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Page last updated at 07:20 GMT, Wednesday, 15 June 2011 08:20 UK
The great escapism

By Andy Walker
Today programme

Stalag Imps
Music, theatre, sport and academic pursuits helped POWs through their time in captivity and influenced their later lives

New research has revealed the extraordinary creativity of Allied PoWs imprisoned during World War II.

What do the actors Clive Dunn and Denholm Elliott, the artist Sir Terry Frost and the cartoonist Ronald Searle, creator of that byword for schoolday rebellion St Trinian's, have in common?

They were just four of the hundreds of thousands of men held in camps across the world during the war, an experience which produced a huge outpouring of creative activity which transformed their lives as well as those of countless others.

The caricature of life for Allied PoWs often is often one of breathless derring-do: tunnelling, jumping or - witness Steve McQueen in The Great Escape - powering to freedom on a souped-up motorcycle.

On the other hand, books and film have also portrayed PoWs as brutalised - which certainly was the case with many captured by the Japanese - or listless and bored, kicking their heels and waiting for liberation.

Clive Dunn as Dad's Army's Cpl Jones
Clive Dunn honed his acting skills in a POW camp in Austria

In a new book, The Barbed-Wire University: The Real Lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War, author Midge Gillies has revealed another, far richer, aspect of the story.

Prison camps, she says, brought together men from widely diverse backgrounds, classes and countries. Her father Donald, a Scotsman, served in the Scots Guards and was captured in Italy in January 1944.

"He was from Dumbarton and had never been south of the border. In the camp he met men from all backgrounds and nationalities, including French and Polish."

Perhaps the most important communal activities in European camps were sporting. Even in the Far East men played cricket and staged a test series between English and Australian POWs in the early days of captivity in Changi, Singapore when the guards left them alone and they still had the strength.

Later when they were too weak to take part they reminisced about sport and pored over a battered copy of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack.

One camp, the infamous Stalag Luft III at Sagan in Poland - scene of the Great Escape - boasted a nine-hole golf course (par 29, 850 yards). Others - like Oflag IX A/H at Spangenberg in Germany - hosted cricket matches.

'Spiritual experience'

For his part, Donald Gillies received a certificate (complete with incorrect spelling of his surname) for playing for the runners-up in a Rugby Sevens tournament in Stalag 357, also in Germany, in May 1944.

Above all, Allied PoWs had great cause to thank the Red Cross, whose parcels contained not just foodstuffs and soap but also a wide range of sporting goods and a whole panoply of musical instruments, ranging from flutes to harmonicas, as well as sheet music.

And, when instruments were either too large to post or unavailable, men built their own to play in bands. Others staged semi-professional productions of plays and musicals, ranging from Hamlet to The Importance of Being Earnest, which inspired actors like Carry On regular Peter Butterworth and Talbot Rothwell, writer of the Carry On films, to pursue careers in the entertainment industry.

The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery
Ronald Searle's time as a prisoner of the Japanese informed St Trinian's

In addition, the renowned composer Benjamin Britten was even persuaded to write a vocal work for British PoWS.

Ronald Searle's St Trinian's cartoons owe much to his time in a Japanese captivity and take on an altogether darker hue when matched with Searle's wartime experiences on violence and torture.

"In essence," Midge Gillies explains, "St Trinian's is a POW camp. In the cartoons some girls are hung upside-down by their ankles, others are stretched on the rack and one of his pictures, showing pupils' decapitated heads on a shelf comes directly from a scene witnessed by Searle himself, of shelves of heads of executed Chinese prisoners."

Another artist whose creativity was stirred by his imprisonment was Sir Terry Frost. The man who was to become one of the greatest British painters of the 20th century was taught by the painter Adrian Heath while in a PoW camp after being captured by the Germans in Crete in 1941.

"In prisoner-of-war camp I got tremendous spiritual experience," he wrote later, "a more aware or heightened perception during starvation, and I honestly do not think that awakening has ever left me".

Prison hooch

Captured on the Greek mainland, a 21 year-old young soldier in the 4th Queen's Own Hussars called Clive Dunn had already set out on an acting career but four years as a PoW in Austria, where he worked as a manual labourer, gave him even more opportunity to hone his performances.

Later, he acknowledged that his most famous character, Dad's Army's belligerent Cpl Jones, had provided him with "wonderful happy revenge" for his incarceration.

Other noted actors who spent time as POWs include Denholm Elliott, Donald Pleasence - star of The Great Escape as well as the Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld - Desmond Llewelyn - Q in the Bond films - and the ubiquitous Sam Kydd.

With so much time on their hands, education became an essential part of camp life for many men, some of whom studied for pleasure, others with an eye to possible post-war careers.

Subjects offered ranged from book-keeping to architecture and exam papers, set by academics including JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, and delivered through the Red Cross system, were a regular sight.

Terry Frost's Study for Stalag 383 (courtesy Beaux Arts London and the artist's estate)
Terry Frost's Study for Stalag 383

The British Red Cross eventually approved 6,091 different exam papers from 136 examining bodies as diverse as Cambridge University, the Institute of Brewing and the National Association of Swimming Instructors.

Other pastimes included birdwatching and even archaeology on the Burma\Thailand Railway. A number of camps had their own Masonic lodges. Illicit radio sets, made by the men, often gave them better information about the course of the war than their captors.

And even booze was not off-limits for some. Flt Lt Ted Nestor was also imprisoned in Stalag Luft III. Throughout his captivity he kept a remarkable diary, complete with sketches, maps, and this eye-opening description of homebrew from August 1944.

"The brew was merely the distillation of prunes and raisins to extract the alcohol content to make wine. Did I say 'merely'?!! I can assure you that the result was a faster and more powerful hair raiser than anything I've ever drank."

Even surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, it seems, the human spirit not only survived but often thrived. As Midge Gillies puts it: "They escaped to within themselves."

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