Aussies involved in The Great Escape

Privacy Level: Open (White)
Date: 1942 to 1944
Location: Stalag Luft III, Sagan, Liegnitz, Silesia, Germanymap
Surnames/tags: australia world_war_II
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An Australia in World War II project

Aussies involved in The Great Escape

Williams, Louise - The Great Escape
Brickhill, Paul - The Great Escape

The most-famous POW escape of the Second World War – The Great Escape – took place on the night of 24-25th March 1944 from Stalag Luft III, a Luftwaffe-operated POW camp. Seventy-six air force officers escaped through a tunnel with escape kits in a project that took some two years to bring about. Only three escapees won their freedom, the remainder being re-captured in a massive man-hunt that took German soldiers from other duties. Of those re-captured, fifty were murdered in a heinous war crime by Gestapo officers on direct orders from Adolf Hitler.

Amongst those involved in The Great Escape were several Aussies:[1]

the flight artists (escapees):

  • James 'Jim' Catanach DFC (28 Nov 1921 Victoria-29 Mar 1944 Germany), RAAF Squadron Leader, No. 455 Squadron RAF. After the escape, he was caught near the Danish border and was one of the fifty who was murdered by the Gestapo. 28 Degrees from Henry VIII of England.
  • Albert 'Al' Hake (30 Jun 1916 New South Wales-30 Mar 1944 Germany), RAAF Sergeant (posthumous Flight Lieutenant). No. 72 Squadron RAF. Manufactured 200 compasses from broken Bakelite phonograph records to be fixed to pieces of razor blade and duly magnetised. Taken from the prison at Görlitz and shot in the nearby bush. 27 Degrees from Henry VIII of England.
  • Reg Kierath (20 Feb 1915 New South Wales-29 Mar 1944 Germany), RAAF Flight Lieutenant. No. 450 Squadron RAF. He established himself as a 'hide specialist', constructing small hide-aways in the accommodation blocks to permit forged papers and other escape essentials to be hidden from the German search teams. Managed to reach the Czechoslovakian border before being re-captured. 23 Degrees from Henry VIII of England.
  • Thomas 'Tom' Leigh (11 Feb 1919 New South Wales-31 Mar 1944 Germany), RAF Flight Lieutenant. No. 76 Squadron RAF. Tom was only born in Australia, his parents were resident in China and after his mother's death in 1926, Tom went to his parents' native England to live. Taken from the prison at Görlitz and shot in the nearby bush. Not yet connected to the Tree.
  • Paul Royle (17 Jan 1914 Western Australia-23 Aug 2015 Western Australia), RAF Pilot Officer. No. 53 Squadron RAF. Was one of the 'penguins', responsible for distributing the dirt removed from the tunnels. Number 57 in the escape queue. Interrogated by the Gestapo in Görlitz upon re-capture, Paul was returned to solitary confinement in Stalag Luft III. Not yet connected to the Tree.
  • Leonard Trent VC DFC (14 Apr 1915 New Zealand-19 May 1986 New Zealand), RAF Group Captain. No. 487 Squadron RNZAF. Surrendered at the tunnel entrance when the alarm sounded. Len Trent is an 'honoraary Aussie', proudly a Kiwi who worked in Western Australia from 1965 to 1977 managing MacRobertson Miller Airlines. As a daughter died whilst they lived in WA, upon his death his ashes were placed with his daughter's remains at Fremantle Cemetery. 17 Degrees from Henry VIII of England.
  • John 'Willy' Williams DFC (6 May 1919 New Zealand-29 Mar 1944 Germany), RAF Squadron Leader, No. 450 Squadron RAF. 'Scrounged' timber for shoring-up the tunnels. 23 Degrees from Henry VIII of England.

the ground crew:

