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The Great Escape 80 Years On

2024 marks the 80th Anniversary of one of the most audacious undertakings carried out during the Second World War.

in 1944 two Veterans for whom Erskine had the honour of caring for, took part in one of the most courageous and audacious attempts to escape a German Prisoner of War Camp. Today known as the Great Escape we look back in time to the events that made history and Hollywood.

When RAF servicemen Alex Lees and Jack Harrison were prisoners of the Germans in Luftwaffe-run camp Stalag Luft III at one point both thought they would not survive the night of the 24th March let alone meet each in later life, when both had made Erskine their home.

The part they played in the attempt by Allied prisoners-of-war to escape their captors is story of courage and bravery.

Stalag Luft III was built in the German province of Lower Silesia near the town of Sagan in Poland.

The mass break-out took place, via an ingeniously-constructed tunnel nicknamed 'Harry'. A charismatic Squadron Leader Roger Bushell was the driving force behind the ambitious plan.  Bushell, ‘Big X', masterminded the digging of the three tunnels 30ft below ground - 'Tom', 'Dick' and 'Harry'.

Alex was captured by the Germans 1941 and held in several POW camps before Stalag Luft III, which had opened early in 1942. Alex pictured third from the right.

Jack was an officer on his first mission. He was transferred to Stalag Luft III after being captured when his plane was brought down by the Germans from the ground after his compass, which had not been calibrated properly, led Jack and his crew 12 miles off course. Jack pictured far right.

Within the confines of this POW camp, surrounded by pine trees, the resolve to outwit the Germans and enable a mass break-out to take place came from Roger Bushell. He set in train an elaborate plan not only to dig the three tunnels but also to provide the escapees with civilian clothes and provide them with the money, rations, briefcases and ID cards that would be vital should they make it out of the camp.

Alex helped dispose of the huge quantities of sand that were a result of the top-secret digging operation. Jack, was a runner to Bushell, and as an officer was waiting his turn to escape via ‘Harry’. Once outside, he was to pose as a Hungarian electrician in the employ of a German firm. He never got his chance.

Alex was tasked with looking after a garden outside his hut. In a 2007 interview, he recalled that the Germans knew tunnels had been excavated at other camps, so the prisoners had to be very careful in disposing of the sand. It was transported from the digging site to the garden in Red Cross boxes. Being in charge of the garden afforded Alex the opportunity to dig a trench and disguise the sand by scattering it in the bottom and planting radishes, cress and tomatoes. The German guards would sometimes admire his efforts, little suspecting that his vegetables were an elaborate way to disguise what was going on nearby.

The Germans however were not stupid: they knew that tunnelling was always a possibility. They installed special listening devices around the perimeter wires, designed to detect any signs of subterranean activity. Despite all these precautions, the POWs were able to build their long tunnels without being detected.

A sign of the prisoners' remarkable ingenuity in keeping things hidden from the German guards  was that the among the items later found to have gone missing were 4000 bed boards, 90 double bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 192 bed covers, 161 pillow cases and 52 tables.

On March 24, hut 104 gradually filled up with the 200 men who would be escaping via 'Harry'. Dozens of men made good their escape but for one reason or another, the rate of escape gradually slowed down. When at 5am a German guard noticed movement in the woods, the game was up.

Alex remembered vividly that after the discovery of the escape, a German guard burst into the room, shouting at him, demanding he give his name. A swift check revealed that his photograph did not match that of Flt/Lt Thompson, with whom he had swapped beds. He was marched outside along with other prisoners. They had an anxious wait, assuming their last moments had come. After several hours shivering in freezing temperatures, however, they were allowed to return to their huts. Alex would later reflect that they owed their lives to the fact that Stalag Luft III was run by the German air force under the terms of the Geneva Convention; had the camp been run by the Gestapo, things might have been very different.

Of the 76 escapees, just three made it to England. The others were recaptured and 23 returned to Stalag Luft III but the remaining 50 were executed, including Roger Bushell, on the orders of Hitler. Alex knew several of them. For Jack, it was a blessing in disguise he never made it through. But Jack reflected that the main purpose wasn't just to escape. It was to outfox the Germans. It was a huge moral victory.

As fate would have it, he and Alex Lees were unaware of each other until both were in their nineties. A neighbour of Jack’s from Rothesay visited Erskine and discovered that Alex had been at Stalag Luft III. The two Veterans finally met in November 2006 to share their stories and memories and eventually both were cared for by Erskine.

The Great Escape was now more than seven decades ago but it is still commemorated as "the most iconic escape story of the Second World War and we are very honoured to have cared for two of these courageous men.

To find out more about Erskine’s work please visit our website at, follow on twitter @ErskineCharity via Facebook or listen to Erskine Veterans Radio at or Paisley FM 107.5

 To donate directly to Erskine, please visit


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