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Flying Officer Alfred B. Thompson – Simcoe County’s connection to The Great Escape

June 2024

The history of World War II includes many significant battles and stories of courage and sacrifice. One of the best known stories that took place far from the battlefields of Europe came to be known as The Great Escape.

In March 1944, a mass escape of British and Commonwealth airmen took place at Stalag Luft III, the German Luftwaffe-run prisoner-of-war camp near the town of Sagan in Nazi Germany, now Poland. Conceived by South African-born Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, the daring escape saw seventy-six airmen escape through one of three tunnels that had been hand-dug thirty feet below the ground. Unfortunately, only three of the escapees made it to freedom, with fifty of the re-captured airmen being executed by the Gestapo, under orders from Adolf Hitler, including Bushell.

A book was written in 1950 by Australian writer Paul Brickhill, a former Royal Austrailian Air Force pilot who had taken part in the planning and preparation for the escape. This book was later turned into a popular movie in 1963.

A little known fact is that Simcoe County and the Grey & Simcoe Foresters have a connection to this infamous WWII story: Penetanguishene-born Alfred Burke Thompson. Born on 8 August 1915, the son of a prominent lawyer and politician in Simcoe County, Thompson has the distinction of being the first Canadian taken prisoner during the early weeks of WWII and therefore the longest held prisoner of war.

Thompson’s military career began in April 1933, when at the age of 17, he enlisted in The Simcoe Foresters (which became the Grey & Simcoe Foresters after amalgamating with the Grey Regiment in 1936), originally as a private, but he was commissioned as a Second-Lieutenant in December 1934. Wishing to become an aviator, Thompson resigned his commission on 7 March 1937 and joined the Royal Air Force as a Pilot Officer on a four-year short-service commission, as the RCAF wasn’t accepting pilots at the time.

The day after Great Britain declared war against Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, Thompson flew his first operational, dropping propaganda leaflets on Germany. It was on his second operational mission on the night of 8-9 September, a leaflet-dropping raid to the Ruhr Valley in Germany, that Thompson’s aircraft developed engine trouble and was unable to maintain altitude, forcing all aboard to parachute out of the aircraft. All the airmen were soon captured, a short six-days after the beginning of the war and a day short of Canada’s own declaration of war.

As RAF aircrewmen were somewhat of a novelty for the Germans this early in the war, Luftwaffe Commander-in-Chief, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, personally met the POWs. Göring was surprised to learn that Thompson was Canadian, something that interested him as he was a fan of Canadian hockey. The two conversed about hockey, while propaganda photos and film footage were taken.

Despite being a POW, Thompson did receive two promotions, one to Flying Officer on 21 September 1939, and then to Flight Lieutenant on 21 December 1940, a date which corresponded with the end of his four-year short service commission. His status was changed to “transferred to the Reserve and retained on the Active List.”

On 24 November 1944, five-years into his internment, Thompson was officially transferred from the RAF to the Royal Canadian Air Force in the rank of Flight Lieutenant.

The Great Escape

On the night of March 24–25, 1944, 76 POWs escaped from Stalag Luft III, the culmination of a meticulous eleven month plan that involved forging of necessary documents, creation of maps, transforming of military uniforms into passible civilian clothing and most incredibly, the hand digging of a 336-foot tunnel, 30-feet under the camp, stretching out to the forest surrounding the camp. More than 600 prisoners were involved in the construction of the tunnels.

The original plan was for 200 POWs to break out that night but unfortunately, only 76 POWs were able to escape before a German guard came across a POW outside the wire and raised the alarm. Thompson was the 68th man to go out through the tunnel and escape.

Once he was clear of the camp, Thompson paired up with Flight Lieutenant Bill Cameron, a fellow Canadian, as planned, and they made their way through the forest. The bitter cold and deep snow proved challenging for the two Canadians, but the following night, came across two British Escapees, and joined up with them. The four were sheltering in a barn in the early morning of 26 April, Cameron was increasingly suffering the effects of hypothermia and exposure, forcing the other three to carry on without him. They left Cameron with as much warm clothing and food that they could spare.

Cameron was found shortly afterwards and taken back into custody. Thompson, Evans and Hall covered only a couple more kilometres before they too were re-captured at the edge of a village.

After being re-captured, Thompson and several other escapees were taken to a prison in Sagan and then, to a prison in Görlitz, where Thompson was interrogated by the Gestapo. Sometime later, he was returned to Stalag Luft III, where he would remain almost the end of the war in Europe, having spent almost every day of the war in captivity. He was held as a POW longer than any other Canadian ever, more than five-and-a-half years.

