One of rancher Art Hawtin’s closest friends, another rancher in Beaverton, Ont., told me that Art had two personalities. One personality Art exhibited around family and friends, when he was soft-spoken and easy-going. Then, whenever he herded his cattle, he exhibited the firmness and purpose required. When he moved cattle into pens or onto trucks, his friend said, Art seemed to be able to speak to the animals with his eyes and his body posture.
“It was as if the cattle figured that it was their job to get into the chutes or onto the truck,” Bob Robertson told me this week. “Art made them do whatever he wanted.”
The Great Escape: A Canadian Story has received its first recognition in the United States. In late August 2014, members of the Stalag Luft III Prisoners of War Association in the U.S. presented Ted Barris with a “Certificate of Honor” for his work on publishing the historical account of the famous 1944 breakout in the Second World War.
Barris delivered the keynote at the association’s annual reunion, this year in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Then, during the reunion’s formal banquet – featuring the parading of the colours, the lighting of candles in honour of the fallen, and recognition of service to the veterans – the U.S. reunion co-chairs Marilyn Walton and Mike Eberhardt (both the offspring of former Stalag Luft III POWs) presented Certificates of Honor for what the association called service above and beyond.
They recognized five civilians, including: Mary Elizabeth Ruwell, an archivist at the U.S. Air Force Academy; Ben van Drogenbroek, a Dutch researcher; Val Burgess, an American oral historian; Marek Lazarz, the director of the Stalag Luft III Museum in Poland; and a Canadian author/historian whose writing, they said, has brought valuable attention to the Stalag Luft III story… Ted Barris. They handed recipients only copies of the certificate, because the originals will be housed permanently at the U.S. Air Force Academy archives in Colorado Springs.
The rain was steady. The air must have been as cold as the day they were commemorating – a few degrees just above zero. The years had changed the way the place looked. But neither the weather nor time had washed away the memory. During the 70th anniversary ceremony of The Great Escape, I witnessed, 50 young Royal Air Force officers marched in single file past the reviewing stand. Each contemporary soldier carried the photo of one of the 50 air officers murdered following famous prison breakout in March 1944. One of the commemorating airmen was Simon Flynn.
“I loved the movie, but I knew it wasn’t fact,” Flynn said. “But I feel honoured to be part of the commemoration.”
The more I attend these observances harkening back to wartime events of the 20th century, the more I’m reminded that these conflicts happened nearly two generations ago. People wonder out loud to me in another generation whether anyone will remember, whether anyone will care. If you’ll allow me this column to respond to that suggestion, I’d like to illustrate why stories such as The Great Escape will not die with its last witnesses, but will continue to capture the public’s imagination and prompt further questions, research and more stories.
Simon Flynn, a 25-year-old helicopter pilot in the RAF, is a primary example. Yes, he is military. Yes, he does have a direct armed forces connection – via the air force – with the story of the Commonwealth air officers who built the famous tunnels out of Stalag Luft III in 1943-44. And yes, he’s been taught to preserve the past while serving the future.
But the difference was that on the day following the commemoration of the escape – March 24 – he and the other 49 RAF air officers marching in that rainy ceremony were going further. On March 25, they packed up their kit bags and marched for four days on foot 107 miles to the town of Poznan where the cremated remains of the 50 murdered officers are housed today. And Flynn wasn’t just following his superior’s orders. He’d volunteered.
“We all went through 10 weeks of training,” he said. “We walked four-to-five miles a day at first; but then we worked up to 18 miles a day near the end.”
But the unique commemoration instinct was not limited to the RAF officers. The first day I spent in Zagan, Poland, the town adjacent to the wartime German POW camp, I met a young contemporary artist named Jon England. In fact, he joined me over dinner at a reception staged by Alexandra Bugailiskis, the Canadian ambassador to Poland. I asked why a man as young as he – in his 20s – cared about something as apparently ancient as The Great Escape.
“The story,” he said. “It’s such a compelling story.”
An artist from Somerset, England, Jon England had originally become interested in the story because of its ties to his part of the U.K. But more than that, the young artist became curious about the day-to-day life among the POWs at Stalag Luft III during the war. In particular, he was drawn to the product called “Klim” (milk spelled backwards) and its versatility in the lives of the prisoners-of-war.
Not only did the contents of the Klim cans – powdered milk – sustain the men in their diets. But 750 of the empty tins (when put together) became the ventilation duct for the tunnellers in the escape Tunnel “Harry.” Jon England felt so inspired by the Klim, that he reconstituted the milk powder into sepia-toned paint, which he then used to paint portraits of the 50 slain officers.
