An RAF pilot who was involved in the breakout of the Stalag Luft III camp in WWII known as the Great Escape has died aged 101.
In 1941 Jack Lyon’s bomber plane was shot down near Dusseldorf in Germany.
All of the bomber’s crew survived the crash-landing, only to be captured by the Nazis and taken to prisoner of war camps.
In 1941 Jack Lyon’s bomber plane was struck by flak near Dusseldorf in Germany, the RAF Benevolent Fund said.
Mr Lyon, who was a flight lieutenant, ended up in the Stalag Luft III camp, where he was recruited by other prisoners to carry out surveillance of the compound ahead of the famed 1944 Great Escape breakout.
The PoWs built three 30ft deep tunnels, named Tom, Dick and Harry.
Jack was number 79 on the list of PoWs preparing to break out in the bid immortalised in the Hollywood film of the same name.
He was about to enter the ‘Harry’ tunnel when the prisoners heard a gunshot and realised the game was up.
A total of 76 men had got through the tunnel and of those just three made it to freedom.
The rest were recaptured and fifty were executed on the direct orders of a furious Hitler as a chilling warning to the others.
When he celebrated his 100th birthday he told how he was just three places from almost certain death.
The plot was uncovered by guards before Mr Lyon, who died on Friday, was able to make his escape.
In what is believed to be his last interview, which he did with the RAF Benevolent Fund in October ahead of the 75th anniversary of the Great Escape, he branded the mission ‘a success, but at great cost’.
There was a ‘terrible aftermath’ to the breakout because 50 prisoners were shot, he said.
Mr Lyon, who joined the air force aged 23, added: ‘We were allocated a position and told not to move until called. It was going to be a long night.
‘After an hour or so of this, air raid sirens sounded and all the camp lights went out.
‘We were left in total darkness until I heard a single shot.
‘We guessed that probably meant the tunnel had been discovered so we did everything we could to destroy anything incriminating – there were maps, documents.’
The odds of successfully breaking out of the camp were ‘slim’, according to Mr Lyon.
He said: ‘In a mass breakout, with nationwide hue and cry and bad weather, I would say they were virtually nil.
‘Well I suppose I was lucky.’
Mr Lyon, of in Bexhill-on-Sea in East Sussex, died shortly before the 75th anniversary of the breakout, on March 24.
Air Vice-Marshal David Murray, chief executive of the RAF Benevolent Fund, said: ‘Jack belonged to a generation of servicemen we are sadly losing as time goes on.
‘His legacy and those of his brave comrades who planned and took part in the audacious Great Escape breakout are the freedoms we enjoy today.
‘Their tenacity and determination spoke volumes about the values and bravery of the entire RAF, in helping to win the fight against the Nazis.’
The men who escaped the camp were Eric Williams, a navigator of a 75 Squadron bomber, Oliver Philpot, an RAF pilot and Richard Michael Clinton Codner, a second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery.
All of the bomber’s crew survived the crash-landing, only to be captured by the Nazis and taken to prisoner of war camps. Pictured, Jack Lyon as a young RAF officer
Cunning methods had to be devised to remove the soil from the tunnels without getting caught, and typically, soldiers would shake the dirt out of their trousers at various points around camp, earning themselves the nickname ‘penguins’.
Although the three tunnel entrances were finished by the end of May, work on ‘Harry’ and ‘Dick’ stopped in June so that efforts could concentrate on ‘Tom’. In September, ‘Tom’ was discovered by the Nazis.
The following year, in January 1944, work on ‘Harry’ resumed. By 25 March, the 335ft tunnel was ready. That moonless night 80 men climbed out of the escape shaft, shored up by bedboards of the camp’s inmates.
A modern re-creation of the tunnel system used to escape from Stalag Luft III POW camp in Poland
Mr Lyon, who was a flight lieutenant, ended up in the Stalag Luft III camp, where he was recruited by other prisoners to carry out surveillance of the compound ahead of the famed 1944 Great Escape breakout. The prisoners built three tunnels. A recreation of one of the tunnels is pictured.
Jack is pictured being congratulated by RAF personnel on his birthday
A total of 76 men had got through the tunnel and of those just three made it to freedom. Jack is seen at his birthday celebrations
Jack is seen holding his telegram from the Queen which he received on his 100th birthday
Deadly toll of escapees executed… and how WWII’s greatest PoW story got a Hollywood makeover
In the spring of 1943, RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell conceived a plan for a major escape from the German Stalag Luft III Camp near Sagan, now Żagań in Poland.
With the escape planned for the night of March 24, 1944, the PoWs built three 30ft deep tunnels, named Tom, Dick and Harry, so that if one was discovered by the German guards, they would not suspect that work was underway on two more.
Bushell intended to get more than 200 men through the tunnels, each wearing civilian clothes and possessing a complete range of forged papers and escape equipment.
In the spring of 1943, RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell conceived a plan for a major escape from the German Stalag Luft III Camp near Sagan, now Żagań in Poland
To hide the earth dug from the tunnels, the prisoners attached pouches of the sand inside their trousers so that as they walked around, it would scatter.
The prisoners wore greatcoats to conceal the bulges made by the sand and were referred to as ‘penguins’ because of their supposed resemblance to the animal.
When the attempt began, it was discovered that Harry had come up short and instead of reaching into a nearby forest, the first man in fact emerged just short of the tree line, close to a guard tower.
Plans for one man to leave every minute was reduced to 10 per hour.
The Great Escape starred Steve McQueen (pictured above) as Captain Virgil Hilts
In total, 76 men crawled through to initial freedom, but the 77th was spotted by a guard. In the hunt for the entrance one guard Charlie Pilz crawled through the tunnel but after becoming trapped at the other end called for help.
The prisoners opened the entrance, revealing the location.
Of the escapees, three made it to safety, 73 were captured, and 50 of them executed.
… and the Hollywood film
The 1963 film The Great Escape was based on real events and, although some characters were fictitious, many were based on real people, or amalgams of several of those involved.
The film starred Steve McQueen as Captain Virgil Hilts, James Garner as Flight Lieutenant Robert Hendley and Richard Attenborough as Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, and was based on a book of the same name by Paul Brickhill.
Contrary to the film, no American PoWs were involved in the escape attempt, and there were no escapes by motorcycle or aircraft.
Hilts’ dash for the border by motorcycle was added by request of McQueen, who did the stunt riding himself except for the final jump.