In this detailed and tautly written account, Guy Walters daringly takes a wrecker’s ball to that treasured national icon, the Great Escape. It is a heroic historical endeavour because the myth of the escape is hard-wired into the British consciousness, if only by virtue of the fact that the movie version of the story – filmed in Germany fifty years ago – has become a staple of Christmas family television. The Great Escape, with its star-spattered cast, its jaunty theme tune and the outrageously unhistorical motorbike antics of Steve McQueen, almost makes POW life resemble the sitcom ’Allo ’Allo! set in a Butlins holiday camp. Even the massacre of most of the characters at the end feels like the grim afterthought of a relentlessly upbeat story.
The life of a prisoner of war, Walters makes abundantly clear, was at best miserable, at worst hell on earth. Yet underfed, bored, and far from home and loved ones though they were, the majority of POWs opted to sit it out waiting for the war to end, feeling that they had done their bit; the cramped surroundings of the camp huts were preferable to the even closer confinement of an escapers’ tunnel or the cockpit of a bomber plane. Only the adventurous minority tried to get out and back into the war.