Tributes paid to Great Escape survivor

FORMER Rothesay resident Jack Harrison, thought to be the last survivor of the daring Great Escape prison camp breakout in the Second World War, has died peacefully at the age of 97.

Mr Harrison passed away at the Erskine Home for former service personnel on Friday with his son Chris and daughter Jane by his side.

As well as being closely involved in the drawing up of plans for the escape from the Stalag Luft III PoW camp in 1944, Jack will be remembered on Bute - where he lived for almost half a century until his move to Erskine in 2008 - as a devoted family man, church elder, education director and Rotarian, to name but a few.

In a joint statement, his two children said: "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, traveller and athlete. He took up marathon running in his 70s to raise money for charity.

"He was a caring father and grandfather and he will be missed by the whole family. We are indebted to Erskine for the care and attention that he and we have received over the past two and a half years."

Jack had been working as a Latin and Classical teacher at Dornoch Academy in Sutherland when he was called up to serve in the Royal Air Force as a pilot.

His first mission, in November 1942, was to bomb German supply ships at the Dutch port Den Helder. Unfortunately the constant fire from the Germans on the ground led to the crash of the Lockheed Ventura over the Zuider Zee, from where he was captured and transferred to the Stalag Luft III PoW camp on the Polish border.

On the night of March 24, 1944, around two hundred prisoners prepared to escape through the tunnel code named Harry. Jack, who was number 98 on the escape list, was in hut 104 waiting to go down the tunnel when he heard the gunshots.

He did not break free, as the break-out was noticed as the 77th prisoner was escaping - though he later acknowledged that to be something of a blessing in disguise, for two thirds of whose who did get out were captured and shot on the personal orders of Hitler.

He quickly burned his forged documentation - which proclaimed him to be a Hungarian electrical engineer, Aleksandr Regenyi, working for the Siemens corporation - and changed his clothing back to that of a PoW.

But the damage to German morale had been done, and the Great Escape's place in history was confirmed when the story of the plot was turned into a Hollywood blockbuster in 1963, starring Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen.

After the war Jack returned to his wife Jean, who he had married in 1940, in Glasgow and resumed his career as a teacher. He is survived by his two children, Chris and Jane, as well as his two grandchildren, Mark and Stuart.

The family moved to Rothesay in 1958 when Jack took up the post of director of education for Bute County Council. Throughout his time on the island Jack was a well liked and well respected member of the community; professionally, he had a happy knack of keeping the peace between teaching professionals and the local councillors who administered them.

He was also an active member of the Rotary Club of Rothesay and a busy fund-raiser, winning Rotary International's Paul Harris Award for fund-raising in 1987 and walking a hundred miles in aid of the Victoria Hospital in 1995.

Jack moved to the Erskine Home for veterans in January 2008, but not before being given a fond farewell by his fellow Rotary Club members, several of whom regularly visited him in his new surroundings near Bishopton.

Erskine's chief executive, Major Jim Panton, said: "It was a privilege and an honour for Erskine to care for Jack over the past two years.

"Although a very modest and private man, he will be greatly missed by all of the staff and veterans in our home. Our thoughts are with his family at this sad time."