The constant gardener: 'Great Escape' hero buried in Paisley

Alex Lees played a pivotal role in a legendary war-time prison break. Terri Judd tells his story
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The Independent Online

Shivering in the snow outside his hut, Alex Lees waited to be shot. It was 1944, the German guards had discovered the audacious plot that would one day be immortalised in The Great Escape and his role appeared to have sealed his death warrant.

But, while 50 of his fellow plotters were executed, after one of the most valiant but tragic escape attempts of the war, the young Royal Army Service Corps driver survived. He was eventually freed, returned home to bring up a young family, see four grandchildren born and die peacefully in his sleep at the age of 97.

Yesterday Mr Lees, one of the last survivors of the notorious Stalag Luft III, was buried. A standard bearer from the Royal Army Service Corps association led his coffin into a packed Woodside Crematorium in Paisley while the theme tune to The Great Escape played. It was a fitting send-off for a modest pensioner who will forever be immortalised, not only in military, but cinematic history.

Few fans of the 1963 Hollywood classic could forget the painstaking attempts made to smuggle earth from the tunnels under the watchful eyes of the guards. That was Mr Lees role in the largest allied escape attempt from a German PoW camp during the War.

He later recalled: "When I went to the camp, I was given a job looking after a garden outside my hut. The Germans knew tunnels had been excavated at other camps, so we had to be very careful in disposing of the sand.

"There was very little soil, as the subsoil in the tunnels was mainly sand. It was a very different colour to the soil in the garden, which meant we had to disguise it. Being in charge of the garden, I was able to dig a trench and disguise the sand by scattering it in the bottom so the guards couldn't see it and become suspicious."

Using empty Red Cross boxes he smuggled the earth from hut number 104 underneath which teams of officers worked on the tunnel to the small plot where he grew radishes, cress and tomatoes. Later the men used their longjohns to scatter the earth in scenes famously re-enacted in the film.

"The German guards would pass by and talk to me about my tomatoes, not realising that they were looking at dirt from tunnels being dug right below them," Mr Lees explained.

Born in Manchester, he was 29 when he reported for duty with the Royal Army Service Corps but within ten months – in June 1941 – he was captured on the Greek island of Crete. After being incarcerated in various camps, he arrived at Stalag Luft III, a prison for airmen in occupied Poland too late to be considered for the daring escape plan. Instead, he pitched in to help with the construction of the three tunnels – Tom, Dick and Harry – 33ft below grounds.

The claustrophobic tunnels were dug with tools fashioned from old tin cans and shored up with pieces of wood scavenged from camp beds and old furniture. While the first tunnel was discovered and the second abandoned, the latter was eventually completed after almost a year. By the night of the 24th March 1944 200 men were ready to make a bid for freedom.

The escape had an inauspicious start when they discovered that Harry fell 30ft short of the woods surrounding the camp. It was an error that would lead to its early discovery.

Working as a decoy for one of the escapees, Flight Lieutenant Thompson, Mr Lees went to sleep in his bunk but the charade was discovered.

He recalled: "About 10pm the first of the escapees were out of the tunnel and in the nearby woods dodging the searchlights. We were all on edge wondering how things were going. About 5am pandemonium broke out, the break had been discovered.

"Armed guards started checking who was missing or covering up for someone. One burst into the room I identified myself as "Thompson" but as I did not resemble Mr Thompson I was bundled out into the snow not knowing if I was going to be shot or allowed to live."

Seventy-six managed to flee before the plot was uncovered. Only three of the escapees made it to freedom. Of the 73 recaptured, 50 were executed.

"We were pleased so many got out, but then word came back that 50 had been murdered. That cast a different light on it," Mr Lees recalled.

In 1945, Stalag Luft III was evacuated because of the Russian advance from the east and the men were marched to a second camp where they were later liberated a few days before VE day. Mr Lees returned to Glasgow, married Isobel in 1946 and had a son, Colin, and a daughter, Patricia.

Widowed, he spent his last four years at a home for ex-service personnel. To his glee two years ago a fellow survivor of Stalag Luft III – Jack Harrison – moved into the room opposite. Mr Harrison, 96, an RAF pilot was runner for the leader of the escape committee Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, and the pair become close friends again.