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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 March, 2004, 18:52 GMT
Cooler King recalls Great Escape
Ken Rees
Ken Rees used to write coded messages home in Welsh

A Welsh airman believed to have inspired Steve McQueen's character in the Great Escape is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the breakout of Allied airmen immortalised in the film.

In common with McQueen's legendary portrayal of 'Cooler King' Hilts, in the famous 1963 film, Flight Lieutenant Ken Rees was a constant thorn in the Germans' side and spent much of the war in solitary confinement.

On Tuesday Mr Rees, originally from Ruabon, Wrexham but now living in Rhosneigr, Anglesey, joined old comrades in London to commemorate their famous exploits.

During the breakout Mr Rees was one of those caught in the escape tunnel when it was discovered by a German guard.

Of the 76 escapees from Stalag Luft III camp, only three managed to reach Britain - the other 73 were recaptured, with 50 of those murdered by the Gestapo on Adolf Hitler's orders.

Mr Rees joined the Royal Air Force at the age of 18 and flew Wellington bombers before being shot down in flames over Norway in 1942.

He said: "We were on a low level operation in Norway and unfortunately it was a bright moonlit night and the first burst of flak set us on fire which made us a nice target and we were pounded a bit.

They announced the usual thing - 'For you the war is over!'"
Ken Rees on being captured by the Gestapo

"Luckily I saw some water and got the aircraft down...three of survived, two were killed, and managed to get to the shore."

Despite being burnt and receiving shrapnel wounds, he and his two companions, one of whom was badly burnt, they set off for the Swedish border.

Ken Rees
Ken Rees ended up as a wing commander in the RAF

"It was pretty rough terrain, my flying boots had come off in the rudder and I had no shoes on," he said.

After walking for three or four hours they found a farmhouse and a doctor was sent to treat them.

"He brought with him what appeared to be three-quarters of the German army - they announced the usual thing, 'For you the war is over!'"

Mr Rees eventually found himself in the Luftwaffe run Stalag Luft III where it was considered the sworn duty of officers to escape.

His abiding memories as a prisoner of war are of being "bored to tears," constantly hungry and finding himself a frequent visitor in solitary confinement or the 'cooler.'

"I suppose it was completely my own fault," he said. "I was not too fond of the Germans generally and particularly the 'Head Ferret' (one of the senior German officers) who we called 'Rubber Neck' - I used to do all I could to be nasty to him."

His dissent usually amounted to annoying his captors by pulling faces or leaving down bicycles tyres which meant being marched off for a two-week stint in the cooler.

We both annoyed the Germans and ended up doing stretches in the cooler.
Ken Rees on being compared with the Steve McQueen character

On the night of the famous breakout Mr Rees was lucky to escape with his life as the last man to be pulled from the tunnel as German shots rang out in the darkness.

"The Head Ferret told us to take our clothes off for searching," he recalled. "I objected to this a bit and pushed the guard away and Rubber Neck brought his revolver up and pointed it straight at me.

"Luckily the camp commandant came out and call him. The incident passed and I stripped a bit quicker before being marched off to the cooler again in my long John's and vest in the snow."

Mr Rees said the story that McQueen's character was loosely based on him, "has got nothing to do with me".

"He is taller than I am, I'm heavier than he is, he's American and I'm a Welshman - the only things we've got in common is that we both annoyed the Germans and ended up doing stretches in the cooler.

"I didn't get out and if I did, I wouldn't have been able to ride a motorbike anyway," he joked.

Mr Rees was among only a handful of survivors who attended the reunion at London's Imperial War Museum.



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