  • Paul Brickhill (20 Dec 1916 Victoria-23 Apr 1991 New South Wales), RAAF Flight Lieutenant. No. 92 Squadron RAF. Developed claustophobia so was not included in the number to escape; leader of the 'forgers'. After the war, wrote the best-sellers, The Great Escape, The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky (the story of Douglas Bader, who was also a POW in Stalag Luft III), from which the feature films of the same names were made. 24 Degrees from Henry VIII of England.
  • Anthony 'Tony' Burcher (15 Mar 1922 New South Wales-9 Apr 1995 Tasmania), RAAF Flying Officer. No. 617 Squadron RAF. Was not one of the escapees. 20 Degrees from Henry VIII of England.
  • Wylton Todd (1 Jul 1906 Victoria-18 Jun 1961 England), RAF Flight Lieutenant. No. 169 Squadron RAF. Mosquito navigator 'shot down' 15th February 1944. Helped with designing (architect), distracting attention (joined the theatre group), and digging. Arrived 'too late' for the draw for places in the escape. Designed and built the memorial to the murdered fifty. 19 Degrees from Henry VIII of England.
The Great Escape Memorial

Stalag Luft III, or Stammlager Luft III, was a Luftwaffe-run prisoner of war (POW) camp established in March 1942 for holding captured Western Allied air force personnel during the Second World War. The camp was located in the German province of Lower Silesia near the town of Sagan (now Żagań, Poland), 160 kilometres (100 miles) south-east of Berlin; selected specifically because its sandy soil would make it difficult for POWs to escape by tunnelling.[2]

The east compound was the first opened, on 21st March 1942, for British and other Commonwealth officers. The centre compound opened weeks later for British and other Commonwealth NCOs, but by the end of 1942 held USAAF personnel. The north compound for British airmen, (where the "Great Escape" later occurred) opened in March 1943. A south compound for Americans was opened in September 1943 and the west compound was opened in July 1944 for US officers. Eventually, the camp grew to approximately 24 hectares (60 acres) and housed about 2,500 Royal Air Force officers, about 7,500 US Army Air Forces, and about 900 officers from other Allied air forces, for a total of 10,950 inmates. Each compound consisted of fifteen single-story huts; with each 3.0-by-3.7-metre (10-by-12-foot) bunkroom sleeping fifteen men in five triple-deck bunks.[2]

There were a number of design features that were intended to make escape extremely difficult, if not impossible; for instance, the barracks were raised approximately 60 centimetres (24 in) off the ground to make it easier for guards to detect tunnelling. The camp was constructed on land that had a very sandy subsoil with difference in colour between surface sand and a darker soil underneath; in addition, the loose, collapsible sand meant the structural integrity of any tunnel would be compromised. Seismograph microphones were sited around the perimeter of the camp to detect any sounds of digging.[2]

The POWs, or kriegies, called themselves (from Kriegsgefangene). They referred to the guards as goons who, unaware of the colloquial connotation, willingly accepted the nickname after being told it stood for "German Officer Or Non-Com". The camp's 800 Luftwaffe guards were either too old for combat duty or young men convalescing after long tours of duty or from wounds. Deputy Commandant Major Gustav Simoleit, a professor of history, geography and ethnology before the war, spoke several languages, including English, Russian, Polish and Czech. Transferred to Sagan in early 1943, he proved sympathetic to allied airmen. The camp commandant was Kommandant Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau.[2]

There was a substantial library with educational facilities, where many POWs earned degrees such as languages, engineering or law. The exams were supplied by the Red Cross and supervised by academics such as a Master of King's College who was one of the POWs. The prisoners built a theatre and put on high-quality bi-weekly performances featuring all the current West End shows and there was a well-organised recreational program with each compound having athletic fields and volleyball courts. Many amenities were made possible by Swedish lawyer, Henry Söderberg, who was the YMCA representative to the area, and frequently brought to its camps not only sports equipment, and religious items supporting the work of chaplains, but also the wherewithal for each camp's band and orchestra, and well-equipped library.[2]

Stalag Luft III


  1. Wikipedia: List of Allied airmen from the Great Escape; accessed 6 Oct 2019
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Wikipedia: Stalag Luft III; accessed 8 Oct 2019

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Very well done, I'll add any I come across.


posted by Geoffrey Raebel