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Great Escapes

22/09/2004, By

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In the year which sees the sixtieth anniversary of the Great Escape, the Imperial War Museum is to open this new special exhibition on the 14th October featuring some of the extraordinary escape attempts made by Allied servicemen from German prisoner of war camps in the Second World War. This unique exhibition will look in detail at the fact and fiction surrounding some of the best-known escape stories including The Wooden Horse, the Great Escape and escape attempts from Colditz Castle.

Interactive and hands-on displays will allow children and adults alike to try on disguises, forge an identity pass, crawl through an escape tunnel, find out fascinating facts about escape attempts, and use their ingenuity to make their own escape from Colditz.

Interactive and hands-on displays throughout the exhibition will allow children and adults alike to try on disguises, forge an identity pass, crawl through an escape tunnel, find out fascinating facts about escape attempts, and use their ingenuity to make their own escape from Colditz.

Highlights of the exhibition will include:

* The first public display of unique items recently excavated from the original Great Escape tunnels.

* War crimes documents from the National Archives relating to the shooting of 50 of the 76 Great Escape prisoners who escaped in the mass break-out in 1944.

Colditz Castle

* A full size replica of the famous Colditz glider and the home- made tools and original plans used to build the glider.

* The identity tag and forged papers carried by Eric Williams, one of the three men who famously escaped from Stalag Luft III in 1943 through a tunnel concealed by a wooden vaulting horse.

* An exact replica of the wooden horse, made when the 1950 film about the escape was released.

* Silk maps, compasses and other escape aids issued to RAF crews.

* Red Cross parcels which contained tins that could be converted into shovels and other tools.

* A wartime monopoly game of the type that concealed hacksaw blades and German currency sent by British intelligence to Colditz prisoners.

* False documents, fake rubber stamps, and equipment used by would-be escapers in Colditz.

Chicken Run

The exhibition will also show how these escape stories have entered into popular mythology through their portrayal in books, on television and in hugely successful films ranging from the 1960s classic The Great Escape to the more contemporary Chicken Run.

The elements of escape are well known. Just as the generation who fought the Second World War eagerly read the stories of those who had escaped in 1914-18, within twenty years of 1945 the cinema had popularised escape. The tension, frustration and ingenuity surrounding any attempt to break out of a camp and make a 'home run' made for an ideal film. The pattern quickly became familiar -an inspired idea, determination against all odds and courage in the face of adversity.

With the spread of television, these films were seen by a new generation and more and more people came to know how and why prisoners escaped. In time viewers were as comfortable with The Great Escape as with Christmas itself. The depth of this familiarity meant that when Aardman Productions made its first animated feature film, Chicken Run, many of the jokes were contained not in the drama but in subtle references to earlier films. Music, single shots and small incidents immediately placed this apparently comic film in the long established tradition of escape films.

People think they know a lot about escaping and POW life. But how much is true? Some escapes were more extraordinary than fiction. For most prisoners of war in Germany, however, life was nothing like the films.

Stalag Luft III

For many POWs there was little reason to attempt escape. But for others the drive and determination was almost overwhelming. Apart from a sense of duty, POWs had no control over their lives and lived within an extremely confined environment. Life was unbearably boring. Escape provided excitement, purpose and hope.

In principle there were only three ways out of any camp: under the wire or wall, over them or through them. Tunnels were the main way under. In camps such as Colditz, housed in a castle on a high hill, there was little hope of deep, underground tunnelling. Over the wire or wall was very risky as it was the most easily seen and inevitably took place high up away from shadow. Going through any barriers could either take the form of a direct assault - wire cutting, or subterfuge - hiding (in carts or wagons brought into the camp), or disguise (pretending to be someone who had a legitimate reason for leaving).

Escaping required a lot of preparation. The odds of making a 'home run' out of Germany were very slight. Out of 10,000 RAF prisoners, only 30 succeeded in reaching home. So in order to increase the odds prisoners relied on Escape Aids, Forgery, and Disguise.

Imperial War Museum London
Lambeth Road
London, SE1 6HZ

14th October 2004 - 31st July 2005
Open daily 10.00am - 6.00pm
Closed 24th, 25th, 26th December
Last admission to the exhibition 5.15pm

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