The Great Escape: A Canadian Story

The Great Escape: A Canadian Story

Dundurn Press

September 28, 2013

ISBN: 9781771022729

On the night of March 24, 1944, eighty Commonwealth airmen crawled through a 400-foot-long tunnel, code-named “Harry,” and most slipped into the darkness of a pine forest beyond the wire of Stalag Luft III, a German prisoner-of-war compound near Sagan, Poland. The event became known as The Great Escape. The breakout, more than a year in the making, involved about 2,000 POWs and a battle of wits inconceivable for its time. Within days of the escape, however, all but three escapers were recaptured; subsequently, Adolf Hitler ordered fifty of them murdered, cremated, and buried in a remote corner of the same prison compound.

What most casual readers, history buffs, moviegoers, and even some who participated, don’t readily acknowledge is that The Great Escape was in many ways “made-in-Canada.” In The Great Escape: A Canadian Story, bestselling author Ted Barris recounts this nearly mythical escape operation through the voices of those involved, many of whom trained in Canada, served in RCAF bomber and fighter squadrons, were shot down over Europe, imprisoned at Stalag Luft III, and ultimately became co-conspirators in the actual Great Escape.

Based on his original interviews, research, and assembly of memoirs, letters, diaries, and personal photos, Ted Barris reveals that many of the escape’s key players – the tunnel designer, excavators, forgers, scroungers, security and intelligence personnel, custodian of the secret radio, and scores of security “stooges” and sand-dispersal “penguins” – were all Canadians.

The book reads like a Hollywood movie, but is, in fact, the true story!

Praise for Ted Barris’s The Great Escape: A Canadian Story

“A magnificent story … I spent 18 months in Stalag Luft III North Compound [as a POW, but] I was unaware of the vast work that went on. … So many of the interviews are all news to me. [This book] brings it all to life.”  Albert Wallace, Second World War RCAF officer and former POW at the Great Escape camp

“As always, Ted Barris, our best writer on Canadians at war, paints small personal stories on the broad canvas of epic conflict, and in The Great Escape, gives us the real truth on a story we thought we knew. Riveting.” – Linwood Barclay, bestselling author of  Trust Your Eyes

“With new insights and a fresh perspective, Ted Barris takes us deep inside The Great Escape. In fascinating and meticulous detail, he unravels the plotting and planning, completely befuddling German prison guards, that led to one of the most daring real-life dramas in modern history.” Lloyd Robertson, CTV News


  1. Listened to your interview on CBC today Nov 10. Love your stories … especially on the Canadian escape connection. Thank you so much. Your stories are so important for young people too. Will order book for my children.

  2. I have known about the true story for 50 years. Hank Birkland worked at Sheep Creek & left there to join up. I told the Nelson Star reporter about him & he did a article in the paper for this Rememberance.

  3. My father-in-law was Bruce Baker. It seems he was in the camps with you . This is the first I ever heard about written documentation. He never really talked about it. Made jokes about metal body parts. I only wish he would have spoken to any of us about it , but his mind was closed to sharing the “possible anger and pain ” he , you , all went through . THANK YOU FOR ALL YOU HAVE DONE. Am trying to find the book but seems to be out of “stock”. THANKS AGAIN!!
    Sincerely John Luebtow

  4. I have always been fascinated with this story. Although the movie is one of my favorites, I was a proud Canadian when I found out that it was a Canadian story. Our brave airmen who played a major role in WWII, which is often forgotten by other countries. I haven’t read the book, but I will.

  5. I was amazed to see this information made available.
    As usual the American version of history is so slanted to favor them.
    I will get a copy of this book for my edification.
    HISTORY made was history in fact.
    I think this book should be promoted across Canada first and then the USA to show what is fact not a dream bubble.

  6. I`ve always been aware of the Canadian contrution to this factual story. Our parents generation are/were a very valuable during WW II. From the Merchant Marine convoy escorts, the RCAF, RCA & RCN, they all deserve our attention every Nov 11th for WW I, WW II and the Korean War. This story is not Hollywood, it`s a Fact. Lest we forget. Wayne Schoenhals

  7. Your enthusiastic, animated and riveting factual storytelling had me captured with emotion last night at The Roselawn Author Series in Port Colborne. They ran out of books but we were able to pay for one and pick it up next month – even signed. Wonderful!
    Thank-you for your passion. Your students are very fortunate.

  8. Thank you for your response, Jean. Hank’s story – from the very start of my research – has haunted me. I wish I could learn more about him. Was the article published last November (2013)? Best… Ted.

  9. I am very much interested in reading your book, as my Dad was in Stalag Luft 3,from May 1942, until 1944, and helped dig the tunnel. He wasn’t earmarked as one of the guys to participate in the escape, which is probably fortunate for me, because I may well not have been here now ! ! I have letters that he sent, which mention that he had to supplement soil to the garden that they were growing,and am quite sure that the dirt was coming from somewhere underground ! !We did get to see the movie together, and he thought that it was well done. He passed in 1966,but I will read your book, and am looking forward to it. J.W.

  10. That is my Dad in the cover photo – standing – far right – Jim McCague, a well known Dairy Farmer, Honours Graduate from U of Guelph. He attended numerous Trade Missions, was President of Dairy Farmers of Canada and President of the Holstein Friesen Association of Canada, aside from numerous other distinctions, and memberships, plus ran multi farm Dairy Operation. He was on the carpenter squad in the camp and I believe had another important function that isn’t mentioned as well as teaching classes in agriculture & playing bridge. Bob Vanderstok (one of the 3 that escaped successfully) was his room mate in Stalag Luft III. I had the privilege of meeting him in Hawaii. I read Bob’s book, War Pilot of Orange – which features a little about my Dad and a lot about Bob’s life up to during and after the war. Reading about their practice escape (quickie) was amazing news to me. My Dad was among the group that “they were on to” as he said, and transferred to the other camp – Breslau I think, along with Wallie Floody and others whom he maintained his friendship with throughout the years. I recognised other names in your book that he was friends with. Am working on getting my Dad’s journal.

  11. This is a short entry in, “From Prairie Trails to Pavement” a history book of Gull Lake Saskatchewan and area. Fred Peters was a few grades ahead of me when we were in school in the hamlet of Verlo Saskatchewan.

    Frederick Peters (August 31 1924) —-went overseas with the R.C.A.F. from 1943 – 1945. He was a tail gunner with a bomber squadron and had completed 32 bombing missions over Germany when he was shot down over Magdeburg in January, 1945. As his bomber plunged earthward, Fred bailed out and landed in a tree. The fall broke his chest— an injury for which he received no medical attention during his four months as a prisoner of war. He was liberated when the war ended in May. He celebrated his 21st birthday at home, which shows how young he was in the thick of battle.
    A local girl, Muriel (Suz) Ellis became his wife. Three daughters made up his family — Mardell, Cathy and Debbie, along with 4 grandchildren.
    Fred farmed east of Carmichael, until his untimely death in 1968, at the age of 43 years.

  12. My father was a kriegie at Stalag Luft III. His name was Clarence York Hovey from Sept. 29/43 and would love to get a autographed copy of your book in honour of my father… Thank you.

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