The Great Escapes: Remarkable Second World War Captives, a new exhibition at The National Archives, gives us a fresh perspective on how prisoners of war (PoWs) and civilian captives escaped, or attempted to, from camps across the world, from both the axis and allied sides. The poignant stories of many PoWs are displayed along with original documents, photos and objects. Tales of well known names such as Airey Neave, MP, Peter Butterworth (of the Carry On films) and P.G. Wodehouse lie alongside those of other not so famous individuals providing a fascinating hour or two of browsing.

The National Archives in Kew is a historically important building, containing over 15 million documents from censuses to private letters from Kings and Queens from centuries ago. In addition to viewing the exhibition, visitors can use the reading rooms to look at documents and access family history resources, and look around a delightful shop and cafe. 

The exhibition is laid out in 3 different but connected parts, highlighting the detailed plans prisoners across the world made to escape. The work of MI9, the secret department of the War Office which was tasked with helping allied PoWs escape and also with helping military personnel trapped behind enemy lines evade capture is a key theme. While for those unable to escape in reality, the exhibition provides valuable information on how the PoWs escaped their harsh existence by keeping themselves busy, whether by putting on shows in the Stalags in Germany, or gardening in vegetable patches in Hong Kong. The exhibition also includes stories about how German PoWs tried to escape from camps in England and Wales, a fascinating side of WW2 history which we rarely hear about.

An attendee of the exhibition and a keen young historian, Zac, said: “I enjoyed the exhibition; it gave us an insight into an often overlooked side of the war, a side that is rarely talked about and should be more, because of the great things we can learn from these inspirational escape attempts. One story I found interesting was about Judy the dog and Frank Williams, who met in a camp in Indonesia. Judy helped the prisoners pinch items and alerted them when Japanese guards were approaching. Together they managed to escape and Judy received the Dickin Medal for ‘magnificent courage and endurance’. She was the only animal given the official status of prisoner of war.”

The exhibition runs until 21st July and is free to see and easily reachable by London Underground (District Line to Kew Gardens) and National Rail, so why wait to go and see it!