Commemorating the “Great Escape”

News Article / May 22, 2014

By Joanna Calder with files from Sara Keddy

You may have heard of the Great Escape. You may have seen the 1963 Hollywood movie starring Steve McQueen as a United States Air Force officer named Virgil Hilts – the “Cooler King”. And if you’ve seen the movie, you may think that the story is a British and American story.

But it’s not. It’s a British and Canadian story. There were no Americans in the North Compound at Stalag Luft III near Sagan (now Zagan), Poland, when the mass breakout occurred. Rather, most of the officers in the compound were members of the Royal Air Force (RAF), Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) and the South African Air Force (SAAF). Others hailed from nations such as Greece, Norway, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Lithuania, Poland, Belgium and France.

On the night of March 24-25, 1944, 76 men managed to get outside the wire through a tunnel code-named “Harry”. In the aftermath of the Great Escape, 50 of the escapers were covertly and illegally murdered by the Gestapo acting on a direct order from Hitler. Six of the dead were Canadians. Only three escapers made a “home run” – getting away and returning to their home countries; the remainder were returned to the prison camp.

And that’s why the commander of the RCAF, Lieutenant-General Yvan Blondin, and other Canadians were at the site of Stalag Luft III on March 24, along with representatives of other allied nations, to mark the 70th anniversary of The Great Escape.

Lieutenant-General Blondin spoke to the assembled group and laid a wreath at the spot where “Harry” opened to the surface of the ground outside the wire at Stalag Luft III.

Others who participated in the ceremony included Group Captain David Houghton, RAF, British defence attaché; Major-General Jan Sliwka, head of the Polish Air Force Inspectorate; Air Commodore (retired) Charles Clarke, president of the RAF Prisoners of War Association; Mr. Daniel Marchewka, mayor of Zagan; Mr. Robin Barnett, British ambassador to Poland; and Air Vice-Marshal Stuart Atha, air officer commanding 1 Group, RAF. Military representatives from Canada, the Czech Republic, Greece, New Zealand, Lithuania, South Africa, Great Britain, France, Slovakia, Australia, Norway and Belgium read out the names of the dead.

Several other Canadians also attended the ceremony, including members of the families of Flight Lieutenant Keith Ogilvie and Flying Officer Gordon Kidder, both of the RCAF. Flight Lieutenant Ogilvie escaped from Stalag Luft III but was recaptured and went on to serve in the RCAF for 18 years after the war. Flying Officer Kidder was recaptured and was one of the 50 Allied airmen murdered by the Gestapo.

Lieutenant-Colonel Mike Adamson and Chief Warrant Officer Mario Roussel from 405 Long Range Patrol Squadron – “Pathfinders” – located at 14 Wing Greenwood, Nova Scotia, were part of the RCAF contingent. They honoured the daring, the bravery and the execution of one of their own: Flight Lieutenant James Chrystall “Jerry” Wernham of 405 Squadron, RCAF.

“They took it seriously, their responsibility to escape,” explained Lieutenant-Colonel Adamson. “People had tried, in ones and twos, but it was the audacity of this effort: two years of tunnel digging, getting rid of dirt, making air pumps – it was a testament to their ingenuity.

“They expected to get caught, but the goal was to get as many people as possible after them. It’s estimated one million people were diverted from the German war effort to find them, so they had an effect.”

The idea to build tunnels to break out of Stalag Luft III was conceived by RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell in the spring of 1943. One of his most important co-conspirators was RCAF Flying Officer Wally Floody from Chatham, Ontario, who has become known as the architect of the Great Escape.

Flying Officer Floody worked in the mining industry at Kirkland Lake, Ontario, which gave him the expertise he needed in the prison camp to survey, design and engineer the tunnels. According to his obituary, his role in the project was so highly valued that the camp's leaders forbade him to join an earlier escape attempt with a delousing party.

“We need you for the tunnels," he was told.

