Wartime heroism: The real hero of the Great Escape

When Eric Foster, who died at the weekend at the age of 102, found himself in a German prisoner-of-war camp, he not only escaped but gave birth to a movie legend
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Had it not been for the Second World War, Eric Foster's life story would have held little interest for Hollywood's film-makers. A trained doctor of trichology approaching early middle age, he spent his days curing the hair loss and scalp problems of the patients at his London clinic.

With the outbreak of hostilities, like many other single men, Dr Foster, 36, did the patriotic thing and volunteered for the Royal Air Force. During the following years, his life was to be transformed from one of respectable middle-class anonymity into a thunderous adventure story that was to provide one of the greatest actors of his generation with perhaps his most enduring screen role.

Mr Foster, who died at the age of 102 at the weekend, was the inspiration for Steve McQueen's character, Captain Virgil Hilts, otherwise known as the Cooler King, in John Sturges' classic 1963 wartime film The Great Escape. Mr Foster escaped no less than seven times from German prisoner-of-war camps. But, although his relentless thirst for liberty inspired the Hilts character, unlike the fictional American who was recaptured amid a hail of bullets as he attempted a motorbike jump to freedom over the Swiss border, the British airman eschewed two wheels.

He achieved his goal by faking what was referred to then as "madness". Mr Foster convinced the authorities at Stalag Luft III, a Luftwaffe-operated camp for downed Allied aircrews, that he had lost his mind and was transferred back to Britain. According to his closest friend, Mike Beresford, with whom he served on Bishop's Cleeve parish council in Gloucestershire for more than 25 years after the war, he replicated the symptoms of mental illness by studying medical textbooks in the Stalag's library.

On his return to Britain, he hit an unexpected problem. "He was very glad indeed to be back home," said Mr Beresford, who discovered his friend dead in the bath at his bungalow home in the Gloucestershire village on Sunday. "But what really upset him was the reception he received. He was immediately put in a lunatic asylum because of the diagnosis - by the German authorities - that he was mad!

"It was then up to him to prove that he was quite sane, which he did, convincing them he had only done this in order to escape." On his release, he was promoted to the rank of squadron-leader.

Mr Foster was a flight-lieutenant with 38 Bomber Squadron when he was shot down over occupied Europe on 14 June 1940. He was the only survivor from the eight-strong crew. As he baled out of the stricken aircraft, his parachute failed to open properly, and he suffered two broken legs in his fall. Captured by the Germans, he was taken eastwards to a camp on the Polish border at Homark.

It was a critical stage in the war. Paris had just fallen to the Nazis and the British Expeditionary Force had just completed its ignominious withdrawal from Dunkirk. Desperate to rejoin the war effort, Flight Lieutenant Foster staged his first crude escape bid. Despite still convalescing from the injuries sustained during his shooting down, he shinned down a fire escape but was soon recaptured. From there he was transferred to Spangenberg Castle, an Offizierslager, or officers' prison, east of Kessel, designated Oflag IXA/H. The castle had been housing prisoners since 1870 and was soon pressed into war service by the Nazis.

Despite its fairytale appearance - the medieval fortress was surrounded by a moat and boasted imposing ramparts and cobbled courtyards - conditions were harsh. Officers shared a long dormitory equipped with little more than a long oak table. They bedded down for the night on mattresses stuffed with straw.

Spangenberg was used as a staging post for inmates bound for Colditz, where many of them were shot. This time the escape effort was more sophisticated. Having managed to steal a uniform belonging to a member of the Hitler Youth, Mr Foster managed to bluff his way out of the castle and even to board a train bound for the Swiss border. There, his true identity was uncovered and after a dramatic chase, he was recaptured.

Mr Foster found himself back in the Oflag, this time at Schubin in Poland. The journey east was notoriously hard. Prisoners were crowded into railway trucks, with only bread and water to sustain them on journeys that could last several days. Dysentery was rife and conditions were appalling. Many British officers died in Schubin, which made escape a matter of survival as well as honour. The former hair specialist now found himself digging tunnels - a mammoth feat of labour which lasted eight months, only to end in failure when the complex system of burrowing was uncovered by German guards.

In 1942, the Germans opened Stalag Luft III to cope with the escalating number of Allied prisoners of war - a total of 200,000 were captured in occupied Europe during the conflict, nearly a fifth of whom died while in captivity. The Germans were convinced that their new camp would be escape-proof - especially from tunnelling.

Barracks were raised off the ground and the camp was sited on bright yellow, sandy subsoil that was easily detected on the clothes of diggers. In a final deterrent, seismographic microphones were placed around the perimeter fence to pick up the sound of any burrowing.

Stalag Luft III was to be the inspiration for The Great Escape, inmate Paul Brickhill's novel about life as a PoW. (Eric William's The Wooden Horse detailed another escape attempt and also spawned a classic film.) By 1943 up to 30 escape attempts had been made - all failures.

In what became known as the Great Escape, British PoWs made three tunnels - Tom, Dick and Harry - culminating in an escape hole which came out just short of the forest. After more than a year of preparation, on a moonless night in March 1944, 76 men made it through the tunnel. The 77th was shot as he emerged into the dawn by a German guard. Only three of the escapees made it to safety, the rest were recaptured.

Fifty were shot, the remaining 23 - on the orders of Himmler - were spared and sent to other camps. Mr Foster was not part of the ill-fated mass escape, concentrating his efforts on convincing the camp authorities that he was mentally unfit to be held. He chronicled his exploits in his autobiography Life Hangs by a Silken Thread, which was published in 1992. The book, now out of print, also tells the story of meetings with Churchill, the formation of his own flying school and the time he built his own plane inside a church crypt in Chelsea and flew it to Heston, west London.

Before 1939, the young trichologist had successfully scaled the Eiger before falling down a crevasse to lay undiscovered for a day after suffering several broken ribs. After the war he put his love of the mountains to good use. Following demobilisation, he met and married his French-born wife Mignonne in London. The newlyweds moved to the West Country, establishing a successful travel agency specialising in alpine holidays.

Mr Foster devoted his life to local politics, becoming chairman of the Bishop's Cleave parish council - a post he was to hold at the age of 100, making him the oldest elected politician in Britain. According to his friend, Mr Beresford, he regarded his greatest achievements as those while a councillor. He helped secure a playing field for the local youth and in 1956 secured the first village hall, a tithe barn being sold off by the Church.

In later years the couple, who had no children, moved to Almeria in Spain but Mignonne died of food poisoning in 1983. Mr Foster was devastated by her death and eventually returned to Britain in 1998, at the age of 95, driving himself all the way in his car. He returned to local politics, once again becoming parish chairman. He became ill late last year and was in and out of hospital after collapsing at his home in November.

The RAF yesterday paid tribute to their late hero. "We are deeply saddened by the loss of one of the many great RAF heroes who fought bravely against Nazi tyranny," said a spokesman. A Royal Air Force ensign, complete with the names of the crewmates who died when his plane was shot down in 1940, will be placed on his coffin at his funeral.

Until his death, he retained his sense of mischief. Mr Beresford recalls how he used his wartime ruse to tease people. "He was given a certificate by the War Office confirming he was not insane. He used to tell anyone who argued with him, 'I can prove I'm not mad - can you?'"