Flight Lieutenant Paul Royle, who has died at the age of 101, was an Australian pilot who took part in the mass break-out from a German prisoner of war camp that was immortalised in the film The Great Escape. His death leaves only one survivor of the 76 men who escaped from Stalag Luft III, near Sagan, 100 miles from Berlin, 94-year-old Squadron Leader Dick Churchill.
Royle revealed last year on the 70th anniversary of the tunnel escape in March 1944 that he was no fan of Hollywood’s interpretation of the story, a work of artistic licence that he loathed. “The movie I disliked intensely because there were no motorbikes ... and the Americans weren’t there,” he said, referring to Steve McQueen’s dramatic attempt to outrun the Germans on a motorcycle. Royle’s son Gordon 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 glamorisation of the tedium and the drabness of the actuality. 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.” Only three of the escapees, two Norwegians and a Dane, made it home, while 50 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.
The plan took shape in spring 1943 when Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, who had been a lawyer in civilian life, hatched a strategy for a major escape. Bushell, who came to be known as “Big X”, created an escape committee. Around 600 prisoners helped dig three tunnels, “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”.
Royle said his contribution to the escape operation was to distribute soil excavated from the tunnels by surreptitiously releasing the soil down his trouser legs in areas where the ground colour vaguely matched. He spent two days hiding in a snow-covered forest before he was recaptured.
Royle was a pilot in the Royal Air Force when he was shot down over France after being attacked by Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters while on a reconnaissance mission on 17 May 1940. After a year in Stalag Luft I in Western Pomerania, near the Baltic, he was transferred to Stalag Luft III.
On the night of 24 March 1944 he was No 57 in the queue of war prisoners waiting to escape. He teamed up with Flight Lieutenant Edgar Humphreys, who was next in line. After being pulled through the tunnel on a trolley and climbing the exit ladder Royle and Humphreys ran for the cover of pine trees and then set off in the direction of Switzerland, evading capture for two nights and crossing the Berlin-Breslau autobahn before they were arrested by home guard as they entered a village.
The two men were interrogated by the Gestapo in Görlitz and Royle was returned to solitary confinement in Stalag Luft III, but Humphreys was one of the 50 escapers who were victims of the Stalag Luft III murders, having been selected for execution by SS-Gruppenführer Arthur Nebe on the orders of Adolf Hitler. Royle’s 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 camp on 2 May 1945.
Born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1914, Royle left school at 14 and worked with his engineer father surveying airfields in Australia’s sparsely populated and remote northwest Outback, and in 1936 enrolled in the Western Australian School of Mines to become a mine surveyor. He was recruited during a visit to Australia by a Royal Air Force recruitment team and moved to Britain in February 1939 to train as a pilot officer.
Gordon Royle said he had no idea his father had been involved in “The Great Escape” until he read his name in a book about the famous break-out in the mid-1970s. “He was always looking forward. He never looked back. He wanted to focus on what was coming, not what had been.”
The son said he found newspaper clipping and obituaries related to the escape among his father’s belongings. “He maintained an interest but hadn’t let it define him as a person,” Gordon Royle said.
After the war Royle worked in mining and engineering until he retired to Perth in 1980. The survivors had founded an informal 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 Royle’s belongings showed that he and Churchill, who lives in Devon, were the last survivors. It was thought that Churchill, who was one of the escapees rounded up by the SS and Gestapo, was not shot along with the others because the Germans believed he may have been related to Winston Churchill.
Royle is survived by his second wife and their two children, as well as three children from his first marriage. He had eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Paul Gordon Royle, soldier, miner and engineer: born Perth, Western Australia 17 January 1914; married firstly (three children), secondly (two children); died Perth 23 August 2015.Reuse content