Barbara, Wally and The Great Escape

Even before the recent change in the stories I’ve posted to this web site, much of what I wrote —even some of the nerdiest of the hockey nerd stuff — was for Barbara. As I’ve said before, a big part of my enjoyment in all this was to see how she’d react. Quirky just hasn’t been as much fun without her.

This story — while not nearly as “romantic” as some of my recent ones — is definitely for Barbara. But, as is often the case, you have to let me work my way around to it…

This past weekend, the British and Polish air forces honored the 75th anniversary of the Great Escape — the actual breakout from Stalag Luft III, the Nazi prisoner-of-war camp in the town of Zagan (sometimes written as Sagan), now in eastern Poland. The events took place in the late night and early morning hours of March 24 and 25, 1944.

The movie came out in 1963. Barbara (on the right in the center photo) is with her
friend Peggy around then. That’s me with my father about the same time!

I won’t go into much of the story, but the Allied air force prisoners at Stalag Luft III had hoped to free some 200 men through a series of tunnels dug under the camp. They knew it was unlikely that any would make their way back to England, but they hoped to do as much as possible to disrupt the German forces who would have to chase them down. Due to a series of unforeseen circumstances, only 76 men got out before the Germans discovered what was going on.

Over the next few weeks, all but three men were recaptured. Hitler was so angry he wanted all 73 men shot. Other German authorities pointed out that an action showing such blatant disregard for the Geneva Conventions might endanger the lives of German prisoners held by the Allies. Even so, Hitler personally ordered that “more than half” should be shot. In the end, 50 men were killed. It’s the deaths of those 50 that was commemorated in Poland this past weekend.

Barbara first learned of this story — as did so many other people — when the Hollywood movie The Great Escape came out in 1963. Even then (and ever since she was a little girl), if Barbara was interested in something, she was INTERESTED! It wasn’t enough just to see the movie — which, of course, she did — over and over. She needed to know more! So, she got herself a copy of the 1950 book The Great Escape by Australian Paul Brickhill, who’d been held at Stalag Luft III during the War.

Barbara told the story of Wally Floody in her book, The Tunnel King. The Desert Hawk
is about Stocky Edwards, one of the leading Canadian aces of World War II.
She worried about glorifying war in books for children, but felt it was important
to put a human face on what happened.

It was through Brickhill’s book that Barbara first learned about Wally Floody, the Canadian who was so integral to the tunnel construction for the Great Escape. (The movie is actually a very accurate description of events – up to a point! – although there were a lot more Canadians, and a lot fewer Americans, who were involved.)

Wally Floody (the Charles Bronson character in the movie is based loosely upon him) lived most of his life in Toronto, not far from where Barbara lived most of her Toronto life. Older accounts of him always claimed that Wally was a mining engineer in Canada, and that’s why he was in charge of the tunnels for the Great Escape. But that was just a bit of British prejudice. The Brits simply couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that someone who’d actually worked in the mines might one day become a fighter pilot. Wally worked in both Timmins and Kirkland Lake as a young man, although his experience with hard-rock mining there was very much different from tunnelling through the sandy soil beneath Stalag Luft III.

Barbara always believed that Wally’s true story was worth telling, and she finally got to write about him in her 2004 book The Tunnel King, which was a big success. Floody had died in 1989, and Barbara regretted that she’d lived in Toronto for 20 years by then and had never tried to meet him. Wally’s wife, Betty, died just around the time that Barbara started working on the book, but she did get  a lot of assistance from Wally’s sister, Catherine, and his son Brian. They were both more than happy to share stories – and photographs – of their brother and father.

Wally Floody (left) wears his cap at the proper rakish angle for a
fighter pilot. He married his wife, Betty, very early in his air force career.

Just recently, I received a very nice letter from a man who works at the Museum of Northern History in Kirkland Lake. The city is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and the museum is interested in telling Wally’s story among their centennial celebrations. His letter gave me the occasion to get back in touch with Brian Floody, and it got me thinking about all this again.

One of Barbara’s nerdiest interests was her love of movie soundtracks. Not just songs, but the full score. If a movie she liked happened to be on television and she was in the other room, I used to like to turn it up loud and see how long it took before she’d say, “Is that … To Kill a Mockingbird?” or whatever it was. When it was The Great Escape – no matter where it was in the movie – it only took a few seconds. And there was no question necessary…

Wally Floody (in the centre, with the tie) served as the technical advisor for the movie.
Brian Floody had some amazing pictures in an album from that time. This is my favorite.

Wally with the film’s biggest stars, James Garner and Steve McQueen.
Betty was much more taken with Garner, who signed the photo.

Wally with Charles Bronson, who played Danny “The Tunnel King.”

26 thoughts on “Barbara, Wally and The Great Escape

  1. Hi Eric. Great story. Great photos. And moving remembrance of a great lady… As I suggested to you some months ago, one of my very favourite book talk/presentation nights was the one Barbara and I shared in Port Perry, where we offered complimentary stories of veterans we knew and admired – she talking about Wally, and I talking about Charley Fox (who attended the event, as I recall). It was a dazzling evening with students getting ready to go overseas to Juno Beach Centre and plenty of praise from Barbara, me and others for Canadian vets and their service. Barbara understood that feeling long before most of us. Best… Ted Barris.