Shortly before the breakout, he was moved to a nearby camp – Beria – along with several other key figures on the escape committee. The German guards had become suspicious, but they didn’t find “Harry”. Flight Lieutenant Floody thus survived the war; he gave evidence at the Nuremberg Trials, founded the Royal Canadian Air Force Prisoners of War Association and later became an advisor on the film set of “The Great Escape”. King George VI also made him an officer of the Order of the British Empire for his “courage and devotion to duty”.

Dozens of men laboured to build three escape tunnels. The work was dangerous and difficult, and the structures were extremely complex with sophisticated electrical and ventilation systems. The prisoners became experts at scrounging and re-using materials – for instance, powdered milk cans were turned into ventilation shafts. Others forged false identity papers and tailored uniforms and blankets into civilian clothing. Some subverted German guards, and thus obtained illegal materials. Others stood watch as the work went on, and more were “penguins” – distributing excavated sand throughout the camp using special bags hidden inside their trousers that could be opened with drawstrings to let the sand trickle out.

One of the tunnels, “Dick”, was deemed unsafe and abandoned. The tunnel code-named “Tom” was discovered by camp guards in September 1943. All work then focussed on completing Harry, which was planned to end in the woods outside the camp wire.   

But the tunnel entrance fell slightly short of the woods and the escapers were discovered after only 76 of the designated 200 men got out.

After the discovery of Harry and the murder of 50 of the escapers, the prisoners in Stalag Luft III started digging again. The fourth tunnel, “George”, had a different purpose. The prisoners were afraid that if the prisoner of war camp was overrun by Soviet forces, either German guards or Soviet soldiers would “take out their frustrations on the kriegies [prisoners],” according to author Ted Barris.

“We decided to use ‘George’ to store [weapons and equipment]. The tunnel was considered to be our after-Soviet occupation outlet, our last survival exit,” he quotes Flying Officer George Sweanor as saying.

George was never used as the Germans evacuated the camp in advance of the Soviet forces, sending the prisoners on the brutal and deadly “Long March” before rehousing them in other camps. In 2011, archaeologists excavated George, finding artefacts such as a prisoner-built radio and lamp, trenching tools and an intact ventilation shaft made of powdered milk cans.

“In 32 years of service, [being at the commemoration ceremony at Stalag Luft III] was the cherry on top for me; who doesn’t know about ‘The Great Escape?’” said Chief Warrant Officer Roussel. “The honour and the privilege of being there to witness this anniversary – you’re standing there in the rain, the cold and the train whistle sounding as it goes by during the ceremony. That’s all the same as it was 70 years ago.

“It is almost surreal. You don’t realize you’re there until you breathe the same air and walk the same ground. It was very humbling to be there.”


Home Run

Sergeant Per Bergsland, RAF (Norwegian)
Second Lieutenant Jens Müller, RAF (Norwegian)
Flight Lieutenant Bram “Bob” van der Stok, RAF (Dutch)


