Memories of the Great Escape
Memories: The oldest survivor of the World War II Great Escape, Paul Royle, with grandchildren Sam Cameron and Amy and Sophie Royle. Picture: Simon Santi/The West Australian

It is rare that a piece of history makes it back into the hands of its creator but as former prisoner of war Paul Royle read a letter he wrote more than 70 years ago, it brought back many fond memories.

Mr Royle, whose story of a dramatic bid for freedom in March 1944 was told in the book and movie The Great Escape, clearly remembers the generosity of strangers who sent him parcels of food and clothes during his years in German camp Stalag Luft III.

Mr Royle, 100, is the oldest survivor of the so-called Great Escape after joining 76 World War II allied airmen in digging and attempting to escape from the camp through a tunnel.

He was returned to camp less than 24 hours after escaping, while 50 others - including his escape partner Edgar Humphreys - were killed.

Yesterday, a handful of letters and documents from his years in the camp, including a letter of thanks written to a woman who had sent him clothing in 1941, were presented to Mr Royle by Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop.

"The socks and pullover are nicely made and fit me perfectly," he wrote. "It's still rather cold so they are especially useful."

Mr Royle said he made sure he always thanked those who had sent the parcels after receiving the names of prisoners of war through the Red Cross.

While he does not remember receiving the pullover, it was gratefully received by an Australian during the northern spring.

He recalls the generosity of one particular donor - a woman - who continued to send him gifts, which seven decades later, he still remembers being touched by.

"She sent me a parcel very early on, It was the very first parcel any of us got and it was a nice parcel of food," he said. "I didn't know her and I don't know how she got my name, I think probably from the Red Cross. And afterwards I wrote to her and thanked her."

Mr Royle said reading his handwritten note in his Nedlands care home, surrounded by his fascinated family, reminded him of the kindness afforded from people around the world.

"It's well in my memory and I'm very happy to see them and go back and learn about them and to see what other people did for us," Mr Royle said.

"We got lots of Red Cross parcels, hundreds of them . . . the biggest parcel we ever got was a huge thing and it was full of toilet paper."

Ms Bishop said a newspaper clipping picturing her with Mr Royle on his 100th birthday had prompted staff at Geneva's International Committee of the Red Cross to delve into their archives for files from Mr Royle's years in Stalag Luft III.

They were given to her during her recent visit to the committee's headquarters.

"I was absolutely thrilled that they had managed to retrieve his records and had made the connection between my visit and Mr Royle," she said.

"It's a little part of our history that we should never forget and the fact that one of our local community members went through such an incredible experience being a prisoner of war and being part of the Great Escape."

The West Australian

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