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Henry Birkland was born 16 August 1917 in Caldwell, Manitoba. Birkland was educated in Calgary, Alberta and worked for the Burns Co. Birkland enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in July 1940 as an aircrew candidate. Following his basic training, he was promoted to leading aircraftman and was then posted to elementary flying school RCAF. He graduated in January 1941 and was transferred to No.9 Service Flight Training School. Now as a qualified pilot, he was promoted on April 1941 and was commissioned as a Pilot Officer. Shortly after, he sailed for England to fly operationally with the Royal Air Force Fighter Command. After six weeks of operational training, Birkland joined No.122 RAF Fighter Command and assigned to Spitfire aircraft. He was later transferred to No. 72 Squadron RAF where he continued to fly Spitfires.


On the afternoon of 7 November 1941, he was on a mission over occupied Europe when he was shot down. After bailing out, he was captured becoming a prisoner of war. Following German interrogation he was sent to Stalag Luft 1, and later to Stalag Luft 3 which was near Sagan, now in Poland.

The Great Escape

For the Great Escape operation, Birkland, who was at one time a gold miner, became one of the leading and most energetic of the many many prisoners who were involved in the tunnelling of the three tunnels: Tom, Dick and Harry.

The Plan

The escape plan, conceived by RAF Roger Bushnell, a South African lawyer who also volunteered for the RAF, was for three tunnels and the escape of 200 prisoners in one night. On the night of March 24/25 1944, Birkland was in the first group to go through the tunnel with 75 others, now famously known as The Great Escape. Most of the escapees did not get very far, when the alarm was raised and most were caught in a massive manhunt. Birkland was recaptured and taken with other prisoners to Gorlitz Prison 36 miles from the camp. In March 1944, Birkland was among the taken taken from the prison by the Gestapo and were never seen again. As a result, he became one of the 50 who were selected from the 76 escapees and were murdered by the Gestapo on direct orders of Adolph Hitler. Henry Birkland was just 26 years old.