Wally Floody, the Canadian fighter pilot who engineered the tunnel through which 76 Allied officers fled a Nazi prison in a drama captured in the 1963 film “The Great Escape,” has died at age 71.
Floody, dubbed the “Tunnel King” by fellow prisoners, died in a hospital Monday of respiratory complications.
“He had chronic lung disease, partially due to the tunneling he did during the war,” said his son, Brian Floody. “It only got severe during the past several years.”
A Royal Canadian Air Force officer, Floody used the mining experience he had gained as an engineer in Kirkland Lake, Ont., to plan and dig the 350-foot tunnel out of Stalag Luft III, which the Germans had considered escape-proof.
Of the 76 Allied officers who fled the camp on March 24, 1944, only three eventually made good their escape. At least 50 of those recaptured--six of them Canadian--were executed.
Floody had been moved to another camp just before the escape.
“Every time I tell my wife I might have been one of the prisoners who got away, she reminds me: ‘Yes, but you might have been one of the ones they shot,’ ” he said in a 1986 interview.
The mass breakout was the subject of “The Great Escape,” starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson and Richard Attenborough as “Big X.” It is Attenborough’s character who conceives the three-tunnel plan and whose actions are believed to mirror most closely the efforts of Floody, who was a technical adviser for the film.
Floody was 23 when his Spitfire was shot down over France in 1941. He often served as the lead digger and passed buckets of the sandy gravel back to a brigade of men working in the three tunnels, which were designated Tom, Dick and Harry.
The gravel was hidden in the camp’s gardens and the excavated dirt was scattered about the camp, some of it in the attics of the prisoners’ barracks.
Floody became trapped several times in cave-ins and had to be pulled out by his heels.
The Germans eventually discovered Tom. Dick was abandoned and Harry became the escape route.
About 600 of the 1,500 officers in the camp helped dig the tunnels, but it was Floody who designed the lighting, ventilation and electrical systems.
“Wally was living Canadian history,” Clem Pearce, another Canadian flier who spent time in Stalag III, said Monday.
Floody remained in prison camps until the war ended. The Chatham, Ont., native returned to Canada and began a business career in Toronto.