Bomber pilot Ken Rees had been shot down over Norway in 1942. Now, along with an ever growing band of his comrades he was guest of the Germans, a POW in Stalag Luft III. He is often regarded as one of the models for the Steve McQueen character in the film “The Great Escape”. For commercial reasons it was decided that this character should be an American pilot in the film, although he was a hybrid creation based on several British officers and some invention.
Anyone who ever endured a British Christmas in the 1970s will know most of the storyline of “The Great Escape”, as the film was repeated so often on television during this season that it became a national joke. The character played by Steve McQueen was such a rebel that he was often sent to ‘cool off’ in the punishment cell.
Although the film character had a baseball glove and ball to amuse himself with, the episode in the ‘Cooler’ was based on the experiences of Ken Rees. In May 1943 Ken Rees and his fellow POWs had just been moved to the North Compound of Stalag Luft III, it was from here that the real ‘Great Escape’ would eventually be mounted. In the meantime:
Although escape fever had quickly spread all over camp, smaller acts of defiance continued to flourish, too. One day soon after settling in the new compound I was passing the kitchen block, where I noticed a German guard just leaning his bicycle against the kitchen wall before disappearing inside.
I couldn’t resist it; those tyres were crying out to be let down. I was just starting on the second wheel when around the corner came the large figure of the head security guard, Oberfeldwebel Glemnitz. ‘Vot are you doing, Mr Rees? Off to the Cooler!’
‘Oh, I’m just trying to pump the tyres up for this poor guard . . .’ Pretty feeble. I didn’t have a pump. And even if he had a bit of a sense of humour Glemnitz also had a revolver. Off I went for seven days in the Cooler.
This was the first of many trips to the Cooler. You are incarcerated in a small, whitewashed stone cell about ten by five feet, with a bed, a small table and a chair. No heating. The tiny window is barred, with wood rising from the base at such an angle as only to let in light and a view of the sky, nothing else.
I hated the solitude — I cannot begin to describe how much — with nothing to read, nothing to look at, nobody to talk to. Even the food was punitive: a thin round of black bread for breakfast, thin ‘soup’ and a few potatoes for lunch, and another piece of bread in the evening. One lunchtime I had a bit of extra protein in the shape of grubs in the soup. Although very hungry, I passed that one up.
You were allowed no books and smoking was verboten, but luckily that first time I had managed to conceal my cigarettes and some matches by palming them while they searched me on arrival. I knew they’d smell the smoke, so I asked if I could go to the toilet, and once there and alone, I took one cigarette out of the packet and hid the others on top of the high-level cistern.
This precious cigarette I cut in half and spent the rest of that day and most of the next gouging out a small hole in the bottom of the table leg, just big enough to conceal a half cigarette and a couple of matches. To stop them from falling out I jammed the hole with a piece of potato peel.
The whole procedure became a main source of amusement. They would catch me smoking, conficate the butt, search the cell and frisk me and find nothing. Later on they would again catch me smoking and have to go through the entire process again.
On my last day I retrieved my last two cigarettes from the cistern, rang the bell, offered the guard a fag and asked him for a light. To my delight he simply shook his head in disbelief, accepted the offering and gave me a light.
This apart it had been a miserable seven days. When I returned to my room I found my roommates had saved me extra rations. It felt like Christmas.
For more on the background to the escape and the film see Rob Davis’ comprehensive tribute.