James Coburn in The Great Escape
James Coburn as Louis Sedgwick, Australian RAAF Flying Officer
Sagan-Silesia (Zagan, Poland), Spring 1944
Film: The Great Escape
Release Date: July 4, 1963
Director: John Sturges
Wardrobe Credit: Bert Henrikson
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Today is the 20th anniversary of the death of James Coburn, the prolific and reliable Nebraska-born star who grew to fame through memorable appearances in the ’60s, including the requisite Westerns and war films including the 1963 ensemble epic The Great Escape, dramatizing the real-life mass breakout of more than six dozen Allied airmen from Stalag Luft III during World War II. Ultimately, there were three successful escapees; of the 73 captured, 50 were summarily executed on Hitler’s direct orders.
Coburn portrayed the fictional Australian officer Louis Sedgwick, an amalgamation of the camp “manufacturer” Johnny Travis (RAF) and Dutch flying ace Bram “Bob” van der Stok, one of the three successful escapees who made his getaway, crossing much of occupied Europe with the help of French Resistance networks.
Details of van der Stok’s escape, chronicled in chapter 21 of Paul Brickhill’s definitive 1950 book The Great Escape, paralleled those of his fictionalized counterpart Sedgwick, including his traveling by bicycle and by foot, witnessing a massacre of German soldiers by Allied resistance, and ultimately being guided by a Maquis to neutral Spain. In July 1944, van der Stok was flown to England, where he rejoined the RAF No. 41 Squadron before ultimately taking command of the Dutch RAF No. 322 Squadron. Flight Lieutenant van der Stok survived the war, was inducted as an MBE, and died at home in Virginia Beach in February 1993.
What’d He Wear?
RAAF War Service Dress
Sedgwick eagerly engages in some “knuckles” during his first day in Stalag Luft III, staging a mock argument with his fellow prisoner Haynes (Lawrence Montaigne) over a battle jacket leant to them for the scuffle by Danny Welinski (Charles Bronson), despite the fact that both Sedgwick and Haynes are wearing their own respective RAAF and RCAF uniform jackets.
An officer in the Royal Australian Air Force, Sedgwick wears the waist-length war service dress jacket that the Royal Air Force had developed in response to the No. 5 combat uniform developed by the British Army, though those worn by the RAF and the Commonwealth flying services were produced in shades of dark blue to mimic service uniforms and designated “war service dress” instead of the Army’s “battledress” terminology.
My understanding is that the RAAF uniform color differed slightly from “RAF blue”, with Air Marshal Sir Richard Williams having determined that the cloth would be colored by only three indigo dye dips as opposed to four (source: Wikipedia). I’ve also read that Australian battledress wasn’t introduced until after World War II, though that may only apply to land forces as the Australian War Memorial page includes a photo of RAAF and Royal New Zealand Air Force air crew sporting war service dress in 1944.
Made from a rich indigo blue wool serge, Sedgwick’s war service dress jacket follows the standard design with a five-button fly front and an extended self-belt that fastens closed through a gunmetal-toned single-prong buckle on the right side of the waistband. There are two large box-pleated chest pockets, each with a scalloped flap that closes through a concealed button, and the cuffs also close through a single button. He proudly wears the RAAF embroidered “wings” insignia above his left breast pocket, and his epaulets (shoulder straps) are looped with the narrow sky-blue stripe over a wider black stripe designating his rank of Flying Officer (OF-1). At the top of each shoulder, he wears a small arced patch with “AUSTRALIA” in sky-blue against a navy ground that specifically denotes his service in the RAAF as opposed to the RAF or other Commonwealth nation.
Consisting with his rakish demeanor, Sedgwick often wears a tattered dark navy woolen watch cap, torn away in the front of the crown to show a patch of Coburn’s chestnut hair. To my knowledge, these weren’t standard issue among Commonwealth forces during World War II, though the crafty officer may have cribbed a U.S. Navy A4-style beanie from an American serviceman he encountered during his escapades.
Sedgwick routinely wears a turtleneck like fellow Commonwealth aviator Robert Hendley (James Garner), albeit in a brick-red wool that contrasts from the more militaristic off-white shade of Flt Lt Hendley’s submariner sweater. With its heavy ribbed roll-neck and well-pilled body, Sedgwick’s jumper looks cozy but oversized in this context as the ribbed hemline hangs well below the waistband of his war service dress jacket.
