My brother forwarded me a link to a story about an audacious group of French POWs who escaped from their camp during World War II. I grew up watching Hogan’s Heroes, a comedy about a group of international POWs who came and went from their camp at will. It all seemed rather like summer camp. Last year, I visited Dachau outside of Munich with a group of students. It was an absolutely chilling experience that I don’t think any of us will ever forget.
In 1940, after the fall of France, 5,000 French officers were held in Austria on the Czech border in Oflag 17a. As an act of resistance, and to pass the time that hung heavily on their hands, they decided to clandestinely film their daily lives, which was, of course, strictly forbidden. Thanks to a little help from the outside world and an enormous dose of ingenuity, they succeeded in shooting enough footage to create a twenty-six minute documentary entitled Sous le manteau (sue luh mahntoe). This title literally means “under the coat” and figuratively means “clandestinely.” In this case, it was both under the coat AND clandestine.
The pieces of a camera were smuggled into the camp in pieces hidden inside sausages. The officers fitted a small camera into a box that looked like a book that they held beneath their coats. They hid the reels of film inside the hollowed out heels of their shoes. You can watch a shorter version of the film here and a 52 minute documentary about the whole story here.
Certainly, they filmed their Spartan lodgings and meager rations, but they also filmed their preparations for an escape. Because this was not a labor camp, the officers had time to read, talk, and plan how to get out of the camp. These plans always involved tunnels to get under the barbed wire. The French officers got permission from the Germans to build a theater. The makeshift structure was built between the cell blocks and the barbed wire, greatly shortening the distance to freedom. They partially covered the structure with branches that hid it from view. The officers had been given shovels to dig their own bomb shelters at the insistence of the Red Cross, and they used these to start digging a tunnel. Among the officers were highly trained mathematicians, geologists, and architects who had the expertise necessary to carry out the plan. The prisoners were divided into teams, each with specific tasks. One group was responsible to create civilian clothes to re-dress the officers once they’d gotten to the other side. Another was responsible to create false identity papers. One group had the very practical task of hiding the excavated dirt under the seats inside the theater.
By September 18, 1943, seventy years ago today, everything was ready. At nightfall, the first group slipped inside the tunnel. When the German guards didn’t notice the missing men the following day, another group took their chance. The survivors remember the escape with great clarity. There was very little air in the tunnel and they had to spend about ten hours inching along. Some passed out. All feared a firing squad at the other end of the tunnel. When they got to the other side of the barbed wire, they were under strict orders to scatter in different directions. Notwithstanding all of their precautions, however, almost all of the 32 escapees were recaptured. Only six made it back to France. One of them, Jean Cuene-Grandidier, just celebrated his 100th birthday.
Thanks for passing on a great story, Andrew.
- How French secretly filmed prison camp life in WWII (bbc.co.uk)
- Incredible footage reveals how French World War Two prisoners secretly filmed life in their POW camp with tiny camera hidden in a hollowed out dictionary (thisismoney.co.uk)
- How French secretly filmed prison camp life in WWII on July 31, 2013 at 18:45 (historychannelfromthewar.com)