Maybe it’s in a museum now, but for a while Brian Floody’s father kept an old boot heel in the house, its underside carved by razor blade to mimic a Nazi rubber stamp.
Maybe it once passed through the fingers of Jens Müller, a Norwegian pilot who trained in Canada, or Robert Buckham, a Toronto pilot who once studied painting at the AGO.
Both men were still in their twenties when they were shot down, captured at the Stalag Luft III prison camp, and made into expert forgers in the long lead-up to the Great Escape of March 24 and 25, 1944.
“Now we’re finally getting into a generation when it’s ancient history,” said Brian, speaking from his home in the Beach last week.
“Two years ago, I met a young American couple teaching in China, and he’d never heard of The Great Escape.”
For people who know the Great Escape story, even the Hollywood version, Brian’s father Wally Floody plays a starring role.
He is known as the “Tunnel King,” chief architect of some 50 escape tunnels, including the big one – ‘Harry,’ a 360-foot long tunnel dug in secret below 30 feet of sand.
From prison, Floody and hundreds of others conspired to make scoops, lamps, even a working bellows and wood railway to get the tunnel made, while others forged documents and disguises for the break-out, or kept watch on their Luftwaffe guards.
Much later, long after the massive break-out, the three “home runs,” and the terrible executions, Wally Floody and his wife Betty were raising two teenage boys in the Beach when he was called back to his amazing underground feat. He agreed to be a technical consultant on John Sturges’ 1963 film version of the story, and after exploring the set in Munich, he quickly told set designers their tunnel felt too wide.
As critical as he is of Sturges’ The Great Escape, especially the made-up motorcycle chase Steve McQueen insisted on for an ending, journalist Ted Barris said it does get a lot right, including the claustrophobia of the tunnels.
But Barris is the author of a recently published book, The Great Escape: A Canadian Story, which corrects one of the film’s major omissions – the deep involvement of Canadians.
“The shoulder patches are American and British, and should have been Canadian,” Barris said.
At its peak, about 2,000 Commonwealth air servicemen were imprisoned in the North Compound of Stalag Luft III, just outside what is today Żagań, Poland. About a third were Canadian, including several key members of “X” Organization, such as Wally Floody.
Canada played an outsized role in the Allied air force. When war broke out in September 1939, Churchill quickly decided that all Commonwealth air forces should train to a common standard. Prime Mackenzie-King agreed, and insisted that Canada host the massive training program for British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand airmen, from pilots to wireless operators and flight engineers.
“We trained a quarter million men here,” Barris said.
As the air war intensified, more and more Allied air officers were shot down and captured. Many were Canadian or, like Jens Müller, they trained in Canada and had ties here.
While Barris was researching his book, he met another Canadian writer, Tyler Trafford, doing the same thing.
But Trafford’s story was different, more personal.
Nearing her final days, Trafford’s mother gave him a box of letters she had kept secret – love letters from Jens Muller. They had met in Canada, planned to marry after the war, and wrote each other throughout Müller’s imprisonment at Stalag Luft III.
Müller was one of the three who got away – he broke out in the Great Escape and made his way back to Britain through neutral Sweden. He finally made it back to Montreal, to Trafford’s mother, only to find her parents refused the marriage.
“I’ll be long gone and new stories will still be coming out,” said Barris.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Growing up in the Beach, Brian said lots of his family friends were ex-POWs.
George Harsh, who oversaw security for the tunnelers in Stalag Luft III, is his godfather. While hitchhiking across Europe at 17, he spent a memorable couple of weeks crashing at the Monte Carlo villa of Harry “Wings” Day, another lead escape organizer.
“When we were kids, they had reunions all the time,” he said.
Especially in the 1950s and 1960s, the ex-POW Association that his father helped found was very tight, he said.
But at that time, they rarely shared many stories about the war.
“None of them talked about it much,” Brian said. “They would tell funny stories. Almost all the difficult stuff I knew from my mother, who of course my father confided in.”
Listening to interviews with Wally Floody, Barris said it’s clear that the 50 – the men who were recaptured by the Gestapo and executed – weighed heavily on him and the others who survived.
