Is there a person alive who hasn’t seen The Great Escape? Let’s face it, it’s been on the box practically every Sunday, Bank Holiday and Christmas since the star-studded blockbuster came out in 1963.

The movie, with its legendary film star cast, including Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough, is based on a daring escape by Allied prisoners in a German prisoner of war camp who managed to build two tunnels right under the noses of their Nazi prison guards.

Although a lot of artistic licence is used, for the most part, the film is a broadly accurate retelling of how, in March 1944, 76 prisoners of war tunnelled their way out of Stalag Luft III in what is now Poland.

Now, new records available online can tell us about other real life “great escapes” during the Second World War - and ones which involved captured Essex soldiers.

Thousands of “Liberated Prisoner of War questionnaires” were given to British and Commonwealth soldiers captured by Germany, Italy, or Japan, after the war ended.


The questionnaires ask for information about various dates related to each soldier’s military service and time as a prisoner of war.

The former POWs who filled out the papers often provide rich details about their treatment.

Many also include information about whether they made attempts to escape their camps or took measures to sabotage the enemy, along with information about conditions in which they were held.

The questionnaires were created by the War Office Directorate of Military Intelligence, and they were filled out by individual prisoners of war.

As you’d expect, many of the former POWs provide a lot of information while others give just basic answers. Perhaps it was just too much too soon for many of the men being asked to re-live their often-unimaginable experiences.

Between 1939 and 1945 more than 360,000 British soldiers were held as prisoners of war by Axis forces.

Many of the soldiers captured by the Germans and Italians were taken during a series of Allied defeats between 1940 and 1942. The records show how a lot of Essex Regiment soldiers were captured on the same day in July of 1942 following fierce fighting at El-Alemein in Egypt.

One of the most interesting sections of the questionnaire ask for details about escape attempts from Stalags - German POW camps.

There are a few fascinating stories from Essex Regiment soldiers, but overall, it appears escape attempts were few and far between.

And for good reason. Prisoners of war were typically subjected to heavy labour. Due to the lack of proper nutrition and fatigue from long hours of work, there were few attempts to escape.

In Japanese prisoner of war camps, escapes were even more rare because camps were often built in remote places.

Prisoners in Japanese camps were generally treated more harshly than those in European camps and were seven times more likely to die in captivity.

Among the soldiers to give us an insight into how badly POWs were treated is Sergeant Charles Ball, who lived in Julians Grove, Colchester, and was a lorry driver before the war. Sgt Ball had been born in 1915, so he was barely 16 when he enlisted in the army in 1929.

He was captured at El-Alamein in Egypt in July 1942 while fighting with the Essex Regiment.

His records show he spent time in several camps in Italy and Germany. On of them was Stalag IV B in Mulberg, Germany, where he was kept until 1945. This camp was the largest POW camp in Germany and was where thousands of soldiers from 33 nations were imprisoned until the camp was finally liberated by the Red Army in April of 1945.

Echo: British prisoners celebrate their liberation from a German stalag in 1945British prisoners celebrate their liberation from a German stalag in 1945 (Image: Archives)

While at Stalag IV B Sgt Ball caught malaria due to the state of the water supply. In the section about witnessing war crimes he wrote: “I would like to bring to notice about prisoners being shot in cold blood in Stalag IV B. One man was shot dead for getting a ball just inside the wire, inside the camp. Also the Germans shot one man for getting coal - they did not trouble to give us much coal.

“Also, planes killed one man by flying too low over the camp.”

Major Charles Brooks, of the 2nd battalion the Essex Regiment, was a farmer from Dedham where his address was given as The Lecture House. He had had enlisted in the army in 1926 and was an agricultural engineer. He too was captured at El-Alamein on July 1, 1943.

He was lucky in the sense he wasn’t wounded while being captured. In his report he gave an amazing answer when asked about escape attempts.

He wrote: “Whole camp escaped after Italian armistice on September 9, 1943. Accompanied by Lt Col EN Everett ( Kings Own Royal Regiment) I walked southwards in attempt to rejoin our forces. After covering over 350 miles we were spotted by a fascist spy who handed us over to a German unit south of Chieti, Italy.”

