On the 75th anniversary of the Great Escape from the Stalag Luft III POW camp, we remember the seventy-six British and Allied Air Force officers who took part, and the fifty who subsequently lost their lives.

Their story was immortalised by former Stalag Luft III POW Paul Brickhill in his 1950 novel, The Great Escape, which inspired the 1963 film of the same name.

For many, the image of Steve McQueen trying to jump the camp fence on a motorbike is what first springs to mind when the Great Escape is mentioned.  However, in 1944, it was the shooting of fifty of the recaptured POWs, ordered by Hitler as a warning to others thinking of escaping, that shocked the world and resulted in changes being made to the Geneva Conventions (1949) to ensure that POWs captured in warfare were protected from ‘violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture’.

Sixty-seven Shirburnians are known to have been held as POWs during the Second World War, including two brothers, Donald Bethell (Harper 1934-39) and Richard Anthony ‘Tony’ Bethell (Harper 1936-41), both of whom would later described their own escape attempts.

Captain Donald Bethell’s younger brother, Flight Lieutenant Tony Bethell, RAF, was shot down and captured in Holland on 7 December 1942.  He was taken to Stalag Luft III, a POW camp for British and Allied Air Force officers at Sagan (now Żagań, Poland).

The March 1943 issue of The Shirburnian reported that ‘R.A. Bethell, who was reported missing in December, is now reported safe and a Prisoner of War.’  Although there was no glory in being captured, the tone of the report reveals the general belief that as a POW Tony Bethell was now safe and would probably survive the war.  However, as a fellow former Stalag Luft III POW wrote in the introduction to Paul Brickhill’s novel, ‘It is the duty of any officer in time of war, should he have the bad fortune to be taken prisoner, to do all in his power to escape’.

Stalag Luft III, c.1942 (copyright IWM, ref. HU 21018)

The mastermind of the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III was former Wellington College pupil, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell (1910-1944).  Three escape tunnels, named ‘Tom, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’, had been dug by the POWs at the camp, but in the end it was decided that ‘Harry’ was the only viable escape route.  Completed by mid-March 1944, it ran from underneath a stove in Block no. 104, twenty-eight feet underground for 365 feet to a wooded area outside the perimeter fence.

Tony Bethell, Sherborne 1st XV (1940)

The youngest man to escape through ‘Harry’ tunnel on 24 March 1944 was 21 year-old Shirburnian, Tony Bethell.  Tony had left Sherborne School in April 1941, having enjoyed a glittering School career during which time he was Head of School, Head of Harper House, a member of the 1st XV rugby team, captain of swimming and fives, a member of the Shooting VIII team and a CSM in the cadet corps. Tony was Head of School on 30 September 1940 when Sherborne was heavily raided by a force of some 150 German bombers which dropped several hundred bombs on the town.  According to Tony’s obituary, he was nearly expelled that day for being outside the bomb shelter at the time of the attack. On leaving Sherborne, Tony joined the RAF and, after pilot training in America, joined no.268 Squadron, with whom he was serving when he was shot down over Holland on 7 December 1942.

Following Tony’s escape from Stalag Luft III on the night of 24 March 1944, he was captured on 28 March and interrogated by the Gestapo before being returned to Stalag Luft III, where he spent his 22 birthday (9 April 1944) in the cooler.  However, fifty of his fellow escapees did not return.

The names of ‘The 50’ who were shot following the Great Escape

In 2005, Tony Bethell’s widow Lorna presented Sherborne School with a copy of Tony’s account of the tunnel and escape from Stalag Luft III, which he had written in 1995 as a personal tribute to ‘The 50’.

Read Tony Bethell’s account of his own Great Escape

Tony did not see his actions as heroic, as he wrote at the end of his account of the Great Escape, ‘Today, in an age when the mere fact of being in a theatre of hostility generates the media’s definition of ‘hero’, I can still only think of the Great Escape as an event in which men did their duty.  That, I think, is sufficient, and if others will think of all of us, those who were murdered and those who survived, in such a manner, I believe we would all be content.’

In March 1943, Tony’s elder brother, Capt. Donald Bethell, RA, had been captured in Tunisia and taken to a POW Camp PG49 at Fontanellato near Parma, Italy.  Later that year, Donald escaped from the camp with 500 others.

In 1987, Donald’s son, Andrew Bethell (Lyon 1961-65), filmed a documentary with his father retracing his 500 mile journey down the Apennine mountains to Naples, which included meeting again the brave ‘contadini’ who had given him food and shelter.  The film, ‘The Stranger at the Gate’ was originally transmitted on BBC2 in July 1987.  Sadly, Donald Bethell died the following year.  Tony Bethell died at his home in Canada in 2004.

Rachel Hassall
School Archivist
23 March 2019

See also:
Obituary for Tony Bethell by James McCready, The Globe and Mail, Toronto, March 3 2004
Sherborne School and Second World War
The Great Escape 75, RAF Benevolent Fund

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