UnBooks:The Great Escape

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The novel The Great Escape is also available in paperback.

In 1938, Squadron Leader “Squiffy” Squiffington Henry Fitzwilliam-Mildendowne published a semi-autobiographical account of one of the most formidable, courageous and exciting feats attempted of all time; namely, an attempt by a ragtag bunch of PoWs to escape the world’s most secure prison yet invented: Glasgow. It proved hugely popular, and after the war was adapted into a film. The author, however, was unhappy with the way the filmmakers had made the story more suitable for family viewing by glossing over the unpleasant conditions in the prison, and substituting brutal Scotchmen for mildly threatening Nazis. In an attempt to tell the real story, the following are extracts from his work.

edit Capture (pages 24-27):

Tendrils of fear gnawed at Squiffy’s insides, in that special way only a tendril can gnaw. He ignored it and concentrated on the tentacles of hunger nibbling at his toes. He knew he shouldn’t be flying this low, but MI5 really needed these reconnaissance photographs. At only 600 feet, he was below the smog that blanketed Lanarkshire, and there was a significant chance that someone might spot him. Too many of his friends had disappeared that way, never to be seen again. He reached down and stroked Archibald, his pet cat, and adjusted the stick. “We’ll be all right now lad”, he said and tried to change up to third, but a fumble on the gears made him put the old Sopwith into first instead. “Bugger!” The engine stalled with a terrible grating sound and he began to lose altitude...

Squiffy woke in the smoking remains of his ‘plane, and looked around him. Thankfully, Archie seemed to be unscathed. Squiffy soon realised that he, however, was very much scathed. There was a nasty scathe on his left leg, and a much friendlier gash on his right. He was in dire straits. The radio crackled into life, and the sound of BBC Radio 1 blared into the cockpit. “Some twat’s gone and changed the tuner, the little sod!” he muttered to himself, and adjusted it to the correct frequency. “Aeroplane downed, Sqn. Ldr. Fitzwilliam-Milden...” but he was cut off before he could call for help. He was trapped, with no hope of escape. He could only wait for them to come.

He could see them advancing across the next field. Quite literally hundreds of them. Well, maybe not hundreds, but tens. Well, ones. He was bloody well seeing double again. Not ideal for a pilot, he knew. He rummaged in the glove box for his gun, his most prized possession. It had been his great-grandfather’s service pistol, and though two feet long pistols had somewhat fallen out of fashion, he kept it, as it had once saved his grandfather’s life. He began to load it now, pouring the powder into the barrel. He only had enough powder for five shots. Still, he could miss at four of them before missing himself. He steeled himself for the fight, as did Archie. They were ready.

The fight was brief. Squiffy hit one of them with his first shot, and was so shocked he dropped his gun. Whilst he scrabbled in the dirt for the pouch containing the powder, Archie used his sub-machine gun to devastating effect on a fence, a cloud and a couple of trees before running out of bullets. The game was up. They surrendered, and narrowly avoided being clubbed to death by showing the Scotchmen their rank insignia. Archibald was a Commodore, after all. Being officers, they helped patch up the chap Squiffy shot, made everyone a cup of tea and stood still so that the savages could knock them unconscious. They were in the enemy’s clutches, and possibly even in the enemy’s grasp, but they would never be on the enemy’s leash.

edit The Prison (pages 68-70):

The guards certainly kept them on a very tight leash. Their every move was watched by suspicious, hulking Neanderthals looking for any opportunity to punish them. And the punishments were harsh by anyone’s standards. They lived on a paltry diet of breakfast, lunch and dinner, without even so much as afternoon tea. They were only allowed three cups of tea and one scone a day, and sometimes the guards just banned crumpets altogether. Once, the guards stopped them listening to the Archers for a whole week, and as a result they missed a gripping subplot involving Mary’s choice of cake to bring to the village fête. They’d never know whether she chose lemon drizzle or Victoria sponge. Squiffy was beginning to question his sanity. Many of the other prisoners had gone completely mad, and a few days ago one poor sod lost all the stiffness in his upper lip. He was rushed to hospital, but there was nothing anyone could do. As the most senior officer amongst the prisoners, Archie acted as a representative for them, and Squiffy was his translator (he’d picked up a little Scotch back in university). The governor of the prison wasn’t a bad sort really, he was half Scotch and half Nazi. To-day, they went to see him and ask for a bit more leniency on the guards’ part. “Now look here, this just won’t do at all. We let you borrow that Vera Lynn record, the least you could do is let have the new PG Wodehouse book. You just aren’t playing fair!” Archie mewed plaintively.

