It has become so synonymous with English wartime patriotism that the movie’s theme tune is whistled by fans of the national football team. 

But now a historian claims that the real inspiration for The Great Escape was actually a fiery Scottish minister and prisoner-of-war, Reverend Murdo Ewen Macdonald.

Mr Macdonald has previously been given credit for a minor part in hiding tunnel sand in the celebrated 1944 break-out, while it was RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell who was seen as the mastermind.

However, in her new book, Nearer My God To Thee: Airborne Chaplains In The Second World War, Dr Linda Parker says the minister – a boxer and parachutist nicknamed “Padre Mac” – played a key role in motivating the escape plot.

He had already notched up a solo escape bid of his own by the time he arrived at the infamous Stalag Luft III, in Zagan, Poland, after escaping through a lavatory window and going on the run for three days. 

Ms Parker, an independent scholar and author who writes primarily about army chaplaincy, said: “Reverend Murdo Ewen Macdonald may have been the inspiration that led to many great escapes during the Second World War.

“Rev Macdonald 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, the 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.”

Ms Parker’s book examines the full story of the army chaplains, including Mr Macdonald, who accompanied the airborne forces to all theatres of war between 1942 and 1945.

She added: “Rev Macdonald’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.

“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.”

The Scottish minister 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 airborne infantry brigade in the British Army – in late 1942, becoming the padre for 2nd Battalion.

He 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.

To become a jumping padre, the chaplains had to go through the same arduous training as regular soldiers and accompany them by air or glider into the heart of battle zones.

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

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

He was once quoted as saying that “to be a good minister one has to be tougher than a commando and a paratrooper. I know because I have been both”.

By the time he arrived at Stalag Luft III after his capture in 1942, Squadron Leader Bushell and others had already tried to escape but Mr Macdonald’s arrival was followed by The Great Escape.

However, the minister did not flee with his camp mates but stayed behind to offer pastoral care to US troops who were without a chaplain in their compound.
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.

“He was also far removed from the typical pacifistic minister, being a former Scottish Universities middle-weight boxing champion and, in the army, a regiment boxing champion, =and someone with commando-level fitness.”

Mr Macdonald was born on the Isle of Harris and signed up in 1940. After the war, he served as minister at Partick Old Parish Church, Glasgow, from 1947 until 1949 then 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 minister died in 2004, in Glasgow, aged 89.