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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

Reprisals and Punishments

Reprisals and Punishments

TheItalians were much more deeply moved by successful escapes than the Germans. They vented their spite first on those who remained behind, imposing restrictions which, even if apparently petty, could be exceedingly irritating in the cramped unnatural atmosphere of a prison camp. The first target for their vengeance was the Red Cross parcel. The whole camp might be deprived of their parcels for weeks after an escape. Time out of doors would be cut down and any small privileges withdrawn. The Italian higher command took escapes very seriously, visiting the weight of its displeasure upon the commandant of the camp, any other responsible officers, and the guards, in the form of fines and sentences of imprisonment. The escapers themselves on recapture were given at least a month in the camp jail, in some camps three months. Sometimes they were manhandled as well.

The Germans took escapes rather more lightheartedly, almost, it might be said, in a sporting spirit. But German officers and guards could expect punishment for negligence. It was unusual, in fact, for the prisoners who remained behind not to suffer in some way for the escapes of others, even if this did not go beyond the inconvenience of extra searches and roll calls. The recaptured escaper was rarely harshly treated. He could expect to be sentenced to up to a month in the cells, but the punishment was usually less, a week or a fortnight for the first offence. The execution of the Luft III escapers was so exceptionally atrocious that the men who remained behind in that camp at first believed that the announcement of the fifty deaths was only a ruse to discourage further escaping and that the victims were all alive in some other camp.

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The prisoners of the Japanese could expect only death on recapture, possibly in an unpleasant form. Indeed, an escape from Japanese hands was a neck or nothing enterprise. Men who attempted escape from Changi Peninsula are known to have been shot. It was the fixed policy of the Japanese to execute recaptured escapers; it was also their policy to take severe physical reprisals on those who remained behind, particularly on the men sharing the hut of those who got away.

The chief risk that the escaper faced was of being shot by a sentry while actually getting away. Naturally this risk varied with time and place but was real enough in most camps, even if less important on a break from a working camp. Train escapes were in a special class for danger. On the trains taking British prisoners to Germany the night air was continuously shattered by machine-gun and rifle fire as German guards blazed away either at fugitives they actually saw or at random to discourage those they confidently expected might have escape in view. Train jumpers were wounded and killed by guards' bullets and by injuries received in their fall. Escape was never a safe pastime, a sport without penalty or forfeits. But only in the Japanese camps were the reprisals, punishments, and risks to the escaper or his friends in any sense a real deterrent.

* * * * *

It has been mentioned that the two things most needed for successful escape were persistence and good luck. The personal records of some escapers are amazing for the tenacity with which in the most unfavourable circumstances, and while under suspicion and disabilities from previous unsuccessful attempts, they stuck to the intention to escape. The hardened escaper, like the masters of other arts, tended to simplify, to use the most direct and most obvious methods, and to improvise when the occasion offered itself at some uncalculated juncture. Examples might be drawn from the complete escape careers of individuals to show to what point they were carried by their own unquenchable optimism and self-confidence. Few of those who escaped did so on their first attempt; one man made at least fifteen escapes before he finally reached safety. The boldness and enterprise needed for success were not confined to the comparatively few who reached freedom. As far as personal qualities went, many hundreds of other New Zealanders had all that was needed for the most ingenious and hazardous escapes.

The element of luck was so strong, so paramount, in successful escapes that it is both a distortion and an injustice to praise the escaper at the expense of the failed or would-be escaper. Some of the most gallant escapes, considered simply as actions, were failures; even when the initial evasion had been made good, a great proportion of escapers failed to leave the enemy country, and their possibly bold and original plan of leaving a camp was successfully executed in vain. There was nothing for them to do but to try again. The man whom no disappointment could overwhelm is the true epitome of the escaper, the persistent to whom good luck comes in the end.