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Last 'Great Escape' Survivor Dies

Dick Churchill thought his name saved his life
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 28, 2019 4:50 AM CST
A memorial shows where the "Harry" tunnel ended, just past the camp fence.   (Wikimedia Commons/vorwerk)
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(Newser) – The last of the Great Escapers has died. Dick Churchill, a British Royal Air Force veteran who took part in the famous 1944 mass escape from the Stalag Luft III POW camp, died earlier this month at his home in England, the New York Times reports. He was 99. The squadron leader was nicknamed "chief rabbit" for his work in digging the tunnels used in the breakout immortalized in the 1963 movie The Great Escape. He was the last survivor of the 76 men who made it out of the camp. Only three escapees made it to a safe country. Some 50 men who were recaptured were executed on the orders of Adolf Hitler. Churchill said he believes he avoided execution because the Germans thought, incorrectly, that he was related to Winston Churchill and could be used as a bargaining chip.

Churchill and other survivors were able to describe the Gestapo men they had seen taking others away, which helped the RAF's Special Investigation Branch track them down after the war, the Telegraph reports. Churchill, who joined the RAF at 18 in 1938 and was captured in 1940 after his bomber was shot down, had planned to make his way across Germany posing as a Romanian woodcutter, but he was recaptured within two days after he was found hiding in a hayloft. He was reluctant to discuss the escape in later years, but once told the BBC: "You could be a quiet person, do nothing much, above all don’t annoy the Germans or the Gestapo, or you can try and do the opposite and feel better as the result of doing it." He is survived by his two sons. (The escape's chief forger died in 2012.)

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