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I'm reading The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill, which recounts escape attempts from the Stalag Luft III POW camp in Poland during WWII.

Brickhill describes a camp where he and his fellow RAF/AAC pilots were fed, had access to Red Cross packages, we're treated relatively decently by the Germans, and were given a fair degree of freedom (theatre, library, chapel, music, athletics). I am aware that they were indeed prisoners, and that the rations were less than ideal. But Brickhill doesn't write about anyone starving, nor does he write of their captors commiting any atrocities. It seems a very large risk, especially given that they knew the Germans were losing the war.

Why would they try to escape? It was notoriously difficult (soft sand, raised barracks, and seismic microphones to impede tunnelling) and any escapee would have a difficult time getting out of Germany. In addition, anyone caught after would face severe punishment.

Why did these airmen try to escape when their basic needs appear to have been adequately met?

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    Because their job is to fight the enemy not sit around.
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 5 at 3:47
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    Main motivation was simply - patriotism. These were young, highly motivated men, not wanting to spend their prime years languishing in some camp. Of course, we only read about those who tried to escape, there were certainly those who were privately satisfied to live in relative safety and did not attempt anything until the end of the war.
    – rs.29
    Jan 5 at 4:04
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    Additionally, to all the comments: Some people value freedom and hate Nazis. I suggest you think about similar questions such as: Why did some east Germans tried to escape? Why did some dissidents in USSR and its satellites struggled against their regimes? Etc. Jan 5 at 4:15
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    Not an answer because US and 1955 but en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duty_to_escape . References rules and principles back to 1891 Jan 5 at 5:19
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    This question can be asked of countless prison breaks, unrelated to any war(s) whatsoever; it's not as if peacetime detainees, arrested or incarcerated for various non-capital offenses, are either left to starve, or otherwise denied medical attention when needed; yet, even in such cases, escapes are not exactly unheard of, to put it mildly.
    – Lucian
    Jan 5 at 11:14

4 Answers 4

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As noted (paywalled) the majority of POW could not escape, and many did not try to for various reasons including those in the original question and the simple fact that if several thousand POW try to escape at once people die. The key part is that some did want to escape, and got movies made about them (there were 10,000 people in Stalag Luft III, and only 200 assigned to 'the great escape').

Looking specifically at UK POWs in Germany the conditions were by no means pleasant, the rules merely being they could not be beaten or starved to death with a lot of misery possible in 6 years. Further many saw it as a duty to continue national aims, which in some cases involved escape.

The existence of the POW escape genre owes its existence to a fairly complex set of circumstances and a narrow window of time, specifically the end of parole and the implementation of the Third Geneva Convention which established a baseline for behavior (at least among those who signed it, most of the time).

For the purposes of the escape genre, it established that POWs could be locked up, limited the punishment for escape to the host nation's version of 'failure to obey orders' and probably most significantly prevented officers from being put work.

This meant that a lot of junior officers (young, highly motivated, often slightly odd) were grouped together in cramped conditions with little to do. Most learned new skills to pass the time and for some those were escape related, while military discipline remained in force with planning committees.

This allowed the signature highly organized and carefully prepared escape attempts worthy of books and movies, with large teams of POW supporting single or pairs escaping, with those selected obviously being drawn from those who wanted to. So yes, probably not all wished to take the risks of an escape but enough were that things like the great escape were possible along side various other schemes.

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Get to the end of the book

I've also read this book. Towards the end of the war the German guards were ordered to kill all of the remaining prisoners in Stalag Luft III, and presumably the same orders were given to guards in other camps. In Stalag Luft III they declined to do that - to what extent fear of reprisals, principle, and anger towards their country's failed leaders was the reason, I don't know. But perhaps the prisoners sensed that this was a danger, and decided they were better off taking their chances by escaping.

Also, from the page 24 of the the Great Escape:

Apart from the normal fervent wish to get out of prison and back home to the war, there was plenty of other motive for escaping. The Geneva Convention lays it down that captured troops are to be properly fed. The German idea of proper feeding wasn't much more than a formality; they fed us on about a ha'penny a week. If you've ever known hunger — not gnawing appetite, but real hunger you'll understand part of the reason for P. O. W reluctance to endure German hospitality. In his first year in the bag, Roger lost nearly forty pounds.

