My rating: 8.5/10.
It was January when they had first come to Stalag-Luft III, and for the whole of that month the ground was under snow. Snow lay thickly on the roofs of the barracks blocks and gave an air of gaiety to the barbed wire which sparkled and glittered in the sun. Every post carried its cap of crisp, powdery snow, and when the wind blew, the snow drifted up against the coiled wire, softening its gauntness. Escape in this weather was impossible, and when the snow stopped falling the prisoners made a bobsleigh run and cut up their bed-boards to make toboggans. They flooded the football pitch and made an ice rink on which they skated from morning until evening. The camp was pure and clean while the snow lay on the ground, and the air loud with the shouts of the skaters. It was only when the night carts came to empty the aborts that the compound became offensive, and then the air was malodorous and long yellow streaks marked the snow where the carts had been.
When the thaw came the camp was a sea of mud. The packed ice of the toboggan run was the last to melt, and the skating rink was a miniature lake on which a few enthusiasts sailed their home-made yachts. Then that dried up and the football pitch was reconditioned. The goalposts were replaced and the earth dams that had held the water were removed.
With the spring came a renewed interest in escape. Spring is the escaping season…
Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant Peter Howard, shot down over Germany in 1942, is on his second prison camp. He and fellow officer John Clinton had already tunnelled out of their first camp, Oflag XXI-B, but were recaptured only a few days later. Now they are pondering the possibilities of surreptitiously leaving Stalag-Luft II, the massive internment camp purpose-built and maintained by the Luftwaffe for captured flight crews. (This officers-only camp eventually housed over 10,000 POWs. For an excellent description of Stalag-Luft III, see this extensive Wikipedia article.)
Escaping from Stalag-Luft III had so far been impossible. Built on sandy soil, with distinctly coloured subsoil making disposal of tunnelling debris extremely difficult to disguise, the camp buildings were constructed on pilings, with guard dogs patrolling the compound after dark, and a system of foot patrols and random spotlighting to prevent any prisoner activity under cover of darkness. Due to the prevalence of prisoners attempting to escape by tunnelling, microphones capable of picking up seismographic vibrations had been installed around the perimeter of the camp.
Conditions inside the camp were reputed to be among the most “lavish” in any of the German-run POW camps. Because the detainees were officers, they were not required to perform forced labour under the terms of the Geneva Convention, and were provided with regular Red Cross food and relief parcels, which included cigarettes and toiletries. Many of the POWs were taking correspondence-style university courses, and recreation opportunities within the camp – sports, theatre, music – were well organized and highly attended.
So why even try to escape, and risk being shot? Many of the captured British airmen were quite content to put up with the boredom of being interned, grateful to be in a relatively comfortable camp, but for others the idea of being held in detention was maddening. Their one focus was on getting out and away back to England, from where they could renew their active participation in the war.
Howard and Clinton come up with an ingenious plan, inspired by the traditional “Trojan Horse”, to start a tunnel close to the perimeter fence and so lessen the distance needed for excavation. They design a wooden vaulting horse, in which at first one and then later two and three men can be hidden and carried, and proceed to establish a regular routine of gymnastic exercises at their chosen tunnel head. With the cooperation and assistance of numerous fellow prisoners, the continuous vaulting, jumping, landing and related calisthenics created enough vibration that the tunneling noise was disguised from the microphones. Bags of excavated sand, made from the cut-off legs of prisoners’ pants, were hung on hooks inside the horse, to be removed and surreptitiously scattered in innocuous locations, and eventually, as it was harder to dispose off without being spotted, in the ceilings of the dormitories.
The Wooden Horse describes the escape plan in great detail, and makes fascinating reading. The ingenuity of the prisoners is admirable, as is the camp organization which coordinated escape attempts. A hidden stockpile of altered clothing, forged papers, German money and condensed food rations was assembled through various efforts, to be allotted to those who had made a plausible case to the Escape Committee.
Howard and Clinton, along with a third officer, Phillip Rowe, are the first and as it turns out, the only prisoners to successfully escape from Stalag-Luft III and to return to their home country. Every other escape attempt, of which there were many, including the famous “Great Escape” of 1944 documented by writer Paul Brickhill, ended in recapture and, in the case of the Great Escape, execution of many of the escapees.
In The Wooden Horse, the fictionalized version of events written by participant Eric Williams, ‘Peter Howard’ is Eric himself, ‘John Clinton’ is Michael Codner, and ‘Philip Rowe’ is Oliver Philpot. All three men returned to active service after their return to England.
An extremely interesting book, containing as it does such intensive detail concerning life in an officers’ POW camp, and vivid descriptions of life in civilian Germany midway through the war as the men blend in with the population during their journey toward the seaport where they hope to find transport out of the country.
The story is well-told, though events here and there which are really quite dramatic are told in an offhand sort of manner, with the exception of a brutal encounter with a German guard at the very end of the narrative, which stands out by its dramatic and gory details. This incident was later revealed to be fabricated at the request of the book’s publisher, in order to “spice up” the ending. Everything else, though, appears to be quite true.
A must-read for anyone at all interested in World War II history, for its extensive detail and its business-as-usual, “sure-we-did-amazing-things-but-why-all-the-fuss?” tone, keeping that British “stiff upper lip” stereotype nicely polished. What emotion is shown is in the realistic depiction of the nerve-wracking journey across Germany and into occupied Denmark, and the stressful situation at being completely at the mercy of randomly-met strangers who may or may not be willing to pass along information or messages, and any of whom might be in collaboration with the German officials.
All in all, a good read.