Paul Royle, who died Sunday at 101, didn’t think he was particularly special for his role in the famous Great Escape from a German prisoner of war camp.
“Most people have extraordinary lives if they think of it,” he once said.
With Paul’s death, only one survivor remains from that legendary World War II prison breakout, immortalized by Hollywood in a film the veteran didn’t particularly care for. That survivor is Brit Dick Churchill, who is 94, ABC News reported.
Royle, an Australian, was a pilot in the Royal Air Force and was shot down on May 17, 1940, the Telegraph reported. In the end, he’d spend five years as a prisoner of war, his escape from Stalag Luft III in 1944 lasting only two days.
With other prisoners, Paul helped the escape effort by discreetly disposing of the dirt dug up from a 360-foot-deep hole the men dug under the prison. He packed the dirt into his trousers, then released it down the pant leg.
“You’d have to be very careful because the soil from the tunnel was a different colour from the soil on the surface mostly, and you would get a suitable place to put it where there was similar soil,” Paul explained.
Finally, on a late winter night in 1944, Paul Royle and 75 other prisoners emerged from the hole and into the snowy woods, he recalled.
“It was very pleasant and all we saw was great heaps of snow and pine trees. There was snow everywhere, it was cold.”
According to the Guardian, Paul and a friend, Edgar Humphreys, spent the night walking through the woods before they hunkered down for the night in some bushes. They were free only two days: the pair were eventually caught in a German village and Nazi officers interrogated both men. All but three of their companions were also recaptured, and 50 men — from 12 different countries — were executed on the orders of Adolf Hitler.
Edgar was among them. Decades later, Paul said he doesn’t understand why he was spared with 22 other prisoners.
“Edgar and myself were together when we were recaptured and behaved in the same manner. There’s no reason why one should live and not the other. Rationality didn’t come into it. I haven’t a clue as to why I wasn’t chosen.”
Two Norwegians and a Dane ultimately found their way home. Of those who were spared, including Royle, they were sent back to the Stalag and other camps. Paul was eventually liberated from another German prison camp in May 1945.
In his life after the war, Paul married a couple of times, had a family, and worked in the mining industry, His second wife survives him, along with five children, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. One of his sons, Gordon Royle, who is a math professor, said his father died after surgery to repair a fractured hip. He fell at the nursing home where he lived.
“Dad continued to live his life to the full. It was a fall that killed him in the end.”
Royle is the second World War II legend to die this week; the heroine of Ardennes, Augusta Chiwy, also recently passed. The Belgian nurse was credited with saving hundreds of American soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge.
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