ESCAPING CAPTIVITY WITH CROWS AND STEVE MCQUEEN

In 1949 the following paper was published in Ibis the official journal of the British Ornithologists’ Union. The title was: Rook and Jackdaw Migrations Observed in Germany 1942-1945.

1942-1945? Wasn’t something else going on in Germany then?

So who exactly was doing the observing while Europe was being torn apart by the Second World War? The compilers of this article were John Buxton, Peter Conder and George Waterston, who were POWs in Germany at the time. There were many ways POWs sought to escape the boredom of captivity: reading, acting, playing music, painting, doing academic courses of various different sorts, sports, escape activities and yes, bird watching.

The amount of time they put in was extraordinary. Here is a run down of an average day’s bird watching during the summer :

6-8.30 watching

Breakfast/parade

9.30-12.30 more watching

lunch

1.30-5.30 watching again

Tea

6-9.30 more watching with a break at 19.30 for supper

That is a great many hours to look at the sky. These men were incarcerated in Germany where most of the camps were situated away from towns and cities and many were in wooded areas. In addition officers, unlike the ORs, did not have to work and therefore had time on their hands. The 16 page note they produced had the occasional wry aside that bore witness to the extraordinary circumstances of their observations. For example it was noted that the rooks enjoyed feasting on fields covered in human excrement!

In his wonderful book Crow Country Mark Cocker has this to say about the obsessional aspects of bird watchers:

‘Perhaps all monomanias … are a way of offsetting some deeper pain in life.’

Well, I think in this case it’s highly probable that the pain was that of captivity, hunger, boredom, and anxiety about loved ones back home and how the war was progressing. Looking into the air, looking at birds which were free to fly where ever they wanted maybe gave them some reprieve from their incarceration.

Waterston suffered severe kidney damage when he was captured in Crete in 1941 but took an active role in the Dössel camp bird watching. However in 1943 he was allowed to go home because of his ill-health. Another bird man, his friend Ian Pitman, demanded to be repatriated at the same time. When he was challenged as to the fact that he seemed in perfect health, he took out his glass eye and slammed it down on the German Commandant’s desk and was thus sent home with his friend. After the war the two of them bought Fair Isle in the Shetlands and established it as a migration study site. Condor and Waterston became two of the leading environmentalists of their age. John Buxton became a distinguished Oxford don and poet.

In the film The Great Escape  there’ s a scene where the prisoners are being given a lecture on birds and it’s a cover for them forging documents.

Finally, for those of you who like your escapes a bit more physical. Here’s that famous attempted escape sequence with Steve McQueen and the stunt he executed himself. An iconic film star, a tasty motorbike, some beautiful mountains and quite a nifty bit of music to accompany it as well. Elmer Bernstein wrote the score. He also wrote the film scores for The Magnificent Seven and Thoroughly Modern Millie amongst many others. If you’re interested in finding out how crows figure in my book Far Away here’s the link:

http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3292

How do you escape? Motorcycles or bird watching? Or … ?

Sources: Mark Cocker: Crow Country, Midge Gillies: The Barbed-Wire University.

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THE LIVES OF POWS DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR

To begin with, a bit of a riddle to stretch your little grey cells – what do Maria from The Sound of Music and a POW in Italy during the Second World War have in common?

No?

OK, Poirot is deeply disappointed in you; he is twirling his moustache in a positive frenzy of disappointment.

Here’s a clue – it has to do with favourite things.

No, it certainly does not have to do with solving a problem like Maria, Poirot being singularly uninterested in women and women being singularly absent from the lives of POWs.

Still no?

Oh, for heaven’s sake then I’ll just have to tell you – packages tied up in string.

There – it was easy, wasn’t it? Now you’re kicking yourself.

Yes, this is a post about RED CROSS PARCELS and my God were they tied up in a lot of string. But I’ll get to that a little bit later.

Here comes the serious and rather touching bit.

Red Cross parcels were absolutely crucial in the lives of POWs and the Red Cross were extraordinarily successful in raising money for them and sending them. During the six years of the war the Red Cross sent out twenty million food parcels to POWs. In 1942, the year my father, Robert Blake, was taken prisoner and their peak year, five and a half million were delivered. By the end of the war the Red Cross had sent out fifty-two million pounds worth of parcels and had incurred no debt. By any stretch of the imagination that is a hugely successful campaign.

Each parcel was 31 cm wide by 17.5 cm tall by 11.5 cm deep. And it was filled with food. The aim was to get one to each prisoner per week but due to the vagaries of war-time transport this rarely happened. At the beginning there was an attempt to send bread but this soon ended as the parcels were taking too long to reach their destination. The contents varied slightly but chocolate, tea and sugar appeared in every one because they were universally popular and could be bartered for other food. Indian POWs had their own parcels which contained atta, flour used in South Asian cooking, curry powder, dhal and rice but no tinned meat. Cigarettes and tobacco were sent separately.

A huge amount of string was used to secure them – ten feet per parcel. The string was three stranded sisal and brutally tough on the hands of the packers but very useful to the POWs.

