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The 77th airman in Great Escape to be remembered 75 years later

Almost 75 years has passed since the Great Escape – one of the most incredible stories of the Second World War.

And on Sunday the anniversary will be commemorated at the scene of the breakout in Zagan, western Poland.

On the moonless night of March 24, 1944, 76 allied aircrew got away from Stalag Luft III prison camp wearing civilian clothes or German uniforms and carrying forged papers.

Tragically, all but three were recaptured and 50 of them were executed by the Nazis.

The 77th man to break out was Squadron Leader Leonard Henry Trent VC, who was caught in the act and surrendered.

Unlike so many, he lived to tell the tale and died in his native New Zealand in 1986, aged 71.

He will be among those remembered at the anniversary event, which will include a flypast by four Polish Air Force F-16 fighters and an RAF Airbus A400M transporter plane.

A special roll-call of the escapees will be attended by diplomats, military delegates and family members.

The true story of the Great Escape is just as remarkable as that in the film, which turned Steve McQueen into the coolest motorcyclist of all time. However, unlike in the movie depiction, no American PoWs took part.

The plan was put together by RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, known as “Big X” – depicted by Richard Attenborough’s Roger Bartlett in the film.

Stalag Luft III was meant to be escape-proof, but Bushell simply saw it as a challenge and planned three tunnels to get 200 men out.

He told inmates: “The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun.”

Bushell believed three tunnels, Tom, Dick and Harry, were the perfect cover as the Germans would never suspect there were two more if one was discovered.

More than 600 prisoners were involved in their construction, 30ft below the surface, with chambers created to house an air pump, a workshop and staging posts. Sandy subsoil was held up with 4,000 bed boards. Milk cans were converted into digging tools, candle holders and ventilation ducts. Pumps were built from hockey sticks and kit bags. Electric lighting was hooked into the camp grid. Tunnellers moved 200 tons of sand over 12 months.

Small pouches, made of old socks, were attached inside PoWs’ trousers, with sand scattered and mixed in with top soil as they walked around the yards.

Friendly guards supplied railway timetables, maps and official papers used for forgeries.

Genuine civilian clothes were obtained by bribing German staff.

The prisoners eventually broke out through Harry after Tom was found and destroyed, while Dick was abandoned.

Seventeen men were returned to Stalag Luft III. Four were sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where they managed to tunnel out and escape three months later before being recaptured. Two were sent to Colditz.

Last month, the final surviving member of the Great Escape team, former squadron leader Dick Churchill. died aged 99.

Robert Ankerson, of Royal Air Forces Ex-Prisoners of War Association, of which Churchill was a member, said: “It was always a pleasure to speak to him.”

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