Digging for It

Two new takes on World War Two’s most famous breakout

The Hollywood movie The Great Escape, released in 1963, almost 20 years after the World War Two exploit it purported to depict, is today remembered mostly for a bit of business that had little to do with the historical record and everything to do with an actor’s passion for motorcycles: what we remember is the apotheosis of Steve McQueen as superstar. Playing an American airman escaping from his Nazi captors, McQueen zooms about the German countryside on his bike, out-smarting and out-manoeuvring his pursuers. It is thrilling stuff. Alas, McQueen’s character does not make it to the Swiss border and is sent back to the prison camp “cooler” where his rebellious ways have made him a regular visitor. Directed by John Sturges (Bad Day at Black Rock) and adapted from Paul Brickhill’s 1951 wartime memoir, The Great Escape commemorated the audacious mass escape of 80 prisoners of war from Stalag Luft III on the evening and morning of March 24–25, 1944, an extraordinary feat that, unfortunately, had no happy Hollywood ending. Given the outcome of the real-life event, playing up the bravado of McQueen on his motorcycle seemed a bit of shrewd commercial calculation by the ­filmmakers.

As it was, the real-life event involved the escape of Commonwealth Air Force officers from the prison camp’s North Compound; by mid 1943, American prisoners like the McQueen character would have been transferred to a newly created South Compound in Stalag Luft III, a camp located in eastern Silesia near the railway town of Sagan. Ted Barris’s The Great Escape: A Canadian Story attempts to give credit where credit is due to a number of the unheralded Canadian officers involved in the escape. In his memoir, Paul Brickhill, an Australian pilot who played a key role in the plan, had already noted the importance of Canadian Wally Floody, the “Tunnel King” so instrumental in the construction of the three tunnels, “Tom,” “Dick” and “Harry,” each at one time or another considered for the escape. (When the time came, Harry got the nod.) Floody, in fact, became technical advisor on the Hollywood film, although in the movie his character is now an Englishman. Besides McQueen, the film’s stars were James Garner and Richard Attenborough. As Barris reminds us, Garner’s character, the Scrounger, was actually based on a Canadian. Attenborough’s Roger Bartlett was based on the South African–born RAF squadron leader Roger Bushell, the escape plan’s mastermind. One of the remarkable aspects of this remarkable operation was that, in spite of literally thousands of prisoners actively engaged in the plan, only a dozen men carried around in their heads the bigger picture—the tunnel locations, the timing, the incredible myriad of enabling details.

Barris reintroduces us to Floody and to others who contributed to this singular group effort. Tony Pengelly, for instance, helped supervise and provide materials for the meticulous forging of documents and gamely essayed the female lead in a number of the compound’s theatre productions. The compound theatre offered not merely diversion for the inmates, or “kriegies,” as they called themselves (the German word for prisoners of war is Kriegsgefangenen); much of the yellow sand from the tunnels ended up hidden beneath the theatre’s floor, furtively carried there by the scores of inmate “penguins” wearing specially designed trouser bags.

There are too many characters for Barris to offer more than biographical sketches, although I wish he had in the case of someone such as George Harsh, the escape plan’s head of tunnel security, an American-born ex-convict (the surname seems so right) who spent twelve years on a Georgia chain gang before seeking redemption in Canada and the ranks of the RCAF.

Bushell had planned on an escape of 200 men even though the necessary documents and clothing could only be provided for a quarter of that number. Once out, most—the “hard-arsers”—would essentially have to depend on their wits. Realistically, their chances of escape were not good. But part of the escape planners’ strategy always contained its secondary purpose: to create a massive distraction and to bleed German resources. Attempting to escape, for Bushell and others, became a duty, part of an officer’s code of honour.

The escape of March 24–25 more than succeeded in this latter aim. An unprecedented manhunt was directed toward the recapture of the prisoners. But because of unexpected logistical difficulties in navigating the tunnel, the 200 became 100, then finally 80. Hearing of the escape, an apoplectic Hitler demanded the execution of all those recaptured. A decision known as the Sagan Order capped that number at 50 and the official Nazi line was that the men were killed trying to escape. Six Canadians were among those murdered. Only three of the 80, two Norwegians and one Dutch RAF officer, actually managed to find their way to freedom. Wally Floody had been moved to another camp before the big night. What appeared to be very bad luck after all his efforts probably ended up saving his life.

As I read Barris’s engrossing account, what really resonated was the youth of these men, many of them in their early twenties, and the courage and grit they displayed in the face of dire options.

Choices of a different sort confronted Michael Paryla and afford the central mystery of Andrew Steinmetz’s biography This Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla, a finalist in last year’s Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction. Paryla, a cousin of the author’s father, was born in Vienna in 1935. His parents were prominent actors and left-wing activists who fled the Nazis (his mother was also Jewish) and ended up stateless persons for a time. The parents divorced and the father continued his career as a prominent actor in Europe, while the mother remarried and emigrated to Canada with their son. Michael lived in his adopted country until 1956. At that point, intent on an acting career, he evidently considered his acting hopes more promising in Germany and returned to Europe. Michael was mainly a theatre actor, but it is his brief appearance in a Hollywood film that offered Steinmetz the ironic hook on which to hang this slender tale.

For 57 seconds of uncredited screen time, Michael Paryla, an escapee from the Holocaust, portrays a Gestapo agent in fedora and ill-fitting leather jacket in The Great Escape. (Steinmetz makes much of this awkward tailoring, as if an ill-fitting sleeve somehow signified a malign fate.) The brief screen time mirrored Paryla’s own brief life. He died at the age of 32 in 1967 from an overdose of alcohol and barbiturates. Was he a suicide? Was it an accident? Steinmetz mulls these and other questions using his own first-hand observations as well as relying on interviews and family letters. His search, which takes him to places where Michael lived and worked in Germany, encourages digression, and many of these digressions seem pointed and insightful—albeit, on occasion, authorial analysis comes very close to posturing. No matter. If his sleuthing never wholly succeeds in rescuing Michael Paryla from the mists of history, Steinmetz has still managed to contrive a unique memorial to his enigmatic subject.