The Great Escape

Steve McQueen in The Great Escape

This story and the movie of the same name is one that still peaks my interest. Today’s NY Times listed the obit of the World War II veteran Alex Cassie from Britain’s Royal Air Force. He was an unassuming hero in a (IMHO) very under-appreciated element of World War II.

It was on the moonless night of March 24 and 25, 1944, that 76 Allied prisoners of war, most of them British, clambered down a 30-foot shaft and crawled through a 340-foot-long tunnel below the supposedly escape-proof Stalag Luft III camp in eastern Germany the daring breakout that was celebrated in the classic 1963 movie ‘The Great Escape’.

In their pockets, the escapees carried what looked like officially stamped documents, identification cards, business cards and even letters written in German from purported wives and sweethearts, all of which were intended to make it possible for them to befuddle a hapless guard or police officer stopping them on their way to freedom.

Flight Lt. Alex Cassie, a British bomber pilot, was one of a half-dozen artists who had been forging those documents for months, playing a central role in the larger conspiracy to free hundreds of the nearly 1,000 airmen in the camp. They called their unit Dean and Dawson, after a well-known London travel agency.

Mr. Cassie created many of the falsified documents, papers and assets that the 76 escapees used to help them escape Nazi Germany. He and his fellow POW used great ingenuity and inventiveness in planning out their task. They used paper from the nicest book bindings for the passport and identification cards. They got ink, photos and information by bribing the German guards with cigarettes. More broadly, they used planks from their beds as support beams for their tunnels, and used the heels of boots as stamps for the forged paperwork.

The 1963 movie “The Great Escape” was a loosely accurate description of this event, with the typical Hollywood flair. Its funny to read the less than kind 1963 review of the movie which today is considered a classic.

Ironically, while his fellow POW’s shimmied their way through the tunnel that evening, Mr. Cassie stayed behind because he was claustrophobic and could not handle the tight enclosure of the long tunnel to freedom. His decision to stay ended up working to his favor as 73 of the 76 escapees were captured and 50 of them were subsequently executed by the Germans.