George Harsh and the Great Escape

With each passing Remembrance Day there are fewer Second World War veterans around to share their memories of courage, sacrifice and survival. A recent Star movie review suggested that “filmmakers may finally be running out of screen-worthy stories to tell from the conflict.”

Last year the Fox held a special showing of The Great Escape (1963) in honour of the 70th anniversary of the March 1944 mass breakout from Stalag Luft 111. A full house came out to hear Royal Canadian Air Force veterans speak, as well as historian Ted Barris, author of The Great Escape: A Canadian Story. Barris wrote in my copy, “Now you have the true story to go with the Hollywood myth.”

The book reminds us of the many RCAF flyers involved in the famous event, including two prominent members of the escape committee, long-time Beacher Wally Floody (the real “Tunnel King” played by Charles Bronson) and security boss George Harsh. Flying Officer Floody was a spitfire pilot shot down in October 1941. Harsh was a tail-gunner who offered to take another man’s place on a bombing run in 1942. Their Halifax bomber was hit by flak. Harsh was badly wounded, bailed out over Germany and was taken prisoner. It wasn’t the first or last time Harsh would face death.

The classic 1963 film was loosely based on the 1950 best-selling book by Paul Brickhill with an introduction by George Harsh, who concluded, “Men working together can accomplish anything.”

George Harsh
George Harsh

Floody spent almost two years as a technical advisor on the movie. The details of camp life were right, but much of the action was fictionalized. As Ted Barris said, “There’s no loyalty to fact, only loyalty to entertainment.”

Stalag Luft 111 was the prisoner-of-war camp for Allied flying officers. Floody put Harsh in charge of security for the tunnel escape, saying. “You’re probably the only man in the world who got a job because he was an ex-convict.”

American-born Harsh was used to living one day at a time. He wasn’t just an ex-con, he was a convicted murderer. Harsh was an 18 year-old college student when he shot and killed a store-clerk in Atlanta, Georgia in 1928.

After his death sentence was commuted Harsh spent 12 years on a chain gang and knifed another prisoner in a fight over a cake of soap. Harsh was pardoned after performing an emergency appendectomy to save a man’s life. On his release Harsh came north to Montreal and joined the RCAF, looking for a clean slate: “I was trying to counterbalance my entire past … I was a man trying to prove something.”

Just weeks before the escape attempt the Germans moved “suspects” Floody and Harsh to another camp. The transfer may have saved their lives. Fifty of the escaping Commonwealth air officers were executed by the Gestapo, including six Canadians.

Near the end of the war Floody and Harsh relied on each other to survive a desperate forced march across Germany in the face of the advancing Soviet army. Harsh told his life story in his 1971 memoir Lonesome Road, but had difficulty adjusting to civilian life.

At the Fox screening I asked Wally’s son Brian about Harsh. Brian told me that Harsh was his godfather and came to stay with the Floody family in the 1970s when they lived in the Birch Cliff area after moving there from Queen and Fallingbrook.

Harsh died in Sunnybrook Hospital in 1980 and Wally Floody wrote his obituary. I wonder if Harsh ever found peace or any redemption of his troubled soul.

The RCAF flyers did not see themselves as heroes, but they never gave up and we should never forget their courage. A brotherhood of talented officers, including Wally Floody and George Harsh, were key contributors to the daring effort that will go down in history as “The Great Escape.”


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11 comments

My grandfather was John Agrell who shared a room with George. My grandfather got them sling into solitary for trying to escape dressed as Germans!

Dear Kate
I love the connection that you have with George Harsh. I live in Pocklington in England and it is to this little market town that George’s CRAF squadron was posted during WW2. I am fascinated by the man. I have written an article about the man.
His life was an incredible roller-coaster. Kindest regards. Anthony

I literally just saw this comment as with the covid lockdown and VE day my children are writting about their great grandfather. He is mentioned in the book “lonesome rd” and I have copies of the letters.

Dear Kate. I hope that you are well. Your grandfather, Mr John Agrell, was a hero I am sure. If you send me your email address to anthonyj.cutts@live.co.uk then I will email you an article that I have written about Mr George Rutherford Harsh and after whom (at my request) a street has been named in this little market town of Pocklington in East Yorkshire in England, namely “Harsh Drive”, and which had an RAF Bomber Command Centre (Number 4) during WW2. Mr Harsh’s RCAF 405 squadron was posted here. It was from here that he went on his last bombing mission to Germany, prior to being shot-down and spending the rest of the time in Stalag Luft III. Interestingly, one of the 50 escapees who was shot and killed following “The Great Escape”, namely F/L James Chrystall Wernham (RCAF) also last flew from Pocklington as apart of the RCAF 405 squadron. I have also written an article about him. Kindest regards. Anthony J Cutts (Lawyer)

One should read David Beasley’s book, “Without Mercy,” [St. Martin’s Press, 2014] which looks at the justice system in Georgia and how George Harsh managed to escape the electric chair. Because of this book I am now reading “Lonesome Road,” George Harsh’s biography. Thank you for your informative article on Mr. Harsh and the Great Escape.

I have worshiped the movie, “The Great Escape”, since I was a little kid……What a collection of stars, and future stars, both TV and movies, (in that movie), and the real story , ” THE BOOK”, by Paul Brickhill was just as compelling……I knew a downed USAF officer, Charles (Chuck ?), who was the athletic director at Rockford College in Rockford, IL, USA, when I was a student there in the late 1970’s. Chuck was shot down during the war , and sent to Stalag Luft 111 , but he arrived after, ” The Great Escape” happened….

Mr. Fletcher,
A. Fine article, but I find it annoying that you use the Term “Stala Lutft 111”, that’s one hundred and eleven. The term should be written as “III” (3). Ya know, Roman numerals and stuff.

Hi
My name is Antonia Grahamsdaughter. My father flew in the RCAF (Squadron 181) and was shot down in February. 1945 over Gelsenkirchen. He was on the run for four days but was later captured by the Gestapo. He was later interned in Stalag III. His prisoner number was 136023. He was released later in May 1945.

I find George Harsh a fascinating character. I used to work and was close friends with a lady whose father was shot down and ended up in Stalag Luft III. He went to see the 1950 film “The Wooden Horse” based on the escape from Stalag Luft III of Eric Williams, Michael Codner, and Oliver Philpot (who was a squadron mate of his and a fellow Canadian in the RAF). He got a shock when he recognized some of the extras as men who had been in the camp with him.

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