The Great Escape
Nothing’s going to stop us
by Brian Radcliffe
Suitable for No Key Stage Specified
To encourage students to think of obstacles as motivation to be persistent (SEAL theme: Motivation).
Preparation and materials
- You will need a leader and three readers.
- Have available the theme tune for the film The Great Escape (check copyright) and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.
- Leader Think of a famous film to do with the Second World War.
Pause to allow the students to think of one.
How many of you thought of the film The Great Escape?
Take the students’ responses.
In surveys about family films viewers want to see on Christmas Day, The Great Escape consistently comes out in the top three. Despite its less than happy ending, the film arouses a mixture of the kinds of positive emotions that unite families and communities.
- The film is based on real events that happened 70 years ago. During the night of 24–25 March 1944, 76 Allied prisoners of war broke out of Stalag Luft III in what is now part of Poland. However, unlike in the film, there were no American escapees, no motorcycles attempting to crash through a barbed wire fence and most of the fictional characters were amalgams of various real-life participants. So what really happened?
- Stalag Luft III was a prisoner of war camp run by the Luftwaffe, the Nazi Air Force. It held up to 10,000 prisoners, mostly airmen. It was specially designed to discourage the digging of escape tunnels.
Reader 1 Each barracks that housed the prisoners was raised 60 centimetres above the ground.
Reader 2 The very sandy subsoil was bright yellow, which was hard to dispose of on the grey surface laid throughout the camp and made tunnelling dangerous because of the risk of collapse.
Reader 3 As well as regular visual inspections by camp guards, seismograph microphones were placed around the camp, to detect the sounds of digging.
- Leader Under Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, three tunnels were started. They were known as Tom, Dick and Harry.
Reader 1 Tom’s entrance was in the dark corner of a hall.
Reader 2 Dick was started in the drain sump of one of the washrooms.
Reader 3 Harry’s entrance was under a stove.
- Leader More than 600 prisoners were involved in the tunnelling operation in one way or another. On the night of 24–25 March, 76 made it out. All but 3 of these were recaptured, 50 of whom were shot as a deterrent to the others, to try to stop further attempts. The three who made it back to the UK were two Norwegians and a Dutchman, all pilots.
Time for reflection
Leader When captured allied airmen first arrived at Stalag Luft III, it would have been easy for them to believe it when they were told, ‘For you, the war is over.’ It might even have been a relief, to have left behind the fear and risk involved in active combat. Also, the obstacles to escaping from the camp were enormous. The distance home from Poland was thousands of miles. To escape and be captured in civilian clothing carried with it the risk of being shot as a spy. It must have been a great temptation to them to simply accept the status quo and sit the war out. Yet many didn’t.
Some prisoners simply became bored and felt that they needed a challenge. Others resented the poor rations, brutality and unacceptable living conditions in the camp. They wanted their freedom.
Roger Bushell added to these a greater purpose. He persuaded many of the prisoners that their duty was to cause as much disruption as possible to the running of the camp in order to tie up German troops so that they couldn’t be used elsewhere. He saw that, by doing this, there was a positive contribution the men could make to the war effort, even from within the confines of the camp. So it was that the Great Escape got under way.
Are you ever tempted to give up, to say, ‘This is how it’s going to be, I can’t do anything about it’?
Reader 1 Maybe it’s because a subject is hard to understand. You’ve tried, but still you fail to make the grade.
Reader 2 Maybe it’s because you’ve been overlooked for a part in a production or relegated to the subs bench. You’re tempted to believe you haven’t got the necessary talent.
Reader 3 Maybe it’s because you’ve suffered rejection. You’re left on your own, a bit of a loner.
Leader Life puts obstacles in our way, but we can choose how we approach them. We can accept the status quo, not do anything, or we can decide to make an effort and tackle things. I’m not saying we’ll come out totally on top – only three airman made it back to the UK and Roger Bushell was one of the recaptured prisoners who was shot. Nevertheless, I know there’ll be many lessons learned in the attempt and even small victories are still victories.
Thank you for the easy times, when everything goes according to plan.
Thank you, too, that the hard times need not overwhelm us.
May they generate in us the determination to overcome.
The Great Escape theme tune