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The Real-Life "Cooler King's" Final Great Escape

Almost everyone at some time has watched and been captivated by ‘The Great Escape’, and, in particular, its lead character Captain Virgil Hilts, portrayed by Steve McQueen.

It is well-known that this is based upon the escape of POWs from Stalag Luft III during WWII – with slight embellishment to some degree in the best Hollywood fashion, of course.

However, what most people will not realise is that the inspiration behind Hilts’ character, Wing Commander Ken Rees, sadly passed in late August 2014.

I had the pleasure of knowing Ken Rees, and I attended his funeral and heard about his escapades; covered fantastically in his book “Lie in the Dark and Listen” – a must read for everyone.

Ken was lying at the bottom of the tunnel shaft, set to be the next out, when it was discovered by the Germans. Upon its discovery, Ken was once again sent to the Cooler where he learnt the horrific news that his good friends Johnny Bull and Roger “Big X” Bushell had been shot by the Gestapo.

Ken was the last surviving member of those involved in The Great Escape, and his passing at the age of 93 is an incredibly sad loss from a generation who so bravely defended our country.

After the war, he initially left the RAF before re-joining a short while later. He became a flying instructor and later commanded a Valiant “V” Bomber Squadron. Ken will be sadly missed but his memory will forever be immortalised and he will be remembered fondly by those who knew him.

In later life, Ken remarked:

“Had I got out, I would have ended up like the 50 who went before me… it was a certainty, with my record of stays in the cooler and annoying the Germans generally.”

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Alexander Davenport

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