He played a cameo role in one of the greatest getaways in history, a prison break so filled with brains and bravado that it passed into legend and onto the big screen.
Few Canadians know his name, but Harold Garland was a war hero and participant in the brazen Second World War operation known as The Great Escape. One sandbag at a time, he helped tunnel Allied airmen out of a prisoner-of-war camp that the Nazis had declared escape-proof.
Mr. Garland died at age 91 in Ottawa last week. He was one of the last Canadian survivors of the event immortalized in the Hollywood film The Great Escape.
“Growing up, I used to tell kids he was the Steve McQueen character,” his daughter, Ann, said yesterday about the Hollywood actor who embodied the dashing Captain Virgil Hilts in the 1963 film. “He was my hero.”
Stalag Luft III, located in what is now Poland, held 300 to 400 Canadian POWs. Among them, about a dozen Canadians took active part in the elaborate plan to break out of the camp under the Nazis' noses through three sophisticated tunnels.
“It was a superbly planned operation, and the level of preparation was astonishing,” said Jonathan Vance, a history professor at the University of Western Ontario and author of A Gallant Company: The True Story of the Great Escape.
“At that level, it was the greatest achievement of any escape through history.”
Mr. Garland, who was born in Toronto, was assigned the prison task of “penguin.” His pant legs outfitted with hidden sand bags, he would help discreetly disperse tunnel sand through the grounds as he waddled about.
Once the tunnels were completed, some prisoners were selected as the first escapees while others drew numbers. Mr. Garland's pick - 125 - meant he wasn't part of the initial group to try to escape on the moonless night of March 24, 1944. It was a fateful draw.
Of the 79 who escaped, all but three were captured. Fifty were shot - six of them Canadian - on direct orders from Hitler and in violation of the Geneva Convention.
“Fortunately, my father didn't get out, because we wouldn't be here,” Ann Garland said.
Men like Mr. Garland refused to see themselves as heroes. He considered escaping part of his duty so he could rejoin the war effort, for which he'd been trained.
“He was determined to carry on the fight, and I find that really impressive,” said Prof. Vance, who had interviewed Mr. Garland for his book. “He didn't see himself as heroic. But I'm constantly amazed by what was achieved.”
Even if the escape bid failed, the prisoners felt duty-bound to disrupt life for the Germans as much as they could. After the 76 inmates got away, it forced Germany to deploy tens of thousands of troops to recapture them.
“It was nice to know we were doing something that the guards didn't know about,” said Bill Paton, a 91-year-old Toronto resident who was interned with Mr. Garland and also worked as a “penguin.”
“The idea was that if we could make as much trouble as possible without getting caught, that was good.”
He recalled Mr. Garland as a keen bridge player, and the two helped pass the difficult years on food rations by dreaming up menus for after their liberation.
Mr. Garland's exploits didn't end with the war. He became a long-time public servant, rising to assistant deputy minister of revenue under successive federal governments, as well as president of the Certified General Accountants of Ontario.
In a eulogy delivered at the St. Stephen's Anglican Church in Ottawa yesterday, his son, Bill, noted that his father always cared for those who had less than him, and mailed off his last cheque to charity the day before he died.
“I'll always remember his humbleness, his huge heart and the contribution he made,” his daughter, Ann Garland said. “He was part of the generation of quiet, unsung heroes that built our country.”
Harold Ernest Garland was born Sept. 30, 1918, in Toronto. He enlisted in the Air Force after the Second World War was declared, and was later assigned to 425 Squadron as navigator with the rank of Flight Lieutenant. His Wellington plane was hit by ground fire on a bombing mission to Stuttgart and crashed into a swamp near Saint-Quentin, France. He was captured and sent to Stalag Luft III. He died in Ottawa on Dec. 18, 2009, after a battle with cancer. He was predeceased by his wife of 62 years, Phyllis Margaret (née Ormiston). He leaves his children Glenn, Bill and Ann, as well as six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.