Book Review: “Escape from Stalag Luft III: The True Story of My Successful Great Escape” The Memoir of Bram “Bob” Vanderstok
After many months of planning, and with the coordination of more than a thousand Allied soldiers being held captive by the Nazis, 76 men went into the tunnel known as ‘Harry’, and Dutch pilot Bram Vanderstok was one of only 3 who successfully escaped Stalag Luft III.
While it’s tempting to recount Vanderstok’s escapades and adventures – simultaneously thrilling, dangerous, and tedious – perhaps this excerpt (page 2014) from after his escape, as he is pursuing safety, will provide you some idea:
“ … some of them didn’t believe my story. I couldn’t blame them because my experiences were, indeed, somewhat bizarre.
A Dutch medical student who happened to become a fighter pilot, who then escaped to England, became a Spitfire pilot in the RAF, was shot down over France, made a prisoner of war and was now escaping through Holland?”
Originally published in 1980 in The Netherlands, this new 2019 edition features a foreword by his son Robert and preface by London Times journalist Simon Pearson. It’s written in the style of a fireside chat, almost as if we are hanging out at the pub as our buddy Bram “Bob” Vanderstok captivates us with his incredible war stories. If you’ve seen the classic 1963 movie THE GREAT ESCAPE, then you are somewhat familiar with the story; however, the fictionalized on-screen version is somehow less thrilling than Vanderstok’s own words on the page.
The first chapter recalls Vanderstok’s missions in his beloved Spitfire, and being shot down over France and imprisoned at Stalag Luft III. But this isn’t just the story of ‘The Great Escape’. This is truly a memoir, and the author takes us through family life of his childhood and his academic and professional pursuit of becoming a doctor. As happened for so many during the times, the war shattered dreams, or at best, put those dreams on hold. Vanderstok became a Dutch pilot until the undermanned forces were overwhelmed by Nazis. After the Netherlands’ defeat – he escaped as a stowaway on Swiss merchant ship, and later joined Royal Air Force. It’s in his description of his days as a stowaway where we begin to understand the humility of the man, and the directness of his words.
After flying successful missions with the RAF, he was shot down over France and captured. This began his time as a prisoner of war at the Luftwaffe-run POW camp run by Kommandant Friedrich Wilhelm Lindeiner-Wildau. The book includes photographs and renderings of the camp which was on a site deliberately chosen by the Nazis for its sandy soil – making tunneling nearly impossible. Or at least they thought so.
Vanderstok proceeds to detail the incredibly complex full-scale operation being run by the Allied prisoners (Kriegies) right under the noses of the Nazi guards (Goons), all under the direction of Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Roger Bushnell … the mastermind of the planned mass escape. Full scale means exactly that. The prisoners were divided into departments where their skills could be best utilized: lookouts, diggers, engineers, papers/ forgers, clothing, and disposing of sand. They worked out an elaborate system of signals to communicate the whereabouts of guards to ensure the work remained secret.
It’s fascinating to learn how and why three tunnels (Tom, Dick, Harry) were planned, the methods for obtaining supplies, the use of bed boards, the disposal of sand, and how the underground microphones placed by Germans were negated. The ingenuity these men showed was staggering. As an example, should a friend of yours fancy themselves as a creative mixologist, remind them that these soldiers secretly brewed vodka from the Sun-Maid raisins delivered in the Red Cross care packages!
Vanderstok includes stories that remind us that these, for the most part, were young men full of vitality who viewed trying to escape as their duty. The original plan was for 200 escapees, but the situation was such that on March 24, 1944, only 76 men went through the tunnel (itself about 20 feet short of the goal). While history has provided detail on what happened, we know that only 3 of them successfully reached freedom: Norwegian pilots Per Bergsland and Jens Muller, and Dutch pilot Bram Vanderstok. Of course, it’s Vanderstok’s own journey that he recalls in detail, including the help received from the Belgian and French resistance. Vanderstok also takes us through his reunion with his family and learning the price they had paid.
Vanderstok notes how Americans had been very involved in the planning and execution, but none were included in the actual escape – something that was changed for the movie version. Australian journalist/pilot Paul Brickhill was held until the end of war, and wrote his book “The Great Escape” in 1950. Canadian pilot Wally Floody who had been the ‘head digger’ (Charles Bronson character in movie) was a technical advisor to director John Sturges on the 1963 film, which featured James Coburn in the role most associated with Bram Vanderstok. It likely won’t surprise readers that Vanderstok lived a most interesting life even after the war. The book is a must read for anyone interested in World War II history, and the courage shown by so many.