Commemorating the “Great Escape”

News Article / March 24, 2021

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March 24, 2021 marks the 77th anniversary of the daring attempt made by Canadian and British soldiers and aviators to escape the Stalag Luft III prison during the Second World War.

After the 419 Squadron Halifax bomber he was flying in as a bomb aimer was shot down over enemy territory in 1943, Squadron Leader George Sweanor spent 800 days as a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft III before being released. While there, he participated in a daring escape plan which inspired the Hollywood movie ‘The Great Escape’. The Port Hope, Ontario, native served twenty-five years with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

On Sunday, January 3, 2021 the RCAF lost a formidable member of this daring tale, and of our past, when Squadron Leader (retired) George Sweanor passed away at the age of 101 years old, in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

 

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.

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, including Squadron Leader Bushell. 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.

 

THE ESCAPERS

Home Run

Sergeant Per Bergsland, RAF (Norwegian)

Second Lieutenant Jens Müller, RAF (Norwegian)

Flight Lieutenant Bram “Bob” van der Stok, RAF (Dutch)

 

Executed

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

Flying Officer George Sweanor, RCAF

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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