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The Great Escape Can we learn from the real-life equivalents of Steve McQueen and his pals in The Great Escape?

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Lockdown Lessons from History

Peter Caddick-Adams, former soldier now military historian, has some lessons from the past on how to get through the coronavirus confinement – and maybe come out of it with something good

Published on April 11, 2020

Several friends have phoned in the last few days complaining about the challenges of the new norm. As a military historian, I am fascinated by the way politicians and leaders in many nations have reached for parallels with World War II, often quoting – and more usually misquoting – Britain’s most eminently quotable wartime leader, Winston Churchill. There are many echoes of the Second World War in the way we have all lost personal freedoms, taken for granted. Some states have imposed draconian curfews in the way the Germans did throughout occupied Europe, where military police roadblocks have returned for the first time in over seventy years. In much of the developed world we are now subject to governments quietly extending their powers into almost every aspect of our lives. Pastors struggling to keep their churches open are falling out with state officials demanding social isolation. There are shortages on the shelves and queues around the block to enter stores – something we have seen in grainy wartime photographs, but never personally witnessed before.

Volunteers have been mobilised to aid hospitals, drive vehicles, make tea, provide comfort – just as they did in the dark days of the 1940s. The retired have been summoned back to practice their former skills, particularly medics. Supplies are being requisitioned by governments, and factories converted to manufacture equipment for the national effort. Death is unexpectedly striking down friends and relatives at random. Governing ministers of several countries have themselves been stricken (the illness of Boris Johnson makes curious parallels with the several near-death experiences of his hero, Churchill, due to pneumonia during World War II). Heads of State address their nations with grave faces, newscasters around the globe reel off lists of numbers, in the same way their predecessors daily announced aircraft losses during the Battle of Britain in 1940. I have always struggled to imagine what life was like during the war against Germany and Japan. Now, courtesy of an undercooked bat in Wuhan, I am gaining unprecedented insights into how societies bind together in crises - or fall apart.

We have forgotten the extent to which governments controlled our lives in the 1940s. It seems incredible to us today how subservient the media were to the State and how readily we obeyed our lawmakers. Back then, governments controlled prices and rents to stop them from rising and sought, through taxation, to dampen demand since people had money but everyday goods were in short supply. Dealing with war and battling pestilence both involve strengthening state power and spending, and both require collective action. In this current crisis, many leaders have forgotten that citizens look to them for instructions or advice. Wise commands from ministers and heads of state around the world have been late and confusing. Hence worried folk all around us emptying supermarket shelves. It takes a strong will not to join the panic-buying mentality when you witness the food stores stripped bare in front of your eyes. And across the globe citizens have forgotten how to heed their community leaders’ advice. Social media has compilation clips of Italian mayors in local broadcasts hurling streams of unrepeatable insults at their citizens who refuse to stay indoors - go hunt for them.

In another life, in a galaxy far, far away, I served my country in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. I had few choices about what clothes to wear, what to eat, where to spend my day, or which stores to visit. My chain of command made those decisions for me and structured my time with planning and other tasks, meetings, patrols or periods of physical exercise. I was a volunteer in a sort of self-imposed prison, with no privacy. I later exchanged my uniform for the robes of an academic, and now combine that with writing, broadcasting and lecturing. The writer’s lot is often one of being isolated at home, chained to a laptop, focussed on word-counts and deadlines. Once in the groove, as anyone who navigates the keyboard for a living will testify, no end of calls to lunch, requests to do some shopping, walk the dog, or mow the lawn, will penetrate the bubble. In some respects, for the self-employed already working from home, the current lockdown is merely a more intense version of day-to-day life.

I normally live on the shores of the Mediterranean through the winter months, where I find the cobalt-blue sea, big skies and warmth far more conducive to writing than the grey of an English winter. As coronavirus erupted in neighbouring Italy, I flew to Britain to lecture for three days, and before I knew what had happened, all the European shutters came down, and I was condemned to live out of a small suitcase for “the duration”. So far, your humble scribe is coping tolerably well – but it occurs to me that this is because our current, surreal existence is a fusion of my past lives. Knowing of my globe-trotting habits many friends, colleagues, and all of my twelve godchildren have picked my brains by phone or virtual dinner parties (another new norm) as to how to best cope with lockdown.

