The end of the tunnel used in The Great Escape, just outside the gates of the Stalag Luft III POW camp in Poland. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
If you have cable and a slight case of insomnia, chances are you've seen The Great Escape sometime in the not-so-distant past. The Steve McQueen classic is a staple of movie channels everywhere, and for good reason — it's a great movie. It's so good, in fact, it's easy to forget that it's based on a real event — one that happened 70 years ago today.
If your memory of the movie is a little fuzzy, here's the story:
In the spring of 1943, an escape committee was formed by Allied prisoners at the German Stalag Luft III POW camp in Poland. The group, led by British Royal Air Force Lieut. Roger Bushell, was highly organized: they dug three tunnels — called Tom, Dick and Harry — each about eight metres deep, shored up by bedboards and other materials scavenged from around the camp. One of the tunnels grew to be 102 metres long, leading just outside the camp's fence. On March 24, 1944, POWs lined up to escape through it. Seventy-six men were able to flee the camp — but not necessarily to freedom. Of the 76 men that made it through the tunnel, only three reached safety. The other 73 were recaptured and many of them killed.
On the 70th anniversary of the Great Escape, it's worth noting one of the movie's most-glaring historical inaccuracies: it wasn't just Brits and Americans involved in the escape — many were Canadian. There was Torontonian Wally Floody, for example, the RCAF Lieutenant who headed up the tunnel digging and who was the inspiration for Charles Bronson's character in the movie. Another lead digger was Flying Officer Hank Birkland from Spearhill, Manitoba. Or Gordon Kidder, who was 31st out of the tunnel, though he didn't make it through the escape alive (he was captured and killed after fleeing the camp). Or Albert Wallace, who never made it through the tunnel, but who's still alive at 93.
Check out the original trailer for The Great Escape here: