PoW s escape inspired Hollywood
PoW's escape inspired Hollywood

A World War II veteran believed to be one of the last survivors of the daring, real-life breakout that inspired 1960s movie The Great Escape celebrated his 98th birthday at his Nedlands home yesterday.

Almost a year after British media incorrectly declared the last of the escapees had died in Scotland, former Royal Air Force Pilot Officer Paul Royle was busy settling into a retirement village in Perth's western suburbs, having only just given up his Claremont home and independent living.

Mr Royle, one of 76 Allied airmen who broke out of the infamous German prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft III, said he would never forget the freezing, moonless night in 1944 when he made his desperate dash for freedom and the tragic events that unfolded in the weeks after.

Leaving his home in South Perth after he was selected to join the British Royal Air Force in 1938, Mr Royle was covering the Allied retreat from the skies above France in 1940 when his Bristol Blenheim bomber was shot down by a German Luftwaffe fighter.

He chose to stay with his badly wounded navigator rather than escape and was captured by the Germans the next day.

Sent to Stalag Luft I, a PoW camp on the edge of the Baltic Sea, shortly after his arrival, Mr Royle was caught digging an escape tunnel.

The failed breakout saw him transferred to the infamous Stalag Luft III, a PoW camp for Allied airmen about 200km south-east of Berlin, near the Polish town of Zagan.

The nazis had boasted that the camp was escape-proof.

Under the leadership of British Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, known as "Big X", 200 prisoners including Mr Royle hatched an audacious plan to prove their captors wrong.

"He was a very keen type and did a lot of the organising," Mr Royle recalled of "Mr X", who was played by Richard Attenborough in the film.

In secret, the prisoners began digging three separate escape tunnels, codenamed Tom, Dick and Harry.

Mr Royle was drafted to the group whose job it was to covertly dispose of more than 100,000kg of dirt displaced in the digging of the tunnels.

They did this without arousing the suspicions of the guards by stuffing the soil into their underwear, then shaking it out discreetly on "nonchalant" walks around the camp.

Their unusual gait earned them the nickname, "the penguins".

At the same time, other prisoners worked on forging documents and tailoring disguises.

Wooden bed boards were used to shore up the lengthening tunnels, a move that Mr Royle said made sleeping "a bit uncomfortable" when mattresses started to sag.

While the tunnel nicknamed Tom was discovered, work on the other escape routes continued until on March 24, 1944, on a moonless night, it was decided the breakout would be staged through Harry.

Mr Royle said the 200 would-be escapees held a ballot in hut 104 to determine the order of the dash through the roughly 90m-long tunnel. "I think I was number 57," he said.

His memory of the journey through the tunnel was hazy, but Mr Royle recalled distinctly that he "wanted to get out".

When he finally poked his head above ground, he discovered that he was outside the cordon of guards and barbed wire, but still well short of the concealing forest the prisoners had been digging for.

By the time the tunnel was discovered, only 76 of the 200 would-be escapees had made it out, including five other Australians who were later killed.

Paired up with an English officer named Humphries, Mr Royle laid low for the first day in the forest, before heading south towards Switzerland under cover of darkness in snowy conditions.

Thousands of German troops were mobilised to hunt for the escapees, only three of whom managed to make it to England and safety.

Mr Royle's freedom was short-lived. "They got us the next day," he said.

Later, Mr Royle was interviewed by another PoW, RAAF pilot Paul Brickhill, who had been a journalist in Sydney before the war.

In 1950 he published a book titled The Great Escape. The 1963 film of the same name, starring Steve McQueen, was a hit with audiences but not with Mr Royle. "I didn't like it," he said. "No Americans took part in the escape."

Planning to spend his birthday with wife Pamela and his sons, Mr Royle played down his role in the escape, which became a symbol of courage and defiance in the face of impossible odds.

"It was our duty not to languish in a prison camp if we could help it," he said.

The West Australian

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