Ask anyone to name a classic war film and the most will say The Great Escape. The film has become something of a Bank Holiday TV staple – no doubt boosted by a star turn from Hollywood’s king of cool Steve McQueen.
But how realistic is its depiction of what has become the most famous break-out of all time? Not very, according to one local man who was there.
RICHARD MORRIS caught up with Jack Lyon a few days before his talk at the White Rock Theatre, which took place on Sunday, May 29, and included a presentation by the Great Escape 11 team who explained the history of the real Great Escape.
THERE was definitely nobody who tried to escape on the back of a motorcycle,” explains Mr Lyon – or Tiger, to give him his camp name.
The pensioner was a prisoner of war in the now notorious Stalag Luft III and was one of 200 servicemen primed for escape on the cold night of March 24, 1944.
Months in the planning and involving a network of tunnel diggers, document forgers, tailors and planners, the escape has gone down as one of the most daring in history - largely thanks to the Steve McQueen film which still attracts a cult following today.
However, despite its popularity, most people would struggle to remember many details beside McQueen’s attempt to vault the border on an old Triumph.
For Mr Lyon though, the actual events seem like yesterday - even without a cinematic prompt.
“It was my first escape effort because I had always been moved between four and five camps,” the still sprightly veteran said from his Bexhill home.
“I only became involved when the tunnel was nearly finished because I was moved from the East Compound. It was 1943 and the Americans who were in the North Compound were moved out so we were moved in to fill the gap.
“By that time the tunnelling was almost complete and we knew something was going on because people were collecting bed boards and other bits.”
Other bits may be something of an understatement.
German soldiers searching the camp after the attempt had been rumbled uncovered a staggering list of missing materials which included more than 4,000 bed boards, 90 double bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 52 20-man tables, 76 benches and 1,000 feet of electric wire.
Clearly a lot of planning had been going on before Mr Lyon’s arrival.
And, according to the former RAF navigator, the fact the POWs were intent on breaking out would not have come as a surprise to their German captors.
“It was our duty to try and escape and most people tried at least once.
“The guards expected it. I wouldn’t say we made friends with them, but we were on good terms. They had their job to do and we had ours.
“We tried to escape, they tried to stop us. It was like football. You both try and do your job and then shake hands at the end.”
And, far from the torturous hell holes of Japanese prisoner of war camps, the experience of Mr Lyon and his comrades was not a reason in itself for the cat-and-mouse game of escape and capture being played out across the German countryside throughout the war years.
Aside from a half-hearted attempt to get him to sign a fake Red Cross document, Mr Lyon didn’t experience anything more than gentle probing from the Germans - and certainly no violent interrogation.
“It was like Butlins but without the trimmings,” he told the Observer. “The standard German military hut was superior to the British ones so in some ways it was actually better than what we were used to.”
And he also reserved a surprisingly large amount of respect for the camp’s senior officer, Kommandant Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau.
“He was a very honourable man. When the escape happened he was court marshalled and sentenced to eight years in prison but the end of the war put an end to that and he was taken to England to stand trial for war crimes.
“He was completely exonerated – as well the other officers. He subsequently gave evidence in another trial and, when asked what he would have done if the had been told to shoot a prisoner, he said: “I would shoot myself”, I certainly never held any grudge against him.”
Nevertheless, as Mr Lyon explained, the presumption was that captured British servicemen would try and escape.
And try they did.
The word went round just after midday on March 24 that the plan would go ahead that night, after the camp’s escape committee had been given the thumbs up by their weather expert.
And, with just a few hours to go before the camp huts were locked for the night, the pressure was on to make sure all the potential escapees were in the hut which housed the tunnel.
Not as easy as it might sound. My Lyon explained: “The tunnel was from Hut 104 so because the huts were closed we had to make sure everyone who was joining the escape was in there and the people normally in there were elsewhere. There were 200 of us and we had to do it without being noticed of raising suspicion.
“We held a football match to distract the guards and then afterwards, the team of people who were going to break out went back into Hut 104, and the team from Hut 104 went elsewhere.
“Once we had made sure we were in 104, we were given a number and then told to wait in different rooms until we were called. I was number 79.”
That number was never called, despite 76 of the prisoners making their way through the 350 foot long tunnel.
And, it would be fair to say, none of the break-out went particularly to plan.
“It was very much behind schedule,” remembered Mr Lyon. “There was an RAF raid nearby so the camp cut the lights - meaning the electricity we were using to light the tunnel went as well so that set us back.
“Then some idiots tried to crawl along with a loaf of bread in each pocket and got stuck. “It was only 20 inches by 20 inches so there was hardly any room as it was.
“And the last few feet of soil caused more problems than the planners thought because there were pine tree roots and it was a lot of trouble cutting through them.
“The tunnel also came up short, meaning the rate of exit was much slower.
“I never made it into the tunnel but I would not have got away anyway and when so many of them were murdered it didn’t seem important anymore.”
All but three of the escapees were rounded up and Adolf Hitler demanded they be killed in retaliation for the bloody-nose the escape had given German morale.
To do so went against international law and the Fuhrer’s trusted ally Hermann Goering reminded the Nazi leader that there were large numbers of German Luftwaffe airman in similar camps run by the Allies who could suffer as a result of his order.
Nevertheless, Hitler could only be partly convinced and ordered that more than half should be killed. It was on those orders that 50 of the captured escapists were rounded up and shot.
Amid all the romanticism of the Great Escape, it is this chapter which Mr Lyon remembers most vividly.
“I lost a lot of friends,” he said. “One room mate of mine, Dennis Cochrain, was one of the 50 murdered. I still have photos of them all now.
“It was not punishment. It was murder.”
And it is partly to keep the memory of his former colleagues alive that Mr Lyon has started talking about the escape and the subsequent Hollywood film.
He was on stage at the White Rock Theatre last weekend with another veteran, Alfie Fripp, to dispel a few myths before the screening of The Great Escape.
He still keeps records of all the people involved in the break-out, and has contributed to a string of books on the topic - even publishing his own tome, War and Pieces, a few years back.
So, did the film actually get anything right? “Well, the camp scenes were not bad but the rest was pure fiction.
“For a start it was mid-winter when we tried to escape but in the film everyone is running around in the sunshine.
“In fact, one of the reasons so few made progress was because of the weather conditions. “I understand why the attempt was planned because the Germans were getting suspicious and people were being moved on, but really it was a folly to try and escape in mid-winter.”
And what about McQueen’s baseball-catching, bike-riding character Virgil Hills? “He was based on John Lewis, a pilot from North Carolina, and amalgamated with a host of other US pilots in the stalag. But the part they played was very exaggerated to say the least.”
So is the film a complete dud? Surprisingly not according to Mr Lyon. In fact, he thinks McQueen’s character and the iconic bike scene is what sets it apart.
“I fully appreciated that made the film and 60 years later is it about the only thing people remember - but at least they do remember it.
“One thing is for certain though, Steve McQueen would not have get very far over lots of snow and ice if he was on the back of a motorbike.”