The Great Escape: A Canadian Story
By Ted Barris
Thomas Allen, 320 pages, $33.99
The Forgotten: Canadian POWs, Escapers and Evaders in Europe, 1949-45
By Nathan M. Greenfield
HarperCollins, 471 pages $34.99
One Day in August: The Untold Story Behind Canada’s Tragedy at Dieppe
By David O’Keefe
Knopf Canada, 496 pages, $35
The history of the war has gone through several phases of writing, with academics laying down much of the foundation over several generations, as well as offering new interpretations of battles and campaigns, or underexplored social and cultural themes. However, the popularizers of the field attract greater attention and better sales.
Their work often takes established topics – those already well carved out by historians – and then builds upon them, with the best of them judiciously mining archival material and employing oral histories to provide deeper, richer and more imaginative insights into the past. And they write better. They are skilled storytellers who emphasize narrative over analysis, while the academics spend most of their energy marshaling research, with reams of evidence, rather than telling a good yarn.
Military historian Ted Barris’s seventeenth book of non-fiction, for example, follows his well-honed and highly successful approach of combining vivid characters with thumping narrative. While the story of the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III prisoner-of-war camp in March, 1944, has been told in dozens of books and articles, Barris has uncovered new material by interviewing the surviving Canadian prisoners and accessing never-seen-before archival material held by their descendants.
This is very much a Canadian story, laments Barris, even though actor Steve McQueen owns The Great Escape through the thrilling 1963 film of the same name. Who can forget McQueen’s epic motorcycle ride to shake the pursuing German goons? Yet Barris is at pains to point out that much of the intricate and innovative planning for the prison break in 1944 was orchestrated by Canadian airmen, who for marketing purposes were written out of the Hollywood film.
In The Great Escape, Barris reminds us of the powerful impulse of the Kriegies – as the prisoners called themselves – to push back against the stifling German system, outwit their jailors, and work relentlessly on schemes to escape. For much of the war, the Germans treated this as a cat-and-mouse game, but by early 1944, with Hitler’s Third Reich losing on all fronts, the orders went out to dissuade these escapes through harsh reprisals.
When the 74 prisoners made it out of an underground tunnel that they had spent months excavating, almost all were recaptured. The Gestapo executed 50 of the escapees, including six Canadians. Barris’s history makes it seems as if everyone were an unrelenting hero, and overlooks the degree to which prisoners suffered from depression, anger, deprivation and disillusionment. But his exploration of how many of the veterans in the postwar years dealt with their anger and guilt over their comrades’ execution adds nuanced insights into how veterans remember the war.
Nathan Greenfield’s The Forgotten also explores the Great Escape, as part of his larger investigation of the experiences of Canadian prisoners of war. Greenfield, whose previous book The Damned was a finalist for the 2011 Governor General’s Award, tells the story of prisoners through 45 captured Canadian airmen, sailors, soldiers and, interestingly, religious Oblates (teaching brothers who were captured by the Germans and nonetheless interned in military camps).
Greenfield provides almost no background on the war, or Canada’s part in it. His narrative is driven by the stories of individual Canadian prisoners, and often by their own powerful words. Greenfield employs an unconventional presentation with brief, 500-word vignettes on each of his characters. I initially found these vignettes too jarring, as I moved rapidly between the different personalities, but soon they built in intensity, as each man’s story offered a different glimpse of the struggle behind barbed wire.
Not all made it. In June 1943, a number of Canadian SOE (Special Operations Executive) operatives were captured almost immediately upon parachuting onto French soil, and these soldiers in civilian clothing were labelled spies. The Gestapo tortured them for information over the better part of a year and Greenfield’s depiction of their deaths, slow execution by piano wire, makes for a chilling read.
Shifting from prisoners to battles, there are few subjects studied as broadly and deeply as the disastrous Canadian-spearheaded raid on Dieppe on August 19, 1942. Dozens of books written by scholars and popularizers over several generations have built one upon another, studying archival documents to attempt to determine who was to blame for the seemingly poorly planned and executed operation. Few might have imagined there was anything new to say about the raid, but Canadian historian and filmmaker David O’Keefe has produced a major new book, One Day in August, based on nearly 20 years of intense research into newly released intelligence records in Britain.
He presented his research in a much celebrated film last year, Dieppe Uncovered, which had many journalists swooning and even veterans recounting, as one does in O’Keefe’s book, that he could now “die in peace; now I know what my friends died for.” According to O’Keefe, the Canadian raiders died – 907 killed and another 2,460 wounded and made prisoner – as part of an elaborate commando “pinch” raid to grab German code books and intelligence documents that would assist the cryptographers at Bletchley Park in breaking the enemy’s encrypted signals intelligence. Had the raid for intelligence succeeded, we might today view Dieppe as a brilliant, if costly, success rather than a tragic train-wreck of destruction.
O’Keefe tells a masterful story of the intrigue and cryptology behind the fighting forces, although perhaps in too much detail, as it does not leave him enough room to explore other possible reasons behind the raid. The question is not whether there is a smoking-gun document to prove the “pinch” raid theory – he has uncovered many, much to his credit – it is how to interpret the documents. And here, I think, he misreads the information. To argue that the 5,000 Canadians involved in the raid were but a cover for a few hundred commandos reads more like a James Bond thriller than a Second World War operation. The tail is wagging the dog.
O’Keefe concludes rather lamely that the Canadian commanders “had to be put ‘in the know’” and “appear to have been told” about the “pinch” raid, but he has found no evidence of that, while at the same time he ignores all the plausible reasons that historians have, over 70 years and backed by thousands of archival documents, already documented for the raid’s unleashing. How could the Canadian commanders not have known about the true intention of the raid, when they contributed 80 per cent of the troops? And why would no one in the raid’s aftermath, especially after the war, with the need for secrecy lessened and as the finger-pointing and accusations became more rabid, not have revealed the true intention of the raid?
Other historians and readers may be more fully swayed by the argument, but I found too many attempts in the book to wish away evidence that contradicted or muddied O’Keefe’s thesis. However, I will be among the first to say that any subsequent book on Dieppe or Ultra intelligence will have to take into account his stunning new research and bold claims.
All of these writers are expert hands at providing wonderful and intimate details of the prisoner experience or intelligence gathering, although at the expense of contextualizing history. For years, popular histories were derided, especially by academics, as all story and no analysis, and for offering few new contributions to understanding the past. But that seems to be changing in recent years, as the best popularizers find new hooks and angles for their histories, and employ new evidence – usually oral histories, or, in O’Keefe’s case, deep archival research – in innovative and revealing ways.
As the popularizers move ever deeper on to the academic’s hallowed ground of archival research, one wonders if the academics in time will borrow the best approaches from the popularizers, especially in employing narrative-driven story-telling. If they don’t, those ivory towers are going to feel even more lonely.
Tim Cook is the author of six books of military history, including Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King, and Canada’s World Wars.