Page last updated at 07:16 GMT, Wednesday, 29 April 2009 08:16 UK

'Great Escape' gardener, 97, dies

War veteran Alex Lees
Alex Lees was involved in the attempts to escape from Stalag Luft III

One of the last surviving prisoners of war (PoW) from Stalag Luft III, the focus of the 1963 film The Great Escape, has died in Scotland.

Alex Lees, 97, and born in Manchester, had been the gardener in the famous PoW camp in Germany during World War II.

Mr Lees used his work to help get rid of the spoil dug from the escape tunnels at the camp.

Of those who broke out of the camp only three reached safety and of the 73 recaptured, 50 were shot.

In recent years, the veteran had lived at the service veterans' care home, Erskine.

The escape bid from Stalag Luft III involved three tunnels, codenamed Tom, Dick and Harry, which were started in April 1943.

I would carry the sand in Red Cross boxes and then dispose of it by raking it through the top soil where I was growing tomatoes
Alex Lees
recalling his part in the Great Escape

The tunnels were dug to a depth of 30ft and shored up with wooden boards from the prisoners' beds.

The escape took place in March 1944 when 76 Allied prisoners of war escaped from the camp.

Mr Lees was not allowed to escape himself since he was not an officer.

He was the gardener at the camp who was responsible for getting rid of the soil from the tunnels.

Two years ago he recalled: "I would carry the sand in Red Cross boxes and then dispose of it by raking it through the top soil where I was growing tomatoes."

He had also slept in the bed of an escaping officer to confuse the guards.

Mr Lees had lived out his last years at the Erskine veterans' home along with his friend and fellow former Stalag Luft III prisoner Jack Harrison.

His funeral is to be held later, before a cremation ceremony in Paisley.



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