Presumably under his sweater, Sedgwick wears a standard uniform shirt though the body is a darker shade of slate-blue than I would expect of a commissioned officer, suggesting that he may have scrounged the shirt issued to an “ordinary airman”.
While the Americans had already adopted uniform shirts with attached collars and full plackets, Commonwealth services still issued pullover shirts to be worn with detachable collars with a crisp, correct appearance. Given the informality of his situation, Sedgwick wears the shirt sans collar, showing the contrasting white neckband kept open at the top as he also foregoes the neck stud. He keeps all three buttons fastened on the long semi-placket that extends to his stomach. The shirt’s original long sleeves appear to have been camp-modified to half-length sleeves, ending at his elbows.
Given Sedgwick’s presumed role in several past escapes that would have landed him at the more secure Stalag Luft III, he’s likely had to cobble together enough uniform pieces to keep himself properly attired after sacrificing some for escape disguises, resulting in his mismatched olive-brown wool battledress trousers rather than the blue serge that would match his RAAF war service blouse.
Sedgwick’s double forward-pleated trousers are designed with large button-down belt loops, slanted side pockets, an additional pocket forward of the right hip, a flapped pocket over the left thigh, and two flapped back pockets, finished with plain-hemmed bottoms devoid of button-tabs as seen on some battledress patterns. As worn by some of his fellow prisoners like Dennis Cavendish (Nigel Stock), these appear to be an amalgamation of battledress patterns, blending the pocket placement of the 1937 pattern with the button-through pocket flaps introduced in 1940 and the unique waistband and plain-hemmed bottoms of the anachronistic 1949 pattern.
Sedgwick wears black calf leather ankle boots similar to “ammo boots”, the derby-laced footwear authorized for British Commonwealth land and air forces throughout World War II. Boot design varied by bootmaker, whether in number of eyelets or whether or not it was finished with a toe-cap, but overall profile and construction remained the same. Sedgwick completes his camp costume with a set of pale blue-gray socks with a black banded stripe above a sky-blue stripe.
Camp-made Norfolk Jacket
Of all the escape disguises tailored in the camp, Sedgwick’s countrified Norfolk jacket and flat cap may be my favorite. For what its worth, Sedgwick’s closest real-life counterpart, Bob van der Stok, was described by Brickhill as making his escape as “Number 18 out of the tunnel, had traveled alone, wearing a dark-blue Australian Air Force greatcoat, Dutch naval trousers, and a beret.” Sedgwick’s attire departs from this, but I feel like there must be some connection to the filmmakers making his character Australian—like van der Stok’s escape coat—and dressing him in a flat cap, similar enough to a beret.
The brown Norfolk jacket worn for Sedgwick’s escape has a contemporary cut that slightly differs from tradition, with the obvious in-universe explanation being that it would have been secretly tailored in the camp from a modified uniform, possibly a flying officer’s belted service tunic as this would already have some of the structure to be transformed into a belted sports coat like the Norfolk jacket.
Developed in mid-19th century England as a roomy shooting jacket, the Norfolk jacket can vary in its design but the most traditional design is single-breasted with notch lapels and the characterizing details of a full belt around the waist and box pleats on the front and back. Sedgwick’s jacket is designed accordingly, with a full belt around the waist that closes through two walnut shank buttons that match the two on the front and the two on each cuff. The front quarters are squared for a full skirt, allowing more space for the large patch-style pocket on each hip that could be valuable for Sedgwick to store essential provisions while making his solitary escape.
Rather than van der Stok’s beret, Sedgwick wears a brown-and-black checked wool flat cap that harmonizes with his countrified Norfolk jacket. It’s easy to see how his olive-brown serge shirt and charcoal worsted wool tie could have been made from pieces of an officer’s uniform with little modification needed.
Sedgwick keeps his look appropriately subdued and neutral with a pair of gray woolen trousers, black leather derby shoes, and black socks, all likely appropriated from uniform pieces.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie and read Paul Brickhill’s 1950 book that formed the basis for the movie. Like the fictional Sedgwick, Brickhill was an Australian prisoner of war in Stalag Luft III though his claustrophobia prevented the author from escaping with the others. After the murder of the 50, Brickhill was determined to chronicle the details of the mass escape.
Patience is a virtue, Roger!