Last Night’s TV – The Great Escape: The Reckoning

by Lynn Connolly

the great escape

“Looking back now, when we and the Germans are great mates, it just seems stupid…”

That one sentence, uttered by a survivor of ‘The Great Escape’ sums up for me the post-war emotion succinctly. It really does all seem such a waste and, yes, stupid. Our men died, their men died, and ultimately, all these years on, it’s hard to imagine that the world could’ve been so radically altered by what boils down to the actions of one mad man.

But history of course often repeats itself and here we are again, the world’s reacting to, and trying to rid us of one mad man. And thousands of lives have been lost as a result. Again.

This terribly moving documentary was about the real-life story behind the classic film, The Great Escape, which – to my shame – I’ve only hazy memories of when it was shown at Christmas. My parents always watched it but I was usually too busy with Lego or some new toy to be overly interested in wartime antics.

But as we heard last night, the film that was made was only part of the story, and though in parts it faithfully retold the tale, some embellishment was made in the name of drama. For example, in the film, the escapees were shown being gunned down all together, but in actuality, most were killed individually and in various parts of the world by those sent to do just that.

And in turn, our forces hunted down those executioners and killed or imprisoned them too. Led by ex-policeman and RAF man Frank McKenna, the team of what might be termed ‘avenging angels’ found many of those Gestapo assassins who pretty much to a man explained that they were “following orders.”

This ‘excuse’ was treated with contempt, but those men had their orders directly from Hitler, and if they’d refused to comply, they or their families would’ve been executed. The irony of course is that our men – those led by McKenna – were also obeying orders, though being British, we might like to think that we had ‘right’ on our side.

And for those involved, no doubt their consciences were clear for in a war, the side you’re on is the ‘right’ side, no matter which it is.

I think that’s the real message and point of films of this nature; to remind us not only of the hideous sacrifices made in war – on both sides of the war – but also to remind us that by and large, wars are pretty pointless affairs. It’s all very eye for an eye and so often more about revenge than justice.

It’s also easy to forget when we see and hear propaganda that’s weighted in ‘our’ favour with coverage of wartime activity – now or back then – that the vast majority of those who suffer have nothing to do with anything; they’re just people.

Although this documentary was of course related to the film of the escapes from Stalag Luft III – and told a remarkable tale – it was all of the above that it provoked for me. I was far more interested in hearing the very personal accounts of people like Emil Schulz’s daughter Ingeborg rather than whether Gordon Jackson did his character justice, which he did it seems.

Emil was hanged in 1948 for his part in the execution of escapees, but his daughter remembers not a cold blooded killer but a loving father who – as he himself said at the time – was ‘just’ following orders. He had no choice; it was kill or be killed.

And though McKenna and his men weren’t under the same threat, they of course must have felt the burden of justice weighed heavy on their shoulders when seeking out the killers of the men who died after escaping Stalag Luft III.

If you missed this film, I’d strongly recommend you watch it here on Channel 4’s 4oD, because it was truly moving and poignant, and as sadly relevant today as the story it told was back then.

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.