I shan’t even try to replicate German in a Scotch accent (or possibly the other way round) on the page, but Herr von McAnderson made noises roughly analogous to “I would, I really would, honestly. But, you see, I’m being transferred to a slightly lower-security facility in a week’s time, and my replacement must have the impression that I did my job properly. I’m ever so sorry.” This news was most worrying. Squiffy asked the governor what his replacement would be like. The answer was not concerting. In fact, “Fothers” Fotheringham Gussetts would probably have called it disconcerting. Apparently, he was the most feared and hated man in all the county, accused of crimes too horrible to print in this book (one of which involved a brace of kittens, an electric plug, an unbuttered muffin and a steamroller). Something had to be done.

As will happen whenever a bunch of Englishmen are cooped up with nothing to do, an unofficial parliament, intricate system of courts and a considerable amount of sodomy developed. Squiffy went to address the House of Lords on the developments. They were indeed most disconcerted. After a brief debate, the bishops drafted a bill proposing that the prisoners try to escape. An even shorter debate ensued, and the Escape Act 1935 was given royal assent. At last, they could dream of home again. A minor setback occurred, however, when on leaving the House they realised they’d been in there over a month. The new governor had already arrived, and due to even worse conditions a large proportion of the prisoners had died of Blighty deprivation. As officers couldn’t do any manual labour, they’d have to think of a escape plan that didn’t require work of any sort. There weren’t many of those.

edit The First Escape Attempt (pages 99-106):

Digging a 200-yard tunnel out of granite using only a butter knife was easier than it sounded. Tuffers had discovered that it you held it in warm water for a few seconds it cut a lot easier, and since then they’d made another three inches progress. Not bad for four weeks’ work. The tunnel was now so large that Archie could fit inside it with only his tail sticking out. Squiffy could taste freedom already (it tastes not unlike a really good bacon sandwich). The main issue was keeping the noise from the guards. Every night they would nominate one of the lower ranks to act as a diversion by having him bait a guard. This would give them about an hour to dig whilst the unlucky volunteer was slowly beaten to death. But they were running out of expendable soldiers, and attempts to use pigeons had proved unsuccessful, as the guards wasted no time in devouring them whole. It looked like digging a tunnel would require a new plan.

“So, we’ve tried sacrificing underlings, setting up a choir and crossing our fingers, but to no avail. What to do?” Squiffy pondered. “What else could distract the guards?” From the corner, Chalky piped up:

“We could have an orgy with them whilst you lot carry on digging. I bet it’d work.”

“Chalky, I’ve explained before, it’d be unfair for the diggers missing out on all the fun. If you’re going to hold an orgy, you should invite everyone, or else people get jealous.” Archie meowed in reply.

“Hold on, I’ve got it! Why don’t we take it in turns? We can alternate between orgies and scrabbling at the rock face. They’ll never suspect a thing!” Tuffers exclaimed.

“Absolutely capital idea, old chap!”

“Bloody genius!”

And so the seeds of a new plan began to form. Squiffy and the others drew straws to see who got first orgy. He and Chuffney drew the short straws, so waited back in the building as the others went out to attract the guards’ attention. They waited until they could hear the sounds of a full-on, passionate love-fête going on, and then began to slave away on the tunnel. They worked for hours, the noises from above providing much needed motivation. The moans permeated the rock; it was like going to the pictures where they have those really fancy speakers that make you think the sound’s all around you (except without images, so more like listening to Radio 4’s Pornography at Bedtime (just after the shipping forecast)). By the time the sounds from upstairs subsided, they’d made considerable progress. An extra ¾ of an inch in a single night! Exhausted but satisfied, both groups of prisoners gathered in their cabin and filled each other in.