Here are some of the things the string was used for:

  • shoes
  • bags
  • brushes
  • hammocks
  • pulling the wooden trolleys that brought the earth out of escape tunnels – 300 meters of rope was made by those men taking part in the escape depicted in the film The Great Escape
  • wigs for female impersonators to use in plays
  • cricket balls – the string was wrapped round a pebble
  • golf balls
  • tennis nets
  • cricket nets
  • football nets

An unusual donation to the Red Cross campaign came from Hitler when his  English language publishers, Hutchinson, donated £500, (approximately £18,000 in today’s money) royalties earned from sales of Mein Kampf. 

The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gilles

The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gillies

If you’re interested in reading any more on this subject I’d highly recommend Midge Gillies excellent book, The Barbed-Wire University. To quote from The Mail on Sunday it’s ‘brilliantly researched, fascinating and deeply moving.’

ESCAPE!

WITH ONE MIGHTY BOUND HE WAS FREE!

The other day, writing in my local cafe, I watched as a toddler ran shrieking away from her father, who was acting the role of the Big Bad Monster. The child was screaming with a mixture of delight and terror. The ‘monster’ bore down on her, whisked her into his arms, hoisted her aloft and the child gurgled with pleasure. Most of us have either seen or been participants in that scenario at some time in our lives.

One of the themes of my book Far Away is ESCAPE! In this case from a POW camp in Italy during the Second World War.

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

In his brilliant book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker says:

‘The thrilling escape from death runs very deep. It is one of the most consistent motifs in storytelling.’

He goes on to say that the vast majority of these stories are tied up with ‘overcoming the monster’. After all, there has to be something the protagonist is escaping from.

Here are a few examples:

  • a scantily clad heroine in a silent movie is tied to the tracks as the train bears down on her;
  • Jonah is swallowed by a whale and escapes when he is vomited out of its belly;
  • Little Red Riding Hood escapes the Big Bad Wolf;
  • Jack of the Beanstalk escapes and kills the giant;
  • Goldilocks jumps out of the window and escapes the three bears;
  • In the war film The Guns of Navarone, the guns are the monsters which our heroes blow up before making their escape;
  • In the film The Great Escape POWs tunnel out of a camp in Germany and escape;
  • Jerry, that pesky mouse, finds all kinds of ways to escape the malign attentions of Tom, the cat;
  • In the film The Shawshank Redemption a prisoner tunnels his way out of a prison and escapes through the sewage system. This has also just happened in real life in America. Richard Matt and David Sweat have just tunnelled out of a maximum security jail in Dannemora, New York.

You get the general idea and I’m sure you could add a few of your own! Once you start looking for escape stories you’ll find them everywhere.

Far Away by Victoria Blake

Far Away by Victoria Blake

One of the most interesting things about what happened to my father and what I depict in my novel Far Away is how the ‘monster’ to be overcome, (as Christopher Booker describes it), changed into a saviour. To start with the enemy was the Italians who were running and guarding the POW camps. However, on September 8th the Armistice was announced and on the following day the Allies landed at Salerno and Taranto. At that point the Italian army laid down its arms and the guards drifted away. What happened then, as thousands of Allied POWs poured out into the Italian countryside, was extraordinary.

Many of the Italian contadini – the country people – took incredible risks to help and protect these young men. This is one of the most touching aspects of the story. Of course, if you have next to nothing yourself then maybe it makes you all too aware of what it means to be starving, thirsty and cold. But all the same the risks were huge. If caught by the Germans helping escaped Allied soldiers then the Italians were likely to be killed and have their houses burnt down. That is a very big risk to take for people who, before they were imprisoned, had been fighting their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers.  It is possible to argue that the Italians knowing which way the war was going were acting in their own self-interest, however this does not reduce the level of courage shown or the dangers involved.

And the danger lasted for a long time. Germany did not just hand Italy over to the Allies. It took twenty months for the Allies to fight their way up to Italy’s northern border. It was to be a hard-fought, brutal and bloody campaign.

Do you have a favourite escape story?

Or do you have any stories from Italy at that time?

A GREAT ESCAPE

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If old soldiers divide into those who never stop talking about the war and those who remain silent, my father, the historian Robert Blake, was definitely in the silent camp. Consequently the story of his escape from a prisoner of war camp in Italy during the Second World War was mainly related to me and my sisters by my mother.  It involved hiding in roofs, a septic or as my mother put it, poisoned toe and most thrilling of all, wolves howling in the mountains.

What could be better!

Of course every child is interested in the possibility of their father being a hero. In ‘Great Escape’ terms I wanted my father to be Steve McQueen’s character, Virgil Hilts, ‘the Cooler King’, the man who wears the sweatshirt and throws the baseball, the man who steals a motorbike and  tries to jump a barbed wire fence. But however hard I tried, I could not transpose my father into Virgil Hilts. He wasn’t brash enough for a start or that reckless. He was much more like the blind forger, Colin Blythe, played by Donald Pleasance; he was highly intelligent, diffident and quite shy.

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And unlike Virgil, who is caught and returned to the cooler, and Colin who is gunned down within sight of the Swiss border, my father had managed to escape. Not bad for a modest Englishman, who didn’t like talking about himself very much.

As I grew older, the appeal of Virgil Hilts faded and my assessment of what was heroic became more nuanced. When my father died the only part of his memoirs which he had written was that involving his wartime experiences. The book I am working on now, Far Away, is a work of fiction but it draws heavily on these memoirs and other family papers to tell the story of his escape.