The Real Thing: POW Alex Lees (right) in Stalag Luft III. “I only played a small part. I did my bit, that’s the main thing.”
If, like me, The Great Escape is in your pantheon of All Time Coolest Movies, you will be saddened to learn of the death of Alex Lees on 22 April, in a veterans’ home in Scotland, at the age of 97.
The film was based on the memoir of Paul Brickhill, who was one of the plotters and escapees of the March 1944 breakout from the German POW camp Stalag Luft III.
In addition to being an expression of the best of the human spirit, the escape was also a triumph of engineering. Of the 600 prisoners in the camp, 250 were involved in digging three underground tunnels, codenamed Tom, Dick, and Harry. The major problem was how to dispose of the massive amounts of dirt —more than 200 tons according to one estimate— that were displaced. The subsoil was of a different color and texture that made its disposal under the eyes of the guards —who surveyed the prisoners from watchtowers and conducted frequent searches— even more difficult. That was where Alex Lees came in.
Lees maintained one of the camp’s gardens, using his position to get rid of sub-soil excavated from the tunnels, whose colour stood out starkly from surface soil. He recalled: “I had a garden and it was my job to dispose of the tunnel soil. It was a different colour, so it had to be disguised. I would carry the sand in Red Cross boxes and then dispose of it by raking it through the top soil where I was growing tomatoes.
The Germans knew about tunnels at other camps, so we had to be very careful, or you could be shot.”
Other soil was carried away by prisoners who hid it in specially-made bags hanging down inside their trouser legs. They would stroll over to a garden and release the sand into a trench where it would quickly be covered with surface earth. Thirty feet below ground, meanwhile, prisoners were burrowing away, having established an elaborate system which included electric light, an air pumping device and even a mini-railway.
The dirt-bearing strollers were known as penguins because of the peculiar stride their baggage required.
Because Lees was an enlisted man he wasn’t on the escapee roster. On the night of the breakout he slept in the bunk of Flight Lieutenant Thompson in order to confuse the count at roll call; he thought that he might be shot for his role in that deception.
In the event, the Nazis discovered the plot and apprehended the seventy-seventh man emerging from the tunnel. Of the seventy-six who made it, three found their way back to England; twenty-three were returned to the POW camp; and fifty were executed on Hitler’s orders.
The stirring march theme from The Great Escape was played at Mr. Lees funeral.