The third episode of Ripping Yarns, the series of splendid adventures set in the early 1900s created by Terry Jones and Michael Palin. "Escape from Stalag Luft 112B" was first aired on 4th October 1977, and featured Palin as Major Phipps and Roy Kinnear as the German guard Vogel.

Major Errol Phipps of the Royal Northumberland Regiment was a legend among British prisoners in the First World War. He had attempted over five hundred and sixty escapes... two hundred of them before he left England. On arrival in Germany he escaped regularly every day, and twice a day at the weekends. On June the fourth, 1917, after escaping six times in one day, Phipps found himself being taken by the Germans to the most notorious prison-camp of all -- STALAG LUFT 112B.

Phipps is heroic and eager, embarrassingly eager, to get away from his captors so he can get back to Blighty and get on with fighting the Boche. All the other British POWs are rather comfortable where they are, thank you. They can get on with their whittling, reading, pipe-smoking, chess, gardening, or lying under nice warm blankets. To them Major Phipps is an eccentric nuisance, and they try as much as possible to ignore him, which of course infuriates and disgusts him.

Stalag Luft 112B has the proud reputation that no-one has ever escaped from there. The prisoners do have plans to escape, of course; they submit them to a committee who vote on them and pass them up to a full escape council for discussion and further feasibility study of the one selected. The council meets from time to time, outside of the main sporting seasons, so as not to interfere with the smooth running of prison life.

Phipps is aghast at this, and cannot wait. He constructs a glider out of toilet roll holders, digs a huge hole in his part of the flower-bed, and maps the wires and perimeters. Isolated from the others in his passion, he is ready for any eventuality.

Except one. One day he is awoken by the furious head guard, Vogel, demanding to know where the other prisoners are. During the night they had all escaped without telling Phipps. Vogel is hopping mad. Previously he had been cowed by the British officers, who demanded he respect British sovereignty over the huts, the Geneva Convention, and all sorts of other rules of polite conduct. Now they are not here to boss him around, he has forty-five highly-trained, fully-armed German guards and one British prisoner, and that prisoner is going to be guarded round the clock like he's never been guarded before. No more mister nice guy!

"Take him to the cooler," he barks, on a dramatic exit.

The other two guards, who have been coolly arguing the ethics of international conduct in wartime with him, have a puzzled conference and tell him they don't think they've got a cooler. They're not sure what a cooler is. Vogel leaves in disgust and supervises the erection of extra guard towers, more barbed wire, minefields, and so on.

Major Phipps, after swallowing his pique at his betrayal by the other prisoners, thrives on the attention. His every move is dogged by troupes of sweating, jogging guards pointing rifles at him. To escape from this will be his greatest triumph!

However, Vogel's tyranny and his lack of respect for the laws of war is driving the other guards to misery, and one day they ask Phipps if they could please escape with him if he happened to have any plans to. He is shocked at this suggestion of collaboration, and refuses, but is secretly pleased to have got the upper hand. The next morning he awakes to find Vogel bursting in on him furiously. All the guards have escaped.

Vogel gives his gun to Phipps asking him to shoot Germans, but Phipps again refuses to collaborate. Vogel fires and realises he has killed his Kommandant, who was also escaping. Horrified, he decides his only course is to escape. Major Phipps is left entirely alone in Stalag Luft 112B.

Now will be the scene of his greatest triumph. He pursues all his mighty plans, a giant glider, a giant catapult, a system of tunnels that in peacetime years would form part of the Munich Underground... only to be frustrated by the War ending. Ironically, Major Errol Phipps was the only man never to escape from the dreaded escape-proof camp.

< The Testing of Eric Olthwaite -- Ripping Yarns -- Murder at Moorstones Manor >

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