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Orangeman's role in The Great Escape unearthed

New research has revealed that Wallace Floody, on whom Charles Bronson's character in the classic movie The Great Escape was based, was a leading member of the Orange Order. Ivan Little reports on the story of the Second World War hero, who went on to work as an adviser on the set of the famous film

Digging in: from left, Richard Attenborough and Charles Bronson as the Tunnel King in The Great Escape
Digging in: from left, Richard Attenborough and Charles Bronson as the Tunnel King in The Great Escape
Star turn: Steve McQueen famously used a motorbike in a bid for freedom in The Great Escape
Wallace Floody in his air force uniform
Wallace Floody

Orange Order historians in Northern Ireland who regularly bang the drum about the achievements of their famous old boys across the world have just discovered a previously unknown link between their organisation and the famous Great Escape by Allied prisoners during the Second World War.

For after a little bit of digging they've unearthed the surprising fact that Wallace Floody, on whom Charles Bronson's Tunnel King character in the Great Escape movie was based, was a leading Orangeman who's being remembered at events to mark this year's 75th anniversary of the break-out.

Yet until 2018 the Order here had absolutely no knowledge about Floody, his Orange background or of his ties to the Great Escape, making him the one that got away, so to speak.

A call from Canada last year alerted local Orangemen to the possibility that Floody might have been a member of the Order on the other side of the Atlantic.

And it was later confirmed that he was indeed an Orangeman.

Floody was born and bred in Ontario, though it's thought his ancestors may have come from Ireland, bringing their fervour for the Orange Order with them as they settled in a small hamlet they called Enniskillen.

"We knew nothing until last year about Wallace Floody or his connections to the Orange Order," says Dr Jonathan Mattison, the curator of the Museum of Orange Heritage on Belfast's Cregagh Road.

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But after carrying out their spadework Jonathan and his team found that the Floody family had long been immersed in the Orange tradition in Canada, which used to boast one of the biggest numbers of members in the world, upwards of 100,000 at one point.

Research showed that the Floodys had been members of the Orange Order in Toronto from the 1830s.

Floody's great-grandfather is also listed in the history books as the leader of loyalists from his local area who went to Toronto in 1837 to defend the city from a rebellion and earned himself the nickname of "Two Tunes", because he thought the only tunes worth playing were Orange ones.

It's also been established that Wallace Floody's father helped set up the Conservative party in Peel County in Canada and once spoke of the massive numbers of Orangemen in the area. He said: "Wherever I went, it was Orange grips, Orange passwords and then the freedom of the county."

The story goes that when Wallace Floody was born on April 28, 1918, his parents decided to have him baptised on the Twelfth of July.

It's also claimed that he was christened in water from the River Boyne but how it travelled the very untraditional route from Co Louth to Canada is the subject of major conjecture.

But it's known that Floody's Christian names of Clarke Wallace were a nod to Nathaniel Clarke Wallace, a former Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Canada whose parents were from Co Sligo.

The young Wallace Floody moved to northern Ontario in 1936 and started to acquire some of the mining skills that would stand him in good stead for the Great Escape.

In the mines Floody shovelled rock and mud into carts before they were hauled to the surface and after working in Alberta he returned to Ontario at the outbreak of the Second World War and tried to enlist in the Royal Canadian Airforce.

"With no money he financed his trip to Toronto by shovelling coal into the locomotive boiler for the whole way back from Alberta," says Jonathan.

However, Floody's hopes of becoming a pilot were initially dashed because he was a married man and recruitment officers were keener on enlisting single men. Eventually, Floody persuaded them that his wife was backing him 100%.

So he was allowed to reach for the skies and after training in Manitoba, Floody became a Spitfire pilot with No 401 Squadron, RCAF, in England.

Floody's career in the air, however, was short-lived.

On one of his earliest sorties into France, he was shot down by a group of Messerschmitts over Saint-Omer but he bailed out, only to be captured by German military police.

Floody's detention was the start of his Great Escape story

He was sent to Stalag Luft I where fellow prisoners of war persuaded him to use his mining skills in a daring attempt to escape.

