8 Real Escapes from the Second World War Make Hollywood Movies Look Tame
8 Real Escapes from the Second World War Make Hollywood Movies Look Tame

8 Real Escapes from the Second World War Make Hollywood Movies Look Tame

Larry Holzwarth - November 30, 2017

Escaping prisoners of war enduring heart in the throat tension as they first slip away from their captors and then use guile and cunning to elude pursuit, eventually finding their way to safety, have been dramatized in novel and film to the point of becoming cliché. In reality many of the most heart pounding escapes have been forgotten. Allied prisoners of war completed many escapes which have never merited the dramatic license of Hollywood, yet contain all of the drama and climactic scenes of those created for the screen.

World War II saw many attempts at escape which were aided and abetted by organizations which were created for the purpose. Allied organizations manufactured and provided escape aids through the assistance of relief packages distributed by international aid organizations created for the purpose. Maps, money, compasses, and other items of use to escaping prisoners were covertly distributed to POWs. Underground groups developed safe house and escape routes to help POWs on the run from their captors regain their freedom. But above all it required the courage, planning, and determination of the escapee to endure the hardships and dangers of life as a desperately sought for fugitive to ensure a successful escape from captivity.

8 Real Escapes from the Second World War Make Hollywood Movies Look Tame
British POWs photographed at Stalag VIII in Poland. Wikipeddia

The allied command considered the temporary freedom from captivity to be a successful escape since it forced the enemy to expend manpower to recapture a prisoner. But to the POW a successful escape was the safe return to home and loved ones. By their standard, here are some successful escapes from captivity by POWs during World War II.

8 Real Escapes from the Second World War Make Hollywood Movies Look Tame
French General and two-time escapee from a POW camp – in two wars – Henri Giraud in conversation with FDR at Casablanca in 1943. Wikimedia

Henri Giraud. Konigstein Castle

During the First World War French captain Henri Giraud was seriously wounded in battle and abandoned by his comrades on the field, leading to his capture by the Germans. After partially recovering from his wounds in a POW camp he escaped and made his way towards Allied lines disguising himself as a laborer for the circus, presenting himself to inquisitive authorities as being not quite right in the head.

Eventually he made contact with British nurse Edith Cavell (who helped over 200 prisoners escape during the war before being shot) who helped Giraud to freedom. Having thus acquired what should have been enough adventures for a lifetime, Giraud remained in the French Army between the wars and by the time World War II began was a senior commander of French troops on the Western Front.

During the Battle of France Giraud was again captured by German troops after attempting to block the initial thrust of the German Army through the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. Prior to his capture Giraud had ordered the execution by firing squad of two German soldiers who had been captured wearing civilian clothes by troops under his command. The Germans tried him for this act, but he was acquitted and sent to a high security POW facility for senior officers, a mountaintop stronghold near Dresden, Germany called Konigstein Castle.

For the next two years Giraud occupied his time by learning to speak German, obtaining maps of the area, and preparing a homemade rope made from twisted bedding, old clothes, bits of rope, and copper wire. He informed friends and family of his plans through coded messages in his letters home, and in 1942 he descended the nearly sheer cliff below the castle using his rope.

The British Special Operations Executive had been informed of his plans and had an agent present in nearby Schandau to assist the French general. Through the assistance of the SOE and the French Resistance Giraud reached Switzerland and eventually Vichy France, where the collaborationist government rejected German demands that he be returned to prison, aware of the attitude of the French populace towards his heroic actions. Giraud remained a hero of France for the remainder of his life, despite the jealousy and suspicion of deGaulle, whom he joined at the Casablanca Conference with Churchill and FDR. Giraud eventually wrote a book entitled Mes Evasions (My Escapes) in 1946. He died in France in 1949.

8 Real Escapes from the Second World War Make Hollywood Movies Look Tame
Restored by an Englishman in the 19th century, Castle Vincigliata housed English prisoners of the Italians in WW2. Wikipedia

James Hargest. Castle Vincigliata, Italy

Castle Vincigliata near Florence, Italy is a 13th century castle which had fallen to ruins before being rebuilt in the mid-1800s by an Englishman. During the Second World War the Italian Army used the castle to hold what were considered distinguished British officer and non-commissioned officer prisoners of war, designating the site Camp 12. Several escape attempts were made from this facility during the Second World War. In 1943 British prisoners dug a tunnel which originated in a former chapel and connected in places with subterranean shafts which had existed since the 13th century. Six officers successfully exited the Camp using the tunnel, four of whom were soon recaptured by Italian or German authorities.

