One of my favourite war movies is The Great Escape. That image of Steve McQueen on a motorbike driving across open fields in a bid for freedom is hard to shake. Then again, so, too, is the sad fate of the real men who inspired the movie – officers who were gunned down in cold blood for participating in the most successful jailbreak in POW history.
Of course, there were other prisoners of war who made escape their one great goal, but there can be none more determined and more successful than a certain young barber from Ibstock in Leicestershire, who must be the most successful break-out man in the annals of warfare
Horace Greasley was just 21 when, serving with the 2nd/5th Batallion Leicestershire Regiment, he was captured on the retreat from Dunkirk in 1940. After a 10-week forced march across France, Belgium and Holland, he ended up exhausted and malnourished in a marble quarry labour camp in Polish Silesia.
And it was here that young Horace fell for the charms of one Rosa Rauchenbach, the 17 year-old daughter of the quarry director, who acted as an interpreter at the camp where he was held. There was a mutual attraction, and the two tried to see each other as often as possible.
But the young lovers were forced apart when Horace was transferred to Freiwaldau, 40 miles away. And it is at this point that Greasley found his true forte, and one which lead him to escape an astonishing 200 times in order to see his sweetheart.
Horace had to remove the wooden bars from his cell window, crawl under the camp’s perimeter fence, and make a break for the chapel that was the location for each clandestine meeting.
He would see his girl and then creep back into the camp under the noses of his captors. Beyond the prison lay a 420-mile trek to the Swedish border, so the chance of real freedom was slim.
Horace could have made a break for the border but what about Rosa? It was a toss-up between love and duty, and love won out. Rather than risk his life (escaping POWs could be shot on sight) to reach Sweden he chose to risk it visiting her instead.
These illicit trysts were not Horace’s only act of defiance, however. An incredible photo shows the emaciated prisoner face-to-face with SS leader Heinrich Himmler. Showing the mass murderer his protruding ribs, Horace demanded more food for Allied PoWs.
In 1945, Freiwaldau was liberated by the Allies. Although Horace travelled back to England and Rosa became a translator for the Americans, the two continued to communicate by letter.
But the correspondence suddenly stopped when Rosa died in childbirth. Horace never found out if the baby – who also died – was his.
After the war, he ran a hairdresser’s, a taxi company and a haulage firm back in Leicestershire. Horace met his wife Brenda in 1970; they married in 1975, and retired to Spain in 1988.
At the age of 90, Horace recounted his exploits in a book, Do The Birds Still Sing In Hell? US filmmakers Silverline Productions have announced that they plan to turn his story into a movie.
It would seem that Horace Greasley – the one who got away again and again and again – is finally about to be captured…