ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT MARSHALL BUCKHAM, CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM, 19850397-024
The Great Escape has become almost an advertising cliché, from vacation planning to retirement programs. In spite of such modern obfuscation, the original Great Escape remains one of the most famous events of World War II.
Capping a two-year project, 76 British, Commonwealth and Allied prisoners of war (out of a planned 200) broke out of Stalag Luft III, Sagan (now Zagen, Poland), via a 101-metre tunnel on the night of March 24-25, 1944. In the next few days, all but three were recaptured; the Gestapo shot 50 and returned the remainder to captivity. It was a story of courage, high endeavour and ultimate tragedy, chronicled by Paul Brickhill in his 1951 book The Great Escape and subsequently adapted to film under the same title.
The 1963 movie blended fact and fiction. Most on-screen characters were based on actual participants, but several were “composites” of two or more men, and all had been given new names. For example, the mastermind, Roger Bushell, became “Roger Bartlett.”
Other details were blurred or invented. Steve McQueen’s character and motorcycle chase were invented, as was the attempted theft of an airplane. The 50 murders were actually conducted in small batches between March 29 and April 14, 1944, not in large groups, as shown in the movie. Nevertheless, the film’s details regarding camp life in general, relations with German guards and officers, tunnelling, disposal of dirt, document forging, improvising of “civilian” clothes, the actual escape, many of the recaptures and so on were accurate. Unhappily, a made-for-TV sequel in 1988 (The Great Escape II: The Untold Story) mixed a few facts with large amounts of fiction and misrepresentation.
The role of Canadians in the original Great Escape has not been overlooked, but it has tended to be drowned out in the general din of discussion about escapees of other nationalities. A recent book, We Flew, We Fell, We Lived by Philip Lagrandeur (reviewed in Legion, January 2007) is an excellent work on both RCAF PoWs in general and the Great Escape in particular.
On the night of Sept. 9, 1939, a Whitley bomber of No. 102 Squadron, Royal Air Force, was hit by anti-aircraft fire while dropping leaflets over Germany. The crew members bailed out and were taken captive. The co-pilot, Flying Officer Alfred B. Thompson of Penetanguishene, Ont., who had joined the RAF in 1937, thus became the first Canadian PoW. RAF prisoners were such a novelty at the time that Thompson had a brief interview with German air force chief Hermann Goering before being whisked off to a PoW camp. After several moves, he ended up at Stalag Luft III.
Flying Officer Alfred K. Ogilvie of Ottawa joined the RAF in 1939, flew in the Battle of Britain with No. 609 Sqdn., and was wounded and shot down during a fighter sweep over France on July 4, 1941. By March 31, 1942, he had reached Stalag Luft III.
Flying Officer Clark Wallace Floody of Chatham, Ont., was a Spitfire pilot with No. 401 Sqdn., Royal Canadian Air Force. On Oct. 27, 1941, in a fighter sweep similar to Ogilvie’s, attacking Messerschmitts shot away his controls and he bailed out, parachuting directly into the hands of German military police. At Stalag Luft I (Barth), he was involved in two tunnelling escape attempts between November 1941 and March 1942. For his troubles, he was sent to Stalag Luft III.
Not long after Floody’s capture, another RCAF fighter pilot found himself heading for Sagan. Pilot Officer Henry Birkland of Calgary was flying a Spitfire of No. 72 Sqdn. when he was shot down over France Nov. 7, 1941. As he was a former gold miner in British Columbia, he became an enthusiastic tunneller, reportedly working naked until ordered to desist because sand-scars on his knees and elbows would give things away if the guards suddenly strip-searched him.
On the night of Jan. 10, 1942, RCAF Sergeant C.L. Bray was piloting a Wellington of No. 103 Sqdn. in a raid on Wilhelmshaven. Over the target, a flare stowed at the rear of the bomb compartment became detached and set fire to aircraft fabric and wooden floor. The fire spread rapidly, filling the aircraft with smoke. Bray ordered the crew to bail out. Four did so, but his Australian co-pilot did not hear the jump instruction and extinguished the fire. The bomber returned to base, where pilot and co-pilot were decorated. The navigator, who bailed out through a miscalculation, was Pilot Officer (later Flight Lieutenant) George E. McGill of Toronto. He, too, was bound for Sagan.
