentary indicates that it concerns Germans in American captivity during World War II, it begins with tales from the French Resistance, escape lines operated by civilians, and the RAF Flight 161 Special Squadron that flew in and took out spies (members of the British Special Operations Executive), escapers, and evaders to and from England. The documentary emphasizes that, in France, working in the Resistance and assisting Allied airmen on the run carried a death sentence from the Gestapo. Nevertheless, men and women resisted occupation and performed this dangerous but necessary work for the honor of France.
The documentary then turns to the German POW escape from Papago Park,
Phoenix, New Mexico, on Christmas Eve of 1944. Essentially, the Americans
employed the Afrika Korps and German submariners as a substitute labor force
mostly in agriculture and forestry. By so doing, many German POWs made
contact with American civilians, and many got along very well. German naval
officers understood escape to be a duty, just as the Allied officers did.
Under the influence and leadership of Captain Jürgen Wattenberg, a senior
ranking officer at the Papago Park camp, 25 German naval officers dug a tunnel,
commonly known as the Faustball Tunnel, on December 24, 1944. All were
recaptured in short order except for Captain Wattenberg, who lived in a cave
outside the camp. He then walked into downtown Phoenix, slept in a hotel
lobby, and was recaptured shortly thereafter. Jürgen Wattenberg was
repatriated in 1946 along with the other German POWs in America,
went into the beer business in Hamburg, and died at 95 years of age in
1995. Other members of the Faustball escape team later joined the
post-war German Navy and served honorably until their retirement.
Robert C. Doyle Franciscan University of Steubenville firstname.lastname@example.org