How French secretly filmed prison camp life in WWII
One of the most extraordinary episodes involving Allied prisoners during World War II was recently remembered in Paris.
They had been defeated in the Battle of France and marched to the furthest reaches of the Reich. In 1940, Oflag 17a must have felt a bleak, unforgiving place for the 5,000 French officers who were now prisoners-of-war.
The Austrian camp, close to the border with Czechoslovakia, was originally built for troops taking part in military exercises.
There were 40 barracks, 20 each side of a central aisle. The land was bound by two lines of barbed wire, the perimeter illuminated by floodlights.
Escape seemed almost impossible. Almost…. and it is remarkable that we can see it.
Through some extraordinary ingenuity - and cunning - the men filmed their efforts.
Their rarely seen footage is called Sous Le Manteau (Clandestinely). So professional is it that on first viewing you would be forgiven for thinking it is a post-war reconstruction.
It is in fact a 30-minute documentary, shot in secret by the prisoners themselves. Risking death, they recorded it on a secret camera built from parts that were smuggled into the camp in sausages.
The prisoners had discovered that German soldiers would only check food sent in by cutting it down the middle. The parts were hidden in the ends.
The camera they built was concealed in a hollowed-out dictionary from the camp library. The spine of the book opened like a shutter. The 8mm reels on which the film was stored were then nailed into the heels of their makeshift shoes.
It gives an incredible insight into living conditions within the camp. The scant food they were given, the searches conducted without warning by the German soldiers. They filmed it all, even the searches, right under the noses of their guards.
Tunnel after tunnel
Lt Jean Cuene-Grandidier was a former inmate, and part of the escape committee. Last month he celebrated his 100th birthday.
“In the early days we tried digging a number of tunnels from the huts in which we were barracked,” he said.
“It was viewed as a form of resistance. We were never punished. The Germans seemed to accept it, though it never worked. The distances to the wire were too great. And in any case the guards were clever. They always found the tunnels we started. They were looking for the earth we’d removed.”
The film shows the prisoners at work on one of 32 tunnels that were dug during the camp’s lifetime.
There was no forced labour and so for large parts of the day the prisoners studied. The teaching was led by senior officers, at the time some of the most intellectual men in France, and such was the high quality of the diplomas they taught that many of the qualifications were recognised after the war by the civilian authorities.
Pierre Waendendries, whose father was also a prisoner in the camp, showed us the plans of the tunnel that did eventually work.
The Germans had allowed the officers to build a theatre - dubbed the Theatre de la Verdure (Greenery Theatre). They decorated it with branches, partially obscuring the view of the guards.
The theatre was between the barracks and the wire, which meant the distance they had to dig was now much shorter.
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Life inside a WWII German prison camp. . .on live film!