“There’s a particular physical and metaphorical resonance in utilizing milk to reproduce the identity card photos of the 50,” England said. “It is the most basic, humble, elemental foodstuff, sustaining life by multiple means.”
The portraits lined the reception hall on the anniversary of the escape.
And beside me as we dined that night in our best bib and tucker, I met British Warrant Officer Maxine Staple, the young woman who had assisted RAF Group Captain David Houghton orchestrate the formal reception on the anniversary. Not unlike artist Jon England WO Staple had dedicated much time and effort to this event. She had helped arrange for the RAF band, the food catering, the speakers’ list and even the civilian guest list, including myself and another dozen Canadians who’d travelled 3,000 miles to pay our respects to the survivors of Stalag Luft III and the murdered 50 officers. Yes, it was her duty, as an officer in the Royal Army, but like RAF chopper pilot Simon Flynn there was more than duty here.
“We are here to honour the men who were killed,” Flynn said. “But we’re also here to learn what gave them the spirit, the strength, the courage to survive and become the actual legend of The Great Escape.”
When two recent acquaintances of mine arrived at the former Stalag Luft III location, in September 2013, they expected that the former German prison camp, while now a museum site near the town of Zagan in western Poland, would be fairly peaceful. The two Britons (as well as builder David Dunn and painter Johnnie Tait) had plans to erect a replica sentry tower in time for the upcoming 70th anniversary commemoration of The Great Escape eight months later. Andy Hunter, one of the two tower builders, was suddenly startled by what he saw.
“The day we arrived, we were suddenly confronted by a World War II German military motorcycle and sidecar,” Hunter said. “The occupants were dressed in German military uniform. And they had guns pointed at us.”
Hunter’s heart palpitations, while understandable, were unnecessary. He soon discovered that the entire area around Zagan, including Stalag Luft III (the location of The Great Escape in 1944,) was in overdrive preparing for the commemorative ceremony, scheduled to happen right next to the replica sentry tower. And the men with German uniforms, motorcycle and guns were simply re-enactors also preparing for the 70th anniversary observances. In fact, the curator of the site, the Museum of Allied Forces Prisoners of War Martyrdom, Marek Lazarz, when I caught up with him just before the commemoration on Monday, seemed startled by the momentum.
“We’ve had more visitors here in the past few days,” Lazarz said, “than we’ve had in a year.”
Lazarz and I first met three years ago as I prepared my telling of The Great Escape story with a Canadian perspective. Even then, the tall and lean director of the museum explained that he prayed everything would be ready for the anniversary – the new exhibits hall, the souvenir sales area, the replica of Hut 104 (from which the famous Great Escape tunnel “Harry” was excavated to deliver 80 Commonwealth air officers outside the wire on March 24/25, 1944), the ceremony site near the exit shaft of tunnel “Harry,” the military personnel, the ambassadorial dignitaries, any surviving POW vets, and the re-enactors.
In fact, when I caught up with Lazarz on Sunday afternoon he was dressed in an RAF officer’s uniform as part of the re-enacting team himself. At that moment, he’d found Stalag Luft III POW veteran Andy Wiseman, who’d come in from the U.K. for the commemoration. Lazarz was escorting the 90-year-old Stalag Luft III alumnus to a mock inspection.
“The Germans conducted a roll call twice a day,” Wiseman told me. He further explained that the Luftwaffe guards in the camp counted each row of POWs calling out the total from front to back to front. Whenever they could the Canadian, British, New Zealand, Australian and South African air officer inmates moved around in mid-count.
“We did our level best to mess things up for them,” Wiseman said. “It was our job to confuse the enemy as often as we could.”
Later that Sunday evening, my fellow travellers to Stalag Luft III – Mark Christoff from Uxbridge and Gord Kidder (whose uncle RCAF navigator Gordon Kidder escaped through the tunnel, but was later killed) – attended a reception hosted by the Canadian ambassador to Poland. Besides the requisite diplomats, civic officials and military dignitaries, Ambassador Alexandra Bugailiskis acknowledged another important volunteer component in the anniversary.
“I remember seeing the Great Escape movie as a little girl,” she said. “But I had no idea the extent to which the POWs families contributed to their survival of Stalag Luft III.”
Among her invited guests, brother and sister Keith and Jean Ogilvie were representing their father Keith (who was recaptured, but survived); Peter McGill and son Adam attended in remembrance of Peter’s grandfather, George McGill (murdered by Gestapo); and Gord Kidder was honouring his namesake, Gordon Kidder (killed by Gestapo after the escape).