“You know, I think Ted’s book and the original Great Escape were more to the point,” he said, referring to ex-POW Paul Brickhill’s 1950 book, which Sturges’ film is based on.
“I mean, they were in shock, all those that survived, when so many of them were killed.”
This week, Ted Barris will be in Żagań, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the escape attempt at the former site of Stalag Luft III.
There is a memorial there to the 50 recaptured air officers that Hitler ordered shot on the false pretext that they were trying to run away – war crimes that were later prosecuted at Nuremberg.
When news of the murders reached those who were back in camp, a memorial service was held on-site. Some members of the Luftwaffe, or German air force, expressed their sympathy to the prisoners they were guarding.
Barris said it’s unlikely many of the prisoners involved in the Great Escape anticipated Hitler’s execution order, though some have said there were signs in the fall of 1943 when the Gestapo got involved after an earlier attempt at a major tunnel break-out, code-named ‘Tom,’ was discovered.
Until that point, Barris said the prisoners and their Luftwaffe guards were engaged in a kind of cat-and-mouse game. Officers who attempted to escape were punished, not killed.
“I think there was grudging respect for each other because each side was air force,” he said.
“But that ended when the Gestapo came after ‘Tom.’”
Readers looking for a bigger lesson in the history of the Great Escape will find one in the animosity that developed between the Gestapo police force of Nazi Germany and its own armed forces, he said.
“That kind of treachery really reflects on the nature of the regime that Hitler and his minions fostered.”
Ted Barris will give a special presentation before a screening of The Great Escape starting at 11 a.m. on April 6 at the Fox Theatre. Admission is $5, or free with a purchase of the book from The Great Escape Bookstore at 957 Kingston Road.
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Hello, my name is Drew Carnwath and I am a documentary filmmaker who is very interested in your photo of Sgt Deans and General Biber in front of camp roll call.
I am looking to use these images for a documentary about Canadian pilots from World War II, and I’m hoping to track down the rights – if they exist – and / or license fee. Hoping you can be of help! I can be reached at
Many thanks! Drew
I have a type-written letter from Wally Floody that he sent me when I was 12, I think…1968. I had read the Paul Brickhill book, “The Great Escape” and saw the movie. I wrote Wally Floody a letter in which I asked him several questions about his POW experiences at Stalag Luft 3. He personally signed it. He was a true Canadian war hero.
I’m thinking Brian Floody would be interested in seeing this. Don’t know his whereabouts, though. Help?
I am a teacher at Northern Secondary School where Wally Floody attended during the 30’s. I filed for some of his records from his personnel file to be sent to us here because we understood that our first principal had written a letter of recommendation to the RCAF -and this letter was in fact in his file! I got a copy sent to my school. I have also put together a working RC replica of his spitfire that he flew when he was shot down in October 1941 and I am thinking of putting together a presentation for my school-either for students in grade 10 history classes or school-wide maybe in the fall close to remembrance day. Any other artifacts relating to Mr. Floody would be very interesting – I’d love to see that letter of yours! Also obviously I need to reach out to Brian Floody or Mr. Barris!
Thanks for any help or information!
My e-mail is: email@example.com
Hi Brian Floody,
My husband and I were fortunate enough to speak with your dad and mom on a Wardair flight from England in 1989 when they were returning from the annual reunion for pilots with their Caterpillar pins that was held that year in Manchester. The flight was amazing with all these incredible War Hero’s. The movie The Great Escape is one of our favourite movies and to meet the man, your dad who engineered the tunnel was such an honour. As we know many things in life are not a Dress Rehearsal so I just introduced myself saying
how honoured I was to meet him and your mom who said oh sit down dear we will tell you all about it and they did including his being asked to consult for the movie and meeting all the actors. Lol your mom did comment on how handsome and nice James Garner was and not so much Steve McQueen. It was a lovely conversation with your dad even having I believe it was a vodka or gin and commenting how when you are on oxygen you never get a hangover. We took some video of both your parents during this conversation that we will always treasure. If you ever have another event like the one in May 2021 we would love to attend. I know you are very proud of your dad and his amazing contributions in WW11. He is a true Canadian Treasure !
Debra and Roman Mec