Great Britain

Scottish reverend now credited with inspiring The Great Escape war breakout

The inspiration behind The Great Escape wasn’t an English officers, but a fiery Scottish minister prisoner-of-war, a historian and author has claimed.

Dr Linda Parker says the Rev Murdo Ewen Macdonald was the motivating force behind the men who staged the most famous bid for freedom ever portrayed on the silver screen.Mr Macdonald has been given credit for a minor part in hiding tunnel sand in the famous 1944 breakout, but Dr Parker claims his role was possibly far more significant.

Steve McQueen'The Great Escape - 1963'Director: John Sturges

Steve McQueen'The Great Escape - 1963'Director: John Sturges

Mr Macdonald was a chaplain for the men of Stalag Luft III, including RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell – always known as the “mastermind” of the Great Escape.

Mr Macdonald, a boxer and parachutist known as Padre Mac, had also previously made his own escape, going on the run for three days while in transit to a PoW camp.

Dr Parker, an author, said Mr Macdonald’s daily “fiery sermons” to the key people and his experiences meant he would have been integral to motivating The Great Escape.

It is often heralded as a great English military victory – and the theme tune to the Great Escape film is sung by England football fans.

But Dr Parker says one of the major inspirations for the plan always accredited to English officers could have instead been Scottish. Dr Parker is the author of the historical book Nearer My God to Thee: Airborne Chaplains in the Second World War.

Chaplain’s role

It examines the full story of the army chaplains, including Mr Macdonald, who accompanied the airborne forces to all theatres of war between 1942-45.

Dr Parker said: “Rev Murdo Ewen Macdonald may have been the inspiration that led to many great escapes during World War Two.

“Mr Macdonald was moved to Stalag Luft III where the Great Escape would take place in March 1944.

“Here, he befriended Roger Bushell, and Harry ‘Wings’ Day, both instigators and organisers of the Great Escape.

As a chaplain, he would have had access to all the troops and would have been able to speak with them, in confidence, to motivate them with the story of his own escape attempt.”

She added: “Mr Macdonald’s belief was that British forces should never give in to the enemy. It was his view that troops had a Christian duty to try and escape if captured by the Nazis.”

The Scottish minister was born on is the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, enlisting at the outbreak of the Second World War. He initially served as a chaplain with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders in Aruba before responding to a national appeal for volunteers to join the newly-formed 1st Parachute Brigade.

Mr Macdonald had previously made escape attempts of his own.

While being transferred from hospital to a PoW camp, he escaped through a lavatory window and was free for three days before being recaptured.In 1942 he was captured and spent two-and-a-half years in prison, mostly in the infamous Stalag Luft III, in Zagan, Poland, as chaplain to prisoners.

The daring minister died in 2004 in Glasgow aged 89.

The breakout inspired the 1963 American epic war film The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Gordon Jackson and Richard Attenborough.