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Tuesday, January 12, 1999 Published at 21:18 GMT


Original great escapist dies

The man, whose real-life escapades 55 years ago were the inspiration for the classic war film, The Great Escape, has died.

Airman Marcel Zillessen was the man behind the escape of 76 men from the Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp in 1944, as depicted in the 1963 film, The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough and Charles Bronson.

Mr Zillessen was born in Yorkshire in 1917 to a German father and Irish mother. He spent his early life in Bradford, working in the family textile business.

Mr Zillessen was captured by the Germans in 1943, after being shot down while on top-secret low-level "tankbusting" missions against General Rommel's troops in the north African desert.

But it was his education at Berlin University that helped him carry out his most famous war exploits.

Cunning plan

Having built up an excellent command of elegant high society Berlinese, Mr Zillessen wrote love letters on behalf of the camp's German officers to woo their frauleins.

This enabled him to get the necessary supplies of paper and ink to forge the documents needed for the prisoner's escape to Britain.

Unfortuantely, Mr Zillessen - played by James Garner in the film - was one of the last out of the tunnels that the prisoners had dug, and he was arrested by prison guards.

Despite featuring as one of the film's leading characters, Mr Zillessen always insisted that he was just part of a great team effort.

His son, Tim, said: "Dad said the scenery in the film was very realistic, but he wasn't consulted before it was made."

Following the war, Mr Zillessen returned to the textile business before moving into the wool trade in Darlington, Co Durham, where he remained until the early 1970s.

He also set up a chain of take-away food shops in the North East, carrying the Zillessen name.

And in semi-retirement, he and his wife, Lyn, ran a guesthouse in the North Yorkshire seaside village of Robin Hood's Bay until his death last Friday.

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