Was the Great Escape a Reckless Mistake?

Is it heresy to suggest the daring breakout from Stalag Luft III was a moment of near-madness?

Stalag Luft III, site of the Great Escape

Forget the famous film starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough. Forget the jingoistic pride we feel for our brave Allied soldiers digging for victory. Let's ask the central question: was the Great Escape actually a foolish, reckless undertaking?

Sunday 9th June at 9pm

YES IT WAS

"The Great Escape was almost a suicide mission." That's according to one of the top experts on the subject: historian Guy Walters, author of The Real Great Escape. And this is the crux of the matter. The Great Escape was not "great". It was almost insanely dangerous, it was a massive failure, and it resulted in mass murder, with almost all of the escapees being re-captured, and 50 of them executed.

The tragic thing is that the man in charge of the escape would have known the odds were utterly against them, and that the punishment would be severe. Yet he went ahead and did it anyway.

That man was Roger Bushell, the basis for the character played by Richard Attenborough in the film. Bushell was a natural leader: brave, charismatic, attractive, he'd been a competitive skier before the war, and a bold combatant when conflict commenced. You can see why he's been immortalised. But let's be blunt: it was Bushell's vanity, his obsessive desire to hit back against the Germans, which led to the deaths of the escapees.

"Privately, some PoWs had doubts about the escape," Guy Walters says, "with one calling it an 'act of military madness' that served no purpose other than to satisfy Bushell's ego." And what about the idea that POWs had a "duty to escape"? According to historians like Guy Walters, this is an "enduring myth". There was actually no such official duty. Yes, officers were expected to consider escaping where possible, but nowhere was it written that they had to do it in the face of incredible odds and incredible danger.

"Two-thirds of POWs had little interest in breaking out," Guy Walters tells us. Many were actively annoyed at what was happening, and were frankly exhausted by the whole prospect. Especially as life in the camp was actually fairly tolerable most of the time, with the Luftwaffe generally showing respect for their prisoners.

It's important to remember that Bushell had already escaped from German camps before. The last time he was on the run, he'd taken refuge with a sympathetic Czech family who were brutally murdered after being found out by the Nazis.

This instilled in Bushell a passionate desire for revenge. He wasn't about to sit around Stalag Luft III, waiting for the war to end. He wanted to mount a breakout big enough to annoy and antagonise the Germans, despite having actually been warned that he would be shot if he escaped again.

Even the German officers were concerned, telling the POWs that they would be at the mercy of the Gestapo if they were caught. The usual cat-and-mouse game playing of POWs escaping and being given a slap on the wrist wouldn't apply any more. Bushell knew that. But Bushell didn't care. He ploughed on, compelling his men to follow him into near certain death. Fifty of them, including Bushell himself, paid the price for what was a disastrously misguided mission.

NO IT WASN'T

Yes, the Great Escape resulted in mass killings. But that was because the Nazis completely violated the rules of warfare. The executions were acts of cold-blooded murder which came as a shock to the world. So it's completely unfair to blame Bushell and his fellow escapees for mounting a "suicide" mission. Even if they WERE warned about the Gestapo, the sheer bloodthirsty brutality of the outcome could not have been foreseen.

Let's also remind ourselves of a very basic fact: this was war. The biggest war ever to befall the Earth. Of course it was dangerous. The men knew this. They knew what was at stake. These weren't ordinary prisoners, they were battle-hardened warriors who had already risked their lives many times over. So it's downright patronising to suggest they were somehow misled into the Great Escape against their better judgment.

Bushell himself summed up the situation and mentality well when he said of the POWs, "by rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun."

As for Bushell himself? He was adored by many soldiers. One POW, left behind when the escape was cut short, called Bushell "the bravest man I ever knew". Another soldier wrote that Bushell was "one of the greatest men of his generation that I have ever known."

That's the kind of man he was. Bold, yes. Over-ambitious, certainly. Yet that's what war sometimes calls for. He and his fellow escapees had the courage to "make life hell" for the enemy no matter the cost. Isn't that something to be admired?