For many, the phrase ‘the great escape’ immediately brings to mind the 1963 film of the same name. The film, which is the screen portrayal of a 1950 novel written by Paul Brickhill, is based on true events; in fact, the author dedicated his book to ‘the 50’ real life Allied soldiers that dug their way out of a Stalag Luft III Prisoner of War camp in 1944.
With its themes of ingenuity, perseverance and human spirit, it is little wonder that we are fascinated by such tales. However, what you might not realise is that there have been other ‘great escapes’ less famous, but every bit as fascinating as this one.
Island Farm Prisoner of War camp in South Wales was the location of the ‘Other’ Great Escape story of World War II; but this time, it was Axis prisoners that fled their captors.
Using a tunnel system similar to the ones used by the Allied prisoners, an alleged 84 inmates escaped the camp beneath the perimeter fence – though officials claimed there were fewer escapees in order to minimise the media scandal. Some escapees made it as far as Birmingham and Southampton, though all were eventually recaptured without punishment.
John Dillinger was arguably the most notorious American bank robber during the Great Depression. He escaped from prison on two separate occasions: the first, with the help of inmate friends (themselves famous criminals); the second, by threatening the guards using a wooden gun he had carved himself and then stealing the Sherriff’s car for a getaway vehicle.
Urban legend has it that he dragged his ‘weapon’ against the bars of the cells on his way out, laughing that he had escaped using nothing more than a handmade wooden gun.
One of four men that became the first team to scale the North Face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps, it was during an expedition to Persia that Heinrich Harrer was captured by British soldiers and held in an Indian detention camp. His remarkable escape would shape his spiritual future.
In his youth, Harrer was part of the Gestapo, though was later cleared of pre-war crimes and described his involvement with the Nazis as the ‘mistake’ of an impressionable young man.
His life took a very different turn when he was captured in Karachi and held near Bombay. After a series of thwarted attempts to escape, Harrer and six other prisoners disguised themselves as British officers and native Indian workers and fled.
Harrer spent the next seven years living and working in Tibet, where he became close friend and personal tutor of the 14th Dalai Lama. His life there, including his relationship with the famous spiritual leader, would inspire his best-selling autobiography, later adapted into a film starring Brad Pitt.
Born into slavery in Maryland in the United States, Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Harriet Ross), escaped from her ‘owners’ in 1949. Once free, she selflessly risked recapture by returning to the plantation many times over the next 11 years to help others slaves to escape. Little did her masters ever guess that their former slave was behind the exodus.
Using the ‘Underground Railroad’, an informal network of abolitionists, free and working slaves and other activists, Harriet repeatedly made the 90 mile journey from Maryland to Pennsylvania under cover of darkness to avoid ‘slave catchers’ seeking a reward. In total she led around 300 slaves to freedom, earning her the nickname ‘Moses’.
Though these stories may not be as famous as the 1963 film, nor as large in scale, all are examples of extreme courage and determination, earning each one its place as a Great Escape in its own right.
Nicola works alongside LBS Group, experts in industrial security. She loves reading about security developments throughout history and studying how they have evolved into the modern-day.