Luke Harding: The Fake Escape (the truth about The Great Escape)





He played a starring role in one of the most famous episodes of the second world war. But yesterday BA "Jimmy" James - one of the last survivors of the mass break-out by Allied prisoners from a Nazi prisoner of war camp - described the celebrated film version of his story as "a load of rubbish".

James, now 90, said the 1963 movie The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and Richard Attenborough, bore little resemblance to what actually took place during and after the escape from the maximum-security camp in Sagan, Poland.

He played a starring role in one of the most famous episodes of the second world war. But yesterday BA "Jimmy" James - one of the last survivors of the mass break-out by Allied prisoners from a Nazi prisoner of war camp - described the celebrated film version of his story as "a load of rubbish".
James, now 90, said the 1963 movie The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and Richard Attenborough, bore little resemblance to what actually took place during and after the escape from the maximum-security camp in Sagan, Poland.

James was one of 76 prisoners who successfully tunnelled out of the camp, but was recaptured 24 hours later. Only three - two Norwegians and a Dutchman - managed to reach allied territory. Fifty others - many British - were shot. Hitler personally ordered their execution.
James, who was shot down over Holland in June 1940, returned to Germany yesterday to mark the publication of his version of events, Moonless Night.

"The first part of the film wasn't bad," James told Guardian Unlimited at the book's Berlin launch. "The [escape] committee meetings were good. And the tunnel was fairly well-portrayed."

However, he added: "The second half was just Hollywood fantasy. It was an excuse for Steve McQueen [who plays a fictional officer, Captain Hilts] to ride his motorbike. There was no motorbike. Nobody pinched a plane either. And the forger didn't go blind afterwards. He was shot.

"Attenborough [whose character was based on James's fellow squadron leader, Roger Bushell] wasn't bad. But the last part was a load of old rubbish."

During his five years in German captivity James tried to escape 12 times. He succeeded twice - from Stalag Luft III, the scene of The Great Escape, and from Sachsenhausen, the PoW camp in Berlin where he was interned afterwards.

Yesterday he recalled how he escaped from Stalag Luft III in "Harry" - one of three tunnels dug 30ft below the German sentry lines. He clambered out of the tunnel "at 1.30am" and boarded a train south - only to be arrested 24 hours later when a guard asked him for his papers. "It was a great frustration and disappointment," he said. "But I still remember the euphoria of getting out [of the tunnel] into the snow."




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