History of the World According to the Movies: Part 71 – World War II: POWs, Resistance Fighters, and Other Things

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1963’s The Great Escape famous for starring Steve McQueen in that iconic motorcycle scene where he’s chasing himself. Yet, it’s also known for it’s famous depiction of a great POW camp escape in which three tunnels were dug in the prisoners’ bunkers that were named Tom, Dick, and Harry. While it kind of does take liberties with the truth, I’m sure this film will be loved by generations. Nevertheless, POW camp prisoners in Germany considered escaping as a duty and would come up with a lot of creative ways to do so, some of those not shown in film.

I mainly did my movie history blog posts around World War II based on location but there are some aspects in which it isn’t possible, yet there are plenty of movies made pertaining to them nevertheless. In some ways, World War II movies don’t just have to be war movies. You can have prison movies set in POW Camps like Bridge on the River Kwai or The Great Escape with Nazi commandants and such. A lot of times you’ll always have at least one person who wants to escape but some may not have the kind of bad luck William Holden did. You have movies with Resistance (mostly French) freedom fighters who’ve had enough with Hitler’s occupation and if Hitler was in a theater, they wouldn’t hesitate to blow it up to bits. Then you have spy stuff with internationally assembled crack teams of soldiers played by some of the most famous names in cinema also possibly trying to blow something up. Or possibly stealing some secrets from the Nazis. Either way, there would have to be a Nazi uniform change at some point in the plot. Still, while there are plenty of movies about these things, there are plenty of stuff they tend to get wrong, which I shall make note of accordingly.

Resistance Movements:

Everyone in France supported the French resistance and the Free French movement. (The truth is most French mostly remained neutral at least in the beginning up to D-Day even though they certainly didn’t like being occupied. Also, the French Resistance mostly consisted of young people.)

Else Gebel was a political anti-fascist prisoner who was sympathetic to Sophie Scholl’s plight. (Unlike the German movie Sophie Scholl, it’s plausible that Gebel was a Gestapo mole. Then again Sophie probably wouldn’t have known that.)

Resistance movements were only on the Allied side. (Actually there were people who did have resistance movements but joined the Axis powers. People like Indian Independence leader Chandra Bose for instance. You can see why he isn’t remembered. Also, you have the White Russians.)

Resistance movements were all united in a common goal and seldom fought amongst each other. (Some countries actually had more than one movement and it wasn’t unusual for them to end up fighting each other as well. According to TTI: “China had so many turncoats-turned-resistance fighters-turned-bandits that the historical community generally wrings its hands and splits it up into local and regional warlords, nationalist guerrillas, communist guerrillas and Chinese Communist Party guerrillas, with some room for overlap.”)

Norwegian “limpet mines” gave off big explosions on German ships. (Contrary to Max Manus, according to Imdb: “Such mines contained only a small amount (4 kg) of explosives and were placed on a target ship’s hull beneath the water line. In that position, even a small hole can do a lot of damage (in part due to the water pressure surrounding the hull).” But filmmakers can’t be satisfied with a small amount of explosives so if it doesn’t blow up spectacularly, it’s not worth seeing.)

Jens Christian Hauge was in the Norwegian resistance in 1940. (He joined the resistance later because he was in jail in 1940.)

The Oslo harbor was brightly lit to help Norwegian resistance members sabotage German ships. (Unlike in Max Manus, Oslo had a blackout enforced in case of long awaited Allied bombing raids. Max and his friends probably had to work in the dark.)

POW Camps:

World War II prisoners were treated in accords with the Geneva Conventions or at least had a right to. (The Japanese weren’t subject to the Geneva Convention and POWs until the 1950s and treated their prisoners horrifically {though this had more to do with them being under a fascist military dictatorship}. As for Japanese POWs, they didn’t expect to be treated as anything other than shit to begin with though the Japanese government at the time couldn’t care less about their fates. Still, treatment of them varied by country, though no Japanese POW wouldn’t want to be held in captivity by the Chinese or Soviets.

