From rocks to tunnels…
Today is (or would have been) the 112th birthday of Roger Bushell, a British air force pilot who masterminded and led the “Great Escape,” which was the mass breakout of Allied prisoners of war from a German camp in March 1944.
I think most people know this story, if they do, because of the 1963 movie called, The Great Escape.
(This means today is also the second time this month we’re writing about something that involves actor Steve McQueen, since he played a fictional character in the based-on-the-true-story movie. Also, the second time this week we’re writing about prisoners of war. Hmmm.)
Anyway, I remember seeing the movie on VHS with some friends in high school, and remarking that it was kind of like the later Hogan’s Heroes, in that it made the idea of being a prisoner of war seem like it would have been fun!
But more recently, I’ve been convinced that the story is a pretty good example of entrepreneurship, even though nobody starts a company.
And that leads me to wonder what someone like Bushell might have accomplished if he’d lived in another era or under different circumstances.
I’ve shared this story here before (a long time ago, actually), and for sheer number of reactions and comments, it’s near the most popular ever on Understandably.
Seventy-eight years ago, around 4:55 in the morning on a Friday, the last of a group 76 Allied prisoners of war managed to tunnel out of a German camp, as part of a “great escape” that was later immortalized in a 1950 book and a 1963 movie.
The whole thing has a sad ending, in that only three of the prisoners made it home, and 50 of those who were recaptured were murdered by the Nazis. However, the resourcefulness and resilience that they all showed in getting out of the camp to begin with has proven to be an inspiring and lasting story.
I read the book version of this about a decade ago, when I was also writing a book about Harvard Business School, and a professor there gave me his official definition of entrepreneurship: “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.”
That’s a nice, academic mouthful, but I quickly applied it to The Great Escape. If you can get past the fact that the book has nothing to do with starting a business, it might be the best book out there about entrepreneurship.
The backstory is that the German air force got the idea of putting all of the true escape artists among the Allied airmen together, in a single camp, where they’d be closely watched.
Arriving with only the clothes on their back, however, the prisoners spent a full year digging tunnels, and came up with a plan to get more than 200 prisoners out all at once. (The Germans caught them about a third of the way through the actual attempt, so the remainder never made it outside.)
When the Germans inventoried the camp afterward, they found the prisoners had not only built three giant tunnels (on the assumption that at least one or two would be discovered), but they’d also produced everything from civilian clothing and fake German uniforms to forged identity papers, maps, and compasses.
Among the missing loot they'd used to build and shore up the tunnels were:
4,000 bed boards
90 full double bunk beds
192 bed covers
161 pillow cases
52 tables built to accommodate 20 men each
10 smaller tables
34 chairs and 76 benches
1219 knives, 478 spoons, and 582 forks
69 lamps, 246 water cans, and 30 shovels
1,000 feet of electric wire and 600 feet (180 m) of rope
3424 towels, 1,700 blankets, and my personal favorite: 1,400 empty tins of powdered milk.
Of course they also had the most important resource—talented, motivated people.
As I say, there’s a largely tragic ending to this story. And frankly, there were other stories that might prove some of the things we’re talking about here even more effectively. Some of them involved escapes from much more dire conditions—a few from Auschwitz, for example, and the mass escape of about 300 prisoners from Sobibor concentration camp.
I went down the rabbit hole of wondering why it was that this story endured over so many others. The short version why is that one of the men in the camp—an Australian journalist-turned-pilot named Paul Brickhill—made it a mission to tell the tale.
He shared it in several formats before writing the book version, which became a massive best-seller. That led to the movie (quite Hollywood-ized, however, with big liberties taken—including the fact that in real life, there were no Americans involved in the actual escape).
But, in their honor, maybe make it a point to remember: never give up, scrounge what you need, and finally, be sure to write it all down. I can probably help with the last part, if you need it.
(Reminder, while we’re operating on “low power mode,” (aka Bill’s Vacation), we’ll be skipping the “7 other things” we normally run. But I invite you to share links to things you think your fellow readers would appreciate or enjoy in the comments.)
Reminder, while we’re operating on “low power mode,” (aka Bill’s Vacation), we’ll be highlighting some “Best of Understandably” newsletters, and skipping the “7 other things” we normally run. But I invite you to share links to things you think your fellow readers would appreciate or enjoy in the comments.
Now I know why I was humming ‘The Great Escape’ theme song this week! A totally awesome favorite movie of mine. Excellent display of entrepreneurship for sure.
I agree the Great Escape was so popular was the genius ideas and expertise. I just finished a book about the WWII Displaced Persons Camps. Though it was historical fiction, the author well researched the genius these former POW’s used to get by in these camps due to the lack of resources. Humans can really be quite amazing.