And thus the days wore on. Squiffy lost count of how many hours he’d spent scratching at the cold granite with his lukewarm butter knife, or how many times he’d woke up in a pile of naked, sweaty bodies. To be quite frank, he was beginning to enjoy himself. Yes, he still missed home, but he thought about it less and less these days. The new governor hadn’t caused any trouble, in fact, no-one had even seen him yet. And though he knew all these fun activities were available back home, it just seemed more exotic in a foreign country. He might even get a suntan from all that time underground (much sunnier than the surface of Glasgow). Yet he, and the others, carried on digging. The tunnel was now at least 2 feet and 9 inches long. Soon they’d have their opportunity.

One fine day, Squiffy, Fothers and Archie were digging whilst the others had their fun, and were making good progress. Suddenly, Fothers stiffened and dropped the knife. “Fothers, you daft...” Archie began, but was quickly silenced.

“I can hear something. Be quiet, both of you” Fothers whispered. True enough, there was an unusual rasping sound coming from the stone, and it was getting louder. Another little tendril of fear tried an opportunistic bite at Squiffy’s insides, but he just batted it away and put his ear to the wall. He could hear it really clearly now, a grating sound at regular intervals, with various ‘sod it’ and ‘bollocks’ sounds at irregular ones. It was almost upon them. The rock began to tremble, and small chunks broke off the ceiling. Archie was clearly trembling also, and Squiffy was pretty sure small clumps of his fur were falling off his head. And then... with an almighty ‘ping’, a hole appeared in the end of the tunnel.

A rusty spoon was thrust through the gap, and jiggled sensually to widen it. Squiffy heard a moan, and the spoon moved backwards and forwards, again and again, ravaging the soft granite flesh. The hole was now wide enough to accommodate an entire arm, which forcefully pushed into it all the way to the elbow, stretching the hole even further. Then, with a sudden cessation of innuendo, the arm disappeared and a round, pleasant face appeared.

“Hello, agent Band. Jim Band. MI5 sent me. Ever so sorry, I appear to have somewhat ruined your tunnel.”

“I shouldn’t worry about that, my man, easily fixed. Care to come in for a cup of tea?”

“Love to, but I’m afraid I’m under strict orders to rescue you ASAP. I suppose I’ll just fill this one in and start again, then. Don’t bother yourselves about escaping, I’ll have you out in no time.”

“If that’s alright by you, that’d be just lovely.”

“Absolutely, old crumpet. I insist. Well, I’ll be off then. Tootle-pip!” Without further ado, Band began to shuffle back down the tunnel, filling it in as he went along.

“Wasn’t he nice?” said Fothers.

“Charming” said Squiffy.

edit THE Incident (pages 135-136):

Without tunnel digging duties to be done, life was good for the prisoners. The orgies continued, of course, but now everyone could join in, so they were bigger and better than ever. They were just sitting there waiting to be rescued, but able to enjoy all that Glasgow had to offer. It reminded Squiffy of Butlin’s as a child, except for the orgies. However hard they tried, he doubted they could equal the orgies he’d had at Butlin’s. On this fine day they were playing a nice friendly game of cricket with the guards, and winning (not difficult against Scotchmen). Life was grand. But this was not to last. The door of the main office burst open, and out came the new governor. He had a nasty sneer on his face, and a nasty hat on his head. Squiffy could see on the floor a nasty smirk, and assumed it had been on his face, but had now fallen off. And he was carrying something behind his back. He stepped up to the guard’s current batter and handed him the object before stepping back. Squiffy finally saw what it was. Oh God...

The others saw IT too. The unnatural implement before them was having a variety of effects. Chalky fell to his knees on seeing IT, and Fothers started talking gibberish. Even Squiffy was affected. How could he not? IT was a cricket bat, but something was very, very wrong. They could see it was three eighths of an inch longer than Regulation Length. What had they done?