However, two of his tunnels were found by the Germans and he was sent to Stalag Luft 111 in Poland.

But if that was supposed to curb his enthusiasm for freedom, it backfired.

In his new surroundings he utilised his mining experience with even more zeal and audaciously drew up plans for three escape tunnels, with the thinking that if one of them was spotted, the Germans would stop looking for any others.

Earning himself the nickname of "the Tunnel King", Floody called his trio of escape routes Tom, Dick and Harry.

Tom was found by the Germans in November 1943 and Dick was abandoned because its exit became obvious after the camp guards cleared the area around it of trees to facilitate an expansion to the camp. However, Dick did play its part because sand and soil from Harry was stored in the empty tunnel. Soon it was all-systems go.

Yet Floody, who did a lot of the tunnelling and was caught in several collapses, never got the chance to join the Great Escape.

Unlike the film, which took liberties with the truth and which showed Bronson's Tunnel King getting away, Floody was moved from his camp before he could flee.

Jonathan says that the Germans were always suspicious of Floody because of his mining background, but became even more wary due to his pale complexion. "To them it looked like he wasn't getting enough exposure to the sunlight and they suspected what he was doing but they couldn't find out for sure," he adds.

Just before the escape bid, Floody and 19 other prisoners were transferred to Belaria POW camp in Italy.

He always regretted the switch, because he told friends he never got over the feeling that he should have joined his fellow conspirators in the escape attempt which was set for March 24, 1944.

But the Germans' decision probably saved his life.

The escape tunnel turned out to be 28 metres short of woods beyond the camp, leaving the only option for prisoners to make a dash for freedom in the open.

Seventy six men did escape, though all but three of them were recaptured.

And, as is chillingly portrayed in the movie, 50 of them were shot dead in cold blood, with the orders coming directly from a furious Hitler.

After the war Floody testified at the Nuremberg war tribunals about conditions in the POW camps and in 1946 he was awarded an OBE by King George VI.

His citation read: "Flight Lieutenant (F/L) Floody made a thorough study of tunnelling work and devised many different methods and techniques. He became one of the leading organisers and indefatigable workers in the tunnels themselves. Besides being arduous, his work was frequently dangerous... F/L Floody was buried under heavy falls of sand... but, despite all dangers and difficulties, F/L Floody persisted, showing a marked degree of courage and devotion to duty."

Floody's inside track on the repeated efforts to get out of the POW camps featured in a book about him and had another unusual spin-off in 1963 when he was hired to work as the technical adviser on The Great Escape.

He enjoyed the 12-month stint and went on to comment that he liked Hollywood actors including James Garner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson. But he added in a subsequent TV interview: "They would have had to pay me a lot of money to be an actor. It's a boring job. You sit and sit and sit and wait for something to happen."

Back in Canada, Floody resumed his membership of Imperial LOL No 2767, a Toronto Orange Lodge, and he became a salesman, a conventions organiser and a champion of cancer charities and the Red Cross, as well as working on behalf of military veterans.

He died in September 1989 and refused to have a funeral. He said his 50 colleagues murdered by the Gestapo hadn't had funerals and he didn't want one either.

In Belfast the Orange Order is hoping to put up a pictorial tribute to Floody on its wall of fame in the Heritage Museum which includes photographs of former Prime Ministers and Presidents from around the globe, notably Canada and New Zealand.

Floody, however, isn't the first Orange figure in North America to have come as a shock to the Order here.

Several years ago it was revealed that the Secret Service agent who was driving President Kennedy's car on the day of his assassination in Dallas in November 1963 was a Tyrone man who had once been a member of an Orange lodge near Stewartstown in Co Tyrone.

Bill Greer emigrated to America in his teens and joined the Navy and later the Secret Service. He drove for presidents Truman and Eisenhower before being recruited to be JFK's chauffeur.

Greer's photograph is on the montage of pictures at the Cregagh Road museum.

Museum of Orange Heritage, 368 Cregagh Road, Belfast

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