As it would turn out, Thompson was one of the lucky ones, as 50 of the 73 re-captured officers, including six Canadians, were executed by the Gestapo, under personal orders from Hitler, a violation of international treaties and a war crime. Only three escapees managed to make it back to Great Britain.

Thompson’s escape partner, F/L Cameron, was also returned to the camp, but Flight Lieutenants Evans and Hall were among those murdered by the Gestapo. Originally, Hitler wanted all re-captured prisoners executed, but Reichsmarschall Göring convinced Hitler that executing all the escapees might bring about reprisals against German pilots in Allied hands. Hitler relented, but still insisted that more than half of them be executed.

Orders were passed to Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, chief of state security, who instructed the Gestapo that fifty of the escapees were to be executed. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, head of the German High Command, further issued orders that after the executions, the murdered officers were to be cremated and their ashes returned to the POW camp as a deterrent to further escapes. Although the movie, The Great Escape, showed all the officers being executed together, most were shot individually or in pairs. Only ten were murdered in the manner depicted in the film.

Thompson’s post-war life

Thompson was demobilized on 16 November 1945. For his war service, he was awarded the 1939-1945 Star, the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal, with overseas clasp, and the War Medal 1939-1945. In 2013, the British government authorized a “Bomber Command” clasp for the 1939-45 Star, something that Thompson would have qualified for as a member of the RAF.

Thompson promptly pursued a career in law, working in a law office under a clerkship, while attending part-time classes at Osgoode Hall Law School, as was the process at the time. Called to the Bar of Ontario in 1948, Thompson practiced law in Penetanguishene. He married the former Nora Kathleen Jackson, herself a WWII veteran of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service, on 17 June 1946 in Toronto. The couple would raise eight children.

Thompson would go on to serve on Penetanguishene Town Council in the 1950s, including as mayor from 1957-1958.

In 1966, Thompson became an Assistant Crown Attorney and the following year, was appointed Queen’s Council. He worked for the Crown Attorney’s Office in Barrie and Simcoe County until retiring in 1980.

Thompson died on 7 August 1985, in Penetanguishene, at the age of 69. He was interred in the cemetery at the historic St. James-on-the-Line Anglican Church in Penetanguishene.

Aftermath of the Great Escape

The camp commandant, Obest Friedrich von Lindeiner-Wildau was removed and threatened with court martial, something he avoided by feigning mental illness. Originally a member of Göring’s personal staff, von Lindeiner-Wildau had been installed as the camp commandant after being refused retirement earlier in the war. Although loyal to Germany, von Lindeiner-Wildau was known to be anti-Nazi and refused to join the party. As camp commandant, he had followed the Geneva Accords concerning the treatment of POWs and had won the respect of the senior prisoners.

Von Lindeiner-Wildau was captured by advancing British forces, while acting as second in command on an infantry unit. He was held in a POW camp until 1947, when he was released and repatriated to Germany. He died in 1963 aged 82, less than two months before The Great Escape was released.

New camp commandant Oberst Werner Braune, who replaced the temporary commandant Oberstleutnant Erich Cordes, was appalled that so many escapees had been killed, and allowed the prisoners who remained there to build a memorial, to which he also contributed. The cremated remains of the murdered officers were placed within the memorial. In 1948, a Royal Air Force search team traveled to the camp to collect the ashes, but the memorial still stands at its original site today.

The British government learned of the deaths from a routine visit to the camp by Swiss authorities. This was further confirmed by Group Captain Herbert Massey, who authorized the escape as the senior British officer at Stalag Luft III, when he was repatriated to Great Britain shortly after the escape due to ill-health.

After the war, the RAF Police Special Investigations Branch led an investigation into those responsible for the murder of the escaping airmen. Several Gestapo and military officers responsible for the murders were executed, committed suicide or imprisoned.

The Fifty Allied airmen murdered after the Great Escape:

NameRankNationUnitDate of death/
Last seen alive
Birkland, Henry J.[1]Flying Officer CANNo. 72 Sqn RAF30 March 1944[a]Liegnitz (Legnica)
Brettell, E. Gordon[2][3][4]Flight Lieutenant GBRNo. 133 Sqn RAF29 March 1944Danzig (Gdańsk)
Bull, Leslie G. “Johnny”[5]Squadron Leader GBRNo. 109 Sqn RAF29 March 1944Brüx (Most)
Bushell, Roger J.[6][7]Squadron Leader GBR[b]No. 92 Sqn RAF29 March 1944Saarbrücken
Casey, Michael J.[8][9]Flight Lieutenant GBRNo. 57 Sqn RAF31 March 1944Görlitz
Catanach, James[10][11]Squadron Leader AUSNo. 455 Sqn RAAF29 March 1944Kiel
Christensen, Arnold G.[12]Pilot Officer NZLNo. 26 Sqn RAF29 March 1944Kiel
Cochran, Dennis H.[13]Flying Officer GBRNo. 10 OTU RAF31 March 1944Natzweiler (Natzwiller)
Cross, Ian E. K. P.[14]Squadron Leader GBRNo. 103 Sqn RAF31 March 1944Görlitz
Espelid, HalldorLieutenant NORNo. 331 Sqn (Norwegian) RAF29 March 1944Kiel
Evans, Brian H.[15]Flight Lieutenant GBRNo. 49 Sqn RAF31 March 1944[a]Liegnitz
Fuglesang, Nils Jørgen[16]Lieutenant NORNo. 332 Sqn (Norwegian) RAF29 March 1944Kiel
Gouws, Johannes S.Lieutenant ZAFNo. 40 Sqn SAAF29 March 1944Munich
Grisman, William J.[17]Flight Lieutenant GBRNo. 109 Sqn RAF6 April 1944Breslau (Wrocław)
Gunn, Alastair D. M.[18][19]Flight Lieutenant GBRNo. 1 PRU RAF6 April 1944Breslau
Hake, Albert H.[20]Flight Lieutenant AUSNo. 72 Sqn RAF31 March 1944Görlitz
Hall, Charles P.[21]Flight Lieutenant GBRNo. 1 PRU RAF31 March 1944[a]Liegnitz
Hayter, Anthony R. H.[22][23]Flight Lieutenant GBRNo. 148 Sqn RAF6 April 1944Natzweiler
Humphreys, Edgar S.[24][25]Flight Lieutenant GBRNo. 107 Sqn RAF31 March 1944[a]Liegnitz
Kidder, Gordon A.[26]Flying Officer CANNo. 156 Sqn RAF29 March 1944Mährisch Ostrau (Moravská Ostrava)
Kierath, Reginald V.[27][28]Flight Lieutenant AUSNo. 450 Sqn RAAF29 March 1944Brüx
Kiewnarski, Antoni[29]Flight Lieutenant POLNo. 305 Sqn (Polish) RAF31 March 1944unknown
Kirby-Green, Thomas G.[30][31]Squadron Leader GBRNo. 40 Sqn RAF29 March 1944Mährisch Ostrau
Kolanowski, Włodzimierz A.Flying Officer POLNo. 301 Sqn (Polish) RAF31 March 1944[a]Liegnitz
Król, Stanisław Z.Flying Officer POLNo. 64 Sqn RAF12 April 1944Breslau
Langford, Patrick W.[32][33][34]Flight Lieutenant CANNo. 16 OTU RAF31 March 1944[a]Liegnitz
Leigh, Tom[35][36]Flight Lieutenant AUSNo. 76 Sqn RAF31 March 1944Görlitz
Long, James L. R.[37][38]Flight Lieutenant GBRNo. 9 Sqn RAF12 April 1944Breslau
Marcinkus, Romas[39]Flight Lieutenant LTUNo. 1 Sqn RAF29 March 1944Danzig
McGarr, Clement A. N.[40]Lieutenant ZAFNo. 2 Sqn SAAF6 April 1944Breslau
McGill, George E.[41]Flight Lieutenant CANNo. 103 Sqn RAF31 March 1944[a]Liegnitz
Milford, Harold J.[42][43]Flight Lieutenant GBRNo. 226 Sqn RAF6 April 1944Breslau
Mondschein, Jerzy T.[44]Flying Officer POLNo. 304 Sqn (Polish) RAF29 March 1944Brüx
Pawluk, Kazimierz[45]Flying Officer POLNo. 305 Sqn (Polish) RAF31 March 1944unknown
Picard, Henri A.[46][47]Flight Lieutenant BELNo. 350 Sqn (Belgian) RAF29 March 1944Danzig
Pohe, John[48][49]Flying Officer NZLNo. 51 Sqn RAF31 March 1944Görlitz
Scheidhauer, Bernard W. M.[50]Lieutenant FRANo. 131 Sqn RAF29 March 1944Saarbrücken
Skanzikas, Sotiris[51]Pilot Officer GRCNo. 336 Sqn (Greek) RAF30 March 1944unknown
Stevens, Rupert J.Lieutenant ZAFNo. 12 Sqn SAAF29 March 1944Munich
Stewart, Robert C.[52][53]Flying Officer GBRNo. 77 Sqn RAF31 March 1944[a]Liegnitz
Stower, John Gifford[54][55]Flying Officer ARGNo. 142 Sqn RAF31 March 1944Liegnitz
Street, Denys O.[56][57]Flying Officer GBRNo. 207 Sqn RAF6 April 1944Breslau
Swain, Cyril D.[58]Flight Lieutenant GBRNo. 105 Sqn RAF31 March 1944[a]Liegnitz
Tobolski, PawełFlying Officer POLNo. 301 Sqn (Polish) RAF2 April 1944Breslau
Valenta, Arnošt[59]Flight Lieutenant CZENo. 311 Sqn (Czechoslovak) RAF31 March 1944[a]Liegnitz
Walenn, Gilbert W.[60]Flight Lieutenant GBRNo. 25 OTU RAF29 March 1944Danzig
Wernham, James C.[61][62]Flight Lieutenant CANNo. 405 Sqn RCAF30 March 1944unknown
Wiley, George W.[63][64][65]Flight Lieutenant CANNo. 112 Sqn RAF31 March 1944Görlitz
Williams, John E. A.[66][67]Squadron Leader AUSNo. 450 Sqn RAAF29 March 1944Brüx
Williams, John F.[68][69]Flight Lieutenant GBRNo. 107 Sqn RAF6 April 1944Breslau