As for the Germans, while they generally kept to the Geneva Convention when it came to US, UK, French prisoners or what not until perhaps close to the end though treatment did vary from camp to camp. Yet, the Nazis didn’t believe the Geneva Convention applied to Eastern Europeans so captured Red Army soldiers usually ended up as slaves or starved in death camps at best {this is why they’re considered Holocaust victims. Also, while 5 million Soviet POWs were taken, only 2 million were liberated by the end of the war}. Those who were liberated were sent to filtration camps that were effectively high security prisons until they were cleared or condemned. Those who were cleared were cleared {consisting of more than 90% of Soviet POWs}, were freed and sometimes re-drafted. Those who were condemned could be executed, sent to a Siberian gulag, or stripped of rank and sent to a penal regiment {which was for mid-rate crimes like surrendering or retreating when fully capable to fight}. Those in penal regiments had hard, dirty, and dangerous jobs with a high death rate. This would entail penal tank crews being sent out with their hatches shut to prevent them surrendering again while penal infantries were tasked with playing a deadly game of minesweeper. Maybe the Japanese had the right idea with committing suicide as far as the Russians were concerned. Italian POWs in German custody were also treated poorly. Soviet prison camps were unsurprisingly harsh to Axis prisoners that many would try to surrender to other Allied countries like Britain or the US. Their treatment of Axis POWs consists of basically what you’d expect in Stalinist Russia. Then you have the Katyn Massacre of Poles that happened while Russia was allied with Nazi Germany.)

The three guys who got away in the great escape were from the British Commonwealth. (Contrary to The Great Escape, the guys who got away were Dutch and Norwegian. Most were killed, executed, or sent back though.)

The great escape happened during the summer months. (The actual escape actually occurred in March when there was still snow on the ground. Most of the escapees trying to run across country were forced by deep snow to leave the fields and go onto the roads as well as into the hands of German patrols. Oops!)

Escapees during the great escape were all shot in a common space at one time. (50 were shot in many different places, sometimes alone or in groups.)

Executions of great escapees were conducted by uniformed German troops using a Spandau machine gun. (Actually contrary to The Great Escape, they were conducted by Gestapo agents using pistols at close range not with a machine gun in Ramboesque fashion.)
It wasn’t unusual for Allied prisoners to assault German guards during an escape. (Contrary to The Great Escape, Allied prisoners actually avoided doing this at all costs since such actions would be tantamount for inviting execution or at least some time in a highly unpleasant German military prison like Colditz if lucky.)

Italian prisoners in Allied POW camps were considered civilians once Italy joined the Allies. (Sorry, Major Battiagila, but your country’s allegiance doesn’t exempt you from being tried for war crimes as you said in Von Ryan’s Express.)

POWs in German prison camps always wanted to escape for some reason. (Actually it was their duty to try to escape and would go through many creative ways to pull it off. Believe me, I’ve seen Nova episodes on this.)

Officers and enlisted men would be in mixed quarters in every German POW camp. (The Germans always segregated officers and enlisted men in separate POW camps.)

A group of Allied prisoners at a German POW camp formed their own soccer team that won against Germans for respect. (Well, there’s a movie about this called Victory, but there wasn’t an Allied soccer team and to my knowledge I don’t think Pele served in World War II, let alone do time at a German prison camp {seriously why?}. Yet, there was a Ukranian POW soccer team but they beat their resident Nazi captors miserably and repeatedly that they ended up arrested, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo as well as taken to work camps.)

Espionage:

Ian Fleming was a WWI vet by the time he joined the 30 Commando Unit. (Though Fleming is seen wearing ribbons of the 1914-1918 War Medal and Victory Medal in Age of Heroes, he was born in 1908 and would’ve been too young to fight since he was only 10 when the war ended.)

British spy Violette Szabo was tall blonde. (She was a brunette who was less than 5’5.” But she’s played by British actress Virginia McKenna {the woman from Born Free} in a biopic about her. She was a widow of a French soldier as well as a British spy who underwent two missions in occupied France. She was captured by the Germans on her second mission who interrogated, tortured, and deported her to a concentration camp in Germany. Still, the film Carve Her Name with Pride doesn’t show her fate in Ravensbrueck concentration camp which was execution by firing squad at the age of twenty-three but it was made in the 1950s. Her companions were gassed.)

A Polish spy at Bletchley Park passed crucial secrets to the Soviet Union during the Enigma decryption. (Actually contrary to the 2001 Enigma, the traitor was actually a guy named John Cairncross who’s British.)

The OSS was around before Pearl Harbor. (It was founded in 1942.)

MI6 was a reliable intelligence agency during WWII. (Actually in 1939, the Nazis had already exposed MI6’s networks in Europe and the Special Operations Executive took over functions in wartime. Thus, you wouldn’t want to report secrets to MI6 but the SOE.)

