Officier "Great escape" overleden

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Roel R.
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Lid geworden op: 21 sep 2003, 01:50

Officier "Great escape" overleden

Bericht door Roel R. »

Flight Lieutenant Tony Bethell
(Filed: 06/03/2004)

Flight Lieutenant Tony Bethell, who has died aged 81, was one of the 76 air force officers to break out of Stalag Luft III during "The Great Escape" on the night of March 24 1944.

Two hundred men were supposed to slip through "Harry" tunnel, which ran for 365ft, 28ft below the surface; but the 77th was spotted by a guard around 5am, and the alarm sounded. Bethell was posted to "Leicester Square", the second halfway house along the tunnel. He was to pull 20 men through until relieved by escaper number 65, and then lie in the woods to wait for nine more.

But after pulling out 12 men, Bethell had to sit in his cramped underground space for 45 minutes, which made him feel that he was condemned to a permanent coffin; finally, the next man arrived and explained that someone had got stuck and had to be pulled back while the tunnel was patched up.

Shortly after Bethell's group had assembled outside the wire, they heard a shot, signalling that the escape had been discovered. They broke into twos, and Bethell went off with "Cookie" Long, hoping to cross the Czech border, about 40 miles away.

Snow and flooding forced them to change their minds and they headed toward Frankfurt, hoping to hop on a freight train and escape to Sweden. They walked along a railway line, slept in a barn at night then started to travel in daylight. They were captured at Benau.

From there they were returned to a large cell with other escaped PoWs, from which they were moved to a Gestapo prison at Gorlitz. While Bethell was left, Long was taken away and shot - one of 50 recaptured escapers executed on Hitler's orders. Only three of the escapers reached England - two Norwegians and a Dutchman who were RAF pilots.

The son of a colonial administrator, Richard Anthony Bethell was born on April 9 1922 at Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika. Tony and his brother lived for some years in Gibraltar, where their father was state treasurer, then returned home after his death.

Young Tony was educated at Sherborne, where he became head boy. Early in the war there was an air raid on the school, which almost resulted in his being expelled for being outside the shelter at the time.

Joining the RAF in February 1941 he was sent to America for pilot training in Georgia, Alabama and Florida. He was then posted to a training unit at Hawarden, before joining No 268 Squadron.

Bethell spent much time flying "rhubarbs", or low level sweeps. On November 26 1942, during an operation over Holland, he spotted and shot down an Me 109 and shortly after sighted a Junkers 52 transport aircraft, which he also shot down. These were the squadron's first successes, and the first of hundreds to fall to Mustangs during the war.

Eleven days later he took off at 9.15am and was flying with three other Mustangs when they were met by flak at the Dutch coast. His aircraft was damaged and then hit again 20ft above the ground; after crash-landing at around 10am, he was soon in German hands.

Bethell was transferred to an Amsterdam jail and then Stalag Luft III. As the Russians approached the camp in January 1945, Bethell and the other PoWs were marched from Sagan, near the Oder river, to Lubeck, where they arrived three days before the war ended.

With the return of peace, Bethell went into business in Africa, joining the trading company Gellatly Hankey to serve at Khartoum and Addis Ababa; but he became bored and rejoined the RAF as a flight lieutenant in 1949.

After a series of specialist courses, he was a navigator instructor, then personal assistant to Air Chief Marshal Sir George Pirie.

On returning to Britain in 1953 he was posted to No 145 Squadron at Celle, flying Vampires, before becoming a flight commander on No 16 Squadron, also operating Vampires from Celle, an airfield close to the East German border. He finally retired from the RAF in June 1955, after which he left to set up home in Canada.

Bethell settled down happily across the Atlantic, where he was employed in the brokerage business in Montreal for many years, and then worked for Elican, a Belgian company. He later moved into money management.

He often returned to England, and attended several reunions of Great Escape veterans. But he was no fan of the film The Great Escape, which he felt should have been made in black and white.

On retiring in the early 1990s he and his wife Lorna moved to a farm at Caledon, north of Toronto, where he spent much time on a John Deere tractor, cutting fallow hayfields.

He is survived by his second wife, two sons and two daughters from an earlier marriage, and three stepchildren. Another son died last year. Bethell died on February 17.
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