Wing Commander Ken Rees: Airman and last surviving member of the team that dug Harry in what became known as The Great Escape

When the tunnel was discovered he was next man out; had he emerged he would have been shot

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Ken Rees is thought to have been the last man alive of the airmen who dug “Harry”, the 330-foot tunnel used in the bid for freedom from Stalag Luft III at Sagan in Poland on the night of 24 March 1944 that became known as “The Great Escape”.

But the stocky Welshman cheated death in the darkness by reversing as fast as he could back all the way he had come, from the exit 10 feet short of the camp’s surrounding pine forest, to the trapdoor where the tunnel began, hidden under a stove in prison hut No 104.

He was to have been the next one out, following the last of the 76 who did make it before the German sentries on the camp’s perimeter noticed. Had he emerged, he would have been shot. As it was, on climbing out at the other end he found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. It trembled in the hand of the guard – or “goon” – they all hated most, the one they nicknamed “Rubberneck”. But the camp commandant, Friedrich von Lindeiner, intervened, and Rees was sent instead to solitary confinement – the “cooler”.  

There he had time to ponder the night of stomach-churning tension that had begun in earnest at 10pm with the intention of liberating 200 of the 600 air force officers of different nationalities incarcerated at Sagan who had taken part in the plan masterminded by the South African-born Roger Bushell, known as “Big X”.

They had drawn lots to be the ones privileged to cling to the trolleys trundling through the 2ft-high tunnel propped up by bed-boards, right to the far end – excavated at last only after many months – and run for it. Rees and his friend Joe Noble, though unlucky, were detailed on Bushell’s instructions as experienced diggers to be in the tunnel as “dispatchers”.

Rees explained: “We were chosen to go down when 50 prisoners had already left, pull a further 25 or so through to the exit shaft on the trolleys, and then get away ourselves.” By that time other dispatchers would have taken their place.

But already delayed by an Allied bombing raid that had cut out the lamps in the tunnel, and then by falls of the tunnel’s sand walls, the escape managers decided to shut the tunnel at 5am. “At about 4.45 we pulled our reliefs through and started the last leg... to the exit,” Rees recalled. “As we got close we heard a shout and then a shot. We knew immediately that the tunnel had been discovered.”

The two men who had been waiting at the bottom of the exit shaft scrabbled back past them, and Rees and Noble followed. Rees was the last man left inside “Harry”, heart thumping in case a guard should shoot an unavoidable bullet down the narrow space. “It’s ironic that as I was the last retreating I actually tried to collapse the tunnel by kicking out the shoring boards behind me, but failed,” he reflected.

Those boards and that space had kept him sane after a year and a half spent in the prison camps of Hitler’s Reich. He would dig for six hours between morning and evening roll-call, and soon abandoned his digging-gear – long-johns and a vest kept in the tunnel, which grew wet and began to stink – instead working naked. Sagan’s diggers used table-knives and pieces of gramophone discs.

Rees learned, while released from his cramped solitary cell to relieve himself – the only time a shout could be exchanged with the other prisoners – that most of the 76 escapers had  been caught, and that 50 had been shot on Hitler’s orders. He would later discover that  only three got home.

A farmer’s son who, despite a rebellious nature, had excelled at maths at Ruabon Grammar School, and who had wangled his way into the RAF by faking his age, Rees had been a prisoner since October 1942, six months and 56 missions after being gazetted as a Temporary Flight Sergeant in March that year. A mission with 150 Sqn laying mines as pilot of Wellington Mk III BK 309-N over Norway, for which he had been obliged to interrupt his honeymoon, ended in a crash-landing in a lake, hit by flak. He escaped only because in the rush to scramble he had borrowed another flier’s boots.  The boots stayed trapped in the fuselage, but being a bigger size than his own allowed him to wriggle free.

Many years later he was to return to the site for the retrieval and burial of his tail-gunner’s remains with full military honours. His navigator survived and after interrogation joined him at Sagan.

Rees’s young wife Mary, whom he had met as a colleague while working at Gorringes, the London department store, was not to learn for nearly a month that he was still alive. Only after three weeks did a postcard arrive, telling the family that German radio had included him in a list of prisoners of war. The couple had fallen in love after a tiff during a stroll past Buckingham Palace, when she pulled his pipe out of his mouth and threw it into the royal gardens. 

They next saw one another only after Rees had endured a forced starvation march westwards, from which he was liberated by the Allies less than a week before VE Day in May 1945. They had a son and a daughter.

He continued his career in the RAF, serving at Suez, in Cyprus, and in Kenya. In the early 1950s he also captained the London Welsh Rugby Club. At the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 he was in command of a V-bomber squadron with orders to “nuke targets in the Soviet Union if the balloon went up,” as one commentator put it. His squadron of Valiants, N 148, based at Marham, Norfolk, took part in a bombing contest against US rivals, and won. He rose to command RAF Gan in the Maldives before retiring in the rank of Wing Commander in 1968. 

He later ran a post-office at Bangor-on-Dee, Wrexham, north Wales, and, though he wrote a memoir, Lie in the Dark And Listen, published in 2004, he was nonplussed by the adulation that followed from the 1963 film The Great Escape. In particular many compared Rees in personality and looks to Hilts, “the Cooler King”, the maverick character played by Steve McQueen, something Rees laughed at. McQueen was, he would point out, a 6ft American – “and me a Welshman of about 4ft 3in who can’t ride a motorbike.”

Henry Kenneth Rees, aviator and tunnel engineer: born Wrexham 2 February 1921; married 1942 Mary (died 2012; one daughter, one son); died Wrexham 30 August 2014.