Veteran who escaped Dunkirk on a shed door dies aged 101

Veteran who escaped Dunkirk by paddling out to sea on a shed door before later being shot down and captured in bombing raid over Germany dies aged 101

  • Les Rutherford, from North Hykeham, Lincolnshire, served in Bomber Command
  • His Lancaster was shot down above Frankfurt in 1943 and Nazis captured him
  • He was imprisoned in Poland’s infamous Stalag Luft III POW camp until 1945
  • Tributes today hailed him as a ‘a wonderful man who will be sorely missed’

A Second World War hero who survived Dunkirk by paddling out to sea on a shed door has died aged 101.

Les Rutherford was bunkered down under heavy German gunfire during the famous 1940 Operation Dynamo evacuation when he made the daring escape.

He later joined RAF Bomber Command as an aimer – until he was shot down, captured and imprisoned in Poland’s infamous Stalag Luft III POW camp. 

Yet despite suffering the misery of the war, the courageous ex-soldier would tell how proud he was to ‘fight for the freedoms people enjoyed today’. 

Tributes to the extraordinary veteran from North Hykeham, Lincolnshire, today hailed him as ‘a wonderful man who will be sorely missed’. 

Heroic Les Rutherford, who escaped Dunkirk by paddling out to sea on a shed door and was later a POW at Stalag Luft III, has died aged 101. Pictured left last month and right in his 20s

Mr Rutherford’s breathtaking war experiences were revealed last month when his never-seen-before prison diary was made public.   

He signed up to the Army aged 20 when he and a fellow soldier fled Dunkirk on a blown-up shed door, before being rescued up by a French trawler boat. 

Mr Rutherford then completed 24 missions with Bomber Command’s 50 Squadron, where his job was to direct the pilot when to release the plane’s explosive payloads over German cities.

But during one raid on Frankfurt on December 20, 1943, the nose of his Lancaster bomber was hit by enemy fire and sent the aircraft plummeting towards the ground from 20,000ft. 

The engines and the bomb bay caught fire and Mr Rutherford scrambled to eject himself to avoid being engulfed in the flames.

Yet as he went to evacuate, the second hook of his parachute slipped off just as the Lancaster exploded and knocked the soldier unconscious.   

Miraculously, he woke up in time to safely deploy his parachute. 

Here, Mr Rutherford highlights Christmas day on 1944, writing in great detail about how the occasion was marked during his incarceration. He even writes out a list of food they ate on the day

Another heart-rending entry, here Mr Rutherford highlights the mental torture of being a POW. He writes about the melancholy of knowing you owe your life to your captors. The entry was originally written by Winston Churchill during his time as a prisoner in the Boer War

This touching poem seems to be dedicated to the Great Escape and details the difficulty and danger of trying to break out of the infamous compound

He and the wireless operator were the only ones to survive the grisly explosion, and they were both captured by the Nazis who marched them to Stalag Luft III.

Mr Rutherford arrived at the camp just before the notorious Great Escape, although he was not part of it and remained there until January 1945, when he and fellow prisoners were taken to a camp 30 miles south of Berlin as Russia advanced. 

During his captivity, he traded three chocolate bars for a Canadian diary from a Red Cross parcel and used it to jot down his memories.

Filled with humorous sketches and cartoons and details about the concerts Mr Rutherford played in with his guitar, the diary was revealed by the University of Lincoln in November.  

It includes pictures of war planes, guards, fellow prisoners and even women.  

All of the prisoners were eventually freed by the Russians, who handed them to the US. It wasn’t until June 1945 that Mr Rutherford was sent back home.

Mr Rutherford served as part of Bomber Command which, together with the US, strategically bombed German cities.

Of Bomber Command’s 125,000 air crews, more than 55,000 were killed during the Second World War – the highest casualty rate of Britain’s three armed forces.

This drawing is titled ‘Kriegies on the Loose?’. Kriegies is what POW referred to themselves and the sketch of two hounds could suggest that escapees were being hunted

Mr Rutherford’s drawings were of some of the people he met during his incarceration. After being shot down in 1943, he stayed at the infamous camp until January 1945

However, the deaths of 300,000 to 600,000 civilians caused by their bombing remains controversial.

In recent years, Mr Rutherford has visited schools in North Hykeham, Lincoln to tell the story of the war and his experiences.       

He said: ‘We had a lot of criticism after the war – most of which came from people who did not go to war.

‘We did a job and we did it well. We thought it was essential. We fought for the freedoms that people enjoy today.’

The International Bomber Command Centre has a physical building and a memorial to those who served in the Second World War but part of its creation included a digital archive, which belongs to the University of Lincoln. 

The university was awarded a grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund to create the archive and has a team of curators who have developed the content over the last four years. 

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