The two remaining escapees were Brigadier Reginald Miles and Brigadier James Hargest. Both natives of New Zealand, the officers traveled together using forged papers to obtain rail tickets to near the border with neutral Switzerland. Aware that their false documents were good enough to fool the somewhat less diligent attention of local Italian authorities but not that of Swiss border guards, they left the train on which they had traveled and covered the final few miles to the Swiss border on foot.

Once they were safely in Switzerland the pair separated. Miles sent a coded message back to friends in Camp 12, informing them of the successful escape. Hargest traveled to Lucerne, Miles to Figueras, where he, overly depressed, committed suicide according to Swiss documents.

Hargest solicited the help of the French Resistance to help him trek across the south of France to Spain. He arrived in Barcelona, after a harrowing and difficult journey, where the British consulate arranged for his return to England. In December 1943, nine months after exiting the Italian tunnel, he was back in the British Isles.

He was awarded a CBE, wrote a book chronicling his successful escape, and returned to active service. In 1944 he began working with a unit designed to help transition newly freed POWs back into service. He was killed in August 1944 during the Battle of Normandy by German shell-fire and buried in France.

8 Real Escapes from the Second World War Make Hollywood Movies Look Tame
Colditz Castle looms over the town market. The Germans considered Colditz to be escape-proof. Wikipedia

Airey Neave. Colditz Castle, Germany

Airey Neave was a British officer serving in the Royal Engineers when he was captured by the Germans in France in May 1940. He proved to be a slippery prisoner to hold onto and after his several failed attempts to escape back to England (lacking proper travel papers and disguise) the Germans sent him to their equivalent of a maximum security facility for POWs – Colditz Castle in Saxony – officially known as Oflag IV-C. Neave made another attempted from escape from Colditz in late 1941, failing to clear the grounds of the camp before detection by the German guards.

The failed escape served the purpose of both identifying weaknesses in the German security and better means of exploiting them. Neave joined with a fellow POW, an officer of the Dutch Army named Antony Luyten, to prepare more accurately detailed German uniforms and a better route out of the Castle complex and by January 1942 they were ready to make their break.

Both escapees wore three sets of clothes, their own uniforms covered by civilian clothes, these covered by the uniforms of officers of their German guards, and exited through a trap door in the camp theater into the German guardhouse. There the enlisted off-duty Germans routinely sprang to attention as the pair of “officers” passed through before exiting the compound through an outdoor exercise park, lightly guarded.

Shedding their German uniforms they traveled by train to Leipzig, working their way towards Switzerland. In Augsberg they were arrested by local police; they escaped after the police took them to a local union hall to check on their story that they were Dutch union workers in the area. After fleeing on foot they worked their way to near the Swiss border.

Stopped again by suspicious German workers, they again managed to escape and survived the last few days of their journey on chocolate and the water from chewing snowballs. Spotted near the border, they sprinted the last few yards to Switzerland. Both made it. Airey Neave returned to England and joined MI9, the British Intelligence executive responsible for developing escape aids for captured Allied airmen. After the war he became a prominent politician in the United Kingdom. He was assassinated by a car bomb in March 1979, an act for which the Irish National Liberation Army claimed responsibility.

8 Real Escapes from the Second World War Make Hollywood Movies Look Tame
Bram van der Stok, the most decorated pilot in Dutch Aviation history, escaped from StalagLuft III. Wikipedia

Bram van der Stok. Stalag Luft III

Stalag Luft III was a German prisoner of war camp built near Sagan, Poland to house captured Allied airmen. It was built by and operated under the administration of the Luftwaffe. Stalag Luft III was the site of the mass escape of British and other Allied airmen (no Americans took part) presented in fictionalized form in the 1963 film The Great Escape. The character Sedgwick, an Australian who in the film bicycled his way across Europe to Paris and thence to Spain with help from the underground, was loosely based on Bram van der Stok. Van der Stok was a Dutch flyer who had achieved the status of a flying ace – with six kills against the Luftwaffe – before being shot down and captured by the Germans in 1942.

