One Of The Last ‘Great Escape’ Survivors Dies
Ex-bomber pilot Richard ‘Dick’ Churchill, one of the last living survivors of the real ‘Great Escape’ has died at the age of 99. From Crediton in Devon, Churchill was the 50th of the 76 RAF Prisoners of War who took part in the daring tunnel escape from German prison camp Stalag Luft III, near modern day Zagan, Poland.
Churchill and his comrade, Bob Nelson were discovered hiding in a barn by local farmers three days after the break out. Their plan was to make it to Czechoslovakia and from there back to Britain, travelling under the identities of a Romanian and a Swede. After walking through snow and forests and wading through icy streams to avoid the roads and bridges, the two escapees were forced to find shelter. However, an order had been given by the commandant of the camp for all locals to search their properties, so, when the farmers started shoving a pitchfork into the straw, Churchill and Nelson surrendered.
Of the 76 men who escaped, only three made it to safety. The other 73 were re-captured. On Hitler’s orders, 50 of these men were rounded up and executed. Churchill believed that the only reason that he wasn’t one of them was because he shared the same surname as Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, and soldiers were afraid that he may be a relative.
Speaking of his experience in Staglag Luft III to the BBC last year, Churchill said:
“You fell into a certain category.
Were you going to sit and enjoy the very few delights of a barbed wire prison camp until you were rescued by your comrades - if you were rescued. Or were you going to try and get out of the place and rejoin and drop something on them?
You could be a quiet person, do nothing much, above all don’t annoy the Germans or the Gestapo, or you can try and do the opposite and feel better as the result of doing it.”
The escape, masterminded by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell involved the digging of three tunnels, 9 metres deep and 2 feet square, that were nicknamed Tom, Dick and Harry. The idea was that if one tunnel was discovered by the guards, they would not suspect that there were two others. The earth from the tunnels was removed in pouches that were hidden in prisoners’ trousers to be scattered as they walked around the camp.
The initial plan was for one man to leave every minute, but when it was discovered that the chosen tunnel, Harry, had come up just short of the tree line, that was reduced to one man every ten minutes.
76 men crawled to freedom but the 77th was spotted by a guard in the nearby guard tower. The game was up.
The story of the break out was immortalised in the 1963 film ‘The Great Escape’, staring Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen. While there were no escape attempts by aircraft or exciting motorbike chases, and there were no American Prisoners of War involved, the film mostly follows the real-life events of the escape.
A number of those killed as a result of the break out are laid to rest at the Old Garrison Cemetery in Poznan, Poland, which we visit on our First World War in Poland 1914 - 1915 tour.
Added: 20th February 2019