Participants in the “Great Escape” Speak on the 70th Anniversary: “It was worth it”

With the 70thanniversary of the event known as the Great Escape this month comes much discussion of the matter, especially from two of the prisoners who took part in the event. These men, Jack Lyon and Charles Clarke, both in their 90s, were officers in the Royal Air Force who took part in the event while detained in Sagan, Germany.

For those who have not previously read about the Great Escape (or have not seen the eponymous film made in the early 1960s), the anniversary will be on March 24. That was the night on which, seventy years ago, over seventy imprisoned Allied forces dug their way out of the StalagLuft III prison camp.

The name “Great Escape” stems largely from the sheer size of the prison break and not so much from the greatness of its results. In fact, the break was something of a pyrrhic victory in that all but three of the escapees were taken back to the prison by the Gestapo, upon which fifty of them were executed.

Lyon and Clarke were not among the escapees, but Lyon did play an important role in the Great Escape itself by watching for patrolling Germans while the others worked on the dig. Unfortunately for him (or perhaps fortunately, given the number of resultant executions), the Germans found out about the dig before he could make his own getaway.

Lyon maintains to this day that, although the Escape was not a complete success, it was not a complete failure, either. While the price of human life was undoubtedly high, so were the spirits of those who knew they’d helped even as few as three men return home. Clarke was not an active member of the breakout, but he celebrates the anniversary as a remembrance of what man is able to achieve when desperation is high. He considers it to have been an amazingly bold move, pulled off with almost no resources other than sheer will, The Telegraph reports.

The officer who organized the Great Escape, nicknamed “Big X,” had originally planned for over twice as many men to break out than as many as even attempted. Literally hundreds of airmen were involved in the digging. They actually dug three tunnels, one of which was found out early on, and another of which was re-designated as a storage space. Every man involved was to have a different story if asked for identification once out. Big X had managed to accumulate civilian clothes, ID cards, money, and maps for each of the men to make their way once on the other side of the tunnel.

Although the plan was found out mere hours after it went into action, Lyon recalls that he did not necessarily expect it to work much anyway. Like many soldiers, he had not set his eyes as far as home. His goal was simply to survive, and he has now done that long enough to see the 70th anniversary of the night known as the Great Escape, the night that a 200-man band of British prisoners set out to prove that, success or no success, they still had the strength to fight for the freedoms in which they believed.


Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE