On this night in 1944 76 men began breaking out of Stalag Luft III. If you’ve seen The Great Escape, then you have half an inkling of what was happening because this was that escape!
The man in charge of the whole thing was a British officer by the name of Squadron Leader Roger Bushell RAF. He was kept with other British officers in one part of the camp and at some point in 1943 he called an escape committee meeting and this is what he said: “Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time. By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun… In North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick, and Harry. One will succeed!” This is just top, because it means that everything we saw posh officers say in British war films was pretty much true to life. And that is just what this bunch of men did; they attempted to make life hell for the hun, the cunning devils.
Big X. Roger Bushell the mastermind behind the escape
The notion was that if one of the tunnels was found, it would be all fine and dandy because the Germans would never guess that two other tunnels were being dug at the same time. No private enterprises was also a good idea because it meant that all the good escaping brains were being focussed on one spectacular escape. The original idea was to get all 200 men housed in the prison camp out at once. All of them to be wearing civilian clothing and all with forged papers and equipment. This was escape writ big with a huge capital E!
As Roger said, the tunnels would be bloody long and bloody deep. Digging them deep was difficult, but it also meant there was less chance of them collapsing and/or being discovered. A lot of what you see in the film about the disposing of sand and earth from the tunnels is accurate. They did put it into socks that hung down their legs and let it drop in little piles around the camp and in gardens that the prisoners were allowed to work. But as you can imagine this was not enough; there was an awful lot of earth coming up from these three mega-tunnels. The problem was partly resolved when a camp extension made Dick’s exit unworkable (an extension making dick unworkable? Who’d a-thunk it!), so Dick became a place to store equipment, clothing, documents and the earth and sand for the other tunnels. Even that wasn’t enough and in the end, they started getting rid of more of it under a seat and down in a huge gap in the camp theatre.
The Germans were well aware that something was afoot, but failed to discover any of the tunnels. The digging of the tunnels took place over a long period of time and included most of the men in the camp. Then late in 1943, the camp gained a huge influx of American prisoners who were also included in the escape plans. The increased activity got the guards even more suspicious and they discovered Tom in September 1943. Work then stopped on Harry until January 1944 because the men were aware that if Harry was to be of any use, they needed to hold back and allay suspicions for a while.
How did they get clothes? There were some friendly guards in the camp who were happy to give them clothes for bribes and to provide information like train timetables and give them official papers which they could then copy and forge. At this stage I could
Here's Harry, who no one was longing to marry. Look how narrow it is!
waffle on about all the details interminably, but la, la, la, most of the Americans were removed and therefore no Americans, except maybe one flight lieutenant escaped in March (Wot! No Steve McQueen on a motorbike!), things got more hairy, the Gestapo got more snoopy and what had been intended to be a summer escape became a spring one. There were 700 men in the camp at this time, but only 200 were to go. The first 100 were made up of serial offenders (i.e. tried to escape quite a lot), those who spoke German well and those who had put in a lot of work on the tunnels. This group was expected to have a very good chance of escaping. The next 100 were thought to have very little chance of success and they drew lots for inclusion. They mostly had no German and their papers were not as good as those of the first lot; they had to travel at night for the best chance of success. They were known as the “hard-arsers”.
So, here we are. It’s the night of the escape and they’re all scuttling along Harry and getting over any claustrophobia (the tunnels were only 2ft square, it makes me perspire like a pig just thinking about it) they might have. It wasn’t a good night for an escape. There was snow and the entrance door to Harry was frozen shut and it delayed the escape by an hour and a half. Then there was an air raid that turned off the camp electricity including the light in the tunnels that slowed them down even more. At about 1am the tunnel partially collapsed and had to be repaired. Of the 200 scheduled to escape only 76 got out. And then?
It was all a bit of a clusterfuck really. The 77th man through the tunnel was seen emerging by the guards and surrendered. The ones already out were contending with the coldest March in 30 years and the snow already mentioned was 5ft deep. The men heading to the railway station couldn’t find it until daylight because its entrance was recessed. In all 73 of the 76 men were recaptured almost immediately. Of those 50 were executed including Roger Bushell. The three who managed to escape were Per Bergsland and Jens Müller, both Norwegian, and Bram Van Der Stok who was Dutch. All three were pilots in the RAF.
The end of this almost ridiculous attempt was pretty tragic, but all the men involved knew they were risking their lives. As Bushell had said back in 1943, they wanted to give the Hun hell and they did. Too many of them paid for it with their lives, but it’s unlikely that any of them would have thought this too great a price to pay. The film is great. Entertaining, engrossing, dramatic and full of twists and turns, but the real life events were, if anything, even more dramatic even if they didn’t involve a motorcycle, a baseball and a half-blind forger who went on to turn into that dreadful murderer John Christie. Life is more of a shitstorm than fiction. True fact.
Today was the birthday of much maligned comedian and fall guy for Hollywood excess, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
Arbuckle with his great friend Buster Keaton.
These days if Roscoe is remembered at all it is for the scandal that ended his career. His career is hardly known to us at all and his influence on the great names of his time is likewise forgotten. I’d like to tell you a little about Roscoe, but first we’ll get the scandal out of the way.
In 1921, Roscoe and a group of friends drove to San Francisco and booked three hotel rooms, one of which was to be their party room. One of the attendees was a woman called Virginia Rappe. She was taken ill at the party and two days later she died of peritonitis from a ruptured bladder. Roscoe was arrested on charges of rape and manslaughter. It was alleged that he had raped her and his body weight had ruptured her bladder and killed her. Three trials followed. The first trial resulted in a 10-2 not guilty verdict and was declared a mistrial. The second trial returned a 9-3 guilty verdict and another mistrial was declared. At the third trial the jury took just six minutes to return a unanimous not guilty verdict. Five of those minutes were spent writing this:
Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him… there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story which we all believe. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgement of fourteen men and women that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.
I could honestly write page upon page about this. What happened to the man was an abomination. He suffered so much in the courts, in the press (that bastard William Randolph Hearst made a fortune out of maligning him), his films were banned, his career ruined and all for spite, rumour, gossip and people making up the most stupid stories in the world that had no basis whatsoever in fact.
Before all of this, Roscoe had been the highest paid star in Hollywood. He had a $1 million a year contract from 1918-1921, which was mental money in those days. He was hugely popular and incredibly talented. He mentored Charlie Chaplin and helped him come up with his little tramp character, he discovered Buster Keaton and later in 1927 also discovered and gave Bob Hope his start. He had
Roscoe with his last wife, Addie, not long before his death at the age of 46
started in vaudeville after being abandoned by his father upon his mother’s death (Roscoe was 12), because his father was convinced that Roscoe was a bastard. He also had a beautiful singing voice. Enrico Caruso heard him singing and told him he should give all the other nonsense up and be the second best singer in the world. On top of this he was a kind, gentle, generous and generally lovely man. Far from being a big old rapist, Roscoe was shy around women and known as the most chaste man in Hollywood by all who knew him. He did however have a drink problem, which led to him having problems with his legs, which led to doctors prescribing morphine and you can guess what that led to.
Throughout the twenties it was difficult for him to find work and he was persona non grata in films. He went back to vaudeville and toured shows. His alcoholism remained a huge problem, especially as he lost most of the friends he had made in the movie business. There was one notable exception. Buster Keaton did all he could to help his friend and remained loyal until the Roscoe’s death. Things began looking up in 1932. He was signed by Warner Brothers to make some two-reel shorts, which were very popular – although the idiot British wouldn’t show them because of the decade-old scandal, FFS – and in 1933 he was signed to make a feature-length film with them. On June 28th 1933, he had finished his last two-reeler, he had the contract for the feature, his life was well and truly back on track. He said to friends that it was the best day of his life. That night he had a heart attack and died in his sleep.
He was a lovely man who was proof that sometimes there really is a whole lot of thick and disgusting smoke with no fire at all. Most of his films are lost as no one bothered to preserve the negatives. He was talented, generous, warm and kind and all of that meant nothing at all when a bunch of utter bastards decided to go after him. Happy birthday Roscoe and if you come just a little closer I have a custard pie just for you!