Briton now last survivor of wartime Great Escape after Aussie veteran dies


A British war veteran has become the last surviving member of the true story behind The Great Escape, following the death of Australian pilot Paul Royle.

Former squadron leader Dick Churchill, 95, was one of the 76-strong team who escaped from the Stalag Luft III camp in Poland in 1944.

Their feat of courage went on to represent one of the most-told stories from the Second World War, immortalised in the 1963 Hollywood film starring Steve McQueen.

The survivors kept in contact through the Sagan Select Subway Society newsletter - of which Mr Royle and Mr Churchill were the last two recipients, until the former's recent death in his home town of Perth, aged 101.

Mr Churchill, who had previously said he thought sharing his surname with the wartime prime minister kept him alive in case the Nazis wished to use him as bait with a powerful potential relative, was informed of his status as the last surviving escapee this week.

The former squadron leader, from Crediton in mid-Devon, told the Press Association: "I had a call from his (Mr Royle's) son, telling me.

"We had been in the same position, just the two of us, for some years now.

"He was 101 and I was 95, although I had expected him to survive me because he was living in Australia which is much warmer than England, of course."

Mr Churchill said he has been inundated with requests from journalists, historians and autograph hunters following his part in Operation Escape 200, which went on to be known as The Great Escape.

The plan took shape in the spring of 1943 when Squadron Leader Roger Bushell RAF, who had been a lawyer in his civilian life, hatched a strategy for a major breakout.

Mr Bushell, who came to be known by the codename Big X, created an escape committee and inspired the camp's Allied prisoners in an attempt to free more than 200 men.

Some 600 prisoners helped dig three tunnels, which were referred to as Tom, Dick and Harry, with the hope that one of the routes would be successful.

Tunnel Tom started in a darkened corner of one of the building's halls, while Dick's entrance was hidden in a washroom drain sump and Harry's was concealed under a stove.

The plan was for the escapees to come out at the other end with civilian clothes, forged papers and escape equipment.

On the night of March 24 to 25, 1944, 76 men took advantage of a moonless night to attempt a get away through tunnel Harry.

Of the 76 there were 73 - including Mr Churchill - who were recaptured by the Germans within three days when Hitler became aware of the breakout and ordered locals to search their land and buildings.

Two-thirds of them, including Big X, were executed on Hitler's orders.