David Jason’s Great Escapes

Sunday, 28 August 2011, 8:00PM – 9:00PM

Films and dramas such as The Great Escape and Colditz have thrilled viewers over the years with their iconic real-life stories of brave prisoners of war plotting and executing their escapes. 

Now, in a unique one-off documentary for ITV1, Sir David Jason takes a trip back in time to relive some of the amazing true stories that inspired these gripping dramas. 

Travelling with two surviving prisoners of war, David goes to Poland to see the site of The Great Escape and hear their stories about being incarcerated there. Plus, the last known British survivor of The Great Escape recalls the evening the daring mission took place and the terrifying moment he got trapped in the tunnel. 

David visits Colditz Castle in Germany and sees the most ambitious escape tunnel ever dug there and he goes to Holland to meet the man involved in one of the greatest, and yet least well known, escape stories of the Second World War. 

He meets the sons of those who executed magnificent escape plans, including one POW who engineered and built a whole ladder system to climb over the wires instead of tunnel under them. 

And David tells the love story of the French woman who provided shelter for a British escapee. 

David says: “Like most of us who grew up in the 1950s, I was a huge fan of films that celebrated wartime escapes, where plotting Germans were outwitted by the heroic antics of plucky young Brits. But these thrilling yarns told only part of the story, so I’m going on a journey to dig deeper. I’ll hear about the grim realities of life behind the wire.” 

David starts his journey in Germany at 16th century Colditz Castle which sits on a rock with seven foot thick walls and terraces with 250 foot plunges down to the surrounding river. The castle was used to house habitual escapees who couldn’t be contained anywhere else. David goes behind the heavy doors which locked the prisoners in, and examines the most ambitious tunnel dug there, with prisoners using just oil lamps and cold water to crack the rocks. 

Corran Purdon, who was 21 when he was sent to Colditz in June 1943, tells David: “I just wanted to get back to my commander and back to my fiancée, quite honestly, and that’s what motivated me. I didn’t have a great thing about my country, I wanted to get back to my girl and back to my unit. I wanted to be with my blokes again and get on with the war.” 

As he sees pictures of the various escape attempts from the castle, including hiding in mail sacks and abseiling down the walls using bed sheets. David says: “When you see how this castle is constructed it’s almost unimaginable to think of men digging tunnels here.” 

David meets William Neave, the son of Airey Neave, who escaped from Colditz dressed as a German soldier and was the first Brit to make it all the way home. His journey took him through Switzerland, France, Spain and Gibraltar and saw him cover hundreds of miles on foot. William talks to David about his father and how he went on to join MI9 and become an integral part of rescue missions for other escapees across Europe. 

David talks to the son of Jock Hamilton-Baillie who designed a ladder system to go over a 19 foot fence at Warburg prison. Jock worked out that as guards were on both sides of the wire, it would be too dangerous for them to fire at the prisoners in case they hit each other. Using wood from their beds and music to drown out their hammering, the prisoners built the ladder system and plotted their escape. 

Jock’s son, Ben, shows David a model of the system before the pair go to RAF Cranwell to see if cadets there can construct the ladder system and get over the fence as quickly as the POW did in 1943. 

Next David journeys to Poland, to the site of Stalag Luft Three, where The Great Escape took place. He meets 88-year-old Andy Wiseman and 97-year-old Alfie Fripp, who were both prisoners at Stalag Luft Three which was built by the Germans to be escape-proof. 

Standing on the site where the prison once stood, Andy describes the terrible conditions prisoners endured. They ate only 600 calories a day and saw no fresh fruit or eggs for 16 months. 

As they visit the spot where the tunnel began, Ken Rees tells the programme what it was like digging it. He reveals that the clothes they wore became smelly and dirty quickly, so they often dug in the nude. The tunnel was only two foot wide and the men had to use oil lamps with wicks made from braces that gave off little light and lots of smoke. 

David visits a replica tunnel and crawls along it to get a feel for the dimensions and extreme conditions. 

As David visits the point where the tunnel emerged, he sees that it fell short of the trees which the prisoners were hoping to have reached. Out of the 200 men attempting escape, only 76 made it out of the tunnel before they were spotted by guards. Ken was the 77th man and was still in the tunnel. He says: “It was my turn to disappear and a guard came along and I think he noticed the hole, or something, and fired in the air and we knew we’d been found and it was all over.” 

David visits the train station where the escapees bought their tickets to freedom. Unfortunately only three man evaded capture and 50 of those who were caught were shot following Hitler’s orders. 

Andy tells David: “There was disbelief and the shock was unbelievable. Almost everyone in the camp had lost someone they’d been in the room with or been on parade with or flown together.” 

David also flies to Holland to meet 93-year-old Tony Hibbert who was a parachute major when he was captured in the country. He takes David to the exact spot where he leapt from the back of a prison van and made his escape. Tony and David meet the daughter of the Dutch family who sheltered Tony before he was rescued in a daring mission called Operation Pegasus. 

The rescue plans saw 130 escapees gather at a rendezvous point before making a treacherous three mile journey through enemy territory to their pick-up point. Tony takes David to the exact field that the men had to crawl through on their hands and knees whilst surrounded by German soldiers. 

During his journey, David hears about the work of MI9 who posted maps and compasses and other escape aids disguised in items such as walnuts and packs of cards to prisoners. And he meets one of the ‘backroom boys’, Reg Cleaver, who helped to make things, including replica German soldier belt buckles, for escapees. 

Plus, David meets the French woman who sheltered an escaped British prisoner while he waited to be rescued. David goes to the harbour where the soldier eventually left from, promising to return to his love. 

As his journey comes to an end, David says: “I shan’t forget in a hurry the skill of the ‘backroom boys’, the ingenuity of the Warburg wire escape, the courage and dignity of the veterans I met on my travels – all of them united by one thing, their passionate desire for freedom.” 

David Jason’s Great Escapes is produced and directed by Nigel Miller. The executive producers are Sir David Jason and Tim Miller.

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