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Prisoner of war Zbigniew Gutowski helped dig a Great Escape tunnel

Zbigniew Gutowski at a horse show during a visit to Warsaw in 2006.

Tanya Norman

Zbigniew Gutowski cheated death from the day he was born.

The weaker of a pair of fraternal twins born in Warsaw on Dec. 3, 1916, he wasn't expected to last the night. His aunt quickly sprinkled him with water to baptise him. Mr. Gutowski, who has died at the age of 99, survived the German and Russian invasions of Poland, flew fighter planes for the Royal Air Force during the war and was involved in the Great Escape, the most famous prison breakout of the Second World War, dramatized in a 1963 film of the same name. He is the last Polish survivor of the Great Escape and among the last of the "diggers," the PoWs who worked on the tunnels.

Mr. Gutowski was a graduate of the Polish air academy and was commissioned on Sept. 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland. He never flew in combat in Poland as most of the Polish air force was destroyed on the ground by the German Luftwaffe. After the Soviet Union, which at the time had a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, invaded Poland from the east, Mr. Gutowski and many of the other pilots knew it was over. They escaped through Romania and made their way to France.

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Other Polish officers were rounded up by Soviet forces and taken to Katyn Forest where the Russians executed 22,000 military officers, police and intelligentsia, including Zbigniew Gutowski's father and his twin sister's husband. His sister died in Warsaw in 1943, but the rest of his family survived the war.

Mr. Gutowski was first posted to Lyon in France and then transferred to Algeria, then a French colony, in March, 1940, where he was attached to a fighter squadron protecting the airfield near Algiers. When France fell in June, 1940, he was moved to England and had to retrain to become a pilot in the Royal Air Force. In June, 1941 he was commissioned as a Pilot Officer and joined Polish 302 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. The Polish pilots had a reputation for being fearless, almost reckless in their attacks on German planes and targets in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Pilot Officer Gutowski's squadron flew Hurricane fighters when he first joined, then switched to the more advanced Spitfires. On Nov. 8, 1941, he and his fellow Polish pilots were in an intense aerial battle, up against the newest German fighter, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190.

"On November 8th, 1941, the whole No. 2 Polish Wing participated in Circus 110 (Royal Air Force-speak for a bombing raid), their target was a German factory near Lille, in France. During combat with Fw 190s, Zbigniew Gutowski was shot down," wrote Peter Sikora, a historian and member of the Polish Air Force Memorial Committee.

Mr. Gutowski told his niece, Tanya Norman, that he didn't want to abandon his new aircraft, but "it became hot around the ankles."

"He bailed out of his burning plane and realized that his main parachute wouldn't open as he was hurtling towards the ground. Defying the odds, he fell into a huge pile of beet leaves, which broke his fall, and he only lost a boot," Ms. Norman recalled in her eulogy.

After a little more than a week on the run, he was captured and sent to one prisoner of war camp, then transferred to another, the infamous Stalag Luft III. Luft is German for air, and the camp held only captured Allied airmen. It was the place where prisoners pulled off what became known as the Great Escape. There were four tunnels: Tom, Dick, Harry and George. The Poles were specialists in covering up the openings to the tunnels.

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Mr. Gutowski was one of three Polish officers who went to work preparing a tunnel under a stove while the other prisoners of war had a loud party in their hut to create a diversion, according to The Great Escape: A Canadian Story, by Ted Barris. "During the party some Polish chaps, who were expert cement men, they chipped away the tiles carefully, constructed a platform underneath (the stove), re-cemented the tiles – that's all they did that night – and put the stove back in place. That gave us an access point to what later became the vertical shaft to 'Harry,'" said RCAF Flight Lieutenant Henry Sprague, a fellow PoW.

Eventually Harry would reach 102 metres long by the time it was ready for the escape on the night of March 24, 1944.

There were 2,500 men in Stalag Luft III and a third of them were Canadians. In spite of the movie version, whose hero is an American officer played by Steve McQueen, there were only two Americans in the camp at the time of the escape and they were both members of the Royal Canadian Air Force who joined up before the Americans entered the war in December, 1941. The McQueen motorcycle sequence, perhaps the most memorable one in the film, was total fiction.

"None of those who escaped from Stalag Luft III even used so much as a bicycle to get away. The motorbike scene is so gross a misrepresentation of the true escape that former PoWs booed it when they were shown the movie," wrote author Guy Walters in BBC History Magazine.

Mr. Gutowski saw the film, but never commented on it to members of his family. He never escaped through the tunnels he helped dig because he was at the bottom of the list of those lined up to crawl out. That was lucky.

"Fortunately he did not escape because most of the prisoners who did escape were killed by the Nazis," said Colonel Cezary Kiszkowiak, military attaché at the Polish Embassy in Ottawa. He attended Mr. Gutowski's funeral in Montreal.

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A total of 76 men escaped through the tunnels before the Germans discovered the break. The Germans captured 73; only three made it to freedom. There were many escapes from prison camps during the war, but the Great Escape is infamous because Adolf Hitler was so incensed at the time wasted chasing the escapees that he ordered the execution of 50 captured prisoners; 20 were British, six were Canadian and six were Polish, and the other 18 were from various allied countries.

The prisoners, including Mr. Gutowski, were moved from Stalag Luft III to another camp in January, 1945 as Canadian, British and American forces closed in from the west and the Soviets approached from the east. They were weak when they were liberated a few months later. Mr. Gutowski returned to Britain in July, 1945 and married a Polish woman, Maria Lecka. He stayed in the RAF until 1949 when he was released, leaving as a Flight Lieutenant, with the Polish air force rank of captain. He left for Canada almost immediately.

"Many Polish soldiers and airmen who served on the Allied side stayed in Britain or went to Canada," said Colonel Kiszkowiak, who by chance was born in Zagan, the town where Stalag Luft III was built. "If they went back to Poland they were killed or jailed for serving with the Allied forces."

Mr. Gutowski never returned to Poland until his brother Michael's funeral in 2006.

When he immigrated, Mr. Gutowski settled in Toronto but then moved to Montreal where he led a quiet life. He worked as an independent contractor, a kind of high-end handyman. He divorced in the 1950s and lived alone, though often with abandoned dogs.

"He loved dogs and over the years took in old sick dogs when their owners were no longer able to take care of them. They lived out their lives with him," said his niece, Ms. Norman. He was known as uncle Zbyszek to his family. For the last five years of his long life his caregiver was Danuta Michaliszyn.

Zbigniew Gutowski died on March 31 in Montreal. He is survived by his niece, Tanya Norman and nephew Jan Gutowski, both in Ontario, and family in Poland. He was predeceased by his three brothers and twin sister.

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