Drawing on the wartime records in its vaults, the National Archives currently has a free exhibition on how Prisoners of War tried to escape their camps and thwart their enemy’s actions.

While there are examples of James Bond style escape kits and tools — much of the exhibition is made up of stories of the individuals who managed, or sometimes failed, to escape their prisoner camps and internment centres where foreign nationals were arrested for simply holding the wrong passport.

There’s also the story of Judy, a dog, who was adopted by a prisoner of war, Frank Williams and kept the dog with him as he was moved around prisoner camps — and became the only animal to be given the official status of a prisoner of war.

You’ve probably heard of the Great Escape, where 76 Allied prisoners escaped in tunnels from Stalag Luft III, but have you heard of when 70 German officers escaped through tunnels from Camp 198 in Wales? That’d make for a good movie.

Not all of the escapees were what they seemed — such as the story of Oswald Job, a Brit interned in Germany who claimed to have escaped the Germans. In fact, he was a spy, but not a very good one. He was hanged just four months after he arrived. On display are some of the documents found by the security services, including the invisible ink documents he was writing.

Future famous faces are also here, such as the future Carry On star, Pete Butterworth, who used his newfound acting skills in prison camps to drown out the noise of tunnels being dug at the Great Escape camp.

Of course, as the war ended, there was the problem of what to do with all the prisoners who hadn’t escaped. The paperwork detailing how the UK would repatriate the prisoners of war is detailed here in its cold bureaucratic manner – even when dealing with the prisoners who had reasons to want to avoid returning to their home country.

One of them was Bernhard “Bert” Trautmann, a German who was held in Lancashire and learned to play football. Staying in the UK after the war, and playing as a goalkeeper, he was spotted and hired by Manchester City. His most famous moment was during the 1956 FA Cup Final when he suffered a serious injury but kept on playing. He had broken his neck.

As an exhibition is both a mix of absolutely fascinating history, stories of incredible bravery in desperate conditions — on both sides of the war — and also a reminder that even where people’s lives are directly affected, the slow grinding wheels of government red tape will ensnare them.

The exhibition, Great Escapes: Remarkable Second World War Captives, is at the National Archives in Kew until 21st July and is free to visit.

  • Sunday: 11am to 4pm
  • Monday: Closed
  • Tuesday: 9am to 7pm
  • Wednesday: 9am to 5pm
  • Thursday: 9am to 7pm
  • Friday: 9am to 5pm
  • Saturday: 9am to 5pm

The National Archives is about a 10 minute walk from Kew Gardens station on the District and London Overground lines.

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3 comments
  1. Chris Rogers says:

    Hopefully it mentions Franz von Werra, a Luftwaffe pilot who escaped during a transfer to a Canadian POW camp and was the only Axis POW to succeed in escaping and make it home during the war. The story is covered in The One That Got Away starring Hardy Kr├╝ger.

  2. Juno says:

    The Wooden Horse is another true story that was filmed in 1950 by Jack Lee, brother of the more famous Laurie. Prisoners set up a vaulting horse in the grounds for exercise, digging down under it. This all happened at the same camp as The Great Escape (though in a different section), at the same time. Peter Butterworth was one of the vaulters. He auditioned for the film but was told he didn’t look dashing enough.

    They didn’t make films about POW camps during the war in case the Germans got annoyed and made conditions worse; I believe The Wooden Horse was the first one.

  3. Richard King says:

    I remember reading the case of a young German POW who was transported to the US and internerred in a camp in Texas.
    There is a large diaspora of ethnic Germans in Texas and he managed to escape and simply blend in with the community for his entire life.

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