Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Last Escape

A British World War II veteran whose efforts to help prisoners escape from a Nazi camp was immortalised in the film "The Great Escape" has died aged 97, it was announced Wednesday.

Alex Lees was a prisoner at the infamous Stalag Luft III camp in March 1944 when scores of Allied servicemen escaped through tunnels they had dug by hand.

Lees was a gardener at the camp who helped dig the tunnels, but because he was not an officer he was not given the chance to escape himself.

He used an ingenious system to dispose of the soil from the three tunnels, storing it in a bag hidden under his trousers and then dumping it on the camp's vegetable garden.

The story of Lees and his comrades was made into the 1963 film starring Steve McQueen.

The servicemen painstakingly dug three tunnels -- called Tom, Dick and Harry -- around 10 metres (33 feet) underground, using tools made from tin cans. The tunnels' walls were supported with wood scavenged taken from camp beds and old furniture.

The men launched their escape on March 24, 1944. Seventy-six managed to flee Stalag Luft III before the plot was uncovered -- but only three made it back to Britain.
A total of 23 were recaptured and sent back to camp, and the remaining 50 were executed.

Lees praised the filmmakers for producing an accurate version of events, telling the Paisley Daily Express newspaper: "It was just 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."

Lees, who spent his final years in a home for former servicemen in Erskine near Glasgow, was cremated on Wednesday.