PoW dogs and secret tunnels feature in Kew exhibition of great escapes

PoW dogs and secret tunnels feature in Kew exhibition of great escapes


In the heart of Kew, a remarkable journey through time and resilience unfolds at the National Archives. "Great Escapes: Remarkable Second World War Captives," a unique exhibition running from February 2 to July 21, 2024, invites visitors to explore the untold stories of World War II prisoners of war (PoWs) and interned civilians. Marking 80 years since the legendary escape from Stalag Luft III, this free exhibition offers an immersive experience into the ingenious methods and indomitable spirit that defined these wartime escapes.

The exhibition is anchored by the famous "Great Escape," immortalized by Steve McQueen in the eponymous classic film. This audacious breakout from Stalag Luft III is perhaps the most emblematic of the heroic efforts made by PoWs. However, "Great Escapes" goes beyond this well-known tale to shed light on the narratives of 30 other individuals, each a testament to human tenacity and resourcefulness.

Among these is the captivating story of Peter Butterworth, an actor from the "Carry On" films. Butterworth's wartime experience in Stalag Luft III included participation in the Wooden Horse escape – a clever ruse involving a vaulting horse that concealed the entrance to a tunnel. This daring escape later inspired a 1950 film, illustrating how these real-life adventures have permeated popular culture.

The exhibition's artifacts provide tangible connections to these extraordinary tales. Approximately 200,000 record cards, meticulously catalogued for the first time, offer a glimpse into the lives of those held captive by the Germans. These include the majority of the 76 prisoners involved in the Great Escape, their stories echoing through the halls of the National Archives.

Visitors will find a range of intriguing items, from an intelligence report on the Great Escape penned by RAF officer Bertram “Jimmy” James, to everyday objects ingeniously repurposed for escape. These include a deck of cards with a hidden map, a shoe brush concealing a compass, and a flight boot transformable into a civilian shoe – each item a silent witness to the cunning and creativity employed in the pursuit of freedom.

One of the most heartwarming tales is that of Judy, a liver and white pointer dog, the sole canine officially recognized as a PoW. Her remarkable story of survival and heroism, for which she received the Dickin Medal, illustrates the profound bond between humans and animals even in the direst of circumstances.

"Great Escapes" also delves into the psychological and cultural aspects of captivity. It explores how PoWs sought mental solace and distraction through forming committees, engaging in artistic endeavors, and even pursuing educational opportunities. These stories of mental fortitude complement the physical acts of escape, painting a comprehensive picture of life in captivity.

Moreover, the exhibition touches on the post-war challenges faced by returning soldiers. It highlights government initiatives aimed at helping these individuals reintegrate into civilian life, a crucial but often overlooked aspect of the war's aftermath.

In essence, "Great Escapes: Remarkable Second World War Captives" is more than an exhibition; it's a profound tribute to the human spirit's capacity for hope, ingenuity, and survival under the most trying conditions. It's a must-visit for anyone interested in history, human resilience, and the untold stories of World War.

CNW Team

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