Lance Corporal Stanley Farthing, another Essex Regiment soldier was born in 1902 and enlisted in the army when he was just 20. He lived in Waltham Abbey and was also captured at El -Alamein in 1942.

He was taken to a camp in Italy where because of a lack of food he developed an infection in his leg which led to septic poisoning. He wrote how he did not get any medical treatment until he got to Germany. He escaped from his camp at one point but says he was recaptured by the Russians in Hellendorf, Germany in May of 1945.

Another soldier who made a daring escape was Private Frederick Brown of the 5th Battalion Essex Regiment. He had been captured in Italy before being taken to a camp in Germany. He and a friend decided to break out one night.

He wrote in his questionnaire: “Private George Woodhouse and myself made an escape on the 6th of May 1945 at night. We got though the wire and past the sentry when he had his back towards us. We were recaptured by patrol four hours later.”

Private George Fender, of Hamlet Court Road, Westcliff, enlisted in the army in 1939 at the age of 20. He served in the Essex Regiment. He was taken during the Battle of Mersa Matruh in Egypt in June 1942. He was first sent to camp in Benghazi, Libya.

He managed to escape while out on a working party but was captured the same day and shot through the leg. He ended up in a camp in Munich, Germany.

Many POWs were forced to work in harsh conditions. Private Stanley Clark, of Shoebury Road, Great Wakering, had previously served in Palestine and had been decorated with a medal for his service. He was part of the 1st Battalion Essex Regiment and was captured in 1941 in Crete.. After Crete he was sent to Stalags in Germany where he was eventually put to labour working in oil wells in Blechhammer- the second-largest subcamp of the notorious Auschwitz death camp. He cited a shortage of food and being “badly treated by the guards” as the main issues concerning his experience.

Another victim of ill treatment was Private Thomas Ager, who enlisted in the Essex Regiment in 1938. He left his home in the village of White Notley to sign up where he had a job as a silk worker. He was captured at El -Alamein in July 1942. He got double pneumonia and pleurisy due to receiving no treatment in the POW camps he was sent to. In one camp - Stalag VIII B, Knurow - he was put to work as a coal miner. He managed to escape for a short time while being held in Italy but after he was re-captured, he was punished.

In the section in the questionnaire about interrogation he wrote “After I was recaptured by the Germans in Italy, at Aquila, the method used was brutal.”

Alex Rumble, another Essex Regiment soldier was punished by being put in solitary confinement for seven days. He didn’t try to escape but used passive resistance as a way of annoying the enemy. He lived in Purfleet Road, Aveley, and had been a railway shunter before the war.

As depicted in the 1957 war film The Bridge on the River Kwai, prisoners of war were expected to try to escape or, if not possible, sabotage what they could of the enemy’s infrastructure while being forced to work.

Private Patrick Prentice of the 2/5 Essex Regiment writes how he sabotaged whatever he could in his questionnaire. He wrote “destroyed tools, left railway nuts loose”. He was captured at Turnhout Canal in Belgium in 1944 and was imprisoned in Bremen and Stalag X1 B.

Private Ronald Petts of the Essex Regiment admitted he “destroyed or wasted as much material as was possible while on working parties”, while, forced to work in a copper mine in Saxony, Germany, POW Private Peter Hill, a commando with the Essex Regiment organised a protest against the brutal labour. He was charged with sabotage by the Germans, court martialled at Stalag IV B, and given four weeks in solitary confinement. He had been captured at Tunis in February 1943.

Sometimes Allied POWs were tragic victims of RAF bombing campaigns designed to help free them or destroy their camp. In his case the German guards used the British POWs as human shields during a raid.

Private Harold Victor Lock, a window cleaner from Halstead was captured at El-Alemein. He was sent to camps in Italy and then Germany. He writes how he was working in a factory during a large scale air raid by the RAF on January 14, 1945 when over 31 men died “a ghastly death by burning by being locked in their huts with armed guards over them.” He adds: “The next day a party of us were sent to clear away the mess and we saw the charred remains of these poor men.”

A surprising number of questionnaires do not complain of any ill treatment or of witnessing war crimes.

However, for others the records show ill treatment and specifically the lack of food, were at times intolerable.

The records are available to view on and via the National Archives.