Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Hero of The Great Escape dies

by Kathryn Hadley

The Second World War veteran, Alex Lees, who helped to organise the escape attempt from the Nazi camp Stalag Luft III, which inspired the film The Great Escape (1963) died on April 22nd, aged 97. His funeral took place at the end of last week. Lees was a prisoner at the Stalag Luft III camp, now situated in Poland, when a group of approximately 100 Allied servicemen sought to organise one of the greatest escape attempts of the Second World War, in March 1944.

The prisoners prepared the escape for almost an entire year. In April 1943, using old tin cans, they began to dig three tunnels almost 10 metres underground, which they named Tom, Dick and Harry. The tunnels were supported with pieces of wood from camp beds and old pieces of furniture. Lees was a gardener at the camp and slept in Hut 104 at the entrance to one of the tunnels. He helped to remove the soil from the tunnels by storing it in his trousers and then spreading it on the camp’s vegetable patches. The escape attempt eventually began during the night on March 24th, 1944. 76 prisoners managed to escape. However, only three successfully returned to Britain: 23 prisoners were recaptured and returned to the camp and 50 were executed by the Gestapo in an effort to deter any more attempts to escape.

Lees was not given the chance to join the escape because he was not an officer. He had joined the Royal Army Service Corps in 1940 as a driver and was captured in June the following year, aged 29, on the Greek island of Crete. He was eventually freed by Allied troops in 1945. He returned to Scotland where he pursued his career as an insurance broker. He spent the last years of his life in a home for ex-service personnel in Erskine, Renfrewshire, to the West of Glasgow. Two years ago he wrote down his wartime recollections in an autobiography entitled Before It’s Too Late.

He described the escape in an interview with the Paisley Daily Express:

‘It was just like the way it was portrayed in The Great Escape movie. I had been
given the job of looking after the garden and I would take the dirt out to the
vegetable patch, rake away the top soil, dump the earth and then cover it back
up. The German guards never suspected a thing. I would carry the sand in Red
Cross boxes and then dispose of it by raking it through the top soil where I was
growing tomatoes […] I wasn’t eligible to go through because it was for officers
only. I had mixed feelings about it. I wanted to go but I also knew I wouldn’t
have got very far because I didn’t speak German.’

For further information on British efforts to forge a Balkan front to save Greece from Nazi Germany, read our article Eden’s Balkan Odyssey.

For general information on the Second World War, visit our Second World War focus page.

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