Bexhill war veteran, and last survivor of the Great Escape team, dies

Jack Lyon, last survivor of the 'Great Escape'. Photo by Derek Canty SUS-170309-115624001
Jack Lyon, last survivor of the 'Great Escape'. Photo by Derek Canty SUS-170309-115624001

A war veteran and ex-POW from Bexhill who played a role in the famous Great Escape in the Second World War has died, aged 101.

Jack Lyon passed away on Friday (March 8).

He was the last survivor of the legendary Great Escape team.

Mr Lyon was a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF in the war. He joined up in September 1939, the day after war broke out.

After training he served in 56 Squadron, flying Whitley Bombers and was shot down on his third operational trip in early 1941 near Dusseldorf in Germany.

Mr Lyon then spent the next four years as a prisoner of war, having been captured by the Nazis.

He was a prisoner of war in the Stalag Luft III camp and was one of 200 servicemen primed for escape on March 24, 1944.

Mr Lyon was involved in the escape and was dressed up ready to go into the tunnel when it was discovered by the Germans.

All but three of the escapees were rounded up by the Germans, with 50 of those captured later shot.

Speaking to the Hastings Observer in 2011, Mr Lyon said: “It was our duty to try and escape and most people tried at least once. The guards expected it. I wouldn’t say we made friends with them, but we were on good terms. They had their job to do and we had ours.

“There were 200 of us and we had to do it without being noticed. We held a football match to distract the guards and then afterwards, the team of people who were going to break out went back into Hut 104, and the team from Hut 104 went elsewhere. Once we had made sure we were in 104, we were given a number and then told to wait in different rooms until we were called. I was number 79. I never made it into the tunnel but I would not have got away anyway and when so many of them were murdered it didn’t seem important anymore.”

Months went into the planning of the escape, which later led to the making of the famous 1963 movie, The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen.

The operation involved a network of tunnel diggers, document forgers, tailors and planners.

Mr Lyon celebrated his 100th birthday in September 2017 at the Albatross Club in Marine Arcade, Bexhill.

When he marked his centenary he told how he was just three places from almost certain death.

In what is believed to be his last interview, which he did with the RAF Benevolent Fund in October ahead of the 75th anniversary of the Great Escape, he branded the mission ‘a success, but at great cost’.

A lot of Mr Lyon’s friends were shot after the escape and he still keeps records of all the people involved in the break-out.

He has contributed to several books on the escape and published his own book, War and Pieces.

Air Vice-Marshal David Murray, chief executive of the RAF Benevolent Fund, said: “Jack belonged to a generation of servicemen we are sadly losing as time goes on.

“His legacy and those of his brave comrades who planned and took part in the audacious Great Escape breakout are the freedoms we enjoy today.

“Their tenacity and determination spoke volumes about the values and bravery of the entire RAF, in helping to win the fight against the Nazis.”