NEW YORK - It was on the moonless night of March 24 and 25, 1944, that 76 Allied prisoners of war, most of them British, clambered down a 30-foot shaft and crawled through a 340-foot-long tunnel below the supposedly escape-proof Stalag Luft III camp in eastern Germany - the daring breakout that was celebrated in the classic 1963 movie “The Great Escape.’’
In their pockets, the escapees carried what looked like officially stamped documents, identification cards, business cards, and even letters written in German from purported wives and sweethearts, all of which were intended to make it possible for them to befuddle a hapless guard or police officer stopping them on their way to freedom.
Flight Lieutenant Alex Cassie, a British bomber pilot, was one of a half-dozen artists who had been forging those documents for months, playing a central role in the larger conspiracy to free hundreds of the nearly 1,000 airmen in the camp. They called their unit Dean and Dawson, after a well-known London travel agency.
Having meticulously falsified hundreds of documents, Lieutenant Cassie was placed among the top 50 on the list of those who would sneak into the tunnel that night. But knowing that he was claustrophobic, and not wanting to impede the others, he chose to stay in the barracks.
Lieutenant Cassie, an amateur artist since childhood and a psychologist after his military service, died at a nursing home in Surrey, England, on April 5, said his son, Adrian. He was 95.
His decision to stay behind on that fateful day troubled him for the rest of his life. While the breakout is hailed as one of Britain’s momentous acts of heroic resolve in World War II, it did not end as hoped. Of the 76 escapees, 73 were soon recaptured, and 50 of those were executed on orders from Adolf Hitler.
“All five of my hut mates had been shot,’’ Lieutenant Cassie told the British newspaper The Sun in 2001. “Often I’ve asked myself, ‘Why didn’t I go?’ I can’t shake off the vague feeling of guilt, that why should I have been the lucky one?’’
For anyone else aware of his deeds, he was a hero.
While other prisoners were digging three tunnels (code-named Tom, Dick, and Harry) under the six compounds at the camp, shoring them up with boards from their bunks, Lieutenant Cassie and his fellow forgers were at work in tiny rooms.
“One of Dean and Dawson’s occupational hazards was that they had to sit by a window so that they could get enough light for their finicking work,’’ Paul Brickhill, a prisoner at the camp, wrote in his 1950 book, “The Great Escape,’’ which became the basis of the movie. Fellow prisoners standing outside would signal if a guard approached.
A guard “nearly caught them a couple of times,’’ the book continues, “but they were just able to cover their work before he reached the window.’’
To produce their forgeries, Lieutenant Cassie told The Sun, “We got the best of the paper from the flyleaves of books which arrived at the camp’’ through the Red Cross. “The rest - ink, photography, timetables, etc. - was bribed from the Germans. It was amazing what a few cigarettes could do.’’ They got hold of a typewriter with a German typeface. Lieutenant Cassie used cold tea to age documents. He etched official-looking stamps from boot heels.
In the movie, starring Steve McQueen and James Garner, Donald Pleasence played a forger based in part on Lieutenant Cassie.
“As a piece of cinematic entertainment, it ranks very highly, but it isn’t a particularly accurate historical record,’’ Lieutenant Cassie told the Scottish newspaper The Aberdeen Press and Journal in 2000, which pointed out that there was no jaunty, baseball-throwing, McQueen-like American leading the breakout.
Of the forgers, Lieutenant Cassie was “the most distinctive, in appearance anyway,’’ Brickhill wrote in his book, with a “great thatch of long ginger hair that fell over his eyes like a Skye terrier and little tufts of ginger beard sticking out of isolated spots around his jaw.’’
Lieutenant Cassie had been the pilot of a Royal Air Force bomber, flying missions over Germany and France, when his plane was shot down after it attacked a submarine in the Bay of Biscay in September 1942. He and his crew were picked up by a French fishing boat and turned over to the German authorities.
The lieutenant was immediately taken to Stalag Luft III. He remained there until January 1945, when, with the Soviets advancing from the east, the Germans emptied the POW camps and forced thousands of prisoners to march west. They were liberated by the British in April.
Alexander Cassie, known as Sandy, was born in Cape Province, South Africa, on Dec. 22, 1916, the only child of George and Jessie Cassie, who had emigrated from Scotland. After high school, he went to Scotland and began studying psychology at the University of Aberdeen.
“I always had a pencil in my hand and had always been a competent artist and used to do covers for the university rag magazine,’’ he told The Aberdeen Press and Journal. In 1940, two years after graduating, he joined the Royal Air Force. Lieutenant Cassie’s wife of 56 years, the former Jean Stone, died in 2005. Besides his son, he leaves a daughter, Rosalyn Postance, and four grandchildren.
In 2004, 17 of the prisoners who had been involved in the great escape, Lieutenant Cassie among them, reunited at the Imperial War Museum in London. Archeologists had excavated one of the tunnels at Stalag Luft III, the British newspaper The Telegraph reported, adding, “Artifacts recovered include a rubber stamp carved from the heel of an airman’s boot and used to forge documents for escapers.’’