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Great Escapes exhibition launched

We opened our new exhibition Great Escapes: Remarkable Second World War Captives with a launch event and positive coverage in the media.

At the opening, author and intelligence specialist Helen Fry spoke about researching the secret wartime intelligence organisation MI9 in our records while writing her books.

She recalled discovering that Allied servicemen were advised ‘not to walk in a British way’ if they found themselves in enemy territory – among many other tips they were given on escape and evasion.

The Daily Telegraph gave the exhibition a four-star review, Great Escapes: a revelatory examination of prisoner-of-war camps in the Second World War (

“I’m fascinated by the enduring passion that exists for this story, but also what you have here,“ was Samira Ahmed’s verdict on Radio 4’s Front Row Front Row – Killers of the Flower Moon star Lily Gladstone, author Leo Vardiashvili and the Great Escapes exhibition at Kew – BBC Sounds

Drawing on our extraordinary range of wartime records, Great Escapes explores the experiences of Prisoner of War (POW)s and civilian internees between 1939-45.

It was inspired by a marathon cataloguing effort by volunteers who worked their way through 200,000 POW records to make them accessible to the public. Their efforts turned up records relating to Ronald Searle, who survived working on the Thai-Burma railway and sketched his fellow prisoners (bringing home around 300 drawings at the end of the war).

They also catalogued wartime records for PG Wodehouse, who managed to write at least one novel while interned in Poland, which are also on display.

But the POW who has most captured the media’s imagination is Carry On actor Peter Butterworth. Interned in Stalag Luft III, he was one of the vaulters who helped distract attention from tunnelling under the Wooden Horse and helped organise The Great Escape the following year. A talented artist, he was involved in forging fake ID papers for escapers and sending coded messages to the authorities in Britain. His story was told in a film about the exhibition which ran on BBC Breakfast and other BBC News outlets.

Hurry down to Bessant Drive, Kew to check out the exhibition yourself. It’s open Tuesdays-Sundays until 21 July and is completely free. No tickets required.

Also available, our dedicated exhibition web pages to discover more and our programme of online events.

Image credit: Exhibition, Spatial, Graphic and AV Design Byfield and Peter L.Dixon

Great Escapes – Remarkable Second World War Captives – The National Archives

Tags: civilian interneesgreat escapesMI9prisoners of warsecond world war

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