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Great Escape veteran Harrison dies at 97

Jack Harrison, who survived the Great Escape plot by Allied prisoners in a German prison in World War II, has died at age 97, his family said.
Image: Jack Harrison, at right
Jack Harrison, at right, the veteran thought to be the last survivor of the World War II prisoner-of-war breakout from Stalag Luft III, is seen with other prisoners-of-war in this undated file photo.Erskine / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jack Harrison, who survived the Great Escape plot by Allied prisoners in a German prison in World War II, has died at age 97, his family said.

Harrison died Friday at Erskine veterans' home in Bishopton, Scotland.

As one of the camp's gardeners, Harrison helped dispose of the dirt excavated from three escape tunnels. He was 98th on the list of some 200 inmates designated to make the escape on March 24, 1944, but only 76 got away before guards detected the breakout and raised the alarm.

The breakout was celebrated in the 1963 film "The Great Escape" starring Steve McQueen and James Garner.

Only three men managed to reach safety. Adolf Hitler ordered the execution of 50 recaptured escapers, and 23 others were returned to custody.

British news reports said Harrison was believed to be the last survivor of the plot, but this could not be confirmed. In addition to the 200 men who won places in the escape queue through a drawing, others were also involved in preparations.

"I guess it was a blessing in disguise I never made it through, as most were shot," Harrison said in an interview last year with the Scottish Sun newspaper. "But the main purpose wasn't just to escape. It was to outfox the Germans. It was a huge moral victory. It humiliated Hitler and gave the Nazis a bloody nose."

'I was to be a Hungarian electrician'
Of the three tunnels dug by prisoners, two had been found by guards and closed before the escape attempt.

When the escape was detected, Harrison said he had to quickly burn his disguise as a Siemens engineer and get back into his prison uniform.

"I was to be a Hungarian electrician so I became Aleksander Regenyi, who was employed by a German firm," he recalled.

Harrison was a Royal Air Force pilot who was shot down and captured in November 1942 on his first mission, a raid on the Dutch port of Den Helder. He was taken to Stalag Luft III prison near Sagan in eastern Germany — now Zagan, Poland.

After the war, Harrison resumed his teaching career. He retired in 1975 as director of education for the isle of Bute.

"To others he was considered a war hero, but to us he was much more than that. He was a family man first and foremost as well as a church elder, Rotarian, scholar, traveler and athlete," his son Chris and daughter Jane said in a statement.

They said Harrison took up marathon running in his seventies to raise money for charity.

Funeral plans were not immediately announced.