Vet recalls the night of the Great Escape

Former RCAF gunner Albert Wallace reflects on his survival from a German POW camp during the Second World War. He spoke during a Remembrance Day event at Centennial College. Photo - Matthew Wocks. (AL_WALLACE_E)

Nearly 66 years after he was liberated at the end of the Second World War, Albert Wallace can still remember the night of the Great Escape.

“I didn’t sleep that night, waiting to see what was going to happen,” he said.

During a Remembrance Day observance at the East York campus of Centennial College, former RCAF gunner Wallace recounted being shot down in October of 1942. One of only five who survived the crash of the Allied bomber aircraft, he said he was captured by the Germans and taken to a prisoner-of-war compound in Poland. Not long after his arrival at Stalag Luft III, Wallace was assigned to a POW hut where prisoners began digging the famous escape tunnel, code-named “Harry.”

By the time the Great Escape took place (March 24, 1944), Wallace had been transferred to another hut, but he remembered the night the great escape took place.

“The night 76 men went out, I was lying in my bunk,” Wallace said, “Around five in the morning I heard a gunshot and I knew then they had discovered the tunnel… and then all hell broke loose.”

Once the Germans had discovered the tunnel, they surrounded the hut and started marching men out of the tunnel.

“They mounted machine guns in front of the hut,” Wallace said. “The troops all had their steel helmets on and they were all armed with rifles… A lot of them they stripped down to their underwear standing in the snow.”

Wallace remained in the prison camp until Jan. 5, 1945, when the Germans forced the thousands of POWs to march westward from the camp. Wallace’s group of prisoners walked 80-90 kilometres in five days. They were finally liberated on May 4, 1945, a few days before VE-Day.

Wallace’s war experiences have stayed with him. He remembers the men who lost their lives and the shot that rang out to end the Great Escape.

“I’m just a lucky survivor,” Wallace said.