Aus­tralian sur­vivor of WWII ‘Great Es­cape’ dies aged 101


Paul Royle, an Aus­tralian pi­lot who took part in a mass break­out from a Ger­man pris­oner of war camp dur­ing World War II that is re­mem­bered as “The Great Es­cape,” has died in his home­town of Perth, his son said Fri­day. He was 101.

The es­cape was the sub­ject of a 1963 Hol­ly­wood movie, “The Great Es­cape,” star­ring Steve McQueen, a work of artis­tic li­cense that Royle loathed.

Royle died Sun­day at a Perth hos­pi­tal fol­low­ing surgery on a hip frac­ture that he suf­fered in a fall in a nurs­ing home three weeks ago, his son Gor­don Royle said.

Royle’s death leaves only one sur­vivor of the 76 men who es­caped from Stalag Luft III, near Sa­gan 160 kilo­me­ters south­east of Ber­lin: 94-year-old Bri­tish man Dick Churchill, a for­mer squadron leader, the son said.

The sur­vivors had formed a sort of club and had kept in con­tract through a news­let­ter called the “Sa­gan Se­lect Sub­way So­ci­ety” which listed the pass­ing of each mem­ber. The latest news­let­ter among Paul Royle’s be­long­ings showed that he and Churchill, of Devon, were the last sur­vivors.

“I called Dick Churchill yesterday and said ‘I’m bring­ing you the news that you’re the last one,’” Gor­don Royle said. “He was sad but stoic.”

Paul Royle re­vealed last year on the 70th an­niver­sary of the tun­nel es­cape in March 1944 that he was no fan of the Hol­ly­wood in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the story.

“The movie I dis­liked in­tensely be­cause there were no mo­tor­bikes ... and the Amer­i­cans weren’t there,” he told Aus­tralian Broad­cast­ing Corp., re­fer­ring to McQueen’s dra­matic bid to out­run the Ger­mans on a mo­tor­bike.

Gor­don Royle said his fa­ther was an­gry that Hol­ly­wood would cre­ate an ad­ven­ture out of sol­diers do­ing their of­ten te­dious and dan­ger­ous duty of at­tempt­ing to es­cape.

“He felt the movie was a glam­or­iza­tion of the tedium and the drab­ness of the ac­tu­al­ity,” Gor­don Royle said.

“The idea that they got on a mo­tor­bike and soared over a barbed wire fence is far from the re­al­ity which was dark­ness and cold and terror,” he said.

Only three of the es­capees — two Nor­we­gians and a Dane — made it home. Fifty oth­ers, from 12 na­tions, were shot dead when caught. A fur­ther 23 were sent back to the Stalag or to other camps but sur­vived the war.

Royle said his con­tri­bu­tion to the es­cape op­er­a­tion was to dis­trib­ute dirt ex­ca­vated from the 110-me­ter (360-foot) tun­nel around the camp grounds. This was done by sur­rep­ti­tiously re­leas­ing the soil down his trouser legs in ar­eas where the ground color vaguely matched. He spent two days hid­ing in a snow cov­ered for­est be­fore he was re­cap­tured.

Flight Lt. Royle was a pi­lot in the Royal Air Force when he was shot down over France on May 17, 1940, and was cap­tured. His two days in the freez­ing for­est in 1944 were his only taste of free­dom un­til he was lib­er­ated by Bri­tish troops from the Mar­lag und Mi­lag Nord prison camp in Ger­many on May 2, 1945.


In this June 23 photo pro­vided by Gor­don Royle, his fa­ther Paul Royle poses for a photo hold­ing a pic­ture of him­self in uni­form dur­ing World War ll, in Perth, Aus­tralia.

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