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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

To Escape

page 3

To Escape

Prisoners of war are exhorted to escape.1 That advice is perhaps too categorical as circumstances alter cases. Who would recommend the prisoner in Japan to escape? Yet even in Japan the prisoner needed to be guarded. The vigilance that had to be maintained to guard prisoners caused a perceptible drain on the enemy's manpower, and every successful escape from camp in Italy or Germany harassed the enemy, obliging him to keep up a wasteful system of guards, special police, and the constant checking of personal papers that helped to diminish his own war potential. Of an unsuccessful escape a prisoner wrote consolingly, ‘The principle was to provide annoyance to the enemy and occupy his garrison reserves’.

The principle was also to occupy the minds of the prisoners themselves, for few had settled down willingly to the dreary occupation of being a prisoner of war, and all found the humiliation and boredom of prison life oppressive. Many men dallied with the idea of escaping. Escapes— successful, failed, or future—had the strongest moral effect on everybody inside a prison camp The idea that they could at some time escape was a great enhancement of prisoners' self-esteem. It was the principal means open to them (apart from direct sabotage and going slow on working parties, the former a matter of opportunity, the latter a routine) of actively returning to the struggle against the enemy. With any man who got away went the thoughts and aspirations of the much larger number who had to stay behind. Successful escapes bolstered morale.

Some men were persistent and determined escapers. Prowess in this field of action did not always coincide with outstanding fighting ability, but often the two qualities were closely associated in the same person. An astonishing number of men escaped several times; these prisoners gave their whole minds to the problems of organising escapes, were alert to seize every opportunity and, if necessary, to create them. Some men escaped for negative reasons: their overwhelming hatred of prison life. Others escaped from a sense of adventure, some from a sense of duty

The enemy, too, had to spend a great deal of thought and energy in dealing with escapes and minimising the possibility of their occurrence. The German camps were surrounded by formidable barriers of barbed wire, with sentries in observation towers equipped with searchlights. In Italy some camps were located in fortresses or old and massive buildings eminently suitable for use as prisons; the camps in the open were all as well defended as those in Germany. Fences, guards, sentries, roll calls, unannounced searches of prisoners' quarters and property were all used by the stronger side against the weaker in a never-ending battle of wits in which the race did not invariably go to the swift, nor the battle automatically to the strong. For it was the prisoners who held the initiative, and no amount of clairvoyance or thoroughness on the part of the captors could prevent the captives from finding out the weaknesses in the system designed to keep them securely incarcerated. They accepted the challenge presented to them by the fact of their captivity.

1 Section 53 of the Army Act makes it a military offence not to rejoin HM Forces if it is in one's power to do so.