“We often forget the impact of these events on their families,” Ambassador Bugailiskis said. “And yet the families’ connection to these POWs likely gave them hope to get through their days as POWs.”
Andy Hunter, with the British Ministry of Defence, and British Army Col. Phil Westwood, his team leader in the construction of the replica sentry tower at Stalag Luft III, represented another blood connection to events this week near Zagan. Westwood served 38 years in the British Army with deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Falkland Islands and Northern Ireland, he told me.
“We built the replica of Hut 104 (with the trapdoor to Tunnel “Harry” under a stove,)” Westwood said, “and with some of the donations leftover, we came up with the idea of building the sentry tower… It just seemed the right thing to do.”
Monday’s commemoration at Stalag Luft III and tribute to the 50 murdered Commonwealth officers succeeded because the re-enactments and artifacts were frighteningly believable… but more because volunteers involved knew a legacy was at stake and felt moved to contribute.
I had just completed one of my talks on The Great Escape. It was about an hour’s presentation at the Legion hall in Port Carling (in Muskoka) last Saturday. I asked someone to turn up the lights, so I could see the audience and take some questions. It’s in those moments that I prepare myself for a tough question and maybe some criticism. And I’m OK with that. Then, a man in the front row put up his hand to speak and the room went silent.
“I spent months in a POW camp just outside Munich during the war,” Jack Patterson said quietly, but steadily. “It was exactly the way you said.”
I walked over to him, shook his hand and asked him to stand and face the audience of about a hundred people. Then I asked if he would explain. He offered an abbreviated story of his capture by German troops in Normandy in July 1944.
Ultimately, he said, he and other members of his Algonquin Regiment (from central Ontario) wound up at a place called Stalag (German for Straflager, or prison) VII-A at Moosburg, near Munich. He was tossed into a prison compound there with Americans, South Africans, British and Arab troops – all prisoners of war. He called the compound “a real league of nations.”
When he was done, everyone in the hall stood and applauded his service. Later, Patterson offered me a number of additional anecdotes – including deprivation, isolation, and near annihilation – as a prisoner of war. I’d heard many of his experiences before. But the one flashback he shared that stood out for me was his liberation. Patterson said the U.S. Third Army under Gen. George Patton freed him and his fellow Algonquins. On May 5, 1945, with the war ending in Europe, all POWs were taken to a German aerodrome for transport back home.
“We boarded Lancaster bombers to take us back to England,” he said. They weren’t made for carrying troops, so I was sitting on a (navigator’s) desk where I could look out a window, and it wasn’t long before I saw the white cliffs of Dover. … It was great to have our feet back in England.”
Another encounter from that very same audience, on Saturday afternoon, occurred when a man approached me with a plastic bag. It contained a book, entitled “Drei Tage I’m September” (Three Days in September), written by German author Cay Rademacher. The man with the plastic bag was Philip Gunyon and the book was about the three days surrounding the sinking of the British cruise vessel S.S. Athenia by a German U-boat on Sept. 3, 1939, the very day Britain declared war on Germany. Gunyon opened the book to the photo section and pointed to an image of a woman and her three children. Gunyon’s family (exluding his father) had all been aboard Athenia when it was torpedoed.
“I was seven when it happened,” Gunyon said.
The book details the events leading up to submarine commander Fritz-Julius Lemp’s decision to fire a torpedo from U-30 at Athenia, mistaking the passenger liner for a British armed merchant cruiser. The ship was sailing with 1,100 passengers aboard (60 kilometres off the coast of Ireland) on a regularly scheduled passage from Glasgow to Montreal. Though the passenger vessel remained afloat for 14 hours after the attack, 98 passengers and 19 crew died in the wreck.
“Liner Athenia torpedoed and sunk,” read the headline in the Halifax Herald on Sept. 4. And across the centre of the page, “Empire at War!”
History records that a Canadian girl, 10-year-old Margaret Hayword, was killed in the sinking. She was the perhaps the first Canadian to die, the result of enemy action in the Second World War. Philip Gunyon, showing me the book in its original German script, pointed out that his mother, two siblings and he had survived.
One more surprise awaited me Saturday afternoon at the Port Carling Legion. After my talk about The Great Escape by tunnel from German POW camp Stalag Luft III, another man approached me to comment on the book.
“My name is Frank Pengelly. I’m a cousin of Tony Pengelly, the man in charge of forging documents in the Great Escape,” he said.
He explained that his cousin, as I described in the book, had led a stable of 100 artists and calligraphers in the creation of phony documents (looking exactly like originals) that would allow the Great Escapers to get through train stations and across borders because they had look-alike passes and visas.
