Better than the movie… the REAL Great Escape

Better than the movie… the REAL Great Escape: Dutch RAF pilot recounts the mission to escape Stalag Luft III in gripping memoir

  • The vivid memoir of Dutch RAF pilot Bram ‘Bob’ Vanderstok has been reissued
  • The author recounts being one of a trio who successfully escaped Stalag Luft III
  • Thousands were involved in planning the Escape including chemists and artists 
  • Only 76 escaped – however 73 were recaptured, with 50 shot in cold blood 
  • The Great Escape’s mastermind Roger Bushell, was one of the 50 murdered
  • Bram ‘Bob’ Vanderstok continued to fight the war after he made it back to UK 

WAR MEMOIR

ESCAPE FROM STALAG LUFT III

by Bram Vanderstok (Greenhill Books £25, 256pp)

The pleasure of reading any memoir about the Great Escape of March 24, 1944 — that heroic, improvised, meticulously planned, madcap enterprise — is inevitably dented by the appalling statistics.

Of the 200 Allied prisoners of war (PoWs) in Stalag Luft III who were primed to descend through the hidden trap door of Hut 104 that night, only 76 would emerge at the far end before the escape was discovered and stopped. Seventy-three of those would be recaptured shortly afterwards, with 50 shot in cold blood by the Gestapo. Only three of the 76 would escape to freedom.

One of the successful trio was the Dutch RAF pilot Bram ‘Bob’ Vanderstok, author of this extraordinarily vivid memoir, which has been reissued in this 75th anniversary year.

Bram Vanderstok’s (pictured) gripping memoir of escaping Stalag Luft III has been reissued for this 75th anniversary year, he recounts the thousands involved in planning the Great Escape

Before we get anywhere near Vanderstok’s Great Escape, he tells us about his preliminary escape from occupied Holland to Britain in 1941. For 12 days, he hid in a 2 ft-high space under the engine room of a Swiss merchant ship, lying in a pool of grease as the Germans searched for stowaways above.

Clearly, this man was born with the escaping gene. He comes across as a delightfully straightforward Dutchman: ice hockey fanatic, medical student-turned-air force pilot, and enjoyer of good food and nightlife.

With boyish exhilaration, he describes the excitement of being an RAF fighter pilot and his joy at ‘scoring’ against the Nazis. So, when his Spitfire is shot down over northern France in April 1942, we share his sense of ghastly anticlimax.

He arrived at the vast PoW camp Stalag Luft III, where 30 escape tunnels had already been started but discovered by Nazi ‘ferrets’ — guards whose special duty it was to crawl under the huts to eavesdrop and nip any escape attempt in the bud.

Had I been incarcerated in Stalag Luft III, I might just have sat back. Unlike Buchenwald and other Nazi concentration camps where the inmates were starved and worked to death, this was a PoW camp where, under the Geneva Convention, the prisoners could not be forced to work and life was far less harsh.

Red Cross parcels arrived regularly, containing coffee, chocolate, cigarettes and raisins, out of which the PoWs made delicious vodka.

The mastermind of the Great Escape Roger Bushell, was one of 50 brutally murdered after being recaptured (Pictured: Steve McQueen in the 1963 classic film The Great Escape)

As the war progressed and life got worse for the Germans, the PoWs bribed the guards with their Red Cross riches.

This story proves the strength of the urge for freedom, as well as the men’s overwhelming sense of duty. They were determined to escape so that they could carry on fighting the Nazi evil.

A thousand of them were involved in planning the Great Escape, bringing to the enterprise their wide range of talents, whether they were tailors, artists, engineers, mathematicians, builders or chemists. The PoWs ran a tailoring ‘factory’, shaving and dyeing coats to make them look like German uniform.

1,400

Number of milk tins made into shovels for the dig

There’s a delicious Boys’ Own atmosphere about it all, planned with expertise by the mastermind Roger Bushell — one of the 50 later murdered.

How can the guards not have noticed that every bed in the camp was missing most of its bed-boards (they were used to shore up the tunnel)?

How can they not have noticed men walking around oddly, shaking sand from the ‘sand sausage’ inside their trousers all over the football pitch?

Or the ‘security’ men who kept watch outside the huts, signalling ‘ferret approaching’ by putting a towel on their knees?

Well, the ferrets did notice some of it: one felt a slab under a kitchen sink move under his weight — and that was the end of tunnel ‘Dick’. However, he never guessed that it was only one of three being built in expectation of exactly that eventuality.

Bram had the talent for forging documents in anticipation of escapees having the right documents to show if caught  (Pictured: A soldier exiting an infamous tunnel) 

Vanderstok’s own speciality was forging documents so that, if caught, escapees would have the correct papers. He used indelible ink made out of soot, glycerine and oil nicked from the prison’s hospital wing, and painted with minute, two-hair paintbrushes.

The book reads like a thriller. The last-minute realisation, on that fateful night of the escape, that the tunnel was 20 ft too short made me almost faint with nerves. ‘Quick quick, find us a 40-foot rope,’ someone shouted. They did — and the rope could then be tugged from the far end, indicating ‘all clear to come out’.

Vanderstok knew nothing of the fates of his fellow escapees. That is not his story.

We live his amazing escape with him. He took a night train to Breslau, where he waited for two hours at the station, dreading the alarm being sounded.

ESCAPE FROM STALAG LUFT III by Bram Vanderstok (Greenhill Books £25, 256pp)

Then he arrived in Holland and was ushered across the country by underground helpers risking their lives to hide him. He reached France and travelled south by train. A resistance fighter helped him (and a party of refugees, some of them children) over the Pyrenees on freezing all-night marches.

On his arrival at the English consulate in Madrid, Vanderstok was surprised by the slightly subdued atmosphere. Then he learned of the horrific deaths of 50 of his fellow escapees — one of whom, unbearably poignantly, happened to be the son of the English consulate employee who greeted him.

When Vanderstok arrived back in the UK, he continued fighting the war — as commander of 322 (Dutch) Spitfire Squadron, escorting bombers on D-Day.

In 1945, he returned to Holland and found his father blind and in a wheelchair, having been tortured by the Gestapo — first, after his escape from Stalag Luft III, and again when Bram’s brothers were arrested.

Both of those brothers had died in the hell of the concentration camps. Vanderstok’s father died the day after Bram’s return.

A Boys’ Own story, then, but with a tragic ending, hammering home the merciless realities of the Nazi regime, as if we hadn’t had enough of them already.

 

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