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French WWII POWs built hidden camera, filmed Nazis

French soldiers held in a Nazi prison camp during WWII managed to smuggle in parts to construct a movie camera and film their escape attempt.


(Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET Australia)

French soldiers held in a Nazi prison camp during World War II managed to smuggle in parts to construct a movie camera and film their escape attempt.

Escaping from Nazi prison camps, of necessity, became something of a fine art during World War II — and tales of daring escapades by Allied prisoners have been handed down. The biggest escape of the war, though, was the one known as La Grandé Evasion — the Great Escape — when, between 17 and 18 September 1943, 132 French prisoners managed to escape from the Oflag XVII-A prison camp in Austria.

It's a tale of high stakes and daring, and the prisoners managed to make a documentary about the escape while in the camp.

Footage newly obtained by the BBC shows a 30-minute film called Sous Le Manteau (Clandestinely), filmed on hidden cameras built from parts smuggled into the camp in sausages.

While the Nazi guards would slice open food to check for contraband, the prisoners realised that they'd only slice through the middle, and hid the parts in the ends of the sausages. They constructed a camera to be concealed inside a heavy dictionary from the camp's library, and hid the film reels in the heels of their shoes. The footage they managed to obtain shows not just their planning, but also life in the camp: brutality, deprivation, even searches by the guards.

The tale of their escape is remarkable.

Although the prisoners had tried tunnelling out of the camp numerous times, they were always caught. The distance to the outside was too great, and the guards would always catch them out thanks to the piles of dirt. However, the Nazis encouraged the prisoners to use their time productively and, without forced labour, the prisoners were free to pursue their own entertainment.

One form this took was an open-air theatre, which the Germans allowed the men to build. Called Theatre de la Verdure (Greenery Theatre), it was partially obscured from view by greenery — which allowed the men to start another tunnel. This time, they hid the dirt under the theatre's seating, and managed to complete a 90-metre tunnel to the other side of the camp's wire.

The first group of men escaped on 17 September 1943. The next day, their escape had gone unnoticed, so the second lot escaped at night, even while the first escapees were being recaptured. After that, the jig was up, and 126 of the prisoners were recaptured in the first week.

Only two of the men ever made it back to France, and only one is still alive today: Lt Jean Cuene-Grandidier, who celebrated his 100th birthday in May this year.