Van der Stok made two escape attempts from Stalag Luft III, where the Germans had imprisoned him, before further tries were curtailed by senior allied prisoners. Plans were underway for the mass escape envisioned by the British leadership in the camp and they demanded than any attempted escape not part of their overall plane be approved by committee.

It was planned for two hundred prisoners to exit the camp via tunnel on the night of the escape, van der Stok was the 18th man to exit the tunnel. In the event, only 76 escaped before the activity was detected by the guards. Of these, 73 were recaptured, and fifty were executed by the Gestapo and SS.

Van der Stok was equipped with forged documents which were good enough to allow him to pass numerous security points and random ID checks as he made his way across Europe via train from Breslau to Dresden, and then on to Utrecht. Once in contact with members of the Dutch resistance his papers were replaced and he traveled by bicycle to Belgium.

Again provided with new identity papers, he traveled by train to Toulouse, where the French Resistance took over his protection, and in the company of several other Allied officers who had been shot down but evaded the Germans, he was escorted to Spain. Van der Stok rejoined the RAF after returning to England, fighting the Germans over Europe, and became the most decorated aviator in Dutch history.

8 Real Escapes from the Second World War Make Hollywood Movies Look Tame
A scene from the film The Wooden Horse depicting the vaulting horse being carried out for use in the morning. Getty

Eric Williams. Stalag Luft III

Besides the mass escape immortalized in film as The Great Escape, Stalag Luft III was the site of one of the most ingenious escapes ever conceived. It was carried out almost fully in the open, under the eyes and ears of the German guards tasked with preventing Allied prisoners from eluding their authority. The idea of Eric Williams and Michael Codner, it was based on the legendary tale of the Trojan Horse from Homer’s Iliad, with a twist.

The Trojan Horse was used to get people in where they didn’t belong. In Williams’s and Codner’s plan it was used to get people out. The two fliers built a wooden vaulting horse, big enough to hold three men inside, which was placed in the same spot near the wire every day. While other prisoners got their exercise vaulting over the outside, the men inside tunneled towards freedom.

At the end of the day the hole in the ground was covered with a wooden plank, and then with surface soil. The dirt excavated that day was carried back inside the horse to a storage space, then dispersed throughout the compound. A third conspirator, Oliver Philpot, joined the pair in part to prevent the Germans from noticing the same two prisoners being absent from exercise every day. Meanwhile other prisoners helped gather civilian clothes and papers, as well as local train schedules and landmarks which would help the escapees keep their bearings as they made their way to freedom. The harshness of the winter in the area made the prisoners aim for a escape before the winter of 1943-44 set in.

By the end of October 1943 one man remained in the tunnel at the end of the day’s digging, breathing through airholes poked through the surface. Joined later that evening by the other two, the three escapees broke out of the tunnel and traveled toward Baltic ports, with Philpot traveling alone.

All three reached neutral Sweden, where the Swedish authorities took them into custody before surrendering them to the British for being in Sweden without appropriate documentation. All three made it back to England and further service in the war, which all three survived.

8 Real Escapes from the Second World War Make Hollywood Movies Look Tame
Nicky Barr being treated in a medical tent after he was shot down prior to being captured in North Africa. Wikimedia

Nicky Barr. Various sites in Northern Italy

Nicky Barr was a fighter ace flying with the Royal Australian Air Force during the Second World War. A rugby player before the war, Barr was credited with 12 combat victories, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Bar (DFC) and the Military Cross (MC) for his services, with the MC coming for his services aiding others besides himself in successfully escaping the enemy and returning to active service.

Barr was shot down twice behind enemy lines, both times managing to evade capture and return to service, despite being wounded in one incident. In June 1942 he was forced to parachute from his damaged fighter and was captured by Italian troops in the Libyan desert, again seriously wounded. After being treated at Tobruk he was transferred to Italy and imprisoned near Bergamo.

Barr was an intractable prisoner, making repeated attempts to escape from the Italians. On one attempt he was near the Swiss border when he tried to overpower a customs officer by hitting him over the head with a rock, he was initially charged with murder. When it was proven that the officer had survived the attack he was placed in solitary confinement. When a group of prisoners including Barr was shipped to Germany as Italy was nearing surrender, Barr escaped by jumping from a train near the Brenner Pass, eventually being found by a group of Italian partisans.

He was recaptured, escaped and was recaptured again before he was found by allied troops who were involved in sabotage activities. Twice more Barr was captured by either German or pro-Mussolini partisans before he crossed the Apennine Mountains leading more than a dozen former POWs to safety.