Flying Officer Henry "Hank" Birkland, RCAF
Flight Lieutenant Edward Gordon Brettell, RAF
Flight Lieutenant Leslie George "Johnny" Bull, RAF
Squadron Leader Roger Joyce Bushell, RAF
Flight Lieutenant Michael James Casey, RAF
Squadron Leader James Catanach, RAAF
Flight Lieutenant Arnold George Christensen, RNZAF
Flying Officer Dennis Herbert Cochran, RAF
Squadron Leader Ian Kingston Pembroke Cross, RAF
Sergeant Haldor Espelid, Royal Norwegian Air Force
Flight Lieutenant Brian Herbert Evans, RAF
Lieutenant Nils Fuglesang, Royal Norwegian Air Force
Lieutenant Johannes Gouws, SAAF
Flight Lieutenant William Jack Grisman, RAF
Flight Lieutenant Alistair Donald Mackintosh Gunn, RAF
Warrant Officer Albert Horace Hake, RAAF
Flight Lieutenant Charles Piers Hall, RAF
Flight Lieutenant Anthony Ross Henzell Hayter, RAF
Flight Lieutenant Edgar Spottiswoode Humphreys, RAF
Flying Officer Gordon Arthur Kidder, RCAF
Flight Lieutenant Reginald "Rusty" Kierath RAAF
Flight Lieutenant Antoni Kiewnarski, RAF (Polish)
Squadron Leader Thomas Gresham Kirby-Green, RAF
Flying Officer Wlodzimierz A Kolanowski, PAF (Polish)
Flying Officer Stanislaw Z. "Danny" Krol, RAF (Polish)
Flight Lieutenant Patrick Wilson Langford, RCAF
Flight Lieutenant Thomas Barker Leigh, RAF
Flight Lieutenant James Leslie Robert "Cookie" Long, RAF
Flight Lieutenant Romas "René" Marcinkus, RAF
Lieutenant Clement Aldwyn Neville McGarr, SAAF
Flight Lieutenant George Edward McGill, RCAF
Flight Lieutenant Harold John Milford, RAF
Flying Officer Jerzy T. Mondschein, RAF (Polish)
Flying Officer Kazimierz Pawluk, RAF (Polish)
Flying Officer Porokoru Patapu "Johnny" Pohe, RNZAF
Pilot Officer Sotiris "Nick" Skanzikas, Royal Hellenic Air Force (Greek)
Lieutenant Rupert J. Stevens, SAAF
Flying Officer Robert Campbell Stewart, RAF
Flying Officer John Gifford Stower, RAF
Flying Officer Denys Oliver Street, RAF
Flight Lieutenant Cyril Douglas Swain, RAF
Flight Lieutenant Henri Albert Picard, RAF (Belgian)
Lieutenant Bernard W. M. Scheidhauer, Free French Air Force
Flying Officer Pawel "Peter" Tobolski, Polish Air Force (Polish)
Flight Lieutenant Arnost "Wally" Valenta, RAF (Czechoslovakian)
Flight Lieutenant Gilbert William "Tim" Walenn, RAF
Flight Lieutenant James Chrystall Wernham, RCAF
Flight Lieutenant George William Wiley, RCAF
Squadron Leader John Edwin Ashley Williams, RAAF
Flight Lieutenant John Francis Williams, RAF

Returned to Stalag Luft III

Flight Lieutenant R. Anthony Bethell, RAF
Flight Lieutenant Bill Cameron, RCAF 
Flight Lieutenant Richard S. A. "Dick" Churchill, RAF
Wing Commander Harry Melville Arbuthnot "Wings" Day, RAF
Major Johnnie Dodge, British Army 
Flight Lieutenant Sydney Dowse, RAF 
Flight Lieutenant Bedrich "Freddie" Dvorak, RAF 
Flight Lieutenant Bernard "Pop" Green, RAF 
Pilot Officer Bertram "Jimmy" James, RAF
Flight Lieutenant Roy B. Langlois RAF
Flight Lieutenant H. C. "Johnny" Marshall, RAF 
Flight Lieutenant Alistair T. McDonald, RAF 
Lieutenant Alastair D. Neely, Royal Navy 
Flight Lieutenant T.R. Nelson, RAF 
Flight Lieutenant A. Keith Ogilvie, RAF 
Flight Lieutenant Desmond Lancelot Plunkett, RAF 
Lieutenant Douglas A. Poynter, Royal Navy 
Pilot Officer Paul G. Royle, RAF 
Flight Lieutenant Michael Shand, RAF (the last to emerge from “Harry”)
Flight Lieutenant Alfred B. Thompson, RCAF
Flight Lieutenant Ivo P. Tonder, RAF 
Squadron Leader Leonard Henry Trent, RNZAF 
Flight Lieutenant Raymond L. N. van Wymeersch, RAF (French)

With files from Sara Keddy, editor of The Aurora newspaper, 14 Wing Greenwood, Nova Scotia. Recommended reading: The Great Escape: A Canadian Story by Ted Barris


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