Canada’s last Great Escaper

Montreal financial manager was one of 26 fliers who lived to tell a remarkable tale of tunnelling out of a German PoW camp in 1944

There are now only six survivors of the 76 men who tunnelled out of a German prisoner of war camp in 1944 in a daring and complex breakout known as the Great Escape. Tony Bethell, who died on February 17 at Caledon, Ontario, at the age of 81, was the seventh surviving member of the Great Escape and the youngest man to crawl through the tunnel named Harry. He was just 21.

Mr Bethel, who came to Canada 10 years after the war ended, was the last survivor living in Canada. There are three left in Britain, and one each in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

The real escape was different from the 1963 movie, titled The Great Escape and starring Steve McQueen. For one thing there were no Americans even in the camp: It was reserved for British, Canadian and other Commonwealth pilots. (For all its errors, the movie remains an enduring favourite.

“They got the tunnel and escape bit right, but there was nothing to do with motocycles,” said Dick Churchill, one of the survivors, referring to a stunt by Steve McQueen. “Tony Bethell and I always commented on the Technicolor of the film. It was bright and cheery. It should have been shot in black and white. It was grey and cold.”

Mr Bethell was strong and young, and so was sent underground working on the tunnels, which the prisoners built in spite of German efforts to shut them down, including microphones in the earth to detect digging. With the black humour of prison camps, the tunnels were named Tom, Dick and Harry. Harry was the only one that was ever used.

Building the tunnels took some ingenuity, and Mr Bethell in his diary of the Great Escape listed the equipment lifted from the prison camp that was used to make the underground supports, lighting and an air exchanger. The stolen gear included 4,000 bed boards, 1,219 knives, 3,424 towels, 1,000 feet of electric wire and 69 light bulbs, among other things.

On the night of March 24, 1944, 76 prisoners of Stalag Luft III, all officers of the Royal Air Force, Dominion and Allied air forces, escaped through a 111-metre-long tunnel that ran about nine metres below the surface. The plan was to spring 200 men, but the 77th man out was spotted by a guard around 5.00 a.m. and the alarm sounded.

Mr Bethell’s job on the night of the escape was to work at Leicester Square, the second “halfway house” along the tunnel. There, he was to pull 20 men through until he was relieved by escapee No 65. Once out, his second job was to lie in the woods and wait for nine more men to join him.

However, after pulling about 12 men through, there were no further tugs on the rope, and Mr Bethell sat in his cramped space underground for three-quarters of an hour, not knowing what was going on.

“The realisation bore in quickly that anything might have happened, and that one’s little airspace, 30 feet below ground, could indeed be a permanent coffin,” Mr Bethell wrote in his diary. ‘“I sweated with fear, for about 45 minutes I believe, though it seemed like an eternity.”

Then a tug and he pulled another man through who told him someone had become stuck in the tunnel; he had to be pulled back and the tunnel patched up.

When Mr Bethell made it to the woods he waited for his group. A short time after they formed, they heard a shot and knew the escape had been discovered. The men then broke up into pairs and Mr Bethell’s travelling partner was Cookie Long. They planned to head for the Czech border, which was about 65 kilometres away.

Snow and flooding changed their minds and they headed toward Frankfurt, hoping to hop a freight train and escape to Sweden. The walked along a rail line, slept in a barn at night but, desperate, started to travel in daylight. They were captured and put in jail in Benau.

From there, they ended in Sagan, near the camp, and were placed in a large cell with other escaped PoW’s. Then they were moved to a Gestapo prison. From there, many of the men were taken out and shot. On April 13, Mr Bethell was separated from Mr Long, who was shot.

In all, 50 escapees were shot by German firing squads on the direct of Adolf Hitler. After the war a Scotland Yard detective hunted down and prosecuted the killers. Six of those murdered were Canadians. The other two Canadian escapees have since died. Mr Bethell was one of the 26 survivors.

Only three made it back to England. Two Norwegians took the route Mr Bethell and Mr Long planned, jumping a train to the North Sea port of Stettin and escaping on a Swedish freighter to Sweden. A Dutch flier with the RAF made it by train to Holland, Belgium and then France, and was escorted by the French underground over the Pyrenees to Spain.

Richard Anthony Bethell was born on April 9, 1922, in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) where his father was a colonial administrator. A few years later, his father was transferred to Somaliland and he and his brother were sent to a kindergarten in England. The boys rejoined the family when their father was posted to Gibraltar, where he was state treasurer.

His father died young and the family returned to England. Tony went to a British public school, Sherborne, where he was head boy. Early in the war, he remembered there was an air raid on the school and he was almost expelled for being outside the air-raid shelter.

Mr Bethell joined the Royal Air Force in February of 1942 and was sent to the United States for pilot training in Georgia, Alabama and Florida. After a tour in a training unit at Hawarden, he was posted to No 268 Squadron in June of 1942. Mr Bethell was flying Mustangs, not the P-51 with the Merlin engines, but the earlier model with an Allison engine.

Mr Bethell and the other pilots spent much time flying “Rhubarbs”, or low-level sweeps, mostly over the Netherlands. Aircraft from 268 Squadron were the first single-engine aircraft to enter German airspace during the war. On November 26 1942, during an operation over Holland, Mr Bethell spotted and shot down a Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf-109 and shortly after sighted a Junkers Ju.52 transport aircraft, which he also shot down.

Eleven days later, Mr Bethell took off at 9.15am and was flying in formation with three other Mustangs when they were hit by flak at the Dutch coast. His aircraft was damaged and hit again when he was no more than 20 feet above the ground. The flak guns were firing level and damaged a local church and train station. He crash-landed the plane around 10.00am on December 7th and was soon captured.

Mr Bethell was transferred to a jail in Amsterdam and then was moved to Stalag Luft III.

In January 1945, as Russian forces approached the camp, the PoWs were forced to march across Germany for as much as 36 kilometres a day to Tarmstedt, south-west of Hamburg. They ended up in a naval prison and were freed on May 2, three days before the close of the war in Europe.

After the war, Mr Bethell worked for the Red Sea department of a trading company that operated in Africa. He was stationed in Khartoum in Sudan and then Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. But he became bored with the work and in 1949 he rejoined the RAF. From 1950 to 1952, he was aide-de-camp to Air Marshal Breakey in Washington.

In 1955, he left the RAF and had to make a decision about whether to move to Canada or the United States. He chose Canada because of the British connection. He arrived in Montreal and worked for the brokerage firm W C Pitfield. Then he worked for Canadian International Investment Trust and Elican, a Belgian company.

Later he moved into money management and ran the portfolio of a member of the Bronfman family. He travelled to England often and attended several reunions of Great Escape veterans as well as the memorial service at St Clement Danes in 1994 on the 50th anniversary of the Great Escape.

Mr Bethell also spent time researching and writing his own history of the Great Escape, A Glimpse at Stalag Luft III (north compound). It is a mixture of diary entries, many drawings and a precise account of how the Great Escape was carried out. There are also lists of the men killed and the men who survived.

In the early 1990s he retired, left Montreal and he and his wife Lorna moved to a farm in Caledon, north-west of Toronto, where he spent a great deal of time on a John Deere tractor cutting fallow hay fields with a bush hog. He leaves his wife and four children from an earlier marriage and three stepchildren. A son died last year.

James McCready
The Globe and Mail, Toronto
(Wednesday March 3 2004)