Ulysses Diello was a valet to the British ambassador in Turkey who passed secrets to the Germans as Agent Cicero. (Yes, there was an Agent Cicero who was a valet to the British Ambassador to Turkey and was an immensely successful spy. Yet, unlike what 5 Fingers suggests, he was actually Kosovo born Albanian Elyeza Bazna who spoke very poor English and was far from the perfect facsimile of an English gentleman as James Mason’s portrayal. Also, that part about the pursuit after Agent Cicero flees the British Ambassador’s residence is pure fiction.)

War Crimes Trials:

German soldiers were executed for the Malmedy massacre during the Battle of the Bulge. (Actually while there were Germans found guilty as well as sentenced to death, no death sentence was carried out so Marlene Dietrich wouldn’t have to worry so much in Judgment at Nuremberg.)

Wehrmacht officers would disguise themselves as SS officials during the Nuremberg trials. (Actually SS officers would try to disguise themselves as Wehrmacht officials to hide their involvement. At Nuremberg, you’d rather be an ordinary soldier than an SS official.)

Miscellaneous:

World War II soldiers lit their cigarettes with butane lighters. (Butane lighters weren’t invented until the 1950s.)

Air raid sirens always gave a continuously constant sound. (Most of the sirens were hand cranked and gave variable sound when cranked hard 5 times and slacked off 5 times.)

Nazi sympathizers were fans of Chopin’s music. (Contrary to Shining Through, most Nazi supporters would’ve detested Chopin for his Polish and French ethnicity alone.)

WWII bombing crews always stood at a good chance of surviving. (If it’s World War II and you find yourself on a bombing crew, make sure you get your affairs in order and make your peace with the Almighty because less than 50% of them managed to survive their tour.)

German soldiers used night vision scopes in World War II. (Well, not exactly though they were around in Nazi Germany at the time. Still, these infrared scopes were clumsy, very heavy, rare, and reserved for special ops. Also, it’s inconceivable any would’ve been stationed near a glorified officer’s brothel.)

Combat squads could travel in broad daylight and allow enlisted men to talk a lot. (Unlike the journey in Saving Private Ryan, squads would never be allowed to travel during the day time because they’d risk exposing themselves to the enemy. They usually would travel at night in order to go unprotected by the enemy. Also, arguing with your captain during such a mission would’ve resulted in you getting court-martialed.)

World War II military vehicles had radial tires. (Radial tires were patented in 1915 but they weren’t used on vehicles until the 1960s.)

Monopolization of the radio during combat was always a good idea. (Radio nets were shared with the entire squadron during combat and were only to be used in emergencies or by a commanding officer. To describe everything you’re doing while crowding out what others in your squadron are doing, would lead to your squad mates beating the living crap out of you back at the base.)

Aerial torpedoes were designed to attack airfields. (They were made to attack ships and were launched at low-level waters, not to attack land based targets.)

Military nurses had long flowing hairstyles during the war. (They weren’t permitted to have long flowing hair styles while in uniform. Rather the permitted length of hair had to be just above their collars. Thus, they either had to wear it up or cut it. As for makeup, they either were allowed to wear skin tone cosmetics or none at all.)

Nobody smoked during World War II. (Contrary to Pearl Harbor, most people smoked during the 1940s. The only people who didn’t smoke in 1940s movies, were those who hadn’t yet entered puberty. To have nobody smoke in a World War II film is perhaps one of the greatest historical sins a filmmaker could commit. Yes, I know smoking is bad for you, but still.)

Mistreating civilians was a violation of the Geneva Convention at this time. (No, the revision of the Geneva Convention in regard to civilians wasn’t adopted until 1949, unfortunately.)

Soldiers always wore their helmets buckled. (It was common for soldiers to leave their helmets unbuckled due to the common belief that the helmet would break a soldier’s neck when it reacted to a concussion due to a nearby explosion.)
During the war, people rode on bicycles with rubber tires. (By a certain point in the war, only wooden tires would be available, especially in Europe.)

You could easily pick out a Gestapo. (Gestapo usually wore civilian clothes so, no.)

Foreign girls always went for American GIs, particularly if he’s the white protagonist.

During special operations, an Allied soldier could always find a Nazi uniform to fit him perfectly as a disguise.

Special operations always consisted of a group of people from different countries played by big named actors so no Allied country’s participation in the war goes unrecognized.

Despite being bombed, buildings would always have electricity and running water.

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