George Harsh and the Great Escape

With each passing Remembrance Day there are fewer Second World War veterans around to share their memories of courage, sacrifice and survival. A recent Star movie review suggested that “filmmakers may finally be running out of screen-worthy stories to tell from the conflict.”

Last year the Fox held a special showing of The Great Escape (1963) in honour of the 70th anniversary of the March 1944 mass breakout from Stalag Luft 111. A full house came out to hear Royal Canadian Air Force veterans speak, as well as historian Ted Barris, author of The Great Escape: A Canadian Story. Barris wrote in my copy, “Now you have the true story to go with the Hollywood myth.”

The book reminds us of the many RCAF flyers involved in the famous event, including two prominent members of the escape committee, long-time Beacher Wally Floody (the real “Tunnel King” played by Charles Bronson) and security boss George Harsh. Flying Officer Floody was a spitfire pilot shot down in October 1941. Harsh was a tail-gunner who offered to take another man’s place on a bombing run in 1942. Their Halifax bomber was hit by flak. Harsh was badly wounded, bailed out over Germany and was taken prisoner. It wasn’t the first or last time Harsh would face death.

The classic 1963 film was loosely based on the 1950 best-selling book by Paul Brickhill with an introduction by George Harsh, who concluded, “Men working together can accomplish anything.”

George Harsh
George Harsh

Floody spent almost two years as a technical advisor on the movie. The details of camp life were right, but much of the action was fictionalized. As Ted Barris said, “There’s no loyalty to fact, only loyalty to entertainment.”

Stalag Luft 111 was the prisoner-of-war camp for Allied flying officers. Floody put Harsh in charge of security for the tunnel escape, saying. “You’re probably the only man in the world who got a job because he was an ex-convict.”

American-born Harsh was used to living one day at a time. He wasn’t just an ex-con, he was a convicted murderer. Harsh was an 18 year-old college student when he shot and killed a store-clerk in Atlanta, Georgia in 1928.

After his death sentence was commuted Harsh spent 12 years on a chain gang and knifed another prisoner in a fight over a cake of soap. Harsh was pardoned after performing an emergency appendectomy to save a man’s life. On his release Harsh came north to Montreal and joined the RCAF, looking for a clean slate: “I was trying to counterbalance my entire past … I was a man trying to prove something.”

Just weeks before the escape attempt the Germans moved “suspects” Floody and Harsh to another camp. The transfer may have saved their lives. Fifty of the escaping Commonwealth air officers were executed by the Gestapo, including six Canadians.

Near the end of the war Floody and Harsh relied on each other to survive a desperate forced march across Germany in the face of the advancing Soviet army. Harsh told his life story in his 1971 memoir Lonesome Road, but had difficulty adjusting to civilian life.

At the Fox screening I asked Wally’s son Brian about Harsh. Brian told me that Harsh was his godfather and came to stay with the Floody family in the 1970s when they lived in the Birch Cliff area after moving there from Queen and Fallingbrook.

Harsh died in Sunnybrook Hospital in 1980 and Wally Floody wrote his obituary. I wonder if Harsh ever found peace or any redemption of his troubled soul.

The RCAF flyers did not see themselves as heroes, but they never gave up and we should never forget their courage. A brotherhood of talented officers, including Wally Floody and George Harsh, were key contributors to the daring effort that will go down in history as “The Great Escape.”

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2 comments

My grandfather was John Agrell who shared a room with George. My grandfather got them sling into solitary for trying to escape dressed as Germans!

One should read David Beasley’s book, “Without Mercy,” [St. Martin’s Press, 2014] which looks at the justice system in Georgia and how George Harsh managed to escape the electric chair. Because of this book I am now reading “Lonesome Road,” George Harsh’s biography. Thank you for your informative article on Mr. Harsh and the Great Escape.

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