National Archives reveals inglorious truth behind classic World War Two movies

By Culture24 Staff | 02 September 2009
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four photographs of men in overcoats holding small suitcases with brown typed dockets beneath each photo

(Above) Kripo (German criminal investigation police) photographs and index cards showing the four escapers from Stalag Luft III murdered by Kiel Gestapo. Courtesy National Archives

When it comes to war films, it seems it's not just Quentin Tarantino who is guilty of wild artistic license. Most of the accepted classics of the genre, including The Dambusters and The Great Escape, are guilty of playing fast and loose with the facts.

Now the National Archives is revealing the real stories behind some of these classic World War Two films with a series of specially made videocasts drawing upon official documents to explore the facts behind cinematic fiction.

Released to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two, the films have been prepared by Principle Military Records Specialist William Spencer, using extracts from real government records and archive footage.

"The videocasts are a fantastic new way to bring history to life," says William. "They allow anyone to explore the archival truth behind the stories told in some of the most iconic British war films of all time."

a black and white photograph showing a cylindrical bomb slung beneath the fuselage of a plane

A bouncing bomb slung underneath a Lancaster bomber for the Dambusters raid. Courtesy National Archives

Visitors to the National Archives website may or may not be surprised to learn that Wing Commander Guy Gibson didn't invent the innovative searchlight navigation system used in the Dambusters raid after a visit to the theatre.

The "spotlight altimeter" device was instead suggested by Benjamin Lockspeiser, of the Ministry of Aircraft Production, and had been used by the RAF Coastal Command aircraft for some time.

Similarly, the shape of the famous "bouncing bombs" used to successfully attack the Moehne Dam were the wrong shape. In mitigation, at the time of the film's making in 1955, the bomb's specifications remained secret under normal conditions of the 30-year rule.

Perhaps better known by film audiences is the way Steve McQueen changed the events of the Allied escape from Stalag Luft III by suggesting an exciting motorcycle chase scene as a thrilling finale to The Great Escape (1963). In reality, the truth was much less heroic and far more tragic.

an aerial photo showing a breeched dam

The Moehne Dam after the Dambuster's raid. Courtesy The National Archives

Also included in the series of films, which is being released in stages from today (September 3 2009), is an examination of the evacuation of children out of large cities, as portrayed in Hope and Glory (1987), and the D-Day landings, as portrayed in The Longest Day (1962).

The deception scheme prior to the Allied invasion of Sicily from The Man Who Never Was (1956) and the heroism of Special Operations Executive Agent Violette Szabo, depicted in Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), are also explored in detail using the extensive records and films held at the National Archives.

The first videocast, exploring the theme of evacuation which lies behind the 1987 film, Hope and Glory, is released on September 3. A videocast on a different theme will be released each week until October 8 2009.

See more at The National Archives website – War on Film.

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