The 1963 film, The Great Escape, tells the true story of the 76 airmen who tunneled out of a German POW camp in 1944. Most of the prisoners in the camp were Britons and Canadians. The ‘tunnel king’ Danny Velinski, portrayed in the film by Charles Bronson, is a composite of several men, including two Canadian miners: F/Lt Wally Floody, the real ‘tunnel king’, and Flying Officer Hank Birkland from Spearhill, Manitoba.
Birkland was born in Spearhill, Manitoba, but with work hard to come by, Hank moved to Ontario, and eventually B.C., where he became a coal miner. When war broke out in Europe, Hank joined the RCAF, and was assigned to 72 Squadron in England. While flying his Spitfire over Dunkirk on November 7, 1941 – only three months after joining the Squadron – Hank was shot down and barely managed to skid to a safe stop on the beach. He was sent to Stalag Luft 3 and made fast friends with Wally Floody, a Chatham, Ontario mining engineer.
After several unsuccessful escape attempts from Stalag Luft 3, work on the tunnel began in earnest in 1943. Wally was the obvious choice to head the project. Three separate tunnels – called ‘Tom’ ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’ to maintain secrecy from the German guards – were started under his supervision.
The camp’s location in Sagan, Poland had been chosen for its sandy soil, which posed a serious risk to tunnelers. To protect the diggers, Wally came up with an ingenious design that used the bed boards to shore up the walls. Despite this, cave in’s happened regularly and only one tunnel, Harry, proved suitable for the 95-meter journey to freedom. In March 1944, the guards grew suspicious of a possible escape and transferred several prisoners out of Stalag Luft 3, including Wally Floody.
Work on the tunnel continued. Hank was well known for his stamina as a digger, and worked tirelessly to finish the tunnel. On March 24, 1944, the prisoners made their move. Hank worked as a hauler, pulling carts carrying the prisoners through the tunnel, and after delivering 20 men to freedom, it was Hank’s turn. Of the 250 hopeful escapees, 76 made it out before morning. Hank was recaptured later the same day. In all, only three made it out of Axis-occupied territory to safety. Sadly, on March 31, 1944, Hank was executed, along with 49 other prisoners. In all, six Canadians died as a result of The Great Escape; which remains to this day one of the largest mass POW escapes in history.