“The story is exactly as you wrote it,” Pengelly said.
Saturday afternoon proved to be one of those remarkable moments one imagines when the stars align. I had chosen to speak in a room where much of the history I was recounting had been experienced first-hand by some of those present. I marveled at the history. I reveled in the coincidence.
About two-thirds the way through the screening of “The Great Escape” movie last weekend at the Roxy Theatre in Uxbridge, there was a scene in which the American POWs break out a batch of potato-based hooch. They’re celebrating July 4, 1943, even though they’re prisoners in the famous Stalag Luft III POW camp.
In the famous scene, actors James Garner, Steve McQueen and Jud Taylor play three shot-down U.S. airmen (in the mostly British Commonwealth prison camp) celebrating Independence Day. McQueen dispenses the booze as he spouts epithets such as “Down the British” and “Up the Colonies,” when Taylor turns to McQueen.
“Representation by population,” Taylor shouts.
McQueen does a double take, knowing Taylor has just delivered an unplanned ad lib, but since nobody broke up during the shooting of the scene 50 years ago, it remained in the film. And the only reason that the Roxy audience caught the ad lib was because our host that afternoon, Mark Christoff, alerted us to watch for it. Taylor’s off-the-cuff comment and McQueen’s response got a bigger laugh last weekend, than the scene probably ever got when “The Great Escape” premiered in 1963. Thanks to Christoff, we enjoyed one of those magical moments that occasionally occur in a movie theatre.
I’ve experienced a number of such moments over the years. They are perfectly spontaneous things, such as the audience shrieking out loud in the final few minutes of “Wait Until Dark,” (1967) when Alan Arkin lunges out of the basement apartment shadows at a defenseless Audrey Hepburn, the blind tenant attempting to defend herself against a murderous invader. I remember the theatre growing cloudier by the minute as illegal pot smokers lit up during the psychedelic re-entry scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s (1968) classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I guess those are kind of iconic movie-audience moments.
But here’s one that could only have happened once. Remember the 70-millimetre IMAX movie that inaugurated the Ontario Place Cinesphere in 1971? The documentary was “North of Superior,” a kind of travelogue – featuring Graeme Ferguson’s classic nearly 360-degree almost wrap-around imagery – showcasing the wilderness north of Lake Superior.
Well, as I recall the night we all watched it in the brand new Cinesphere, there was that sequence about halfway through the film in which the IMAX cameras take us to the heart of a northern Ontario forest fire. But then almost as quickly as the movie throws us into the heat and flames, the intensity of the blaze and the roar end in a split-second… with a close-up image of a forester’s boot planting a pine seedling in soil still scarred by the fire.
It so happened at precisely that moment – as the movie soundtrack switched from deafening roar to nearly silent close-up of the boot pressing the seedling into the soil – one member of our group in the Cinesphere let go with a loud sneeze. For all the world, it seemed as if his sneeze had blown out the inferno. His timing was perfect. The memory of our laughing at his timing stays with me to this day.
Then, there was one of the climactic scenes in “The Guns of Navarone,” the action war movie, starring Anthony Quinn, David Niven and Gregory Peck among others. The 1961 feature depicts a team of British commandos dispatched to destroy gigantic naval guns guarding a vital channel in the Mediterranean. As the group makes its way up the cliffs and through the Nazi-occupied towns of the Greek island housing the guns, it becomes clear there’s a spy among the civilian guides.
Suddenly, Anna (played by Gia Scala) the beautiful, young mountain guide (apparently tortured earlier in the war by whipping across her back) is suspect. Someone challenges the back whipping scenario and rips open the back of her dress right in front of the camera. There’s no blood, no scars, nothing. In the silence of the shocking discovery, someone in the movie theatre couldn’t resist speaking the obvious.
“She’s got a gorgeous back!” he said. And the theatre erupted in laughter, totally destroying the drama of the scene. Moments later the Irene Papas character pulls out a revolver and shoots the young girl to ensure the safety of the mission.
There was one other magical moment we enjoyed during the Roxy screening of “The Great Escape” last weekend. As many of you know, I’ve made a recent crusade of illustrating how much of the extraordinary effort to tunnel out of Stalag Luft III was directed by Canadians. And yet the movie makes mention of “Canada” only once in the entire movie. The scene involves James Coburn creating a diversion while other POWs attempt to break out of the camp. He spontaneously grabs a fellow prisoner’s jacket, winds up to punch him, and shouts: “You rotten Canadian!”
Hollywood never let facts get in the way of filming a good story. But sometimes the magic happened out in the audience as well as on the screen.