Of course compared to a Soviet POW, or worse a Jew or gypsy, their conditions were better. The Germans didn't shoot them or gas them (at least usually). They fed them enough to stop them starving - this is not enough to make someone feel satisfied.

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  • Yes, I have read the whole book. I was surprised to learn that while the book chronicles the attempt of 200 men to escape, there were 10,000 there who did not try it.
    – nuggethead
    Jan 10 at 14:05
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    @nuggethead Reading the original 1946 book Escape to Danger (which differed from the later 1950 The Great Escape version, where some of the less heroic aspects of the story were eliminated) may give you a better insight of what the author experienced at the Stalag Luft III POW camp. The Great Escape (book) Jan 10 at 16:53
  • Interesting I may try that. Brickhill definitely protrays the experience there as quite livable, between the easily-bribed guards and the many descriptions of them forming friendships with them. But maybe my perspective on what counts as "liveable" is biased after reading Gulag Archipelago last year...
    – nuggethead
    Jan 10 at 17:08
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    @nuggethead If you are interested in how some of the oddities of the era came to be it may also be worth looking for Colditz: The German Story by Reinhold Eggers and/or some of his co-authoured books. Eggers was a German officer, and even his version of Allied POW life is not pleasant. Be aware some events in the book are contested, but does provide insight into decision making and practicalities of the POW system. Jan 11 at 9:01
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Duty, Boredom, Chance of Success

Why would a service member escape? A prisoner in a POW camp is, almost by definition, being kept by his/her captor as cheaply as possibly without actually being killed. A POW camp might have hundreds or even thousands of prisoners with a relative handful of guards. The more the POWs attempt even unsuccessful escapes, the more work and manpower the enemy must deploy to contain them. Manpower that could go to other aspects of the enemy's war effort. A successful escape (where the POW escapes the camp, not necessarily gets to friendly territory) is even more draining of enemy resources as you need to allocate resources into re-capturing the POW. Individually these actions don't take that much additional manpower/supply from the enemy, but then again neither does an individual rifleman on the front line. For example in WWII the Nazis ended up spending god-knows-how-much on specific camps for high-escape-risk POWs, with additional guards and security apparatus on top of the initial construction expense. Did that cause the Allies to win the war? Obviously not. But (to pick an arbitrary number) those 100 extra Luftwaffe guards meant 100 fewer guards pulling security elsewhere, which may have let partisans be more effective, or any number of additional knock-on results.

Boredom also plays a role. Especially for escape-minded officers, a POW camp is BORING. Sure you might have some books and a garden and decent food. But these guys tended to either be young and want adventure, or a huge sense of duty, or both. Sitting around waiting for the war to end when you KNOW that you can both complicate the enemy's life by trying to escape and know that if you actually make it out of the camp you might really get back to your side and into the war.

Which brings me to the last point. Allied troops captured by Germans (especially airmen) knew that if they got out, they had a chance to make it back home. Partisan movements in Nazi-occupied Europe were well known, especially to airmen who would have been familiar with the fact that RAF and USAAF crews had been returned to the fight after meeting up with partisans after being shot down. Conversely this is why you don't see a lot of escape attempts from Axis POWs in the US or Siberia, Russian POWS in Germany, or American/British POWs in Japan. Axis troops in the US/Siberia new if they escaped the POW camp their chances were essentially nil to make it home, same for POWs in Japan. For Russians captured by Germany, there was the belief that if they escaped and made it back to the USSR they'd be shot for being captured in the first place!

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To climb a mountain

Felice Benuzzi, Dr. Giovanni Balletto, and Vincenzo Barsotti were all Italian POWs captured in Africa. They were interned in British POW Camp 354 within sight of Mount Kenya.

Life was very easy, security was lax; they were deep in British controlled territory. The POWs were able to come and go as they pleased and even do some gardening.

Life was also monotonous. They were bored. They had some mountaineering experience. So after staring at the mountain for months they decided to go climb it. They scraped together and hid supplies, cobbled together basic equipment, and made plans the best they could.

One day while working outside the fence they simply walked away. However, this wasn't an escape attempt. This was a holiday. They intended to come back. Being honorable men, and not wanting to get their fellow prisoners in trouble, they left a note letting their captors know they'd be back.

They climbed the mountain, and true to their word, they came back.

Felice Benuzzi published his account as No Picnic On Mount Kenya.

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