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70 years later, thrill of the Great Escape lives on

Maybe it’s in a museum now, but for a while Brian Floody’s father kept an old boot heel in the house, its underside carved by razor blade to mimic a Nazi rubber stamp.

Maybe it once passed through the fingers of Jens Müller, a Norwegian pilot who trained in Canada, or Robert Buckham, a Toronto pilot who once studied painting at the AGO.

Both men were still in their twenties when they were shot down, captured at the Stalag Luft III prison camp, and made into expert forgers in the long lead-up to the Great Escape of March 24 and 25, 1944.

“Now we’re finally getting into a generation when it’s ancient history,” said Brian, speaking from his home in the Beach last week.

“Two years ago, I met a young American couple teaching in China, and he’d never heard of The Great Escape.”

For people who know the Great Escape story, even the Hollywood version, Brian’s father Wally Floody plays a starring role.

Downed pilot Wally Floody, the “Tunnel King” who later settled in the Beach, sits with fellow prisoners-of-war in the Stalag Luft I prison camp. Before he was transferred to Stalag Luft III, site of the Great Escape, Floody lead 47 tunnel escape attempts at Luft I. PHOTO: Courtesy Ted Barris

At centre, downed pilot Wally Floody, the “Tunnel King” who later settled in the Beach, sits with fellow prisoners-of-war in the Stalag Luft I prison camp. Before he was transferred to Stalag Luft III, site of the Great Escape, Floody lead 47 tunnel escape attempts at Luft I.
PHOTO: Courtesy Ted Barris

He is known as the “Tunnel King,” chief architect of some 50 escape tunnels, including the big one – ‘Harry,’ a 360-foot long tunnel dug in secret below 30 feet of sand.

From prison, Floody and hundreds of others conspired to make scoops, lamps, even a working bellows and wood railway to get the tunnel made, while others forged documents and disguises for the break-out, or kept watch on their Luftwaffe guards.

Much later, long after the massive break-out, the three “home runs,” and the terrible executions, Wally Floody and his wife Betty were raising two teenage boys in the Beach when he was called back to his amazing underground feat. He agreed to be a technical consultant on John Sturges’ 1963 film version of the story, and after exploring the set in Munich, he quickly told set designers their tunnel felt too wide.

As critical as he is of Sturges’ The Great Escape, especially the made-up motorcycle chase Steve McQueen insisted on for an ending, journalist Ted Barris said it does get a lot right, including the claustrophobia of the tunnels.

From left, James Coburn, Wally Floody, and Charles Bronson chat on the movie set of The Great Escape, built near Munich, in 1962. Photo courtesy Cathernie Heron, sister of the late Wally Floody.

From left, James Coburn, Wally Floody, and Charles Bronson chat on the movie set of The Great Escape, built near Munich, in 1962.
Photo courtesy Cathernie Heron, sister of the late Wally Floody.

But Barris is the author of a recently published book, The Great Escape: A Canadian Story, which corrects one of the film’s major omissions – the deep involvement of Canadians.

“The shoulder patches are American and British, and should have been Canadian,” Barris said.

At its peak, about 2,000 Commonwealth air servicemen were imprisoned in the North Compound of Stalag Luft III, just outside what is today Żagań, Poland. About a third were Canadian, including several key members of “X" Organization, such as Wally Floody.

Canada played an outsized role in the Allied air force. When war broke out in September 1939, Churchill quickly decided that all Commonwealth air forces should train to a common standard. Prime Mackenzie-King agreed, and insisted that Canada host the massive training program for British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand airmen, from pilots to wireless operators and flight engineers.

“We trained a quarter million men here,” Barris said.

As the air war intensified, more and more Allied air officers were shot down and captured. Many were Canadian or, like Jens Müller, they trained in Canada and had ties here.

While Barris was researching his book, he met another Canadian writer, Tyler Trafford, doing the same thing.

But Trafford’s story was different, more personal.

Nearing her final days, Trafford’s mother gave him a box of letters she had kept secret – love letters from Jens Muller. They had met in Canada, planned to marry after the war, and wrote each other throughout Müller’s imprisonment at Stalag Luft III.

Müller was one of the three who got away – he broke out in the Great Escape and made his way back to Britain through neutral Sweden. He finally made it back to Montreal, to Trafford’s mother, only to find her parents refused the marriage.

“I’ll be long gone and new stories will still be coming out,” said Barris.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Growing up in the Beach, Brian said lots of his family friends were ex-POWs.

George Harsh, who oversaw security for the tunnelers in Stalag Luft III, is his godfather. While hitchhiking across Europe at 17, he spent a memorable couple of weeks crashing at the Monte Carlo villa of Harry “Wings” Day, another lead escape organizer.

“When we were kids, they had reunions all the time,” he said.

Especially in the 1950s and 1960s, the ex-POW Association that his father helped found was very tight, he said.

But at that time, they rarely shared many stories about the war.

“None of them talked about it much,” Brian said. “They would tell funny stories. Almost all the difficult stuff I knew from my mother, who of course my father confided in.”

Listening to interviews with Wally Floody, Barris said it’s clear that the 50 – the men who were recaptured by the Gestapo and executed – weighed heavily on him and the others who survived.

Brian agrees.

“You know, I think Ted’s book and the original Great Escape were more to the point,” he said, referring to ex-POW Paul Brickhill’s 1950 book, which Sturges’ film is based on.

“I mean, they were in shock, all those that survived, when so many of them were killed.”

Col. Friedrich von Lindeiner of the German air force (Luftwaffe) walks the grounds at Stalag Luft III during a roll call in winter. Photo courtesy Ted Barris

Col. Friedrich von Lindeiner of the German air force (Luftwaffe) walks the grounds at Stalag Luft III during a roll call in winter.
Photo courtesy Ted Barris

This week, Ted Barris will be in Żagań, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the escape attempt at the former site of Stalag Luft III.

There is a memorial there to the 50 recaptured air officers that Hitler ordered shot on the false pretext that they were trying to run away – war crimes that were later prosecuted at Nuremberg.

When news of the murders reached those who were back in camp, a memorial service was held on-site. Some members of the Luftwaffe, or German air force, expressed their sympathy to the prisoners they were guarding.

Barris said it’s unlikely many of the prisoners involved in the Great Escape anticipated Hitler’s execution order, though some have said there were signs in the fall of 1943 when the Gestapo got involved after an earlier attempt at a major tunnel break-out, code-named ‘Tom,’ was discovered.

Until that point, Barris said the prisoners and their Luftwaffe guards were engaged in a kind of cat-and-mouse game. Officers who attempted to escape were punished, not killed.

“I think there was grudging respect for each other because each side was air force,” he said.

“But that ended when the Gestapo came after ‘Tom.’”

Readers looking for a bigger lesson in the history of the Great Escape will find one in the animosity that developed between the Gestapo police force of Nazi Germany and its own armed forces, he said.

“That kind of treachery really reflects on the nature of the regime that Hitler and his minions fostered.”

Ted Barris will give a special presentation before a screening of The Great Escape starting at 11 a.m. on April 6 at the Fox Theatre.  Admission is $5, or free with a purchase of the book from The Great Escape Bookstore at 957 Kingston Road.

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