Friday, 23 January 2009

UnderRated: The Tunnel Mentality

I grew up on tales of the War. My father's love of the determined escapology of the previous generation of servicemen was passed on to me.

I watched the films and then I read the books - Colditz, The Wooden Horse, The Great Escape and the like.

The ingenuity, the Heath Robinsonish devices for disposing of all the excess earth from the tunnels, the amazing plans to cover up the engineering work that was occurring beneath the watchful gaze of the armed sentries, be it choir practice, gymnstic classes or some other scheme.

Not forgetting the forgery, counterfeiting and tailoring skills to produce the correct documentation, cash, uniforms and civilian outfits required to travel through enemy territory.

Their sheer bloody-minded determination to just get out and get home whilst causing distractions on the home front for the enemy and making work for the German interior defences as a consequence.

Spoiler alert

I watched The Great Escape recently. It's pretty much a seasonal fixture for Christmas, New Year or Easter.

Every time, I hold my breath waiting for the moment where Richard Attenborough and Gordon Jackson seem to have got past the checkpoint and onto the bus with the skill of their French and, as an afterthought, the policemen says 'Good Luck' in English to Jackson's retreating back. I inwardly plead with him not to respond and sigh sadly when his little Scottish voice replies 'Thank you' and the end is in sight for them.

I cry when the Gestapo shoot 50 of the 76 escapees as a lesson to try to stop the tide of tunnelling attempts and I will Steve McQueen to successfully get his motorcycle to jump over the second fence.

The incredible bravery and tenacity, as well as the horrendous cruelty of men are all highlighted in these films.

It is a great sorrow to me that my children just don't seem to be interested in watching them.

Perhaps I would do better with The Shawshank Redemption? Not escaping prisoners of war, of course, but nonetheless showing the same courage and determination to be free in the face of some hideous treatment.

Or the more modern Prison Break, which seems very popular with some ladies due to the spectacular muscles on a large number of the leading males.

Lightweights :) But I guess it's symptomatic of the generation gap or perhaps the circumstances of their confinement where well-fed muscles replace the privation and starvation of the prisoners during the War.

During the two weeks of programming commemorating the 90th Anniversary of Armistice Day, I stumbled upon Tony Robinson's Time Team and their attempts to find and open up one of the original dug-outs built by the tunnelling companies of the Royal Engineers to shelter the soldiers who were not on duty from the rigours of enemy shelling. The amazing feats of engineering in building these havens under the guns of the enemy was extraordinary. They would dig a tunnel down 14m below the surface of the Front and then develop a warren of rooms for bunks, kitchen and officers' quarters where the Tommys could rest and recuperate.

But it wasn't just about that aspect of their work. They were also involved in protecting the British soldiers from enemy tunnellers who would dig under their trench positions to set mines and obliterate them, developing ever more sophisticated listening methods to the stage where they could even hear an earthworm burrowing.

In addition, they waged their own war underground by digging back under the German lines and doing the same thing. Their most effective attack being 21 mines exploded simultaneously under the enemy positions on the Messine Ridge near Ypres at 3.10am on 7th June 1917, an explosion that was heard 100 miles away in Downing Street and formed massive craters which still remain today. One has been filled in and become known as the Pool of Peace.



TROLL said...

Wow. Outstanding post here. I need to look some of these events up.

Polar said...

The efforts of so many to preserve Freedom for the rest of us, should Never be forgotten!!!
Thank you for reminding us, again!

southerngirl said...

Powerful, excellent reminder Ms. Cake

O said...

Fascinating stuff. Thank you!

Ro said...

For me, all of these films remind me of the ingenuity and determination that people can show in the face of overwhelming difficulties.

I hope that our children - and, indeed, ourselves - would find those same qualities were they ever needed. Part of me fears that we'd fail - we've all had it far too easy in many ways.

Morpheus said...

You should read Sebastian Foulkes' "Birdsong" (assuming you haven't done so already). As I was reminded this morning, not just about trench warfare and tunnelling, but a few damn good sex scenes too!