I am drawn to my own long days far from home in Bosnia or Iraq or wherever, but in most cases, to interpret today’s lockdown, I reach back to other aspects of World War II. The most obvious are not the travails of the various Home Fronts. If you want some appropriate life lessons from the past, you could do worse than the ponder the years behind barbed wire of the 130,201 American and 318,000 British and Commonwealth military personnel taken prisoner by the Germans, Italians and Japanese. Most of those incarcerated were conscripted civilians with little experience of military life. Like us today, the internees had no idea how long the confinement against their will would last. The POW experience was infinitely more extreme, with malnutrition, no heating, minimal medical support, and threat of death or solitary confinement for flouting the rules. Yet these men – and they were all men – somehow navigated their way through a long period of involuntary self-isolation. Those in Japanese camps, where the death rate was 27.1%, struggled to stay alive. This was seven times the rate of POWs under the Germans and Italians, where discipline helped to provide a sense of purpose and something familiar. By reasserting the hierarchies and habits of military life, men kept themselves active and sane, preventing a descent into despair and depression. So, with the Germans leaving the prisoners to form their own hierarchy, how did they do it?

First, they had a structured day. Under lockdown I doubt you’ll be attending a morning and evening roll-call, but after washing and shaving came a breakfast meal of sorts for the prisoners. Here we arrive at the first pitfalls of modern life. The current lockdown is not a long weekend-under-the-duvet. It’s the real deal and will likely last for months. My advice is to rise at a decent hour, wash properly and breakfast well. Take some exercise. The unlucky servicemen were captured wearing only their combat clothing or flying suits, and in captivity went to lengths to keep them clean and well repaired, but they still held a parade for physical exercise. The resultant blood flow not only kept them fit, but mentally alert. That will be one of our main battles: not only battling fever, but cabin fever. Try to do the same. Walks around the garden, press ups in the living room, weight training with books – anything improvised like this will help you, as it did them. In captivity, some worked out the walking distance home, or to neutral Sweden, Switzerland or Spain, and counted their steps there. At the end of the war, in captivity the Nazi bigwigs Albert Speer and Rudolf Hess walked around the world, without ever leaving the vegetable garden of their prison in the Berlin suburb of Spandau. In recent days, I watched a clip of a locked-down Briton climb Mount Everest – in measured steps up and down his own staircase.

Dress as though going to work. Of course, in the 1940s, there was no work for the prisoners, although some laboured in factories or nearby farms. The captives fantasised endlessly about freedom, escape – and food. The key was finding something to do, filling those long hours: the same for you. During World War II, Britain dug in for the duration and dug for victory. You may conceivably have time to plant and grow your own vegetables (let’s hope it’s not that long), but tomato plants, even potted house plants or fast-growing herbs like basil and mint can add some interest, and you can at least incorporate watering them into your daily routine – and they’re a good teaching medium for small children. Jigsaws, boardgames, cards, chess and chequers were popular, then as now. Every prison camp had a small library established by the International Red Cross. Librarians and bibliophiles issued books, maintained them and requested others from London, New York or Geneva.

This was where captives used their civilian skills to teach others. Everything from tailoring clothes, bookbinding, bird watching, drawing and painting, to history, languages, geography, accountancy and philosophy was taught by those who had been professionals in their trade, or schoolteachers and university academics in peacetime. Food was almost non-existent, but chefs taught menus and sommeliers the finer points of wines – in a virtual sense. After the war, several ex-prisoners forged successful careers as restaurateurs and hoteliers. Sculptors carved toys and games from wood, in the way today’s internees might embark on an ambitious Lego-building programme. Scale models of aircraft and ships were popular; I gather the Airfix generation is being reborn as the demand for plastic kits, paint and glue has mushroomed during the present crisis. In each POW camp academics set up ‘barbed wire universities’, with subjects taught to a level where they could be used as credits towards university degrees when the war was over.

In modern terms, this is the chance to read those novels piling up by your bedside, teach yourself a language, enrol in an online art or cookery class, take virtual tango lessons (as the couple I am staying with are doing, for two hours each day), or listen to a podcast. I have broadcast six on military history in the first month alone. Whilst selecting and applying for a university place (an ordeal in itself), my friends’ son is slowly dismantling a Land Rover to completely restore it. There are grubby wires, wheels, pieces of car and engine in every room in the house. The advent of e-books and online courses and lectures now plays into our hands. It also means that the shy ones amongst us can still learn and participate, but on their own terms. This is the silver lining; embrace the challenge. But don’t bite off more than you can chew. Set yourself a realistic target. For the aim is threefold – first, to learn or do something new, second, fill your day, and most important of all, have a vision or purpose that will carry you through the weeks. As a colleague emailed me when the lockdown began “if by the end, you haven’t written that novel or screenplay, it’s never going to happen”.

If all else fails, you can of course, follow the alternative pursued by a minority of prisoners and form an escape committee. But, be warned – building that glider, digging a tunnel under the front lawn and secretly disposing of the soil, forging yourself a permit to go anywhere, finding the fake money in the Monopoly board, creating an escape compass or making yourself a convincing uniform may well take far longer than the current crisis. And when the moment of release finally happens, as a reward for all your hard study or creative activity, then you can put your feet up and watch The Wooden Horse, Colditz or The Great Escape on television.

Find Peter’s books on Amazon here.


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