Great escapes

The War Behind the Wire Patrick Wilson Pen and Sword, 244pp, £16.95 ISBN 0850527457

In the 1950s, after I had lamented the glut of escape sagas on the market, my interlocutor revealed himself as the soldier-monk Henry Coombe-Tennant, noted for walking out of occupied Europe in British battle-dress, speaking no language other than English. This fascinating book, which accompanies the eponymous BBC two-part documentary about British escapees, concerns those of whom Winston Churchill, once a PoW himself, said: "You are in the power of your enemy. You owe your life to his humanity, and your daily bread to his compassion. You must obey his orders, go where he tells you, stay where you are bid, await his pleasure, pursue your soul in patience." Nothing was certain. Escaping was a dangerous pursuit. Few succeeded, fewer yet reached "Blighty", and some fell into SS or Gestapo hands. Yet many tried - driven by loneliness, hope, boredom, frustration - to reach freedom and family.

Cold, insufficient food and drink, thoughts of home and friends, shame, monotony, lethargy and anger formed the PoW's experience. "The hours crawled by like centipedes - one fantasised about life outside the wire, the village pubs, a girl friend." (One prisoner commented that lower ranks, because they were forced to work, were psychologically better off than officers.) Anyway, the majority preferred to study for the future, not escape; indeed, escape attempts were sometimes resented for the trouble they caused. And men feared torture and death - the consequence of failure - at Dachau or Sachsenhausen. But for some, escape was not only an officer's duty, but like the National Lottery, and with free beer at the end.

Although the Great Escape and the Wooden Horse are famous, there were thousands of other escape attempts. Tunnels, statistically the least successful method, were the most popular. But they took a long time to build, often caved in and involved searching post-mortems. Otherwise, several officers were caught under searchlights on the barbed wire; others escaped through the sewers. Two RAF pilots, in German uniforms, marched out through the front gate via the delousing plant, only just failing to hijack a Junkers aircraft to Sweden. After the Italian surrender, there were mass breakouts, the Italian peasantry behaving admirably, while recaptured British officers leaped out of transports bound for Germany.

One officer at Colditz achieved repatriation by faking insanity. More than one escape was accomplished in rubbish containers, until the guards learnt to bayonet them. At Colditz itself, which housed inveterate escapers, 300 attempts were made, of which only 30 made it home. (Nevertheless, an entire glider was constructed without discovery within the camp's walls.)

In 1944, at Sagan, Stalag Luft III held 10,000 men. In one rush, the Great Escape, an almost unbelievable total of 76 broke free through tunnels. Fifty were caught and murdered by the Gestapo at Hitler's order. Three made it home. When the war ended and everyone came home, reactions varied from joy to alienation and collapse, to resentment at Britain's sour bureaucracy, to isolation and to the slow reconciliation with our country's habits, which, whoever we are and wherever we have come from, we all have to undergo or go elsewhere.

John Colvin is a military historian and former British ambassador

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Exclusive: how Labour could lose