By Stephen Dando-Collins; Read by Paul Woodson
Recorded Books, 2017; 8.25 hours
World War II prisoner-of-war escapes immediately conjure Hollywood images of captured but undefeated allied soldiers outsmarting their evil Hun overlords. Close, but now picture the prisoners half starved; unbathed with scruffy beards, long matted hair; and dirty, ragged clothes. Quite a different impression.
Paul Brickhill chronicled that war’s most famous POW break in his 1950 volume, The Great Escape, later morphed into the all-star 1963 film. Here, military historian Stephen Dando-Collins chronicles the even greater escape of American officers from German prison camp Oflag 64 in Schubin, Poland, a year before, which proved a development and testing ground for many of the methods for the clandestine digging and hiding of dirt, and shoring and ventilating tunnels employed by the multinational servicemen staging The Great Escape.
Dando-Collins follows a linear course beginning with an intricate escape plan via tunnel leading from one of the camp’s latrines—there’s no more powerful testament to the POW’s desperation than crawling through their own waste inch by putrid inch to construct a tunnel to freedom. It was impossible to clean clothes daily in a camp where bathing was luxury enough, leaving the tunnelers reeking of human excrement day and night.
American ingenuity was Herculean in these camps. Hiding tunnels from the Germans’ ever-prying eyes alone was a massive feat, but one marvels at prisoners’ creativity in manufacturing tools, lamps, and means for pumping fresh air underground as well as making civilian clothes to blend in with locals on the outside. Forging identification papers accurate enough to pass muster under Nazi scrutiny was perhaps the formidable task, but that, too, proved possible for the crafty yanks!
The narrative features players great and small working the tunnel scheme. On the eve of the break, non-participants abetted their colleagues by shifting into additional groups during the nightly prisoner count to fill in for the 36 men lying head to foot in the fetid, near suffocating 2.5′ high tunnel as darkness descended.
The dirty three dozen successfully emerged outside the camp fences and scurried into the adjoining wood, scattering in small groups. Despite a full night’s head-start, travelling on foot made for little progress—the terrain and the local pro-Nazi inhabitants proved formidable obstacles. Once the escapees’ absence was discovered they were caught quickly and returned to Schubin for a stay in the “cooler” (stockade). Undaunted, however, a brazen handful with tools still secreted on their persons picked cell-door locks and sawed through window bars to escape again! Alas, they were soon recaptured.
That bold endeavor, however, was not the “big break.” As the Russian army battled its way into German-occupied territory, the Nazi high command began marching prisoners en masse deeper into the homeland. A dozen or so guards overseeing roughly 1400 prisoners proved the ideal opportunity for the Schubinites to disappear individually or in small handfuls, some employing as near comical methods as hiding in haystacks after overnight stays in barns (guards firing machine guns into the hay scared many into abandoning their hideouts, but the brave few who held fast got away).
The Geneva Convention forbade ill treatment of POWs , but, not surprisingly, the Germans mistreated them, and many recaptured escapees were executed. Those fortunate few who broke free often were aided by defiant Poles willing to risk being imprisoned or shot.
Among the American ranks was Johnny Waters, General George Patton’s son-in-law. Always one for grandstanding, Patton ordered a small rescue party to free Waters, but the hounds traded roles with the fox, and many liberators were captured (some rescue, George!). Where Patton’s mission proved a three-star foul up, the advancing Russians succeeded, aiding numerous escapees encountered along the road and liberating hospitals and other locations housing Americans.
Ultimately, several hundred Schubinites broke free of the Germans and were returned home. Dando-Collins neatly recounts the major players’ fates—many resumed their civilian professions while several surprisingly remained in the military, continuing the effort to defeat Hitler. While not as flashy as The Great Escape, this story is a remarkable testament to the indomitable spirit of the oppressed to crush the oppressor. History lovers, WWII enthusiasts, and anyone enjoying true-life adventure will be riveted. —Mike Rogers