After recovering from the combined effects of his wounds, malaria, malnutrition, exhaustion, and sepsis, Barr returned to active service with the RAF during the Normandy campaign and through the rest of the war in Europe. He primarily operated against the V1 and V2 launching sites. After the war he returned to a wife who had been told on three separate occasions that her husband had been killed, and although his injuries prevented a return to rugby he began an ultimately successful business career. His subsequent success led to his being awarded an OBE in 1983.

8 Real Escapes from the Second World War Make Hollywood Movies Look Tame
Colditz Castle photographed in 1945. Colditz was the site of numerous escape attempts by Polish, Dutch, French, Czech, and British Empire officers throughout WW2. Wikipedia

Pat Reid. Colditz Castle

Pat Reid was a Captain (temporary rank) serving in the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) during the Battle of France in May 1940. He was captured by the Germans in late May, 1940 and sent with other British and French prisoners to a POW camp established at Laufen Castle in Bavaria, designated as Camp Oflag VII-C. Reid arrived at Laufen Castle in early June, 1940 and by the first week of September he and other newly arrived prisoners had completed a tunnel almost twenty-five feet in length, which to their estimate would open near a small storage shed outside the prison wire.

Six prisoners including Reid broke out, but all were captured as they attempted to flee to Yugoslavia across open country, without the benefit of any papers or even maps of the area. After enduring a month of solitary confinement – in POW parlance “in the cooler” – Reid was sent to Colditz.

After studying the layout in his new prison Reid devised a plan to escape from there using the Castle’s old sewer system, aided by a bribed guard’s looking the other way. On the night of the planned escape Reid led twelve men into the arms of the German guards waiting for them, the bribe having been accepted but not honored. Reid remained in Colditz, involved in assisting other escapes but denied the right to try another of his own as senior officers believed the Germans would take harsh reprisals if he tried and failed again.

In the fall of 1942 Reid did try again, in the company of three other British prisoners, and this time they not only succeeded in getting out of the Castle compound, but arrived safely in Switzerland. Rather than be expatriated to England, as was the case with most British POWs arriving there, Reid was assigned to the British legation in Berne, as an assistant to the military attache.

Reid remained in Berne until 1946, through the end of the war in Europe, promoted to the rank of Major and performing duties about which he remained notoriously close-mouthed. Following the war it became known that Reid was working for MI6 and MI9. Escapees who were successful in reaching Switzerland were closely interrogated by Reid regarding the route they took, help they received, checkpoints, bottlenecks, and other information which would be of use to future escapees. This information was fed into the POW camps by MI9, and to resistance groups in Europe.

8 Real Escapes from the Second World War Make Hollywood Movies Look Tame
After convincing the Germans he was dying of heart disease, M.B. Reid lived well into the 1980s. Gravelroots

Miles Belfrage Reid. Colditz Castle

Lt. Col. M. B. Reid was captured by German paratroopers while serving with the British Army in Greece in 1941. Sent to several German POW camps the World War I veteran proved to be troublesome to his guards, attempting several escapes. Finally in 1942 he was sent to Colditz, where he devised a novel means of escaping his captors, enlisting their aid in the process.

As the oldest prisoner in the Castle, Reid was subject to the usual ribbing common in military establishments towards men more senior in age. In his mid-forties, the affable Reid decided to feign heart disease and apply for repatriation to the United Kingdom on health grounds. To aid him in his deception he bartered for as many cigarettes as he could, and increased his smoking as much as he could stand, causing a near continuous increase in blood pressure coupled with shortness of breath.

At the same time he increased his intake of coffee and tea, again using barter to acquire as much of the substances supplied by the Red Cross as he could. As word of his efforts began to spread, the younger prisoners around him began to support his efforts, and the amount of nicotine and caffeine available for his consumption increased.

In December 1944 the Germans agreed to repatriate Reid to England as a humanitarian gesture, based on his ill health and obvious heart disease. Reid arrived home in early 1945 and was invited to visit the King at Buckingham Palace in February.

Reid’s heart condition may have been chronic as far as the German’s were concerned, but it was another forty years before the wily soldier died in October 1984. Reid published three books based on his war experiences but there is no concrete evidence whether he ever gave up the smoking habit through which he achieved his freedom from German incarceration in 1945.