The Great Escape: A Canadian Story
Ted Barris

Thomas Allen Publishers, Markham, Ontario, 2013
ISBN 978-77102-272-9

BarrisDuring the Second World War, the "Great Escape", as it has come to be known, took place on the night of 24-25 March 1944, when seventy-six Commonwealth air force officers succeeded in breaking out of Stalag Luft III, the German prisoner-of-war camp near Sagan in what is now Poland. The escape is famous because of the number of officers that got out, which led to a serious, if temporary, dislocation of the German war effort until the prisoners were re-captured. But the escape is also infamous because, in a flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention, fifty of the recaptured escapees were executed by the German Gestapo. Only three of the escapees succeeded in getting back to England.

I bring this review forward on the seventieth anniversary of this remarkable event

Barris' book focuses on the several hundred Canadians, both RAF and RCAF, who were interned in Stalag Luft III, several of whom had leadership roles in the planning and preparation for "The Great Escape". Barris of course includes an account of the escape itself, but Barris' account is relatively sketchy. The best and most complete account of the escape itself is still Paul Brickhill's book "The Great Escape" published in 1950.

The basis for Barris' book is his access to the families of the former prisoners. Some fifteen specific sources are acknowledged, but many other individuals are mentioned in the text.

The last few chapters of Barris' book are the most interesting because they relate what happened to the remaining prisoners after the escape, including the evacuation of Stalag Luft III in late January 1945 in the face of the Russian advance. It became pretty clear that, however bad conditions were in Stalag Luft III, conditions in the rest of Germany were much worse, particularly in the few weeks immediately before and after the German surrender. This part of the story is a montage of the prisoners' stories rather than a cohesive narrative, but it all the more powerful because of this.

And then Barris relates stories of what happened to some of the ex-prisoners after they got back to Canada and tried to resume civilian life. This is one of the important parts of the book because it details their struggles with what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. But it also illustrates something that has always amazed me: that ordinary people can rise up, do extraordinary things, and then fade back into ordinary civilian life. Who knows what heroes walk beside us every day?

Finally, and quite important, Barris spends considerable time talking about the 1963 Hollywood version of The Great Escape. He starts off by remarking on its importance -- and then goes on to point out just how drastically the story was distorted -- "Hollywoodized" -- for the American audience. When I first saw the film fifty years ago, I remember being disgusted by the shameless sensationalism. But Barris points out that the making of the film allowed many of the former POWs to come to terms with their experiences and start talking about them again. In that sense the film was a Godsend.

And at the very end of the book, Barris refers to his visit to Sagan to the site of Stalag Luft III and the memorials that have been placed there to commemorate The Great Escape. My wife and I made this same pilgrimage about ten years previously, in 2004, shortly after the sixtieth anniversary of the escape. Barris also refers to the Museum of Allied Prisoners of War Martyrdom, the little museum that was built in Sagan in 1971. Many of the memorials that we saw in 2004 had been newly installed, but Barris describes several new memorials that had been placed in anticipation of the seventieth anniversary.

A very interesting book. Recommended.

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