On the night of June 8-9, 1942, a Halifax bomber of No. 405 Sqdn. was damaged by flak over Essen, then hit by a night fighter. The crew bailed out. Most were swiftly picked up by the Germans; at least four were betrayed by Dutch collaborators while trying to evade capture. Only the aircraft captain, Flt. Lt. John A. MacLean, linked up with reliable civilians. He made it back to Britain, survived the war and became a Conservative cabinet minister, then premier of Prince Edward Island. Most of his crew also lived to see victory. The exception was FO James C. Werneham of Winnipeg, navigator of the stricken bomber. Six days after his betrayal and capture, he was sent to Stalag Luft III.
Although still under instruction at No. 16 Operational Training Unit, Pilot Officer Patrick W. Langford of Victoria was piloting a Wellington bomber assigned to raid Hamburg on the night of July 28-29, 1942. A night fighter shot him down over Schleswig-Holstein and he became yet another involuntary guest at Sagan.
No. 102 Sqdn., RAF, now flying Halifax bombers, was attacking Cologne, Germany, on the night of Oct. 5-6, 1942. Anti-aircraft fire brought down two of their aircraft, and FO George R. Harsh was among those who parachuted into captivity. An American in the RCAF, he was entering his second period of incarceration. A convicted murderer and veteran of Georgia chain gangs, he had won a pardon in 1940 after saving the life of another prisoner by performing impromptu surgery. Freed from prison, he went to Canada, joined the RCAF and trained as an air gunner. As a PoW in Stalag Luft III, he became chief of security, organizing a spy network that watched German guards and distracted them from the secret tunnelling. Harsh deserves an article all his own and has had several (The Great Friendship by Douglas How, Legion, May 1984, and You Can’t Hang a Million Dollars by Brereton Greenhous, Canadian Defence Quarterly, June 1990).
No. 156 Sqdn. lost a Wellington during a raid on Kiel on the night of Oct. 13, 1942. It is unclear whether flak, fighters or mechanical failure was the cause, but the airplane crashed at sea off the German coast. The bomber’s navigator, FO Gordon A. Kidder of St. Catharines, Ont., was rescued with a fellow Canadian crewman by a German vessel; he would eventually be one of the doomed escapees from Sagan.
Pilot Officer Arthur J. “Jack” Moul of Port Alberni, B.C., had joined No. 416 Sqdn. upon its formation in November 1941. On Oct. 23, 1942, he and another pilot were engaged in a “Rhubarb” over France–best described as “low level and looking for trouble.” After shooting up some blockhouses, they flew inland and set about to strafe a freight train. They were met by flak, then the locomotive blew up and Moul’s aircraft was damaged. They turned for base, but he was unable to climb above 92 metres. Sixteen kilometres from the French shoreline, his engine caught fire. With no prospect of bailing out, he ditched, hit his head on the gunsight and lost consciousness. He awoke to water pouring into the cockpit. He climbed out onto the wing and took to his dinghy, only to find he was floating in a minefield. A Walrus seaplane was dispatched to rescue him, but heavy waves prevented it from alighting. Moul was 10 hours in the water before he drifted ashore and was picked up at midnight by a German patrol. By Nov. 11, 1942, he was at Sagan.
March 10, 1943, was a black day for No. 112 Sqdn. Twelve Kittyhawk fighters were providing top cover for other Kittyhawks attacking German vehicles and armour in Tunisia. Over the target area, they encountered about 15 Junkers 87 dive-bombers, with 20 or 30 Messerschmitt 109s as escort. No. 112 Sqdn. attacked the dive-bombers but was in turn set upon by the 109s. Three enemy aircraft were shot down, but seven machines of No. 112 Sqdn. were lost. One pilot returned to his unit the next day, but four others–three of them members of the RCAF–were dead and two were PoWs. The latter included FO George W. Wiley of London, Ont. By April 4, 1943, he was in Stalag Luft III; two years later, he was dead.
Flying Officer William J. Cameron was leading four Spitfires of No. 72 Sqdn. on a shipping reconnaissance to the northeastern corner of Sicily on July 26, 1943. The Strait of Messina was busy with two-way shipping traffic and the unit diary reported “a continuous curtain of flak from both sides of the strait.” His machine was hit and he, too, parachuted into residency at Stalag Luft III and participation in the Great Escape. Of seven RCAF men to emerge from the “Harry” tunnel, he was the only one not shot.
At its peak, the camp housed 10,000 PoWs in several compounds. Most were content to wait out the war, especially when the tide had clearly turned against Germany. Others, however, were determined to harass the enemy with escape attempts. To the extent that security and secrecy held, every prisoner–whether active or not–supported them. Planning for a mass escape began about January 1943. Approximately 600 men were involved in one way or another.
