Church minister was inspiration behind 'Great Escape'

A Church of Scotland minister nicknamed “Padre Mac” has been named as the inspiration behind the Great Escape.

Rev Professor Murdo Ewen Macdonald’s “fiery sermons” motivated the famous breakout of a German Prisoner of war camp in March 1944, according to an author.

Dr Linda Barker said the Great Escape is often heralded as a plan masterminded by English officers, and the theme tune to the 1963 film of the same name is sung by England football fans.

Prisoner of War hero minister
An historian claims “Padre Mac” was the inspiration behind the Great Escape during the Second World War.

The theologian has been given credit for a minor role in hiding tunnel sand in the famous break-out over the course of a year. However, the historian claims his influence was possibly far more significant, as he had previously made his own escape while in transit to a PoW camp.

He was a chaplain for the men of Stalag Luft III, including RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, who has always been known as the mastermind of the Great Escape.

Dr Parker is the author of “Nearer My God to Thee: Airborne Chaplains in the Second World War,” which examines the full story of padres who accompanied the airborne forces to all theatres of war between 1942-1945.

“Murdo Ewen Macdonald, known as Padre Mac, may have been the 'inspiration that led to many great escapes' during the Second World War,” she said.

“He was moved to Stalag Luft III, where the Great Escape would take place in March 1944.

“Here, he befriended Roger Bushell, and Harry 'Wings' Day, both instigators and organisers of the Great Escape.

“As a chaplain, he would have had access to all the troops and would have been able to speak with them, in confidence, to motivate them with the story of his own escape attempt.”

Dr Linda Parker
Dr Linda Parker

Dr Parker said the theologian’s belief was that British forces should never give in to the enemy.

“It was his view that troops had a Christian duty to try and escape if captured by the Nazis,” she said.

“His actions - all the more spectacular given his position as a chaplain - would have spread across the Army, inspiring other troops.

“It showed that if a humble padre could escape, so could they.”

Professor Macdonald enlisted at the outbreak of the Second World War, initially serving as a chaplain with the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders in Aruba.

He responded to a national appeal for volunteers to join the newly formed 1st Parachute Brigade – the first parachute infantry brigade in the British Army – in late 1942, becoming the padre for the 2nd Battalion.

The minister was among the first of the “jumping padres” – parachutist chaplains assigned to the unit to tend to the spiritual needs of the troops and provide moral support.

Professor Macdonald, who was a family friend of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, went through the same arduous training as regular soldiers and accompanied them by air or glider to the centre of battle.

They needed to display a “commando-level” fitness, as well as have tactical ability and the capacity to work independently and reliably.

Professor Macdonald fitted the bill perfectly, being a former Scottish Universities middle-weight boxing champion.

He once said: “To be a good minister one has to be tougher than a commando and a paratrooper. I know because I have been both.”

The Great Escape

While being transferred from hospital to a PoW camp, Professor Macdonald escaped through a lavatory window and was free for three days before being recaptured.

He spent two and a half years in prison, mostly in the infamous Stalag Luft III, in Zagan, Poland, as chaplain to prisoners.

By that point Bushell and others had already tried to escape but his arrival was followed by what became known as the "The Great Escape".

Professor Macdonald didn’t escape with the troops, instead moving to another compound to provide pastoral care to American troops, who had been without a chaplain.

He later received the US Bronze Star medal for his service.

Dr Parker said: “He quickly became famous in the Army for his ‘pretty fiery’ sermons."

Gifted preacher

Professor Macdonald, who was born on is the Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides, signed up in 1940.

After the war, he served as minister at Partick Old Parish Church, Glasgow, from 1947-1949, and St George’s West Parish Church, Edinburgh, until 1963.

He was appointed professor of practical theology at Trinity College, University of Glasgow, from which he retired in 1984.

The daring minister, said to be one of Scotland’s greatest preachers, died in 2004, in Glasgow, aged 89.