This Folio Life: Illustrating The Great Escape

The Great Escape is a truly gripping account of the most famous mass escape in prisoner-of-war history. To illustrate this story of triumph and tragedy we have used photos and illustrations from the Imperial War Museums, the National Archives and the RAF Museum.

The Great Escape, The Folio Society

The endpapers to our edition of The Great Escape depicts the lay out of the POW camp

The photos show some of the tools and props used to escape including the ingenious ‘penguin’ trouser-bags that were used to discreetly disperse sand from the escape tunnels, wire-cutting pincers hidden within a book, forged gate passes and the air pumps that enabled the prisoners to survive in the tunnels.

The size and darkness of the tunnels themselves meant that photos were only taken at the exits and entrances. However, Paul Brickhill’s talents as a writer plus his own claustrophobia, which prevented him from participating in the escape and instead positioned him as the camp’s chronicler, give the reader a very real and terrifying sense of the discomfort and dangers experienced within the tunnels.

To further add to this we also have the brilliant visual records of Flight Lieutenant Ley Kenyon DFC, an artist from London. Kenyon’s drawings show the extraordinary engineering and construction of the tunnels and what it was like to work inside them.

Sketch from The Great Escape, from The Folio Society

A prisoner repairs a section of the tunnel where the bedboard walls and ceilings have collapsed. Sketch by Ley Kenyon, c.1944 (© Royal Air Force Museum Collection)

Today, Kenyon’s drawings are held at the RAF Museum in Hendon, London, but they were only able to make it there after an escape of their own. In Stalag Luft III, Kenyon’s drawings were hidden away within sealed containers inside a tunnel, which was then intentionally flooded by the prisoners to hide it from suspecting Germans. In January 1945 the camp was evacuated owing to the advancing Russians, but a British officer who was too ill to be evacuated was later able to go back to the tunnel and rescue the artwork, which was astonishingly found undamaged.

Second sketch from The Great Escape, by The Folio Society

The Working Face. Drawing by Ley Kenyon, c.1944
(© Royal Air Force Museum Collection)

The RAF Museum’s wonderful archive staff helped us look through Kenyon’s many drawings and from these we selected seven to include in our edition alongside some of his diagrams, which were included in the first edition of The Great Escape.

The Great Escape, published by The Folio SocietyView our edition of The Great Escape.

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