They began digging three tunnels, named Tom, Dick and Harry. It was daunting work; the sandy soil complicated the task and disposal of dirt was a major challenge. The Germans were alert, planting microphones to detect digging and calling snap inspections. Dick was abandoned when its intended exit area was suddenly cleared of trees and built over during camp expansion. Tom was discovered in November 1943. The plotters continued, concentrating on Harry while using Dick to dump soil. However, they miscalculated the length required, and although the tunnel finally passed beyond the barbed wire, it exited some 28 metres short of the woods that should have masked the escape. When the final breakout occurred, exiting was slowed by an air raid blackout and the exposed nature of the exit. It was finally spotted by a guard, who quickly brought the breakout to a halt.
Wally Floody is generally described as a “mining engineer” who took charge of the tunnelling operations. In fact, he was a hardrock gold miner who brought experience and common sense to tunnel digging. Fellow PoW Ray Silver told the Toronto Star (Sept. 26, 1989), “The Brits thought that, because Wally worked in a northern Canadian gold mine, he had to be a professional engineer. Wally used to say that, because he wanted to escape, he didn’t disabuse them of the notion. That’s how he became the Tunnel King, and he was a good one because he certainly knew what he was doing.” However, the physical and psychological strains probably broke his health. Floody never got to use his handiwork; along with Harsh and 17 others, he was transferred to another camp shortly before the mass breakout–a circumstance that probably saved their lives.
Attention focuses naturally on the men who actually broke out, whether they survived or not. At the moment that the Germans discovered the breakout in progress, Jack Moul was actually in the tunnel, at the bottom of the shaft that led to the exit. Shots and yelling warned him that the jig was up. The disruption of the escape probably saved his life as well.
Keith Ogilvie was one of the last to clear the tunnel and dash into nearby woods before guards stumbled on the escape attempt. He was free for one day before being arrested by a member of the German Home Guard. Several days of questioning followed; the enemy asked not only about how the escape had been planned, but also whom the escapees intended to contact once at large. In the course of these confinements and interrogations, Ogilvie saw or met 11 of his fellow escapees, of whom six survived and five were shot.
On April 4, 1944, most of the men with whom Ogilvie was incarcerated were returned to Sagan. One of their party, Lieutenant Clement McGarr (South African Air Force), was held back and subsequently shot. Ogilvie spent the rest of the war as a PoW, enduring a forced winter march across Germany. He was eventually liberated near Lubeck on May 2, 1945.
The orders to execute the prisoners had come from Berlin, and there was cruel logic in the selection of victims. In Sagan, priority in escaping had been given to men with European language skills, who seemed the most likely to get back to England (a “home run”). And, indeed, the three who succeeded were two Norwegians and a Dutch pilot. Those who followed the “linguists” out of the tunnel went in order of drawn numbers. When the Gestapo chose who would die, the “linguists” were deemed most dangerous; of 15 European nationals recaptured, 13 were murdered. Gordon Kidder, rescued at sea in 1942, held a university degree in modern languages; on enlistment he had claimed to speak fluent German. Kidder got as far as Zlin, Czechoslovakia, in company with Squadron Leader Thomas Kirby-Green, RAF. The latter had previously trained Czech airmen in No. 311 Sqdn. and probably spoke the language to some degree. Both men were recaptured on March 29, 1944, and shot, handcuffed, on a road near Moravska-Ostrava.
George Harsh, unable to adjust to peacetime liberty, wrote his memoirs titled Lonesome Road, published in 1971. He drifted from job to job, was married twice and suffered a crippling stroke and died in Sunnybrook Hospital in January 1980. Alfred Thompson, the Canadian shot down at the very beginning of the war, escaped and survived recapture. He became a lawyer, then a judge, and died in 1985. “Woody” Floody, awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his PoW efforts, became a founder of the Canadian branch of the RAF Escaping Society. He died in Toronto in September 1989. William J. Cameron–who escaped, then was retaken and returned to a PoW camp–rejoined the RCAF in 1953 as a supply officer. He has since died. Keith Ogilvie made the RCAF his postwar career and died in Ottawa in May 1998. Jack Moul left the air force in 1945 but kept on flying, first with a charter company and eventually with Pacific Western Airlines until 1979. He died in Burnaby, B.C., in February 2007.
The perpetrators of the crime are gone as well. Some were dead before the war was over–some by their own hand, others tried and hanged. Still others were imprisoned and released, and are now deceased. The theatre has emptied–but the memory of drama, triumph and tragedy lives on.
Email the writer at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Email a letter to the editor at: email@example.com