  2. Fascinating story Eric. I never knew Barbara wrote about this, now I want to read her book about Wally Floody.

  3. I knew a lot of what today’s post is about — remember we actually had the book launch of Tunnel King at our house and I met some of the family — but I still learned quite a bit today. It’s very interesting and I still enjoy the movie which plays quite often on TV. Your authentic photos are priceless and I had not seen many of them before.

  4. I’m so happy to learn of Barbara’s interest in the men who participated in The Great Escape and her books that were the outcome of that interest. What better tribute could one make than to memorialize their stories so that others can learn about them. Love the true stories of the Great Escape. Are Barbara’s books available in the Owen Sound library?

    For over a decade, I worked with one of the participants, Tony Penegally and only learned much later of his involvement. He had a Grey County connection too as he had a weekend property near Durham.

    1. Thanks, Aubrey. It’s been a while since I’ve checked to see if the books are in the Owen Sound library. If not, I have several copies you can borrow! (Stella, you too!)
      Funny thing is, it was when The Tunnel King was nominated for prizes back in 2004 that we came up and stayed in Owen Sound for a couple of days for her to make a presentation at the library. That’s what got the ball rolling on our deciding we wanted to move here!

  5. Eric:

    You missed the biggest story. Last week the last remaining living Allied prisoner who took part in & lived to tell of the Great Escape, passed away – I believe it was in the NY Times. Do not recall his name.

    1. I saw that over the weekend on a BBC web site. He was 99 years old! Name was Dick Churchill. No relation to Winston, but it’s said that his name was one of the reasons he was not chosen to be shot.

  6. Barbara and I often chatted about the war when I lived with her and family, Eric. She did have English family and of course Canadian too. We have been celebrating this anniversary last week and it has been highlighted that the Gentleman you are talking about was the leader in all of this escape. The fact that it was mostly Canadian men and not US airmen was not portrayed in the Great Escape film. This has been noted by our Historians. I think it would have been lovely for Barbara to have seen the flypast last week. But I bet she was watching it anyway. Bless her, and Bless you Eric for keeping her in the minds and thought’s of those that loved her.x

  7. Fascinating stuff, Eric. Ironically I saw The Great Escape in Canada en route to a military assignment in Alaska. It’s unfortunate that Hollywood in their usual ability to distort history turned the film into an American thing when it was to my understanding largely a Canadian/British operation. No doubt a box office decision. I suppose the producers would tell us: “Well, we’re not producing a documentary here.”

    1. Thanks, Roger. And that’s pretty much what the filmmakers did say. There was a lot of “blow back” about it in Canada and England. Particularly among many of the surviving prisoners. Wally himself always thought that was short-sighted of them. Who’d know the story if not for the movie! And the details of all the work that went into it was very authentic … even if it made the camp look a little too comfortable.

  8. What a great story Eric! I always learn something from your interesting posts! I’d love to read both The Tunnel King & The Desert Hawk – are they available at public libraries?


  9. Hi Eric : Thank you so much for sharing this story with me. I too am a big fan of The Great Escape. Never get tired of watching it . Was fascinated to learn that Barbara has a direct connection to one of the actual participants in the event. I would like to read Barbara’s book.

  10. Another surprise about your girl! I’m going to look up these books and find that old movie. I’m a soundtrack person too. But I don’t think I could recognize many of them them that quickly. (Gone with the Wind, and the Flintstones…no prob) Thanks Eric!

  11. WOW! This is great stuff, Eric. Born in 1946 I was a young man who, fueled by that young man’s naive sense of adventure I guess, always had this awful feeling of regret that I had missed ‘The Show’….and I’m not talking about Major League Baseball!
    From around age ten until my mid-twenties I devoured everything in print about WWII. I read The Great Escape decades before they even thought of making it into a movie. I am sure I would have LOVED Barbara’s books.
    I am happy to report that ‘The Tunnel King’ has a rating of 4.47 (out of 5) on and that ranks right up there as one of the highest ratings that I have ever seen, for ANY book, on that well known and popular site.

  12. Once again, more fascinating background on this story. We bought and enjoyed The Tunnel King when it came out. Didnt know about The Desert Hawk. Is it still in print?

  13. Hi Eric! Thanks for this. I learned a lot and now I want to read Barbara’s books and see the movie. Take care. Hugs, Linda

  14. Very interesting read, thank you for sharing.
    The fella in Kirkland Lake wouldn’t happen to be Bernie J. would it??? If so, he was the one who I contacted and he found me the book with CW’s story. Very cool if it was.

  15. Hi Eric, thanks for the great story. I have both of the books. And it was a pleasure getting Barbara and you set up with Stocky Edwards back in the day.

  16. Hi Eric: Just love your stories and didn’t realize Barb had written about “The Great Escape”. Bernie and I have watched the movie many times and I would like to reserve the books for us to read. Barb was certainly a very talented gal! (and sorely missed)
    Please keep the stories coming Eric. Fondest regards Myrna.

  17. What a cool story to share with us Eric! Love the history. And the photo of Barbara & you that same year.
    I watched “The Great Escape’ a lot….I had a huge crush on Charles Bronson…..he was the best…..

  18. Pitch perfect, ’cause now I want to find out more! And somehow in these tales that touch on Barbara you always manage to evoke her most beautiful smile.

  19. Thanks for sharing that. I remember that film. Very brave men and Barbara must have enjoyed the story and research.

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