In the early to mid-1970s American Midwest, there was a certain type of motion picture that was bound to appeal to young males such as myself: the Big War Movie. Just like my friends, I never missed the chance to see TV replays of Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen, The Longest Day, The Guns of Navarone or — perhaps the greatest of them all — The Great Escape.
So fascinated was I by the World War II story of the escape of seventy-six Allied prisoners of war from a German camp, I also read Paul Brickhill’s classic book with the same title. I recall it was the first time I ever experienced the disappointment of seeing some of what made a book so great lost in the translation to the big screen (key point: Steve McQueen’s ultra-hip Cooler Kid character was totally fabricated; there were no American airmen in the North Compound at Stalag Luft III where the tunnels were dug).
The movie had big name stars like McQueen, stirring music, epic visuals, and memorable set pieces (such as the Fourth of July celebration that ends in tragedy, yet another complete fabrication), but after reading the book for me it lacked…something.
Perhaps it was the grittiness and black humor of camp life as described by Brickhill, the amazing scope of the camp escape committee’s efforts — hundreds of false documents, maps, compasses and sets of civilian clothes were created by men barely surviving on watery soup and ersatz coffee — or the ultimate triumph when three, just three, of the escapees make it to freedom while fifty were summarily executed.
When I saw the full title of Simon Read’s Human Game: The True Story of the “Great Escape” Murders and the Hunt for the Gestapo Gunmen, there was no question I would read the book. Frankly, it came as somewhat of a surprise to me that after the war the British government sanctioned an investigation and pursuit of the men behind the executions; it makes sense but for whatever reason it never occurred to me.
Human Game tells the often amazing story of an investigation that ended with seventy-two Germans on trial for the murders; twenty-one were executed for their roles. It is an amazing achievement given the circumstances.
The crime scenes were unknown, so there was no physical evidence beyond the fifty urns of ashes that had been returned to Stalag Luft III. Large areas of Germany were in ruins from fighting or devastating bombing raids, records had been systematically destroyed, masses of people were displaced, many of the dead were not identified in the final hectic days of the Nazi regime, and many of the suspects — knowing they would be asked to pay for their crimes — had melted away by grabbing the identity papers from a nearby corpse or giving a false name to the occupation authorities with the explanation that all their belongings had been destroyed.
Making matters harder even than that, the prison camp and the sites for more than half the murders were in the Soviet-controlled zone of occupation, and the alliance between the West and the Soviet Union was quickly hardening into the Cold War. There would be little to no cooperation for the investigators from the Soviets, who had captured some of the key figures in the executions.
Still, the British team persevered through hard work and determination, pouring through records, following up on leads, interviewing potential witnesses and cross-checking stories, until ultimately the final minutes of the fifty murdered airmen — including who was present — were revealed.
One of the interesting features of the book is how the author includes witness statements that contradict as the suspected killers sought to downplay their roles. It demonstrates just how difficult the task was for the investigators, who had no way of knowing how much truth was in any suspect’s story.
Another interesting section that is certainly relevant in today’s world deals with the treatment of Germans suspected of war crimes at the London Cage. Located in three buildings in Kensington Palace Gardens, the Cage was the site of interrogations that included many types of torture including beatings, electrical shock, humiliation, and sleep deprivation. The British were able to keep the Red Cross away from the Cage, and during the trials of the Stalag Luft III killers the commanding officer of the facility is quoted lying under oath about his methods.
All in all I highly recommend Human Game to anyone interested in the rest of the story of the Great Escape, as well as those interested in true-crime investigations or getting a look at post-war Europe.