Squadron Leader Harry “Dick” Churchill, the last survivor of the famous “Great Escape” during World War II, died at the formidable age of 99.
The former Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot was one of the 76 Allied prisoners of war (POW) who escaped from a high-security German Stalag Luft III POW camp in 1944. A 1963 film of the same name starring Steve McQueen immortalized their breakout.
Sir Stephen Hillier, Chief of the Air Staff, told the Independent, “on behalf of the RAF as a whole I would like to offer my condolences to the friends and family of Flt. Lt. Richard ‘Dick’ Churchill, one of the RAF personnel involved in the Great Escape. He was from a selfless generation who offered bravery and sacrifice to secure our freedom, he will be sorely missed. Per Ardua.”
The escape attempt was christened Operation Escape 200–the number 200 reflected the number of hopeful escapees. To coordinate their breakout effort, they created an escape committee. All in all, the operation involved more than 600 prisoners, who laboriously dug three separate escape tunnels code-named Tom, Dick, and Harry. This was an attempt to circumvent the watchfulness of Nazi guards. If the first or second tunnels were comprised, some prisoners would at least have a chance of successfully escaping through the third.
The Allied prisoners were quite creative with their choice of egress points for the tunnels. For instance, the entrance to tunnel Dick was concealed behind a washroom drain. Tunnel Harry began from the bottom of a stove. Tunnel Tom slithered from a neglected corner of a prisoner barrack.
According to the escape plan, prisoners would exit a tunnel wearing civilian clothes and equipped with forged documents to help them navigate through Nazi-occupied countries. However, by dressing in civilian clothes, they risked the danger of being shot as spies if captured by the pursuing Germans.
Operation Escape 200 started during the moonless hours of March 24, 1944. In the end, 76 men slipped through Tunnel Harry. However, all but three were recaptured, including Churchill, by the Germans within days. After Adolf Hitler became aware of the breakout, he ordered the escapees to be executed. In the end, two-thirds of them were shot.
Also quoted in the Independent was Air Vice Marshal David Murray, the controller of the RAF Benevolent Fund–a welfare charity that provides financial, practical, and emotional support to active and former members of the RAF and their families. “Dick, as he was known, took part in one of the most audacious prisoner of war escapes during the Second World War and embodied the spirit of the RAF–tenacious, resilient, and incredibly brave in the face of adversity.”