“That’s... that’s ...”

“Cheating!”

“Good Lord! You bastards!” Chalky was now writhing on the floor, clutching at his chest.

“Gentlemen, it appears we win!” said (or rather, attempted to say) the governor, and the guards cheered, before leaving the traumatised prisoners on the pitch. This latest development was too much for Chalky, and he stopped writhing and grew still. At that moment Squiffy knew: there could be no more waiting. They had to get out, now.

edit The Great Escape (pages 157-160):

They came back from Chalky’s makeshift funeral ready to put their plan into action. At five past three, the explosive in his coffin would go off, and whilst the guards were distracted they would steal the governor’s car. It was a Reliant Robin, the fastest vehicle in all Scotland (everyone knows removing a wheel reduces the weight of the car, therefore making it faster). It was foolproof. The waiting was very tense, but everything was in place and everyone was ready. What could possibly go wrong?

It was twenty past three, and still no explosion. Something had gone terribly wrong.

“Are you sure the encyclopaedia said Worcestershire sauce is an explosive?”

“Yes, when in contact with clotted cream. And believe me, there’s no shortage of clotted cream in his coffin.”

“Which encyclopaedia did you use?”

“Erm, well... it wasn’t, you know, the famous one... you know... sort of...”

“Christ Almighty, you used Uncyclopedia, didn’t you? You stupid, stupid... Well, no time for this. We’ll just have to make a run for it anyway.” Squiffy was visibly anxious saying this, and his arms were flailing everywhere; knocking away those pesky tendrils.

“Wait! What if I distract them myself? Then you’ll have time to get away.”

“But Archie, you’ll be killed!”

“It’s alright; I’ve still got six lives left. Go! I’ll hold them off as long as I can.”

“I’ll miss you, old egg.”

“You too, old bean. Now go, or you’ll miss your chance!” And so Commodore Archibald Hugo Frederick Smythe, seventh Earl of Grimsby, leapt onto a fence and ran along it, jumping off onto a guard’s head. His brief, pain-stricken howl rang out, making the other guards come running. Archibald fought bravely, taking down at least a dozen guards before jumping onto a shed roof. He ran along the rooftops with guards in hot pursuit, trying to buy as much time as possible. The others would certainly need it.

They raced around a corner, trying not to listen to the sounds of the fighting coming from the other side of Glasgow. Squiffy almost collided head-on with a guard leaning against a wall, smoking a cigarette. Why wasn’t he chasing Archie? Squiffy instinctively stabbed him with the butter knife, to no avail.

“Oh. Erm, bear with me just a minute. will you? Chuffney, pass me the hot water please.” He held the knife in for several tense moments, as an angry Scotchman stared dumbfounded at him. “There we go, that ought to do it” he said, and stabbed him again. This time the guard took a step back, as he looked down at the gaping wound in his chest. The force of the blow caused him to begin to disintegrate, his once ugly features now reduced to dust. “Come on, no time to dawdle!” They piled into the car and buckled their seatbelts. Squiffy started the engine, and, after a brief argument on what CD to play, they shot off down the track. Tuffers used the rear machine gun turret to kill a couple of pursuers, Fothers was humming along to the CD and Chuffney had already fallen asleep. It was going to be a long drive.

Archie was getting tired. He knew this was the end. They were less than five yards behind him and he could see a couple were blocking off his path in front. He slowed down. What was the point? He only hoped the others had got out OK. Just when it looked like they were about to get him, there was a not-exactly-omnipotent-but fairly-mighty-nonetheless BOOM.

Squiffy saw the explosion in his rear mirror. It looks like Tuffers was right after all about the best way to make a homemade bomb. He mentally saluted Archie. Bye-bye, old friend.

edit Epilogue:

The actions of these six men (well, five plus cat) proved decisive in the Third Scots War of Independence. They provided a distraction for the English and Swiss forces to march unopposed into Edinburgh, and so win the war.

Agent Band eventually tunnelled his way in just as they finished rebuilding Glasgow. He was captured and never seen again.

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