The three successful escapees:

The Great Escape in the media

Many books and movies have been released over the years, most prominently the Hollywood movie, The Great Escape in 1963, starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, James Garner, Charles Bronson and Donald Pleasance, the latter having been actual POW in WWII. Hannes Messemer, who played camp commandant Colonel Von Luger, was also a POW, but of the Soviet forces, having been captured on the Russian front, as was Robert Graf, who played Werner, the hapless German guard who has his wallet stolen by Garner’s character so the forgers can copy necessary documents.

It’s interesting to note that Graf’s role in the film helped paper-over the historical fact that the prisoners received documentation and other assistance from some of the Nazi-hating Luftwaffe guards at Stalag Luft III, something not well-known at the time of the film’s release.

Several other actors in the movie, both major and minor characters on both sides of the fence, were veterans of WWII, including Attenborough and Garner.

The Great Escape: A Canadian Story

As pointed out in the book, The Great Escape: A Canadian Story, by author Ted Barris, one aspect of the Great Escape that has been downplayed throughout the years afterwards, including in books and the movie, was that many of the escape’s key players, from “…the tunnel designer, excavators, forgers, scroungers, security and intelligence personnel, custodian of the secret radio, and scores of security “stooges” and sand-dispersal ‘penguins’ – were all Canadians.”

In addition to Thompson, one such Canadian airman was Chatham, Ontario-born Flight Lieutenant Wally Floody, MBE, the real “Tunnel King,” who also served as a technical advisor on the 1963 film.

While Floody and 19 other “penguins” were caught dumping sand out the bottom their pant legs, just like in the film, and transferred them to another camp in Belaria shortly before the escape, he played an integral role in the success of the escape. As noted in the citation for his Member of the Order of the British Empire medal, awarded by King George VI:

“Flight Lieutenant (F/L) Floody made a thorough study of tunneling work and devised many different methods & techniques. He became one of the leading organizers and indefatigable workers in the tunnels themselves. Besides being arduous, his work was frequently dangerous….F/L Floody was buried under heavy falls of sand…..but, despite all dangers and difficulties, F/L Floody persisted, showing a marked degree of courage and devotion to duty.”

Alfred Burke Thompson in 1948. Photo: Ashley and Crippen.

Sources: Stalag Luft III – Wikipedia, List of Allied airmen from the Great Escape – Wikipedia, Alfred B. Thompson – Wikipedia, Air Forces WW2 Details : THOMPSON (39585), [RAFCommands], THE GREY AND SIMCOE FORESTERS (greysimcoeforesters.com), Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau – Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stalag_Luft_III_murders, https://www.cwgc.org/our-work/blog/legacy-of-liberation-the-true-story-of-the-great-escape/, https://www.outono.net/elentir/2023/01/17/the-great-escape-10-little-known-historical-curiosities-about-that-excellent-movie/, https://tedbarris.com/2013/08/31/the-great-escape-a-canadian-story/, The Great Escape: A Canadian Story • Ted Barris, Wally Floody – Wikipedia.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/flying-officer-alfred-b-thompson-simcoe-countys-connection-to-the-great-escape/

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