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Forces War Records Blog


Blogger: GemSen You hear so many interesting and shocking tales of war - but sometimes it’s hard to comprehend what it was really like… Amazingly, there is some revealing original footage out there that gives a real insight into prison camp life, during World War II – shot in secret by prisoners themselves. Called ‘Sous Le Manteau (Clandestinely)’ the film demonstrates the living conditions within the camp, including the food given to prisoners, and the searches conducted by German soldiers. During 1940, Oflag 17a was where 5,000 French officers were held captive as Prisoners of War, after just been defeated by Germany in the Battle of France. [youtube=] Close to the Czechoslovakia border, the Austrian camp was originally built for troops taking part in military exercises. There were 40 barracks – 20 each side of a central aisle. Caged in by two lines of barbed wire and the perimeter covered in spotlights made escape a daunting task. However, this wasn’t going to stop one plucky group of French prisoners, and risking their lives, they never gave up on escaping and even filmed their efforts. The 30-minute footage was recorded on a secret camera that prisoners smuggled into the camp hidden inside some sausages. Knowing that German soldiers would only check food sent in by cutting down the middle – the camera parts were hidden in the ends. The camera the prisoners built was hidden in a hollowed out dictionary belonging to the camp library. The spine of the book opened like a shutter and the 8mm reels were nailed into the heels of their makeshift shoes. The film shows the prisoners at work on one of the 32 tunnels that they dug  -trying to break free. As there was no forced labour in the camp the prisoners were able to study for large parts of the day and were taught by senior officers - some of the most intellectual men in France, at the time. This obviously inspired some thinking outside the box, quite literally, and one group of prisoners just couldn’t get the thought of ‘escaping’ off their minds… According to a recent BBC feature, there was meticulous planning in the camp and a team even fashioned civilian clothes and forged identity documents for when they got outside the camp. And tools weren’t a problem as the prisoners were given shovels to dig their own slit trenches after the International Red Cross complained the camp lacked protection against air raids. Pierre Waendendries, whose father was also a prisoner in the camp, told the BBC about the plans of one tunnel that did eventually work. Fortunately, the Germans had allowed the officers to build a theatre, which the prisoners decorated with branches - masking the guards view. The theatre lay nicely between the barracks and the wire, which meant a shorter tunnel could be dug that could stretch beneath the wire, and the earth would be concealed in the seats of their theatre. "There were mathematicians, geologists, architects," said Pierre. "They had the expertise they required. The malnourished men dug 90m [295ft] underground - far enough to emerge just metres the other side of the second barbed wire." On one day the Germans had cancelled the weekend roll-call and by the 17 September 1943, the men were ready to go. On the first night a large group got away unnoticed and the next night another group went too. Once they had emerged, the prisoners were able to run a short distance to the tree cover that was close. Each was given instructions not to travel together and to travel in different directions. However, their freedom was short lived and some of the first escapees were recaptured and returned to the camp before the escape had even been discovered in the camp. In the first week 126 escapees were recaptured and sadly only two managed to return to France. Only one survives today - Lt Jean Cuene-Grandidier, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday in June. In honour of his milestone and his experience, Jean was honoured by the city of Paris and he already wears France's highest award - the Legion d'honneur. Jean made it, but others were not so lucky and Oflag 17A was the biggest breakout of World War II, which had implications on all other breakouts. In 1944, 50 of the 76 Allied airmen who escaped from Stalag Luft III in what is now Poland (The Great Escape) would be executed on Hitler's orders. "The short length of the tunnel and the number of people inside, meant we had to lie in the foetal position," said Jean. "There was so little air. Some of the men fainted. We waited almost 10 hours to go, all the time imagining the worst; the German firing squad that would surely be waiting at the end of the tunnel." After breaking out, Jean found his way to Vienna in 1943, where he worked as a nurse in a hospital. Upon securing a valuable weekend pass back to Paris he saw his next opportunity. He made it home and within weeks he had joined the Resistance. Source: BBC News Find out more with Forces War Records… Why not delve into our ‘historic documents’ library and read some of the interesting War diaries that we get sent – there’s nothing quite like reading a personal account of war, as history unfolds itself through the eyes of somebody who was actually there. Forces War Records are fortunate to receive such amazing real life war stories involving lashings of courage, and now you can read some of them – completely free of charge. Visit Forces War Records and discover interesting facts about your ancestors, become more knowledgeable about history, and reveal some of the brave characters involved in war…
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